Age of Empires Online is the new free-to-play, persistent online real-time strategy game that just launched today, and it has a rich real-time strategy heritage. You've hopefully heard of the Age of Empires series--a group of RTS games that combined world history with resource management and horseman rushes that won all our hearts, until publisher Microsoft shut down its developer, Ensemble Studios, in 2008. From the ashes of Ensemble rose Robot Entertainment, a small, independent studio that established and built the initial versions of what we now know as Age of Empires Online before passing the game off to Gas Powered Games, the Seattle-based studio responsible for the Supreme Commander series. Now, Gas Powered is acting as a full-on development studio for Age of Empires Online, while Microsoft plays the role of the publisher, and will provide customer support for the game now that it has launched.
Age of Empires Online lets you choose to play as one of several different ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks or the Egyptians, and build up a persistent estate (which functions in a manner similar to player housing in other massively multiplayer games). You can build up your estate with various improvements you'll earn through playing, as well as with cosmetic enhancements (such as statues of Greek gods) which you can purchase from the in-game store. Yes, like pretty much all other free-to-play online games, Age of Empires Online will have a microtransaction-based cash-op store where you can buy optional in-game content, such as additional adventure boosters for $5 or additional "premium" playable civilizations for $20. However, the vast majority of the game's content is being made available free of charge, including its many, many quests, the majority of which can be performed either alone or with a friend.
We briefly took the game for a spin by taking on a simple cooperative mission as the Greeks to destroy an enemy monument located at a far corner of the map. The mission worked a whole lot like what you'd expect from an Age of Empires strategy game--we started off with a small stronghold with several prebuilt structures such as a barracks and an archery range, and with a handful of villagers whom we sent to harvest food, wood, and gold so that we could build up additional buildings to create artillery units like ballistae and catapults. Since we were playing a press demo, our nation was already fairly advanced along its technology tree and ready to "age up" to era III--a classic game mechanic from the Age of Empires series that signifies that you've researched enough new improvements to reach the next tier of technology (and with it, its many improvements). We found ourselves quickly and easily selecting our premade hoplites, archers, and cavalry and driving off small invasion skirmishes with the help of a second player--a representative from Microsoft playing as Egypt who helpfully watched our flank while we poked blindly at the keyboard, gradually remembering our old hotkeys.
As you might expect from a mission like this, it wasn't enough for us to take the tiny starting battalions under our control to conquer the mission, so we churned out as many additional units (along with heavy-duty ballistae) as we possibly could while our partner also aged up to recruit siege towers. With both siege towers and ballistae, and a throng of infantry and cavalry supported by Egyptian priest units (which heal nearby injured allies), we gradually rolled our way northward, picking off small pockets of resistance until we found the enemy monument, guarded by arrow towers and various enemy units. Since we were grossly overprepared for the conflict, we managed to squash our enemies flat, especially since the game appears to have an intuitive rock-paper-scissors balance between unit types. (That's a fancy way of saying that ballistae eat arrow towers for lunch.)
Age of Empires Online has officially launched and is now playable for a sweetheart price of free (plus microtransactions for additional content boosters and civilizations).