When you visit the official Age of Empires Online website, a big, shiny red button invites you to play the game for free. If you take this button up on its generous offer, you'll find that once you sign up for Games for Windows Live, you can enjoy most of what Age of Empires Online has to offer without paying a cent. Like most free-to-play games, though, Age of Empires Online is ultimately designed to make money, and it wastes no time both promoting its aggressively priced premium content and making your chosen civilization feel hamstrung without it. You don't need to spend a fortune to make Age of Empires Online feel like a complete game rather than an extended demo in which you're locked out of certain features, but plan on parting with at least $20 to get the most from both its campaign missions and multiplayer options.
Additional civilizations, including Celts and Persians, are coming in Age of Empires Online's future, but at launch, there are only two to choose from: Greeks and Egyptians. The differences between the two aren't nearly as pronounced as those that distinguish factions in many other real-time strategy games, but they become increasingly noticeable as you progress. It's easy to draw comparisons between the civilizations and characters in online role-playing games: They start out at level one with only a handful of units/abilities in their arsenal; you get to customize them to suit your play style by spending points on skill trees as you level up; and you can augment them with loot retrieved from fallen enemies or earned through quests that's color coded according to rarity. Furthermore, you can play as both the Greeks and the Egyptians, but you're likely to get invested enough in whichever you choose first that you won't feel the need to spend any time with the other. Given that upgrading each civilization to a premium civilization costs $20, sticking with just one is also the more wallet-friendly option.
What do you get when you upgrade to a premium civilization? You get full access to a lot of things that are deliberately dangled in front of you when you're playing for free. One of the most obvious benefits early on is that your units gain the ability to equip any blue (rare) or purple (epic) items that you've acquired. It doesn't take long for the game to start presenting you with these sort of items in the form of quest rewards, but if you're not paid up, you only have the option to sell them to one of the stores in your persistent town or have them take up space in your diminutive inventory. Either way, it's hard not to feel that you're missing out. Another compelling reason to go premium before you're more than a few hours into the game is that you can increase the size of your inventory by building up to five warehouses (think of them as bags in an RPG) instead of just two, and with the correct rare or epic blueprints, you can build larger warehouses.
Collecting resources and using them to build up your town is interesting for a while, but there's little reward for taking the time to make it look good, other than the personal satisfaction you may derive from it. Some rare buildings offer additional quests or opportunities to gamble that make your town worthwhile for other players to visit, but getting them requires both luck and plenty of difficult-to-obtain resources. Getting players to come and use your buildings (which can earn you money in some cases) means letting folks on your server know that you have them. In turn, that means you have to use the ever-present chat window to advertise, which isn't a particularly fun way to spend your time. Predictably, how much you can do with your town depends on whether or not you're playing as a premium civilization. Some early campaign quests require you to do nothing more than place buildings like a player-versus-player arena and an advisor hall in your city, but these quests are impossible to complete if you're playing for free. Both of the aforementioned buildings are considered premium content because they afford you access to additional PVP options (such as playing with friends) and significant benefits for your army (including stat boosts and otherwise unavailable units), respectively.
Make no mistake: Actually playing this free-to-play RTS game for free is not the way to go. Your tiny inventory is forever filling up with items that you can't use; many achievements can't be unlocked because the words "with premium content" are included in their descriptions; and as you progress through the campaign, your inability to equip the best gear or to employ certain units makes many quests noticeably more difficult or time consuming.
Reading their descriptions, you might think that the quests in Age of Empires Online--which are accepted from non-player characters and don't have to be completed in any particular order--offer plenty of variety. Goals include repairing ports on different islands, rescuing characters held in captivity, destroying enemy fortresses, and--when playing as the Greeks--employing a Trojan horse. Unfortunately, though, many of these quests end up playing out in much the same way, in part because your artificially unintelligent enemies appear so determined to stick to their simplistic plans of attack that they're incapable of deviating from them in response to your actions.
Far too many quests fall into one of two categories: Either the enemy sits back and waits for you to assemble an army and attack or you're forced to defend against waves of enemies while simultaneously assembling an army so that you can attack. The former offers no sense of urgency whatsoever; just take as long as you need to gather resources (food, wood, stone, and gold), train units by clicking on the appropriate buildings, and then march them across the map to do their thing. The latter, while occasionally challenging early on when you're still setting up your defenses, ultimately ends up much the same way. It's true that enemies are sometimes smart enough to identify and exploit weaknesses where you've built walls and guard towers to defend your town. But it's also true that you can use a single fast-moving unit as bait to lure enemies away from your town and, if necessary, around and around in circles within range of your defenses until they're all dead.
Adding to the repetitious nature of questing, almost as much as the numerous quests that are repeatable by design, are the mercenary groups sparingly scattered on almost every map. These small bands aren't aggressive in the slightest, but because their camps invariably contain loot chests, it's a good idea to kill them all before leaving a quest. This sounds fine in theory, and having several chests in your inventory waiting to be opened is always exciting. But locating your real enemies rarely requires much exploration; thus, you frequently complete all of your quest objectives without having uncovered the whole map. Rather than head out to claim your reward, you then send units into any areas that are still shrouded by the fog of war to make sure that you haven't left any loot chests behind. Finding and subsequently killing mercenaries isn't challenging in the slightest; it's just busywork that you feel compelled to undertake.
It's a real shame that so many of Age of Empires Online's quests are underwhelming, because every now and then you're afforded a look at how good the game can be. Challenge levels, which are sprinkled throughout the campaign, not only make for interesting and occasionally difficult diversions, but they also serve as effective training tools for one-versus-one and two-versus-two multiplayer battles in which speed is key. Challenges pit you against the clock rather than an enemy, and they demand strategies that you might not give much thought to otherwise. One of the first, for example, requires you to build 10 farms for your town in less than 10 minutes. Sounds simple enough, but it's not nearly as straightforward as you might think because you need wood to build farms, villagers to gather wood, food to create villagers, and farms to grow food. You have to use the resources at your disposal as efficiently as possible, and after completing a few iterations of the same challenge, you feel great being able to do so in half the time. Later challenges work in much the same way, but they afford you longer time limits to complete significantly more complex objectives; gather enough resources to move your town past the bronze age, build battering rams, and demolish an entire town on the other side of a map, for example.
Satisfying challenges can also be found on the island of Crete, though visiting it for anything other than a single demo level requires you to hand over a one-time fee of $10. For that, you unlock a customizable Horde mode of sorts in which you must defend areas of Greece's largest island from increasingly powerful waves of enemies. There are nine different maps to play on, and you can choose to go up against 10, 20, or 30 waves on any of five difficulty settings. The rewards you earn for successfully completing a Crete challenge scale accordingly. These include money, experience points, loot chests, and faction points that can be redeemed for powerful weapons and armor. Like many campaign quests, Crete challenges are easier to complete if you play them cooperatively.
Finding folks to play with cooperatively generally isn't difficult; you can either have the game find a partner for you automatically (which can take a while) or use the dedicated looking for group (LFG) chat channel to ask for help. Sadly, getting into competitive games isn't handled as well. You have to be playing with a premium civilization if you want to do battle with friends, and ranked matches are only available to paid-up players who have reached level 25. You can jump into unranked battles using a quick-match option regardless of your level and civilization status, but--perhaps because not enough players are looking to play competitively--it's often impossible to find suitable opponents.
More often than not, you find yourself pitted against an enemy whose civilization is either significantly higher or lower level than yours, and the subsequent battles are short lived and not much fun as a result. You might think that being at a higher level wouldn't offer that much of an advantage, but it impacts practically every aspect of the game. The specifics vary, depending on how you choose to spend your technology points and equip your loot. But as a high-level player, your buildings might have more health and armor, your military units are probably cheaper and quicker to build, and your villagers might be significantly more adept at gathering resources. As a premium player, you might even have an army of units that is constantly regenerating health. When you get matched up against an opponent of a similar level and skill, competitive play is a lot of fun. Those battles are the exception rather than the rule, though.
Whether you're playing competitively, cooperatively, or just grinding your way through repeatable quests to earn experience and faction points, Age of Empires Online does very little on the battlefield that other RTS games haven't done before. In fact, great visuals aside, the RTS portion of Age of Empires Online wouldn't have looked conspicuous or especially innovative 10 years ago. Where this game does innovate with some success, though, is in its implementation of features more commonly associated with massively multiplayer online RPGs than with RTS games. If you think it's exciting to see how a new bow or spear looks on your character in an RPG, imagine how exciting it is to see that same change on dozens of archers or on a cavalry the next time you lead them into battle. Similarly, just as adding new abilities in an RPG is always exciting, so is unlocking a new siege weapon or other military unit here.
Even if you refuse to part with any money while playing it, Age of Empires Online does a lot of different things reasonably well and is definitely better than the sum of its parts. It'd be even better if it didn't so clearly have a few parts missing. There's no easy way to trade items with other players, for example, because there's no auction house equivalent, and the dedicated trade channel doesn't let you include links of items that you want to sell. (If you try to link one, you get a message telling you that "Item links are only allowed in the trade channel.") There's also no Skirmish mode in which to test multiplayer strategies against the AI; it won't be available until it's released as a premium booster pack sometime this upcoming holiday season. It has been said that the best things in life are free, but that's clearly not the case with Age of Empires Online. If you come looking for a free-to-play game, you're likely to feel frustrated a few hours in; if you come willing to part with $20 to $30, though, you're almost certain to feel like your money was well spent.