Review in progress: Age of Empires Online

Is this free-to-play real-time strategy game really free to play? We're looking into it.

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I know what you're thinking: There can't be a review in progress for Age of Empires Online; it's free-to-play, and GameSpot doesn't review free-to-play games. Wrong. At least as of sometime next week when our review of Age of Empires Online is expected to post. We've largely ignored free-to-play games in the past, but they're becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from retail games, and more importantly, some of them are a lot of fun. Reviews for these games won't be radically different from those that you already see on GameSpot, but there will undoubtedly be some subtle differences. Value for money isn't a consideration when a game costs nothing to play, for example, but whether or not these games can really be enjoyed for free definitely is.

These advisor bonuses are available only when you play as a premium civilization.
These advisor bonuses are available only when you play as a premium civilization.

There's no doubt that you can have fun playing Age of Empires Online without spending any money whatsoever, but both the promotion and pricing of its premium content options are aggressive. After choosing to play as either the Greeks (which I'm playing as currently) or the Egyptians, the game rarely misses an opportunity to remind you that for only $20 you can upgrade your chosen civilization to a premium civilization. What does that $20 buy you? You can use/equip rare and epic loot items that otherwise just sit in your inventory waiting to be sold, your inventory expands from a maximum of two warehouses to five, and otherwise unavailable buildings for your city grant you access to party PVP options and additional unit types and crafting options, to name but a few.

I spent maybe seven or eight hours playing for free before going premium, and right now I feel like that $20 was well spent. Other premium options right now include the Egyptian premium civilization for $20, a horde mode of sorts set on the island of Crete for $10, and four Empire Extras packs containing statues and plants for your customizable hub city that run $5 each. Launch offers include buying both premium civilizations and the Crete pack for $40, or paying $100 for everything that's available now and everything that's released in the next six months. Since I opted for that last option, I can tell you that this isn't just the most expensive free-to-play game I've ever played (World of Tanks is the only other one that I've spent money on to date); it's one of the most expensive games I've ever played, period.

Enemy AI isn't great, but it sure is aggressive.
Enemy AI isn't great, but it sure is aggressive.

Fortunately, I'm enjoying my time with Age of Empires Online. I like the colorful and cartoony visual style, the uncomplicated RTS gameplay, and the way that MMO staples like crafting, leveling, skill tree, questing, and loot have been incorporated. Repeatable quests are an MMO trope that I'm far less excited about, but they at least afford an opportunity to level up and grab more loot for my units if I get stuck on one of the more challenging campaign quests. For the moment, I'm also not having much fun with PVP. Almost every time I try it I get randomly matched up against an enemy several levels higher than I am, so not only are most of these guys better than me (I freely admit that my tendency to turtle doesn't seem well suited to AOE Online and I'm having trouble adjusting), but they're coming at me with units sporting better gear and, worse still, units that I don't even have access to yet. I daresay the odds will change in my favor at some point (I'm currently level 20, and the level cap is 40), but I don't particularly want to be matched up with opponents who are lower level than I am either.

Before delivering the full review next week I need to spend some more time with the Greek campaign, check out the Egyptians, get into some more PVP battles, and take advantage of the co-op option, which--based on what I read in the ever-present chat window--can make some of the challenging quests significantly easier. If you're already playing and happen to be on the Athens server, feel free to look me up and lend a hand. I'm playing as JusticeCovert.

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