If you look at Age of Empires' progression over time, the series has always had a constant theme, which is the progression of an empire and/or civilisation through time and various levels of development, and all with an approach that tries to be as realistic as possible. From the looks of the many promotional screenshots and the aesthetics of the game in general, Age of Empires online is definitely a step in a different direction for the iconic series, at least aesthetically anyhow. If you look at the gameplay, the quirky-looking buildings (which look like a 3D representation of something from a fairytale that you would find deep in an enchanted woods), and the almost cartoon-like characters within, you'll soon realise that this departure from the relativelty realistic animation and aesthetics of previous Age of Empires titles is entirely deliberate.
Age of Empires Online describes itself as an MMO/Co-op/RTS/Multiplayer that is free to play, so can something that sounds so promising deliver on the expectations created by this intriguing-sounding description?
The gameplay itself begins by logging into your Windows Live account (follow this link to create one if you haven't got one already) and choosing a civilisation to assume control over. You've got a good choice including the Greek, Celtic, and Egyptian civilisations as well as others such as Persian, allowing for a bit of variety and replay value when you've made your initial choice flourish enough to be considered entirely successful. You even get to name your capital city, and when you have done so , will start off the game there after opting in or out of the familiar tutorial process that shows you the ropes of the games (such as mining for resources, different buildings, the units available to you etc.)
Both newcomers and even veterans will find that the game offers a very impressive level of customisation when it comes to your city, and to such an extent that the former group of players may find the whole thing a little overwhelming. You can construct various buildings, each with their own special properties such as acting as storage for different materials and items. Your town centre acts as the hub for applying various upgrades to your city while different stores and merchants can be used to purchase different pieces of equipment and other items.
The game shares high similarity with Age of Empires 3 in that it shares a similar levelling up system so that you can feel a sense of progress with your civilisation. To progress through the levels, you must engage in both NPC (non-player character) quests as well as PVP (player Vs. player) encounters as well. Advancing up the levels comes with benefits that go beyond your civilisation's strength and power as well as bragging rights: you also get to progress through the ages in an historical sense as well. Much like in fellow empire building game Forge of Empires you can also engage in technological research in order to advance your civilisation, allowing it to refine its various infrastructures and opening up more avenues for progressing through the ages.
The connotations of your average "Free to Play" game usually revolve around having to pump small quantities of cash into a game on a frequent basis to get ahead by accelerating certain processes or purchasing better, thereby offloading a fair amount of cash in the long term and paying more than you would if the game cost even $20/£15 or so. Thankfully - and this is made very clear on the Age of Empires Online website - this game is entirely free to play with no microtransactions, purchases, grinding for hours, or any of the usual annoyances that typify your standard "Free to Play" game which turns out to be anything but. This is a refreshing change for an online MMO game since many (such as the previously-mentioned Forge of Empires) rely on either purchasing diamonds (the game's premium currency) or grinding/waiting for very lengthy time periods before you can get anything done.
Age of Empires Online is certainly an impressive feat, particularly when you consider that it is free to play. You've got all the classic civilisation responsibilities, battle opportunities, resource management, and progression through the ages; it's just the style that may put many veterans off.
This delightfully light-hearted and almost cartoonish aesthetic is ok for brand new players that aren't accustomed to the usual style of the series, but for Age of Empires veterans that have been with the game from the start, this is going to be somewhat of a shock, and some might not even entertain the thought of taking this game seriously enough to dedicate even a second of their time to it. Still, it is a pleasantly familiar experience presented in a rather unfamiliar fashion, a combination that makes Age of Empires Online intriguing enough to be worth the hours spent playing it.