Did Age of Empires Online's revamp solve its biggest problems?
Age Of Empires Online's launch was far from perfect--in fact, a lot of people skipped right over the game for very good reasons (see our launch review for a quick recap). But the beauty of online games and free-to-play models is that developers can listen to feedback from disgruntled players and change their games over time to make them better.
Gas Powered Games has done just that with Age of Empires Online with recent updates that have completely reworked large portions of the game. To see if they fixed what bothered gamers most, I put together a list of the most common complaints I read on Twitter, Facebook, and our very own comments sections here on this site, and investigated what Gas Powered Games has done—or not done—to address each of them.
Complaint: "Games for Windows Live is the devil!"
GPG's solution: Add to Steam, but still require Games for Windows Live login to play
This is by far the most frequent objection I hear from people looking into Age of Empires Online. It's not surprising that Gas Powered Games can't completely divorce itself from the horrible Games for Windows Live client--Age of Empires Online is published by Microsoft after all--but that doesn't make its unrelenting frustrations feel any better. That said, adding AOEO to Steam and allowing us to boot up and play without having to ever launch the GfWL client (though you do still login through your GfWL account in-game) is a decent first step. Ever since I've started only launching through Steam, I've haven't run into a single technical issue and I'm even able to play it on my office PC, where the GfWL installer errors out every time I try to run it.
Verdict: Better, but still a problem
"It's boring at the start and takes too long to get to the good stuff."
GPG's solution: Give players more units at start, make leveling much faster
At launch, you had to spend hours playing simple quests with almost no unit diversity in order to start unlocking even the most non-exotic units like Swordsman and Archer. Now, all units are given to you the second you unlock a new Age--which now come faster, granting you all units by the time you hit level 15. XP rewards have been boosted up for early quests as well, so you can skate through those early three-unit-option slams quickly and get to the good stuff. The technology trees got a complete overhaul, bringing the most powerful perks (known as Star technologies) to lower tiers.
"You have to pay to win."
GPG's solution: Make everything purchasable with in-game currency, price civilizations cheap
To be fair, this complaint was never entirely true--you had to pay to be competitive in PvP, but you could always succeed in PVE with the free, limited versions of the civilizations. For 10 months, it cost you $20 each to unlock civs and they could only be bought with real money. Two weeks ago, GPG dropped their price to $10 (and they were $5 on Steam for quite a while). On top of that, you can now choose to buy them with currency earned in-game, so you never pay real money.
You need to be max level to earn that currency at a decent rate, but once you hit 40, it comes at a steady pace with minimal effort. I've only played four or five missions since the new currency was introduced and I've already collected almost 20% of what I need to buy a new civilization. That means I should be able to unlock a new civ every few weeks playing casually. I've got absolutely no complaints on this front.
"I want rainbow shields!"
GPG's solution: Add vanity item slots of all characters, give absurd options
Okay, this was never a complaint people had, but it's a big change that's worth bringing up. With the addition of an in-game currency that can be used to buy real-money stuffs, GPG tossed in a ton of new temptations for you to spend it on. The new vanity armor system lets you equip your units with gear that only affects their look, and not their stats. Vanity Island is a new zone loaded up with vendors selling tons of themed items, the majority of which, I should point out, are not silly or absurd like the ones in this fantasy set. I'm personally fond of the Samurai and Tiki sets.
Verdict: Working as intended?
"Endgame is just PvP."
GPG's solution: Create a faction-based endgame system with new quests, rewards, and constant war
The new Alliance system is awesome. It's not as robust as World of Tanks' or Planetside 2's territory control systems, instead relying on players contributing to a shared point tallies. You can join one of the three alliances once you hit max level and get a small passive benefit to areas of the game (economy, military, utility). By picking a side, you also gain access to nine semi-unique missions that can be completed solo or with a co-op partner in the same faction as you. You can switch factions at any time.
These new missions are exeptional and really show how far GPG has come in designing creative, out-of-the-box quests that stay 100 million miles from the grow-build-swarm cliche of RTS history. My personal favorite is a capture-and-hold style map that places you and an AI on two islands with 11 islands between you. The first to capture and hold six islands wins, and you get bonus points for denying the enemy points of their own.
The best part about these new missions is that they are hard. It took seven attempts and a lot of strategizing with my co-op partner before we figured out a way to beat the first one. And even there the seemingly impossible secondary objectives sat there taunting us, "Sure, you beat it--but look how much better other people are at it." It's a wonderufl change to be significantly challenged in ways that larger armies and more efficient build times can't solve. We finally figured out how to achieve some of the secondary objectives--and we felt freaking fantastic when we did.
PvP matches, AI skirmishes, last stand/tower defense mode, missions, even trade skills--all of it contributes to the Alliance war effort, which in turn earns you the in-game currency (on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis) to buy anything you want that'd normally cost real money.
"There are not enough co-op missions."
GPG's solution: Add some new co-op missions, leave many solo-only
I didn't hear this complaint very often, but for some people it's a big deal-breaker. If recent content is any indication, GPG is making this a top priority. Those new Alliance Wars quests I just mentioned can all be done co-op. But it's way better than that--playing them in co-op completely changes the way they function to maximize your avenues for cooperation. For example, one mission tasks you with converting villagers on the map to build a wonder in your base. Play it solo and you get two priests and two villagers--you have to convert everything else, including a military to defend yourself.
But bring a buddy, and he'll play as a champion unit that can recruit military units from military buildings in your base and work to defend the massively increased military threat while you focus on converting villagers. It plays like two completely different missions, and I had an absolute blast meeting new players and struggling through the new content together. That said, a fair number of the leveling missions are still solo-only.
Verdict: On it's way, but still needs some lovin'
"The missions are too repetitive."
GPG's solution: Make the new campaigns significantly more varied
As I mentioned above, the new endgame missions are very creative and not a single one could be considered boring. On top of that, the missions in the new Celt campaign are some of the finest, most entertaining I've played in an RTS (from a mechanics perspective--the story is very weak). But, the original campaigns are still loaded with some boring missions desperately in need of the fresh ideas showered on the new content. If repetitive missions really bother you, you'll need to stick with the Celts.
Verdict: Halfway there!
"There's no random map mode like other AoE games."
GPG's solution: Add random map mode with variable AI, support with quests
Simple problem, simple solution. The Skirmish mode costs $5 to unlock (or 500 Empire Points earned through the Alliance Wars, which are free), and gives you everything we've come to expect from AoE's random maps. You can set teams, invite players and add AI enemies/allies (which can be given nine different AI personalities that adjust their playstyle), change victory conditions, tweak starting resources, and all the rest.
"The cartoony graphics are stupid."
GPG's solution: Leave 'em as is
This isn't necessarily a problem, but it does put some people off to the game. GPG hasn't given any indication that they'd even consider changing the art style. If you don't like it, you can deal with it, or don't.
Verdict: Varies with personal tastes
Did you have any other major reservations keeping you from jumping into Age of Empires Online? Toss 'em in the comments below and I'll let you know what (if anything) has been done to address it since you last played. If you're interested in giving AOEO another chance, you can download and play it for free on Steam. If you're still on the fence, read some ofourrecent coverage to find out more.