There's no arguing that Farmville and friends cast a long shadow over the free-to-play world, with their micro-transactions and the need to drag friends and family kicking and screaming into the game to keep progressing. Well, don't worry. Age of Empires Online is the other kind of free-toplay game. It relies on heftier paid content, such as booster packs and unlocking new armies, not the usual nonsense of having to shell out £10 for 1000 magical funbucks to fritter away on building supplies.
The combat is exactly the kind of traditional real-time strategy fare we've come to expect from an Age of Empires game, only now with a new cartoon look and a stronger focus on quest-based maps. You can play these missions on your own or co-op, with an extra PvP mode (currently limited to 1v1 or 2v2, although hopefully this will change later on) for regular skirmishes. Unlike many free-toplay games, it runs from a dedicated client instead of your web browser, and takes full advantage of the extra power to look good, if not amazing, and to offer incredibly smooth control. AoEO doesn't do anything dramatically new for the genre, but feels like it's going to be a solid strategy game.
The main addition is that between missions, there's now a huge RPG and city-building layer to handle as well. You have a dedicated capital city, where you buy new technologies and units before deploying them in missions, where new toys are crafted, and where you can upgrade individual units to make them more powerful in the field. As far as I've seen, most of this is paid for with in-game currency, not real-world cash, the main exception being the one-time fees you pay for premium armies, which also unlock some buildings, items, units and higher-level rare gear that you won't get with freebie factions like the Greeks.
The cash side seems fine. Buy what you want. Ignore the rest. There are no subscriptions to pay, nor any microtransactions to worry about. The RPG elements, however, are worrying. It's one thing for players to have the option of choosing a technology for faster gatherers over something else, or for each faction to have its specialities, but it's never going to be fun to go up against enemy armies glittering with the finest epic gear and getting curb-stomped by their raw stats, not careful strategy. And from the other perspective, where's the satisfaction in winning an unfair fight?
With the right matchmaking, this side of the game could definitely work, but it's hard not to think it might be one feature too far, regardless of whether Age of Empires Online wants to appeal to casual or hardcore players. On the plus side, it'll cost absolutely nothing to find out when the finished game leaves open beta soon.