In most online RPGs you play as a single hero. In free-toplay Age of Empires Online, you're a city. You start out as either a Greek or Egyptian township, and must expand to become a sprawling metropolis capable of training the most powerful units your chosen civilisation has to offer.
To do so, you accept missions from beardy quest-givers loitering under giant yellow exclamation marks on the streets of your capital. They'll point out nearby enemy towns ripe for pillage. Stolen materials can be combined with blueprints to build more structures, which in turn can be upgraded to boost the strength of your units.
When you jump into a quest, you're transported from your capital city view to a separate battlefield. Here AoEO morphs into a traditional RTS that will be semi-recognisable to fans of the old games. You build a base, send out a mounted scout, set your villagers foraging, throw up barracks, train an enormous army, then roll out as one angry mass and burn everything.
At one stage my Greek civilisation was at level five, and I was taking on a nearby tribe. My army was on autopilot and averaging about one war crime a minute. The enemy town centre was about to crumble. Their huts were aflame, my soldiers had stamped their farmland into useless dirt. A lone villager dashed away clutching a basket of fruit. An archer took aim and felled her with a shot in the back.
The gorgeous cartoon visuals didn't soften the blow. I felt a twinge of guilt. The yellow exclamation marks made me do it, but it wasn't their fault. The problem was that for the entire duration of our battle, the enemy village I had razed had never launched a single attack on my base. When provoked, they defended themselves, but were crushed by sheer force of numbers.
It was a sign of things to come. Sometimes I'd have to rescue a group of kidnapped tribesmen, or defend friendly bases from attack, or destroy a barricade designed to stop and annihilate fleeing friendly NPCs. Irrespective of the mission, every battle adhered to the same formula. I would build up my base, train a few dozen warriors, then roll out and destroy all enemy forces safe in the knowledge that the lethargic AI would never respond to my actions.
This was satisfying for a while, but it's not long before missions start to feel like a chore. A constrained choice of units doesn't help. Levelling up your town grants you points to spend on an enormous, three pronged tech tree where you can unlock and upgrade new units and buildings. As you advance further down the tree, your civilisation advances through the ages, but after six or so hours spent grinding homesteads into the dirt, I still only had access to spearmen, bowmen, swordsmen and a useless variety of javelin-throwing cavalry.
Each unit is designed to counter a type of enemy unit. Spearmen are adept at taking down mounted enemies, for example, while swordsmen mince up foot soldiers, but in practice every problem can be solved by box-selecting everyone and right clicking on it.
Occasionally, missions will gift you a devastating advanced unit to play around with. The Hetairoi are a Greek example. Mounted on barded steeds, flaming torches in hand, they're adept at smashing buildings to pieces. They're tough, and their rarity makes them worth protecting.
At level eight, I finally had a reason to change my strategy. I created a vanguard of swordsmen and spearmen to sweep away enemy combat units, then scurried them out of the range of the lethal guard-towers to make room for the Hetairoi, who formed a column and stampeded through the town. They crushed every building and razed the town centre in a matter of seconds. Most satisfying.
It was a rare moment of excitement in a campaign that was quickly becoming dull, but unique units like the Hetairoi can't be unlocked through the skill tree. To train them on the battlefield you must install that unit's commander at your advisor's hall in your capital city, but you can only do this if you've paid for the Greek or Egyptian Civilisation Pack, which costs around £12.
As well as adding unique units, advisors confer general bonuses to your empire, and you can appoint one for each age your civilisation has progressed through. My copper age advisor lets my villagers take more wood from trees, my bronze age advisor makes my guard towers more powerful and my silver age advisor lets me train Phalanx warriors.
The capital city offers layers and layers of customisation like this. My city's many shops and crafting lodges held interest long after the steady stream of missions had started to feel like a grind. You can boost your troops' performance in battle by equipping them with special weapons and armour pieces at your capital city's armoury. Separate crafting houses for infantry, cavalry and naval units let you create new gear and one-shot consumables that can buff units in the middle of a fight, or even summon new ones to your town centre at a pinch. You'll need to buy a civilisation pack to equip the most powerful elite gear.
While the idea of developing new armour and weapons for my warriors from my capital city was enticing, the incremental nature of each upgrade meant I never saw much effect from my meddling. A new bow might give my archers a little extra range, and new armour might make my spearmen 20% tougher, but this never changed their level of usefulness in combat. If new items gave units new abilities and new roles on the battlefield, the upgrade system has the potential to be much more compelling. As it is, your units may as well just be levelling up. They grow slightly stronger now and then, but never become more interesting to use.
As a result, AoEO feels like two different games that happen to share the same economy. Your capital city swells, earns money, generates items and lets you configure a complex, abstract build for your armed forces, but during the brief loading screen that separates the city view and a mission, that build degenerates into a repetitive, straightforward RTS. Build. Farm. Forage. Chop wood. Build barracks. Train army. Boxselect. Right click. Win.
The Egyptian civilisation doesn't offer much more variety. Their units are a little cheaper and slightly more fragile, but while Egyptian axemen and camel riders look different from Greek swordsmen and cavalry, they all work the same way in a fight. The Egyptian healing and support units, such as the Priestess of Ra and powerful War Elephants, are the only things that really set the two factions apart.
If you want more of a challenge – and you will – you can also face off against other players in one-on-one or two-vs-two games in Sparta. This unlocks at level seven, and gives you a new way to earn experience, and acts as a much better test of your army's build. Writing this review during the beta period meant there weren't many opponents to face, and battles were inevitably mismatched. These problems will be alleviated by more players, but others won't.
Currently, paying players who have access to Commander advisors will be able to use elite units like the Hetairoi, and even if two players are evenly matched, it's difficult to see what upgrades the enemy has equipped, adding an unpredictability that makes countering enemy units difficult. At the very highest level, elite items can make innocuous units incredibly powerful.
So PvP will likely be tough for players who haven't paid, but otherwise you can theoretically hit the level 40 cap without spending anything. There are no microtransactions in AoEO. You buy civilisation packs to gain access to the best loot, or campaign packs for more missions. There are plans to add Celtic and Persian factions.
Age of Empires Online feels perfect for a casual, occasional fling. If you want to build a great big army and thoroughly stomp an enemy then it delivers. It's a beautiful game, packed with personality. The Hetairoi charge proudly, siege towers waddle comically and farmland burns convincingly, but even in the throes of my toughest battle I found myself clicking around, looking for more to do. As my forces overran the city walls, I collected all the cows on the map. I herded them into my base to form a bovine defence force, and suddenly realised just how bored I was. Until the battles become more challenging, all that city-building is just meaningless fiddling.