Be warned: I am a strident fan of classic computer real-time strategy series Age of Empires and when finally given the opportunity to play a new take on the game I will go to great lengths to make sure it sticks around.
Usually that wouldn't be a problem. But Age of Empires Online's survival faces two challenges: It's an unequivocating real-time strategy computer game hitting during a time when the best of its ilk have shrunk away to become casual or Facebook games. It is a free game that can only survive economically if people are willing to eventually spend too much for too little.
So be prepared to be lied to, because I can't let this game die.
Here's the part where I'm telling you the deep, honest-to-god, from-my-heart truth.
There are a lot of things about Age of Empires Online that make it better than the games that came before it. But what makes me love it more than those previous versions (Yes, even Age of Empires II... even the Rise of Rome expansion) is that for the first time in my life I am the father, not the son, in the long, late-night matches I play with my family.
The fact that I can play with my son, while sentimental, isn't a reason unto itself for my adoration of the game, it simply highlights what's great about this new take on gathering, building and conquering.
By The Numbers
0.0106 percent: Chance of getting a 25,000 Coin Lucky Ticket
55: Average technologies per a civilization.
1,909: Total animations of units in town.
4,333: Unique sounds in the game.
10,873: Hours spent on multiplayer balance.
54,978: Total number of unique combinations of gear for Greek units.
I spent a few sleepless nights playing Age of Empires Online, offline. While technically I was still connected to the internet, I didn't have to be, well not for any meaningful, game-mechanics reason. I completely ignored the ability to play cooperatively and competitively as I played through the quests of Age of Empires Online as if I were tackling the campaign of one of those earlier age games.
While the basic mechanics of Age of Empires Online is fairly reminiscent of previous versions of the game, the overall approach to the game has a component of persistence that changes everything.
The game's new core is built around a persistent city that is home to both the game's many quest givers and the decorative spoils of war, but also things that allow you to permanently shape and augment your armies.
Because your capital is always there, you can't change up civilizations whenever you feel like it. Instead these civilizations, and the capitals you build are like your character in this always online game. The game is only launching with two civilizations to start with: Egyptian and Greece. I chose the former, my son the latter.
The capital is built up by unlocking blueprints for new buildings. These buildings allow you to do things that provide permanent bonuses to your armies, and even new units. It's also where, as you level up through quests, that you will build out your tech tree using earned points. The tech tree does things like giving a bonus to your walls, or making your spearmen a bit more dangerous. Once activated, these all come into play every time you do a quest. There are also advisers that you can assign to your civilization that offer massive bonuses. One, for instance, gives all of my soldiers the ability to slowly heal over time without a priestess.
So this capital isn't just eye candy, it's the realization of the way you've decided to shape your civilization. Because of it no two Egyptian or Greek civs are alike or at least there is an enormous amount of variety. But this is all of the back-end stuff, the tweaks to your civ that make your armies more about distance attacks, or cavalry or maybe you're all about turtling. That's something you could always do in the past, but now those choices are augmented with your capital and how you built it out. It's a massive difference.
The gameplay, what Age of Empires players will know and love, is all built around competitive matches and quests. I've spent an enormous amount of time playing through the quests. Each is assigned by different folks in your town and they range from traditional, beat-the-bad-guys matches to survival, to having to find missing units and save them. When you drop into a quest it's like dropping into a level in an old Age of Empires game, but with a significant difference. Your overall level, the one tied to your capital, impacts what you have access to. Early on it means very limited troop selection. By level nine I was able to make camel riders, slingers, axe and spear men, as well as a priestess for healing and a defensive tower, walls and gates.
But there are still plenty of things still left to be discovered.
Ian Vogel, design lead at Microsoft Game Studios, told me in a recent meeting that the quests were designed to also give players early access to some of that high level content just to whet their appetite to play.
I saw that a few times as I slowly ranked up. One level gave me a band of archers, another high level priests, a third swordsmen, all units I would eventually unlock, but not until the high levels. It also kept me interested in the game, because I ended up wanting to be able to make those units on the fly.
Vogel tells me that Age of Empires Online was deeply influenced by Age of Empires II. The core of the game came from Age II, he said.
"Age II was a fan favorite," he said. "This franchise has been in our family for a long time. We liked that bit of gameplay. We have some elements from other games like Age of Mythology, too."
In particular, Online includes consumable items, which are meant to be a bit like God Powers. These items, which can be unlocked over time, allow you to do things like call in a unit of bandit archers or other sorts of back up. Another important thing you can unlock are items for your units, equipping their three slots with things that can power them up. The game has nearly 175 different consumables and more than 1,300 pieces of equipment that can be found, Vogel said. Everything—advisors, consumables, designs and equipment—can be common, uncommon, rare and epic, sort of like what you might find in a game like Diablo.
Each quest map also has two hidden treasure chests. They're always protected and typically hidden, but if you scour the map, you can typically defeat their guards and take home a bit of extra loot.
And then there is the ability to play skirmishes against your friends and family. Or to play most of the quests again cooperatively or in "elite" mode. The coop is a blast to play, as I've discovered with my son. Vogel tells me that he's heard about a lot of people playing with their children.
"Our executives at the highest level are playing with their kids," he said.
Some hardcore fans of the franchise might be turned off by the game's use of the word social, but it's not implemented in a way that hurts the gameplay. The other ding the game seems to be getting from some old fans of the series is the game's look, which I personally love.
It's certainly not the old, dramatically beautiful look of the original Age of Empires titles. By Age of Empires III, the graphics were one of the biggest draws of the game.
Instead, the graphics look more like something you'd expect to see featuring Asterix and Obelix, than nitty-gritty, tough-as-nails strategy combat. But I happen to be a huge fan of Asterix and that art style, so I'm OK with it.
And now for the part where I'm going to lie through my teeth at you. Be prepared.
I mentioned that you'll need to be online, even when you don't seem to get much out of that persistent connection. That's very true. I could say that it bothers me that when I lose a connection, no matter what I'm doing, I lose everything I built up to in a particular quest. Or I could say how it's annoying that when the servers are offline (the game is still in beta, so it's happened.) I can't play a little match on my own or tinker with my city. But really, those are features right? I mean they'd have to be.
Age of Empires Online isn't entirely free to play either, of course. It needs to make money for Microsoft after all. So here's how that works: Fortunately, this is all very simple and straight-forward so it shouldn't confuse you.
The game launches with two civilizations, Egypt and Greece. Both can be played for free online, with and against friends. But, if you want to use rare and epic gear, or advisors, or fully unlock that civ's tech tree or if you want to play ranked matches against friends, (unranked is fine.) or if you want extra inventory slots, more workshops, crafting halls, the ability to spend empire points at the in-game stores, you're going to probably want to buy a premium civilization pack. That means you pay $20 to unlock all of that for the civ of your choice.
What are empire points, you ask? Why they're one of three currency systems in the game. Isn't having three currency systems in the game, none of which are tied to real cash, confusing? No, not at all. You spend gold on the stuff you build in your town. You spend empire points on the stuff you buy at stores and you spend Spartan coins at the stores in sparta, where the ranked player-versus-player matches occur... at least I think that's right.
While the game is launching with two civs, others are already on the way, due out by the end of the year. Those others include two more civs and a booster pack.
What's a booster pack? I'm glad you asked.
The only one we know about is Defense of Crete, which sounds essentially like horde mode for Age of Empires, which is really cool and only costs an extra $10.
But wait, there's more.
Empire extras will run you $5 a pop if you care to indulge. Available at launch will be decorative shrubbery for both civs as well as ornaments and statues.
And still more.
If you want you can buy a Pro Civilization pack for $20. This is essentially like the other civ packs but instead of just giving you all of those goodies we went over earlier, it jumps you straight to level 20 in the game.
Fortunately, Microsoft seems to realize that all of these options to buy may be a bit baffling. So they've come up with a solution.
That solution is called the Season Pass. For a mere $100 you get all of the premium content from the game for the first six months at no extra charge. So $100 buys you the complete Age of Empires Online... for six months. After that you get to keep the content, but have to pay for anything new that you want when it comes out.
And now back to reality and all of those shades of grey.
It is a great game, a game that takes a classic, well-built interface and mechanic for real-time strategic war, and places a level of persistence on top of it that isn't just meaningful, it actually works. The fact that I have to level up each civilization separately might seem like a bad thing to some, but I actually like the challenge and the idea that once I'm finished with Egypt, I can move on to Greece, and whatever else they have in the pipe.
It does have some minor annoyances. I pointed out to Vogel that I found the path-finding a bit hinky at times. Vogel was surprised to hear that.
"The path-finding engine's core came from Age II," he told me. "This is an engine that has been iterated over time. This is ten years of path-finding iteration that works well."
When I pressed him about possible fixes to those path-finding hiccups, which I really did find mostly minor, he said that wasn't going to happen.
"Changing path-finding at this point is a terrifying thing," he said. "That's a year of bug farms."
But that doesn't mean work on the game stops now. This is a living world, with content meant to be rolled out for at least the next two years.
And what about the Romans? They're one of my personal favorites. Vogel couldn't make any promises, but he said that the team is aware of how popular that particular civilization is.
My final question fell back on my insecurities for this game. It's a game I want to get invested in, that I want to stick around. So what will mark it a success in Microsoft's eyes, I asked Vogel.
"Money is just a piece of this," he said. "Microsoft also wants to create a community. They want people to connect through Live, and then stick around for six months, eight months, a year.
"We want players to be understanding that we are creating something new. We want to make our money back and a profit, but what matters more is creating good will and building a community."
My hope is that Microsoft simplifies the business model a bit, and the in-game economy. I'd also hope that gamers who've tried and like Age before not judge this latest iteration by its art. Love the art or hate it, the guts of this game are dazzling.
Age of Empires Online is due out Aug. 16 for free only on Games For Windows Live. (When asked about Steam, Vogel said that it was a great platform, but that Live is their current focus.)