When Chris Taylor’s Gas Powered Games took over development duties on Age Of Empires Online in early 2011, it felt like Albert Einstein giving up on the unified field theory to open a doughnut shop. Taylor is best known as the creator of Supreme Commander, a vast, stubborn and mentally demanding strategy game. By comparison, Age Of Empires Online is aiming to be a sugary snack; a cute, colourful, free to play crowd-pleaser.
To understand it, you have to look at comments Taylor made in 2007 about why games need to be more like mowing the lawn. “When I ride the lawnmower, I don’t think about steering and cutting grass. I think about life. I think about work. I recharge. That’s what I think gaming needs to be. Do you want your entire Saturday to be laying around or to be about working, or would you rather a combination of both? I’m striving for that in my next designs. To create a balance of energy output and energy input.”
Age Of Empires Online strives for that balance and just barely fails. When you play it, you don’t only think about fighting tiny wars, gathering resources and levelling. You think about life, you think about work, you think about how you’re a touch bored.
You begin by picking between Greeks and Egyptians, the two races included at launch. From there, you’re taken to your home city. This is where you’ll receive missions, and expand the city by levelling up, unlocking new technology and constructing new buildings. Imagine a Facebook city-building game minus the gurning faces at the bottom of the screen, but with the same relaxing compulsion to expand and tidy its gleeful cartoon world.
Your first mission is to stop an attack on a nearby town. It takes about three minutes, and after you’ve learnt to move troops and killed the enemy, you’re rewarded with XP, gold and an Empire point.
The next mission, then, is to unlock something on the tech tree using that Empire point. This takes three clicks and rewards you with yet more XP and gold. These are only tutorial missions, but the following 15 hours of the game are the same. You’ll defend a base against an enemy assault, sail across oceans to rescue hostages, and race against the clock in challenge maps, all while Age Of Empires Online hands out presents like Santa Claus drunk on peach schnapps at his own birthday party.