The game’s biggest failing is that while the mission goals change, your choices never do, even as you unlock new buildings and units. Each mission starts with a town square, a couple of houses, and five or six villagers. You gather food, wood, gold and stone, use those to train more villagers, and construct buildings that build military units, grow food, research better skills and increase your population cap.
Once you’ve amassed a large enough force, you right-click on the enemy base, or special unit, or whatever you fancy attacking, and repeat until you win. A dozen units exist, covering both land and sea, and varied between the two races, each with customisable equipment, but in the first 15 hours you never have to think tactically to win. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it takes longer. Only a cooperative partner – which most of the missions are good enough to allow – keeps the levelling interesting.
The constant rewards never make the inevitable victory satisfying, either. There’s a lot of stuff to earn in Age Of Empires Online, including buildings for your home city, buildings for missions, technologies, units, gear for those units, crafting recipes, special powers and more, but there’s rarely an interesting decision to be made as a result.
The tech tree is split into Economy, Military and Utility upgrades and then further divided across Ages unlocked by levelling up, but you don’t feel like you’re shaping your army or play style with the choices you make. An early Age 2 ability lets you build military boats, but so what? Most maps are too small to have much water to begin with, and maps that require them give you the boats at the start anyway.
A free-to-play game like League Of Legends is engaging because the next skill for your character sounds exciting and fun, and sometimes like a whole new way to play the game. AOEO never embraces such wild changes because it doesn’t want you to ever have to think too hard about anything.
It’s also not long before a mission lends you a premium unit, so you can see how it feels, and then rewards you with an item only those who’ve paid for the premium content can use. That item will sit in your inventory, taunting you with its superior stats, until either you pay for the premium race or dare to throw it away to make space.
These are dirty tricks, but it’s still hard to fault a game that offers so much for free. Unless you’re hoping to compete on equal footing in the PVP mode, there’s no brick wall of difficulty that requires a premium item to climb over.
Instead of a highly modern, free-to-play strategy game, AOEO ends up succeeding as a mid-’90s throwback to something like Blue Byte’s The Settlers. It’s never worse than pleasant, and the evergreen villages, the jaunty swagger of its cows and donkeys and the peaceful expansion of your city are exactly the kind of recharging experiences Taylor talked about providing four years ago. It’s only a shame that the repetition, and a lack of anything to look forward to, mean that you eventually realise your grass still needs to be cut.
Earlier this year, we interviewed Microsoft Game Studios executive producer Dave Luehmann to discuss the challenge of balancing deep strategy with accessibility.