Age of Empires Online Jams Some MMO Into Your RTS

While all the cool kids were playing Starcraft: Brood War, I... well, I joined them, as that game was pretty great. But I also had a soft spot in my heart for Age Of Empires II: Age of Kings. A brilliant successor to a brilliant real-time strategy game, it traded siege tanks and spaceships for trebuchets and the French, and made a lasting impression -- before all but disappearing after a few spin-offs and a sequel.

Age of Empires Online -- which was released today -- is shaping up to be a fine return to form. I never got around to participating in the beta so this is all very new. But it's also so familiar: it feels like Age of Empires, and that's a very good thing.

The game is free to play, with quite a bit of downloadable content waiting in the wings. And you'll need to install Games For Windows Live to play it. Live was already on my machine thanks to brief dalliances with Bulletstorm and Dawn of War II. But the application can be a sore point for many, being (to be blunt) an onerous piece of software. But hey, achievement points!

After downloading the client, and then downloading all sorts of files and assets and the like, you're in. It's the Age of Empire you (might) know and love, complete with technology trees, the eponymous Ages, and villagers spouting gibberish. This time around the game is painted with a casual-friendly brush, sporting a cartoonish art-style that's all rather lovely. And it's graphically impressive, too. Not exactly going to blow the pants off of some of the more technologically demanding titles out there, but everything is bright and lively, and watching my minions scuttle about doing their chores or chattering amongst themselves is quite a treat.

Age of Empires Online is first and foremost an RTS, but in spite of my brief time with it, the MMO bits are coming on strong. Gold exclamation marks denote quests, which (at the start) fall along the lines of killing some clubmen or collecting enough food to get a reward -- standard MMO stuff. The game is divided between your Capital City, and your Outposts. The capital city serves as a sort of hub -- you'll spend points to perform research here, as well as spending coin on supplies, or spending real-world coin on "booster packs" and downloadable content. Start a quest, and you'll be shunted off to an outpost, which plays like a traditional map: Gather resources, build units, fight -- standard fare.

Completing a quest grants you experience points, gold coins, and empire points. Experience points allow you to gain levels, which allows you to advance through the series' iconic Ages, unlocking more steps on the technology tree. Coins lets you buy consumable supplies like wood or grain from vendors in your city (or other players), for use on maps. Empire points are spent on the aforementioned research, unlocking new units and buildings for your use on the outpost maps, and in your capital city.