Age of Empires Online is ready for its close up

, | Games

If you’ve been holding off for Age of Empires Online to finally gel, now’s as good a time as any to try it. The latest update, dubbed the Summer Update, just went live, completely revising the game’s long-term economy and tech tree, and introducing its new endgame stuff. This is the last step in a dramatic overhaul the game has gotten over the last few months.

After the jump, some hands-on time with the particulars

The new tech tree is more streamlined, almost to the point of wondering why the game even holds back this stuff while you level up. Previously, Age Online was punishingly limited by the unlocks during the early game grinding. It was like playing ten games of chess with nothing but pawns to unlock a single knight. Now you’ve got access to pretty much everything when you hit a few milestones (levels 5, 10, and 15 unlock the units for ages II, III, and IV, respectively). But in order to get upgrades for the units during a match, you have to unlock them in the metagame first by spending points on the tech tree. It’s an easy enough hook for leveling up, I suppose, although it can’t hold a candle to the awesome cards system in Age of Empires III, which I’ve been playing a lot lately. Chalk it up to the difference between a generous retail package with two bounteous expansions and a free-to-play RTS hoping to also appeal to casual grinders.

The new overarching economy is based on empire points. These are pretty hard to come by, since they’re the equivalent of real world money. You can buy empire points, of course. Alternatively, you can wait for them to slooooowly trickle in as you play through the campaign. Once you hit the level cap, the new alliance system lets you participate in faction vs. faction multiplayer matches with unique bonuses and rewards, including empire points.

I don’t have a level 40 civilization, so I can’t jump into the alliances yet, but I like the direction Microsoft is going. A new civilization costs 900 empire points. I’m going to guess that you can earn that in a month of semi-dedicated play. But maybe you just want your one civilization. Maybe you think of playing other civilizations with the same disdain some people have for alts in an MMO. Alternatively, you can spend your empire points on ingame advantages (single-player only). Or maybe you want to spend your empire points on cosmetic frippery.

When Age of Empires Online launched, the cosmetic options were focused on the city you visit between matches, which was a tactical error. Who cares about my city’s appearance, and adding some pointless trophy statue or shrubbery to the busy bits between the actual gameplay, especially since Age of Empires Online does a horrible job of encouraging people to visit each other’s cities? But now this guy sells cosmetic options for your actual ingame units.

The ingame graphics in Age Online are pretty adorable as is. This is a lovely graphics engine with some really nice artwork, and Microsoft has taken the opportunity to let you personalize it by adding new types of hats, shields, and weapons to your units of choice, assuming you’re willing to spend the empire points. For instance, in the screenshot at the top of the page, my druids have been given gourd weapons. So they run around healing people with their staffs and then clubbing enemies with giant gourds. My villagers wear tiki masks. I’m tempted to buy the pumpkin hats for my woad raiders.

In other words, this is exactly how cosmetic options should work.

There’s no denying that Age of Empires Online is still built with a view to a grind. You’re going to have to play a lot of repetitive missions to level up and unlock content. But the underlying RTS is sound, based on some of the same things that make Age of Empires III as good as it is. If you’re willing to pay a little gametax, if you want a hearty dollop of cute in your historical RTS, and if you’re up for some grinding, Age of Empires Online is finally the game it should be.