My early review of Age of Empires Online went up at GamePro today, but there were a few things I didn’t have space to bring up in the main body. Here are a couple other moments from my review process.
“It Looks Like Fucking FarmVille!”
MK does not like the AoEO art style. She watched over my shoulder while I played it, and that’s when she delivered her verdict on what the graphics are communicating. I tend to agree. It’s too cute by half, all bright colors, and foreshortened models with adorably askew roof lines and frames. It’s so desperate to appear non-threatening that it’s grating. It further underlines the WoW / FarmVille aesthetic to which AoEO is so slavishly devoted. Again, free-to-play is a business model, not a style, so why must the formerly resplendent AoEO dress-up like a casual browser game? It’s patronizing, it’s conventional, and it’s just kind of ugly.
Winning by Default
I finally started doing some serious PvP in my waning hours with the game before filing my review. I focused on other issues in the review, but I’m noticing major problems. I’ve beaten a number of people not by playing better than they have, but because I have siege weapons and they don’t.
It makes a huge difference. Taking down fortifications with infantry and cavalry takes forever, and in the meantime guard towers will slaughter the enemy in droves. The only practical way to deal with fortifications is to use siege weapons. That’s nothing new to AoEO and it’s part of good balance.
The problem is, siege weapons don’t become available until level 10, and not everyone picks them right away. So I have had a number of games where I was able to turtle up behind guard towers, and then go shatter the enemy base once he’d exhausted himself against my defenses. That’s not fair, and it’s not fun for either party. But that’s what happens when you take a holistically-designed RTS and chop it into a fine dice.
Because you only get to play with AoEO’s various pieces depending on your level, you would want to make sure that character are matched appropriately, right? Well, I’ve had a number of games where I’m fighting four levels down, which means my opponent is at a severe disadvantage.
The real kicker is, you only get XP for winning. So it’s a rich-get-richer situation, as high level players pound the daylights out of low-level players, then level up faster.
The chat window in the lower left corner of the screen is full of the stupidest, most vile people I’ve ever encountered in a strategy game. There are new players who holler questions into the general chat, questions that could be answered with a few seconds of thought or experiment. There are trolls, who flood the chat with racist invective, or just random keystrokes, breaking up any conversation. There are veterans who endlessly complain about the new people who have showed up to play “their” game.
It’s a noise, unpleasant environment. Again, I think I would rather pay for a game that puts a wall between most of these people and me.