The core experience in Age of Empires Online should be very familiar to fans of the genre, particularly those who played previous Age of Empires titles. Worker units gather all manner of resources, which are used to produce new units, make new buildings, or develop technologies. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Age of Empires is the variety of materials to obtain; instead of merely spice or tiberium, or even minerals and gas, you'll need to balance the acquisition of four different resource types: food, wood, gold, and stone.
As a game progresses, you can advance through different Ages, each one unlocking new units and buildings. Once you have taken care of your economy, you can focus on building up your army, producing all sorts of different units in your quest for domination. There's nothing really new as far as the core gameplay is concerned; some may see this as a problem, but there are many other improvements to the game,and besides, why fix something if it works?
The real innovation in Age of Empires Online is the integration of MMO-like components. Instead of the typical fare where you have a character that earns levels, your capital city, instead, is what grows slowly over time. The capital serves as a sort of hub, where you can take on quests, purchase upgrades, and all manner of other activities. The game starts off quite simply, with one quest at a time, gradually building you up to a point where you may have many quests available at any given time. Again, it's very much like MMOs in this regard. When you take on a quest, it launches the corresponding scenario. Most quests require you to build up from scratch in order to tackle a goal. You might have to simply destroy a certain amount of enemy buildings, take down a tough opposing unit, or simply defend yourself for a given amount of time. The quests are set up so that you gradually learn about all the different units, and the game's difficulty curve is very smooth as a result.
As you complete quests, you earn rewards, primarily experience points but also including raw materials used in crafting, gold to purchase items from stores, and more. When you level up, you earn points that can be spent unlocking items in the technology tree. The system works very much like the talent trees in, say, Diablo 2. There are three main areas to choose from: economy, military, and utility. You might spend points to allow your gatherers to carry more goods at once, or unlock an archery range in order to build bowmen. As you would expect, this levelling up system is very addicting. You'll find yourself playing "just one more game" in order to unlock that shiny new unit that will allow you to dominate in battle. The customization of your abilities extends to all manner of other areas, as well, including crafting, special items that can be used to your advantage in quests, and even cosmetic features like hedges and statues that you can use to increase your capital city's cool factor.
The art style used in Age of Empires Online is quite different from the realism of previous games. The colors are bold and bright, and the characters and buildings have an almost cartoony, exaggerated look about them. There is a sense of humor about the design that makes it very appealing. There are all sorts of little touches that add charm to the experience, like workers who literally stand around and snooze when you haven't assigned them a task. You'll be rooting for your soldiers to win each fight, and zooming in on them to see the colorful animations when they fight the bad guys is quite fun. The menus and interface share a similar style, making Age of Empires Online a truly fine looking game, indeed.
The big question about a free to play title, of course, is whether the free play is more than just a crippled, demo-like mess that requires you to spend a lot of money to even enjoy it. This is certainly not the case for Age of Empires Online. I played through several levels before activating the premium content, and there was more than enough game there to keep me busy. A free account can still level up just as far as a premium one, you can select both civilizations in the game (Greek and Egyptian), you can go on many different quests, and even play in PvP and in co-op (more on this later). The game doesn't really feel restrictive to free accounts at all. So what do you get for purchasing a premium civilization, then? Access to special units, a higher tier of technology and the ability to equip and craft even the rarest of items. It basically gives you a few extra nudges here and there that will give your civilization small advantages in battle. If you want to be the king of PvP, you'll want these benefits, for sure; but for the casual player, or one who likes to play in co-op anyway (that sounds like you, dear reader!) it's not as essential.
Speaking of co-op, how exactly does it work? Many quests in the game can be completed cooperatively. This works in a couple of different ways. You can simply attempt to join a co-op quest via the random matchmaking feature, which may or may not work quickly, or you can invite a specific player to join you on a quest. I played co-op with Nick last night, and I was able to invite him with no issues even though he was far lower in level and was playing on a free account. The scenario was based on surviving for fiteen minutes, and with Nick's help, my town center was able to withstand the oncoming attackers. There were some downsides; Nick didn't get credit for completing the quest, nor any quest rewards, as he didn't have that quest to begin with. He did, however, get quite a lot of experience, more so than for a quest of his own level. I suppose it's set up this way to prevent power leveling shenanigans, and it's not a huge deal, but it is worth mentioning. Still, the co-op works quite nicely in Age of Empire Online, and its much better than simple comp-stomping, as is the case for co-op in most RTS games.
Besides missions that have the co-op option, premium players that download the Defense of Crete booster pack can play a Horde style survival mode. There's other co-op inherent content though - for instance users can initiate trades of items and goods between their capital cities.
If I had one complaint about Age of Empires Online, it would be the fact that it can be very difficult to keep on top of everything. There are so many subsystems to the game that it can be quite daunting, especially for those who are not harcore MMO or RTS junkies. There is a crafting system, a store for buying items, a store for purchasing premium content, and so on, and so forth. There's just a lot going on under the hood here, which is a good thing, but I sometimes felt lost as to figuring out what the best course of action was, or trying to judge the merits of a particular piece of gear or unit. But it's not a major issue, and to extend the car analogy, you can still have fun driving a car even without knowing anything at all about sparkplugs and fuel injectors. Similarly, you can play Age of Empires Online and really enjoy it without having an encyclopedic knowledge of tech trees or build orders.
I found Age of Empires Online to be quite good indeed. It's a solid combination of a tried and true RTS engine with a splash of intricate MMO elements, and it really comes together quite nicely. While hardcore PvP or power gamers will find the premium content necessary, the typical gamer will likely find the paid additions to be a luxury; I think this is really perfect for a free to play title. Though the co-op isn't perfect, it's far better than the typical comp-stomp fest of most RTS games, and the leveling and customization of your capital city will appeal to social gamers. Age of Empires Online just might be the best free to play game available today.