I am not sure what percentage of the Lure-oh-sphere is aware of Robot Entertainment’s (i.e. the chunk of Ensemble who decided they wanted to stay partnered with MS and keep making RTS’s) upcoming release, as even I had only been peripherally following it until now. After coming across an intriuging sounding preview, I dug a little deeper and come bearing the fruits of my investigations.
Basically, AoEO (quite the acronym, that) is a slurry of all previous AoE games, with ample bits of MMO and social-network games mixed in. It reminds me a lot of some of the early concept pitches for Age of Empires 3, where players were going to have wide latitude to customize their own civilizations and interact in a persistent gameworld where everyone’s colonies were struggling for survival, a vision that the final product only partially realized (in my mind for the better, but I am far from the average consumer). Robot seems to have taken many of those ideas and mixed in AoM’s setting and simplicity and AoK’s mechanics along with a business model borrowed from free-to-play MMOs. The art-style leans heavily on that of the DS AoE games with bits from the underrated Swords and Soldiers seemingly stirred in, all unmistakenly rendered in the AoE3 engine.
From what I can tell, you start off with a Capital City, whose elements are persistent and level like an RPG, which in turn will birth various satellite encampments, through which the traditional RTS is played and experience garnered for the motherland, much like AoE3’s Home City. Unlike in AoE3, though, the Capital City does not seem to interact directly with its kin during the RTS section (as the Home City did with regular shipments). Instead, it seems players are tasked with building their preferred civilization piecemeal, with the decisions made in designing one’s capital city influencing what units, buildings, upgrades, and bonuses are available to the player during the actual RTS portions. Additionally, the Capital City seems much less static than the Home City, with the player capable of plotting its layout as well as erecting all manner of superficial accoutrements, which seem far more varied and robust than AoE3’s streetlamps and streetpeople.
Further,the multiplayer elements have expanded significantly. In addition to the traditional PvP games, Robot has developed a number of scenarios analogous to MMORPG raids crossed with the traditional RTS single player campaign where a single individual or group attempt to reach a specific objective to garner experience or loot to adorn your troops with. In addition, it seems the developers have greatly expanded the realm of player interactions outside of the RTS game. Instead of simply queuing for battle or typing “14” repeatedly into chatboxes until the host boots you, one can chat and trade loot/upgrades with other players or, as in Animal Crossing and its ilk, visit one another’s Capitals and gawk at their gilded baubles or some such. It is these elements that most interest me, having given up on the online RTS scene years ago (not that my presense made much of an impact), where one can still enjoy an RTS with friends without feeling the need to queue hours per day in random ranked matches or, even worse, train one’s skills/build orders.
This all, it should be added, is all free to play, which the miser in me finds even more attractive. Of course, the game is monetized by players engaging in a whole swathe of microtransactions, ranging from Premium Civilization packs, which contain new upgrades, items, and quests for your civilization of choice and will presumably be necessary for anyone hoping to compete PvP, to purely cosmetic additions to one’s Capital. I wonder how pricey these various upgrades will end up being, but they will likely be an even stronger disincentive to experimenting with different civilizations, in addtion to the extant persisent elements. Once you’ve put money into one civ, it seems foolhardy to go shopping around with the others.
All told, I am much more interested in the project than I was when it was first announced and look forward to seeing more as the release date (2011, unspecified) approaches.
Finally, because I know there are those who care: it seems priests have their AoE/AoK abilities (convert and heal), farms seem to work like AoM (individual but everlasting), the end game is like AoE3 (ubertechs for those who can afford them), army sizes from AoK/AoE3 (none of AoM’s 10 unit brawls), aging like AoM/AoE3 (can pick a specialization with each age), and villagers need to drop off resources (compared to AoE3’s instant accumulation). In my mind, probably the best assortment of the variable elements imaginable.