This review was originally written in August 2011.

It’s no longer revelatory to say there’s something insidious about free-to-play games. There’s no soylent green moment where you stumble out of your house to scream “They’re not free! They’re not free at all!” because everybody knows that by now; it’s summed up with typical perspicacity here. They’re ‘free’ in the same way that’s it’s ‘free’ to be an amputee – you have to pay for the prosthetics that make life bearable. And the most blatant example of this extortion is to be found in Age of Empires Online, an ostensibly free-to-play game that practically mugs you.

 

AoEO is (other than the chorus from Old McDonald Had A Farm sung by a dyslexic) a real-time strategy game where you develop a civilisation from scratch, guiding their technological development as they advance through the Ages and building their military might so those fucking Egyptians don’t try to build a Sphinx where your pharmacy used to be. This is accomplished by accepting missions from your capital city which then take place in instanced locations dotted around a world map. These levels set you specific challenges as varied as directing your peasants to collect enough resources to build x number of farmsteads, or crushing the bandit resistance in the mountains by training a big enough army. At its heart AoEO is a game about micro-managing: As the campaign progresses it isn’t unusual to have to simultaneously direct an assault on a rival city and build enough houses back home to increase your population size while also deciding whether to spend your finite gold reserves on trade or defences. It can get hectic and, as a man who has trouble micromanaging making a sandwich, when a crisis emerges it’s often a scramble to respond. However if you’ve played any of the previous Age of Empires games then you’ve played this one. Gameplay is almost identical to Age of Empires II, albeit with many minor niggles removed.

Where AoEO differs is in its campaign mode which is essentially a drop-down mission select menu with marginally more charm. Dotted around your capital city are individuals with enormous glowing exclamation marks above their head, which perhaps explains why they’re all outside. Following the World of Warcraft formula, it’s these punctuationally-challenged men and women who issue you your challenges. Completing them earns you XP which you then spend on upgrading your civilisation, unlocking units which will be available for subsequent missions. Since this civilisation is persistent it means choosing your upgrades has a touch of strategy about it – would faster trade vehicles be more use than stronger cavalry units? – although the option to respend points undermines this somewhat. The game is linked to Windows Live, too, so tracking your progress and finding other users to play with is as easy as anything can be when you factor in Other People, with their awful personalities and scents. Visuals are playfully exaggerated, with your infantry looking as though they’re hewn from granite and your archers loping along on willowy limbs. The animation of creating a new building is particularly good. It’s not Felicia Day-gorgeous, but it’s undeniably pretty. Factor in the competent gameplay and you’d probably conclude that AoEO is fun and slightly waggish. As a free game, it’s hard to criticise.

Except that it’s not free and, in fact, I’d dispute whether it’s a game at all.

In Dragon Age Origins, I decried that there was a glowing point on the map only accessible when you’d purchased DLC. After playing AoEO I realise how restrained that approach actually was. Since Dragon Age was a full retail game on one of those shiny circular what’sems and everything, there was an entire game that could be experienced without purchasing the extra content. AoE Online is a freemium game in the worst sense, in that it doesn’t just present the DLC as an option on a map; it shoves it in your mush like a porn star shoves his dick in the face of a man who doesn’t have one. There’s a mission very early on where an ally lends you – and the text is very clear that the loan is strictly temporary – a group of infantry with swords and shields. Since at that point your army is entirely comprised of hungry men with sticks the gulf between your emaciated stickmen and the Somatophylax you’ve been lent yawns like a chasm with its jaws wide open. A single one of them can decimate your opponents with ease. It’s at this point that Age of Empires leans over your shoulder, its hand on the nape of your neck. “Oooh”, it says, “look how good these guys are. If only you had some, eh?” Then it coughs pointedly and leans in close to your ear. “You could, you know,” it hisses, tightening its sweaty grip on your neck and in the corner of your vision you see its other palm open and ready to accept your cash.

From then on there isn’t a single mission that doesn’t dangle the choicest cuts of manmeat just out of your reach. Sometimes you’ll complete a level to find you can only claim your reward, even if it’s just planks of pine, if you buy a ‘premium civilisation’. At the time of writing, only two civilisations are available, the Greeks and the Egyptians, so this is essentially saying you can have some wood if you pay for the wood. It even advertises new modes as your game loads (and don’t you think Epic regret not trademarking the term ‘horde mode’). Obviously I understand why Gas Powered Games has done it this way; their business model relies upon providing the base template and convincing consumers to purchase additions to it. That, after all, is how every single game on Facebook does it. But the overt matter in which they appeal to their prospective customers by showing them what they could have if they eventually spend more than the cost of a retail game ruins the free template as well. You feel like there’s no point playing because at any moment your progress could be blocked by a toll booth. Since what little of the game is available is merely competent rather than spectacular, the sheer irritation of being taunted with types of incredible soldiers you don’t have is an anti-incentive to purchase any extra content at all.

Back in the days of yore (childhood), there used to be a name for things like Age of Empires Online. They were called ‘demos’, which was a fancy term for ‘advertisement’. And make no mistake, AoEO is an advertisement – for itself. It’s self-aggrandizing product placement to the extent of having a picture of a can of Coke on a can of Coke on a can of Coke on a can of Coke. Don’t let anybody tell you any differently; you certainly can’t ignore the fact as you toil through it. All that’s changed is how you purchase the full game. It’s this disingenuousness and dishonesty in presenting via advertisements a merely workaday demo as a member of even that bastard ‘free-to-play’ genre of game that really rankles; it thinks you’re a fool. It’s a skeleton in a fat suit. Don’t buy into its lies, and certainly don’t buy the thing itself.

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