Age of Empires Online Closed Beta Preview;

Age of Empires is a household name. It wasn't the first RTS to grace the gaming globe, but it wasn't far behind the pack, and it was the first to show us that military combat was only one piece of the puzzle. Economics, politics, commerce and the ability to advance to a new age allowing access to previously unattainable technology; these are trademarks of the Age of Empires legacy, a legacy that began in 1997, and has since spawned more than a dozen sequels and spin-off titles selling hundreds of millions of copies around the world. It was really only a matter of time before you could play it for free.

Yes, the next chapter in the epic Age of Empires saga is none other than Age of Empires Online, a Free-to-Play MMORTS like no other before (read: this one's actually good), that blends the very best of the RTS with the progressive, persistent-world nature of the MMORPG. Brace yourselves; this one's something else.

At first glance Age of Empires Online looks a lot like a regular game of Age of Empires. Sure, it's been given a new, cartoon graphical style and would probably run at full specs on a Commodore 64, but in terms of gameplay not a lot has changed. At first glance.

You begin by creating a city, which is really as simple as naming it and clicking play, and then by beginning a tutorial that will show you your town and teach you how to use it. There's a Palace and a shop or two, but nothing 'out of the ordinary', and nothing you won't have seen before. Then you'll accept your first quest.

What's a quest? Oh, right, you're playing an RTS. They don't traditionally have quests, do they? Well, they do now. Real ones, too. Not that browser crap that asks you to click on a window and wait 15 minutes; these quests are actually missions designed around the original Age of Empires single-player campaign. Build a base, train some troops, save the villagers, defend the town, destroy the stables. It's similar, addictive and awesome to the core.

Once you've completed a few quests you'll be given blueprints that allow you to build new buildings in your city. Now, it's important to note that your city is not your base. Each time you embark on a quest and enter 'single-player mode' you'll build a base from scratch and play out the mission like a normal RTS. But once the quest is complete, you return to your city, and a wealth of new options become available.

New buildings are only the tip of the iceberg, but they're more than worth a mention. The blueprints you receive from quests or buy in stores are used to build all types of buildings; some allow you to buy new items or craft new equipment for your troops, others allow you to compete in 1v1 and 2v2 Player vs. Player (PvP) matches or gather resources over time (even while you're offline).

And so, the 'MMO' rears its ugly head once more, and the addictive nature of Age of Empires Online becomes clear. This is your city. It's one of thousands of player created cities, all contained in separate instances, each visitable at your leisure. I haven't found a practical use for visiting other player cities just yet; I know that you can purchase things from their stores giving you a head-up on your construction or gear if needed, but as yet I've found no way to wage war on other player cities, or join alliances of any kind. A future addition perhaps? Perhaps. Or maybe I haven't levelled enough for that yet. I'll be sure to come back to it in the Full Review on release.

So by now you're probably wondering about the RPG element of this hybrid-MMO. So far it's been a mostly single-player, traditional RTS. And that would be enough. It is free, after all. But Age of Empires Online is so much more. Like an MMORPG, your city has a level; killing enemy units and buildings, completing quests and competing in PvP earns you experience points that will increase your level. When you reach a new level you'll be give 3 points to spend at your city's Palace, which looks a lot like a talent tree from an MMORPG title.

In short, when you increase in level you'll be given the option to advance your city in the direction of your choosing; you could increase the damage of your ranged units, add naval units to your arsenal, learn new ways to gather resources at a faster rate or learn to construct new building and units altogether. There are plenty of options allowing you to create your own play style. Just like an MMORPG.

Then there's crafting new items and equipment, building new shops, learning professions and gathering resources in real-time to further advance your city. There're even co-operative quests that can be completed with friends, daily quests that can be repeated to earn extra gold, and a currently inactive cash-shop. Even the quests take an MMORPG form in some instances; for example, in each mission various treasures are hidden and guarded by enemies. Using your scout to find them, and your army to defeat the guards will reward you with a treasure chest that contains a random assortment of goods ranging from simple materials to crafting recipes and new equipment for your buildings and troops.

And the list goes on. I haven't even begun to talk about the unit and building types available during missions, or the one-time-use items that grant various bonuses during battle. There's far too much going on in Age of Empires Online for me to discuss here today; you'll need to play it for yourself to get the real experience. Or failing that, hold tight for my Full Review on release here at Either way, this one's a keeper. In fact, I'm going to play a little more right now. I just unlocked my Advisor's Hall by completing a Tower Defence style quest, and I'm dying to find out what it does.

Cody Hargreaves