Yes, yes, it’s been out for like 8 months, and nobody really cares about a review of an 8 month old game. OR DO THEY? This week Age of Empires Online was added to Steam, which in my books elevates it out of the dank mire of browser-based social video games, and into the realm of PC Master Race-approved gaming goodness. Does that mean that I’ll review FarmVille when it makes it onto Steam? Of course not, don’t be silly.

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So why should you care about Age of Empires Online? Well it’s free-to-play, and it’s in many ways a modern rebuild of the basic Age of Empires with a focus on being massively multiplayer. What’s not to like, right?

Don’t let the cartoony visuals fool you. Behind the array of over-exaggerated, primary coloured pixels lies a rather deep, complex and even “hardcore” combination of MMORPG and RTS gameplay. The levelling and crafting systems, along with the focus on gear will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played pretty much any MMORPG, ever. Then, the basic gameplay, which entails managing villagers,  building structures and amassing armies will resonate with veteran Age of Empires fans.

In many ways, this genre mash works very well. Your capital city serves a similar function to an MMORPG’s main character; it equips items which affect your combat capacity, and you can even decorate it to some extent – not that doing so makes any practical difference. Sadly, city layout bears little relation to the efficiency with which you accumulate resources, and it feels like Robot Entertainment missed a trick here.

Players engage in combat by taking on quests, which are obtained in cities. The quests are usually of the “build a base, amass an army, kill the other guy” variety, but there are also more interesting quests on offer, from camel racing to some which resemble a mini tower defence game.  You can invite other players to partake in quests cooperatively, which is a nice touch.

Completing quests rewards you with new gear and experience, both of which are used to customize your civilisation. This is one of Age of Empires Online’s strong points. Being able to tune your army to your liking and play with different strategies gives it welcome depth and makes for a wholly satisfying gameplay experience.

When the game launched there were reports of lacklustre AI, with poor basic pathfinding being a regular complaint.  This seems to have been fixed, and for the most part I was pretty happy with the way my units behaved. Having said that, the AI is nowhere near the likes of StarCraft II, but then Age of Empires Online is not trying to be a hardcore, refined, competitive strategy game.

One of the most promising aspects of Age of Empires Online is the PvP. Until now, there have been complaints of a lack of players, but with the game’s inclusion on Steam we can hope for a fresh influx of new blood. PvP games are fun, and the only gripe I currently have is that the outcome of most games is largely determined by which player has better gear. While this is core to the nature of the game, it’s something that should become less of a problem if and when more players get involved because it will be easier to find more evenly matched opponents.

Despite some flaws, I quite like Age of Empires Online, and I can easily see myself investing significant amounts of time in it. The mixture between RPG and RTS mechanics works well, and it’s more than just a little addictive if you give it a chance.

Just remember, while it masquerades as a free-to-play game, many of its best features are locked until you pay for the booster packs. So if anything, consider the free-to-play experience a very comprehensive demo.