|Dev: Gas Powered Games|
|Pub: Microsoft Game Studios|
|Release: August 16, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p||Mild Violence|
Of course, when it comes to a free game with "optional" pay features, everyone wants to know how hard it will be to actually play it for free. The game's PR team promises 40 hours of content for non-paying users, as well as non-ranked multiplayer matches, which of course makes it a steal. However, a Horde mode update costs $10, a pack of city decorations costs $5, and civilization packs cost $20. (These are called "macrotransactions"—rather than nickle-and-diming you to death, Microsoft plans to earn a single, large investment from you.) The civilization packs confer a lot of advantages that serious players will want, such as access to the best gear and advisers, the full tech trees, the ability to play ranked matches, and various other perks. If you plan to play Age of Empires Online obsessively for six months, you can buy a "Season Pass" for $100; this gives you access to all the content, but only for half a year.
So, to answer the question, you can play Age of Empires Online for a long time without paying, but if you really like it—or if you want to play PvP matches with any seriousness—you'll feel compelled to spend maybe $20 to $50. That seems fair to me, given that they're offering polished gameplay, continuous support, and server access with no subscription fee.
A quick word on presentation. The graphics here are fairly simple, but they're brightly colored and, if anything, a little cartoonish. This will be off-putting to some longtime Age of Empires fans, but it gives the whole affair a sunny look that's hard not to like. In addition, the music and sound effects do a good job of capturing the bustle of a city, though the battlefield noises aren't particularly visceral.
Bottom line: If you like RTS games, give Age of Empires a try. The free content is extensive, and if you don't like it, you can always quit without spending a dime. My guess, however, is that most of the series' devotees will decide it works quite well as an online MMO.
CCC Contributing Writer