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August 24, 2011

Age of Empires Online review – Part 3 – Art & Design

Part 3 of the Remember ES Age of Empires Online review looks at the art style of AOE-O and other aspects like the UI design. Firstly, it is important to note that the engine behind Age of Empires Online is the same engine we have been used to for the last few iterations of Age. AOE-O uses the Bang! engine first introduced with Age of Mythology, the first Age game to utilise modern 3D graphics, moving away from the 2D bitmaps used in Age 2. Age 3 demonstrated just how excellent the Bang engine can be at generating realistic graphics (remember the water!). The Bang engine was used perfectly to produce the stunning realistic art style of Age 3. AOE-O uses the same engine but does things a little differently, instead of using a realistic art style like Age 3 we now have a more “cartoony” style with AOE-O.

The cartoony art style probably wasn’t something that fans would predict the next Age came would take shape as. Perhaps something akin to how The Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker was first received with its cell shaded art style compared to previous more realistic titles. In the case of AOE-O (and the Wind Waker) cartoony art style does not equal bad game, what it does equal is a bright and colourful atmosphere which is perhaps more aesthetically pleasing to play. Appealing, colourful and inviting graphics might also help attract newer players to the franchise. Robot Entertainment, whos bots came up with the art direction posted a blog last year indicating some of the reasoning behind this more unique art style. Here are some of the things they were looking to do for AOE-O:

  1. Create a timeless, bright, and visually appealing game that can technically run on a wide range of PCs, and still look good for years to come.
  2. Create a bold and more graphic look with a lot of character. That means a lot of different things.
  • Make the terrain vivid, but less ‘noisy’ so the buildings and units ‘pop’, and are easily identifiable.
  • Explore exaggerated and unique silhouettes to create a large variety of units and buildings. This helps give even inanimate objects more character and appeal.
  • Use animations, in addition to the units’ unique proportions, to better differentiate and emphasize roles and classes
  • Give the world and its inhabitants character and ‘life’, creating a digital terrarium for the player to control
  • Less obstructive user interface and a more ‘graphic look’ to our iconography
When looking at the objectives above versus the final product it looks like Robot Entertainment achieved their goals very well. The art style is visually appealing with a whole bunch of unique character. Personally, I like it. One of the most useful benefits to this style is that it greatly helps keep the system requirements down to a very reasonable level, this means that more people on more PC’s will be able to run AOE-O at decent frame rates. In my experience, if you can run Age 3 you’ll be able to run AOE-O too.
The user interface is far improved from Age 3. Gone is the huge interface at the bottom of screen, AOE-O is far more slimline in the UI department which looks much, much better. The slim down UI allows players to see more on the screen at a time without things hiding behind bulky menu space.
Age 3


Demonstrating the improvements with minimised UI in AOE-O compared to Age 3.
Animations are smooth and the Havok engine is once again used for the physics effects, whilst not as realistic as Age 3, the physics effects remain visually pleasing.
Overall I am very pleased with the art direction with AOE-O, even if being a little sceptical at first, its something you’ll grow to love. Artists at Robot Entertainment has succeeded in creating a visually pleasing Age game, with a simplistic approachable UI, a big step forward for the series.
Those interested in further reading about the art style for AOE-O should definitely check out Robot Entertainment’s blog “The vision behind Age of Empires Online”

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