Age of Empires Online is the latest version of Microsoft's classic real-time strategy game.
The core plot will be very familiar to most gamers. You start with a puny, single-city civilisation, all alone in a hostile world. But by careful management of resources, well-judged expansion, development of new technologies and the conquest of local competition, you'll eventually build an empire which will rule the world. (At least, that's the plan.)
There's no subscription, and the core features come for free: the main game, two of the best civilizations (the Greeks and Egyptians), and the ability to fight, chat or trade with other players in your online world.
To be really successful, though, you'll probably have to part with at least some cash in purchasing a few Premium Packs. These extend your empire with new units, buildings or technologies, giving you a valuable edge over your rivals. And Microsoft are also offering Booster Packs, which add additional game content: new game modes, special storylines and more.
Please note, it can take some time to get started. The setup file is very small, but this then downloads the core program, and a host of patches and assorted content, and the entire process took more than an hour even on an 8Mbps broadband connection. We then had a few problems launching the game; if that happens to you, the Age of Empires Online forum can probably help.
Once you are up and running, though, it's all fairly straightforward and a combination of the program manual and assistance from other players, if you need it, means your empire will soon begin to expand.
Age of Empires Online looks great, is generally easy to learn and offers plenty of multiplayer fun. Those who enhance their civilisation with Premium Packs will gain a valuable edge, though, and we're not yet sure how easy it will be for free players to compete.