The short answer is yes – you absolutely can start playing the legendary Age of Empires real-time strategy games without spending any money. As a longtime fan of the series myself, I‘m delighted to see Microsoft making the Age of Empires experience accessible to more players through free games, trials, and subscriptions.
Keep reading as I provide a deep dive on the specific ways you can get your Age of Empires fix gratis. I‘ll also give some tips to help you start strong as a new player in the addictive, competitive, and brain-burning worlds that Age of Empires creates. Trust me, once you‘re hooked, you‘ll soon be racing to build Wonders and conquer enemies faster than you can say "Wololo!"
An Introduction to the Age of Empires Phenomenon
First, let‘s rewind and talk about why Age of Empires is such a revered franchise in PC gaming.
Age of Empires first marched onto the scene in 1997 from developers Ensemble Studios. The first game let you lead legions across the ancient world, building cities and advancing your civilization from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
With its winning combination of history, strategy, and polished presentation, Age of Empires began securing its status as a real-time strategy classic. But things really took off with 1999‘s Age of Empires II and its iconic medieval warfare. Even today, AOE II remains one of the most popular and well-balanced RTS games ever designed.
Microsoft reports that across the entire Age of Empires catalog, more than 25 million copies have been sold to date. The series has spawned multiple spin-offs and expansions over its 25 year lifespan.
The most recent main entry, Age of Empires IV, sticks closely to the tried-and-true AOE formula. Released in October 2021, AOE IV has sold over 2 million copies and has a ‘Very Positive‘ Steam user score as of November 2022.
In summary, Age of Empires is right up there with StarCraft as one of the greatest real-time strategy series of all time. Its fun, accessible gameplay and vibrant communities have stood the test of time.
Now let‘s get to the good stuff: how you can jump into Age of Empires today without opening your wallet.
Diving Into Age of Empires Online – The Free-to-Play Option
While main series games like AOE II and IV carry a purchase price, your gateway to the world of Age of Empires for zero dollars is a spin-off titled Age of Empires Online.
Released in 2011, Age of Empires Online aimed to bring the series into the modern MMO landscape. It allowed you to pick from several civilizations and play cooperatively or competitively in persistent multiplayer realms.
As MMORPGs like World of Warcraft were dominating the gaming scene in the early 2010s, the idea of an online, multiplayer Age of Empires experience made sense on paper. However, Age of Empires Online never managed to reach the heights of popularity enjoyed by the core series.
Nonetheless, Age of Empires Online delivers the core strategic gameplay the franchise is loved for. It features PvP battles and quests set across a variety of scenic maps. You‘re able to advance your capital city and units through a sense of player progression inspired by RPGs.
In 2014, Microsoft ceased development and shut down the official servers. But good news emerged in 2018 when it was announced that the game would return from the grave as a free-to-play title on Steam.
Now available for anyone to play on Steam, Age of Empires Online provides a fun, casual way to engage with the franchise. As a veteran player myself, the nostalgia rush is real. Age of Empires Online sits at ‘Mostly Positive‘ reviews on Steam, showing that fans are enjoying the trip back in time.
While it doesn‘t have the depth of fully-fledged series entries, Age of Empires Online is worth checking out to get your first taste of the AOE experience if you don‘t want to commit money yet. Grouping up and working with allies is enjoyable, and being able to progress your own legacy through the online world will suck you in.
Testing the Waters During Free Weekend Events on Steam
If Age of Empires Online doesn‘t fully scratch your itch for medieval mayhem or colonial conquests, keep an eye out on Steam for temporary free access events to main series games.
Around major anniversaries and holidays, Microsoft has been known to open the gates and let PC gamers dive into the likes of Age of Empires II and III for free during limited-time periods.
For example, in late October 2022, Age of Empires II HD was made free on Steam in honor of the 25th anniversary of Age of Empires. The promotion ran from October 18-24 and gave players full, unlimited access to AOE II HD Edition.
Free Steam weekends like this give you the chance to try out Age of Empires risk-free. You can check if your PC hardware can run it smoothly and get a taste for the campaigns and multiplayer before laying down cash.
By jumping into a free trial event, you can gauge if you want to buy a full Age of Empires edition while waiting for the next discount. So be sure to wishlist Age of Empires games on Steam and keep tabs on announcements.
Playing Age of Empires II and IV via Xbox Game Pass
Without a doubt, the most cost-effective way to play the newest Age of Empires content is through the Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
An Xbox Game Pass membership grants you unlimited access to over 100 top-tier games for a monthly fee. This "Netflix of gaming" model means you avoid paying $59.99 per game. Better yet, Microsoft bundles its latest PC titles like Age of Empires into Game Pass on launch day.
Right now, Game Pass members can download and play full editions of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and the brand new Age of Empires IV.
The Definitive Editions provide significant visual upgrades and quality of life changes compared to the original Age of Empires II. We‘re talking 4K support, remastered audio, new zoom levels, and more. Additionally, Age of Empires IV captures the glory and mayhem of epic battles with up to 200 units clashing on screen.
Considering these games normally retail for $19.99 (AOE II DE) and $59.99 (AOE IV) individually, Game Pass provides tremendous value. You‘d recoup the $9.99 monthly Game Pass cost after buying just one full-price title.
Between its two latest entries being available for unlimited play, Xbox Game Pass is hands-down the best avenue for burgeoning Age of Empires fans. And via Xbox Cloud Gaming, AOE can now be played on smartphones and tablets too. So what are you waiting for? Grab a subscription and start practicing your jousting skills!
Starting Your Age of Empires Journey – Tips for New Players
Jumping into any long-running strategy game series can feel daunting at first. Trust me when I say that the fun and addictive gameplay loop make powering through the initial learning curve well worth it.
Here are some tips to get you started strong in the world of Age of Empires:
Pick Easy Mode First: Age of Empires takes skill to thrive in. Starting on the lowest difficulty settings lets you learn basics without punishing pressure. Work your way up from there.
Lean on Campaigns: The campaigns ease you in with gradually more complex scenarios. Play them to master economic, military, and technology basics. They tell great historical stories too!
Scout Your Surroundings: Fog of war hides enemy movements and resources. Build scout units and research map visibility techs early. Information wins games.
Balance Offense and Defense: Don‘t overinvest in military might before you have a sturdy economy and base defenses. Walls, towers, and troops protect from surprise attacks.
Keep Making Villagers: Villagers gather resources to advance your tech tree. Having 50-70 workers constantly producing is ideal. Idle villagers mean you‘re missing out on gains.
Stick with these fundamentals when getting started and you‘ll be on the fast track from fledgling player to pro. Study the tech trees, practice build orders, and learn from losses. The path to strategic dominance awaits!
Other Free Alternatives for Real-Time Strategy Fans
Maybe your PC hardware isn‘t quite up to spec to run Age of Empires titles smoothly. Not to worry – other quality real-time strategy games are out there for the taking at zero cost. They can help refine your skills so you‘ll be battle-ready once you upgrade your rig.
Here are some top free RTS games to play if your machine can‘t handle Age of Empires:
- 0 A.D. – Historical, open-source RTS similar to Age of Empires, set in ancient times.
- Cradle of Empires – Charming mobile RTS praised for gameplay depth and lack of paywalls.
- WarZone 2100 – Post-apocalyptic RTS with a focus on researching and developing hi-tech units.
- OpenRA – Remakes of classic Command and Conquer titles with multiplayer support.
While none can quite match the brilliance of Age of Empires end-to-end, these free alternatives are great for scratching your RTS itch. Their communities welcome new players with open arms.
Age of Empires has stood the test of time by offering some of the most finely crafted real-time strategy gameplay you‘ll find. Now in 2022, you have more options than ever to dive into the acclaimed series at no cost.
I hope I‘ve provided helpful information in this guide for newcomers to begin their Age of Empires journey:
- Age of Empires Online delivers casual, free online RTS fun.
- Free Steam weekend promos allow trial runs of main editions.
- Xbox Game Pass grants access to premium titles like AOE IV.
- Easy modes, campaigns, and wise early moves set you up for success.
- Similar free games work as substitutes if your PC is underpowered.
Few games can get your blood pumping like the thrill of gathering resources, amassing armies, and conquering your enemies before they can turn the tables. The vibrant Age of Empires community awaits you. See you on the battlefield, friend!