It’s like coming home after a long vacation.
A sense of familiarity, sure – but certain things have changed. The neighbours have built a new shed, the street has been renovated and while you were away your house got a new coat of paint.
The past few days I’ve been playing the Age of Empires IV Technical Stress Test. And my impressions of the first ‘new’ Age of Empires game to release in over 16 years?
The developers of Age of Empires IV are World’s Edge and Relic Entertainment. The former is a new studio within Microsoft established in 2018 overseeing the Age of Empires franchise. The latter is often seen as one of the last bastions of large strategy game studios. Relic Entertainment is owned by Sega and is mostly known for their Company of Heroes titles.
Creating a new game in a well established franchise isn’t an easy task. Xbox fans know this all too well regarding Halo. With Age of Empires this is no different, as just like first person shooters, real time strategy games have been around for quite some time. And this comes with expectations.
It’s very clear from the very first minutes when playing Age of Empires IV the goal was to create a balance. A balance between old and new, a balance between Age of Empires II and Age of Empires III. Back in the day – in 2005 – Ensemble Studios released Age of Empires III with a lot of new mechanics. Stacked unit productions, a card systems, smaller maps and armies, hero units and less macro heavy economies.
The reception to all these new mechanics was mixed to say the least, which created two separate fanbases within the Age of Empires community. Some players like the classic gameplay of Age of Empires II, which was a clear evolution of the first game, while others are a fan of the new gameplay elements added in the third instalment.
Relic is trying to strike a balance between these two types of fans. At first glance the game looks like a 3D version of the second game, with the same resource gathering element set in the same period of history – the middle ages. However, when delving into the game a little deeper it suddenly becomes apparent there is more to this than just an Age of Empires 2 sequel.
The civilizations are diverse, many quality of life improvements have been made and the armies are smaller than in Age of Empires 2. This creates a somewhat hybrid version of these two instalments, which will either please all fans or none, depending on the final execution of the product by Relic Entertainment.
This weekend I’ve been playing around twenty games, with all four civilizations in various formats. I’ve played against AI (on the intermediate and hard difficulty) and have played plenty of online multiplayer sessions, either with friends or on my own.
The most important thing; Age of Empires IV is a good real time strategy game. It’s fun to play and matches are engaging. There are plenty of things I’d love to see changed, but Age of Empires IV is fun to play. And it works well – my relatively old PC was able to run the game fine and the amount of bugs I’ve encountered during my playtime were very limited. In short, it’s a very polished product.
Overall it seems Relic has nailed the classic rock-paper-scissor mechanics which are important in real time strategy games. It’s clear which units counter which, a problem often attributed to Age of Empires 3 where this was less clear for non-experienced players. Cavalry deal extra damage to archers, pikemen do well against cavalry and so on. Probably one of the reasons why World’s Edge and Relic Entertainment have opted to go back to this medieval setting, as most players know how the rock-paper-scissor mechanic works in this time period.
It’s not all puppies and sunshine though. The user interface is a problem. While many participants in the Technical Stress Test weren’t a fan of the way the UI looks, my gripes with it were different. For example, the mini-map is a cluttered mess, which means it’s hard to read what’s happening in the game.
Another aspect of the user interface which needs work is some of the icons, especially those for upgrades, which are unclear and hard to distinguish. If you’re playing Chess on multiple boards – which is what playing a real time strategy game in multiplayer can feel like – there’s no time to read all the tooltips for the necessary upgrades.
Besides this there seems to be a delay between ordering a unit to perform an action and the unit actually performing the action. And the same applies to the chatroom, both outside and inside the game, where there can be a pretty long delay between typing a message and it appearing on screen.
The artstyle has been the hot topic regarding Age of Empires IV. I might be in the minority, but I love the way it looks. It’s like fighting a medieval battle in a pastel painting, as if I’m reliving history through the eyes of a painter. Obviously there are many aspects which need work, some textures aren’t amazing and it feels like every map you play is a little foggy due to the blur. Oh, and one thing that needs to happen – please, Relic – why aren’t the chickens in the town centres animated? I don’t think they had stuffed chickens hanging around the town hall back in the day…
Scaling a real time strategy game is very difficult. In a third person game it makes sense to have buildings with realistic sizes, where people can fit through doors, but in a strategy game this is different. Buildings are enormous, trees are very high and hills tend to be bigger than 10 metres in height. If everything was realistically scaled, we wouldn’t be able to see a thing on screen. So, this means developers have to make compromises in this, and I don’t really mind. I understand the need for realism in a historical strategy game, but the most important thing is that it plays well.
Speaking of realism. The sound design and music are incredibly well done so far. The way languages evolve over time, into their more modern versions is a lovely touch, meanwhile the soundtrack – as is expected of Age of Empires – adds a lot of atmosphere to the game. Yes, the sound design is the most impressive aspect so far.
Overall I’ve been impressed by the Age of Empires IV Technical Stress Test. I’m not sure if it will attract players from the older games, but looking at it without the burden of being a sequel it seems to be a very competent strategy game. And I’m looking forward to trying the entire experience, including the historic campaigns.
I hope they’ve changed the sound effect for the town centre by then.. because the DING DING DING sound is driving me insane.
Age of Empires IV is launching on October 28 on Steam, the Microsoft Store and Xbox Game Pass for PC.