Reviewed on PC
It has been 16 years. But now the time has come for the Age of Empires to return. The emperor is back in full glory, well.. to a certain degree. Many fans of the genre have been clamoring for the return of this series to the pedigree it had back in the late ’90s and early ’00s. While I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen again, we can take a look at what’s in front of us right now.
Age of Empires IV was announced back in 2017 at Gamescom during a special Age of Empires event. It was the starting point for Microsoft to show the world they were ready for another round. One of the largest strategy game IPs was back, with full support from Microsoft.
Years have passed since and we’ve seen three remasters show up on the scene. Microsoft wasn’t fooling around when they reignited their love for the franchise. And the public has embraced the return of these games, especially regarding the lovechild of the franchise; Age of Empires II. Indeed, it’s the second installment in the series that has kept Age of Empires at the forefront of PC gaming. The HD remaster was fairly popular on Steam and the Definitive Edition is doing impressively well on Valve’s platform these days.
This was probably a reason for World’s Edge and Relic, the developers of the new fourth game in the series, to look at what made that one so beloved. And while some people may claim Age of Empires IV is akin to a modern version of the second game, I’d say the developers have taken learnings from a variety of sources, such as Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and Age of Empires III. So, let’s dive into Age of Empires IV.
Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, spock?
A good real-time strategy game starts with good rock, paper, and scissor mechanics. This mechanic needs to be interesting for new and skilled players alike; not too on the nose, but also not too difficult. The medieval times in which the Age of Empires IV is set lends itself perfectly to these kinds of mechanics. A spearman is a great counter to a knight, a knight is a great counter against longbowmen and archers do very well against spearmen – easy-to-understand concepts which create the basic foundation of the game. There is more to it than that as Age of Empires IV has a wide range of units, upgrades, and situations at play. Regardless, this core mechanic ensures Age of Empires games are relatively easy to pick up and be competitive in.
Overall I’ve been impressed with the gameplay in Age of Empires IV. I’ve played over 30 hours in the beta and tech tests and put in another good amount of hours in the skirmish modes during this review. The game is fun to play and has an abundance of different playstyles which can appeal to different types of players. Like turtling and waiting for your enemy to appear? Play as the English and build formidable castles. Prefer a hit ‘n run tactic slowly crippling your enemies’ economy? Play as the Mongols.
Relic and World’s Edge have created a wide variety of playstyles depending on the civilization you choose. This means no game is the same and you’ll have to adjust your tactics based on the enemy you are facing. If you play against the Abbasid Dynasty you better be prepared that your cavalry will be outclassed by camels.
So, while the game doesn’t revolutionize the genre, it has brought together some of the best elements from various titles, without losing that trademark Age of Empires style.
One of the complaints of the first two games in the series was the lack of diversity in civilizations. Or rather, the commonality between the range of civilizations available. In Age of Empires IV, you’ll be able to play as eight different civilizations. The English, the French, the Rus, the Mongols, the Chinese, the Abbasid Dynasty, the Delhi Sultanate, and the Holy Roman Empire.
Each of these civilizations plays differently and has some very unique aspects to them. The Abbasid Dynasty can’t hunt boars, as they’re haram. The Mongols can move their entire base around like a nomad faction, the Holy Roman Empire use their faith to improve their production, and the Chinese play around with fireworks. The asymmetric nature of all these factions is an improvement in more than just gameplay, it also improves the depiction of these ancient empires and makes them more historically accurate, improving the overall immersion.
During the campaigns, you’ll notice the difference in approach between the different civilizations, which leads us to…
Many people now in their 30’s or 40’s will think of the Age of Empires as history lessons. I’m fairly certain most people outside of France who know about Jeanne d’Arc have played the Age of Empires II missions featuring her path through history. The series offers players a fun way to discover, or rediscover history. Age of Empires IV is no different and even takes it to the next level.
Age of Empires IV includes four campaigns. You can play as the English, the Rus, the Mongols, and the French. Every player has to play the English campaign before they can advance to the other three. Which in my opinion is a pity, as for me the English campaign was the least engaging of the bunch. I was most captivated by the Moscovian campaign, which was beautifully narrated and illustrated, in stark contrast to the story of the well-known Norman invasion of England. The Moscovian campaign was a story I hadn’t experienced before. Learning about Dmitry Donskoy and his opposition to the Golden Horde through a video game is one of these things which Age of Empires is known for and part of what made the franchise so beloved.
In the past, we’ve seen real-time strategy games take a more character-based approach to campaigns, where one person was central to the story, which happened in games such as Starcraft II and Age of Empires III to a certain extent. This is more difficult with the stories the developers are trying to tell in this game, but, even so, Relic has introduced hero units to the game with some special abilities. Just don’t expect a story with cutscenes revolving around a singular character.
The new campaigns don’t always work, as some cutscenes look a bit cheap on occasion. But when they do get it right you get pulled right into an immersive history lesson. And to be honest, I didn’t expect to learn about Ivan the third and his battle against the Republic of Novgorod when I started this journey. But I’m very glad I did.
Empire VS Empire
The multiplayer for Age of Empires is where the magic happens for many players. It’s where empire goes up against empire, where sheep are lured most zealously, and having an idle is a sin. Sadly enough, there is no ranked play at launch yet. This means you’ll be able to play against other players, but it’ll remain a mystery how good you truly are. Ranked play is supposed to come to the game post-launch.
Other than that omission, the multiplayer works just fine, with matchmaking times being a little slow at times, but as I’ve been playing pre-release, that’s to be expected. One aspect which should have made a comeback in Age of Empires IV is the co-op campaign introduced in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition, which is missing here. Luckily you’ll be able to play against the AI with your friends. Overall the gameplay variety is good enough to make sure there is plenty of fun to be had with the multiplayer in Age of Empires IV.
Shall we talk about that artstyle?
You may have been wondering.. when is the graphical artstyle of Age of Empires IV going to be mentioned? It’s been a hot topic in the Age of Empires community for years after the game was first shown back in 2019. Some people hate it, some people like it.
I’m a little torn. I love the style they’ve chosen, in our Tech Test impression I described it thusly:
It’s like fighting a medieval battle in a pastel painting, as if I’m reliving history through the eyes of a painter.
And I stand by that. It’s a beautifully crafted game with colourful cities and castles and a welcoming feel. But, I still believe there are a lot of things that need to be better. The animation work has been improved since we’ve first seen the game in action, but towns should have more animations to them – the chickens in the town hall are still not animated. Meanwhile, some textures are still rough here and there and the ever-existing fogginess of the game is a shame. And sadly, I’ve encountered some visual bugs, especially with the trees changing shapes when scrolling or moving. These are arguably minor nit-picks and overall on a technical level, it’s a very polished product.
What has been fixed though (thank god) is the irritating bell sound that did occur during the tech test. This leads us to the sound and music design of Age of Empires IV, and I can only wax lyrical about it. The sound design is beautiful and the best I’ve ever experienced in a real-time strategy game. The screaming when enemies appear, the buzz in towns, and the evolution of languages as you advance through the ages is a very nice touch. Meanwhile, the music complements it all very well, in a beautiful soundtrack as we’ve come to expect from an Age of Empires title.
Welcome to a New Age
This has been a difficult game to review. Sometimes you have those games appear where the legacy is putting a heavy pressure – or burden – on a certain title (We’ll see you in December Halo Infinite). Age of Empires has a lot to prove, often seen as the last grace of the real-time strategy genre. First of all, I have to say, I enjoyed my time with Age of Empires IV. It is a well-executed strategy game made by developers who have put their hearts and souls into it. It is one of the best strategy games I’ve ever played in my life.
But – it’s not revolutionizing the genre or setting a new standard in design. It has taken the best aspects of various games, creating a well-rounded package, with love and care of the stories being told and the civilizations and historical sagas being represented. Is it going to instigate new dawn for the classical real-time strategy game? Very doubtful. Is it going to be an amazing experience for fans of the genre? Absolutely.
A code was supplied to us by Microsoft for review purposes.
|Reviewed on||Windows PC|
|Available on||Windows PC|
|Release Date||October 28th, 2021|
|Developer||Relic Entertainment, World’s Edge|
|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|