Age of Empires IV game review — It's good to be the king

It sure doesn’t feel like it, but 16 years have passed since the last in the Age of Empires series was released. The very first game, quietly launched in 1997 (when Microsoft was a far less assured publisher), was like a gale of fresh air in a genre that had become stale and bloated with copies and clones. Set during classical antiquity, it was soon followed-up in 1999 with a Medieval-themed sequel. Then, after a detour into the Age of Mythology, Age of Empires III advanced the series through the Renaissance period and into the age of colonialism, leaving players at the dawn of the industrial revolution.   

As you’ve probably gathered, Age of Empires IV does not cross the rubicon into the era of guns, germs, and steel. Instead, it returns to the battlefields of the most acclaimed and popular in the series, The Age of Kings. In that sense, Age of Empires IV feels more like a remake than a sequel, which is precisely why it doesn’t seem like 16 years have been and gone. After 2013’s HD and 2019’s Definitive edition of AoE 2, Age of Empires VI could easily pass muster as Age of Empires II 4.0.

Advancing an Age

Actually, that’s a little unfair. While successive versions of Age of Empire II have prettied up the sprite-based graphics of the 1999 game, increased the resolution, and piled on more civilizations and campaigns, you don’t have to excavate too deeply to find evidence of the original game beneath. Conversely, Age of Empires IV is a complete rebuild rather than a refit. The streets look and feel familiar, but the building materials are weirdly pristine, with a modern infrastructure beneath the furrows and faux-cobblestones to facilitate seamless multiplayer and persistent character progression. 

For those that missed the golden era of Age of Empires (before the words ‘age’ and ‘empires’ became despairingly synonymous with ‘clash’ and ‘clans’), the games were celebrated for taking the then-ubiquitous real-time strategy formula popularised by the likes of Command & Conquer and Warcraft, and layering them with the ability to move through different historical eras in a manner reminiscent of Civilization. Rather than a single resource to collect (tiberium, say), you had four (food, wood, stone and gold), and when you had enough of each and the right collection of buildings, you could essentially level up your civ. As such, you were forever locked in a race to collect the most resources, to manage your population and ambition, to stay ahead in the arms race, and to have an army of a suitable size and/or quality to be able to defend your territory and expand across the map. Predating Total War and Crusader Kings, it was in many ways the first truly epic real-time strategy game.

Resources, walls and regiments

While Age of Empires IV plays almost identically to its predecessors, there are subtle differences that help it stand out. You start, of course, by creating and sending out villagers to secure food, either by herding sheep, picking berries, or hunting deer. More food means supporting more villagers, which means having more folk to chop wood, quarry stone, farm, and mine gold. Before long, you have the beginnings of a burgeoning local economy and it’s time to create a defensive force to fight back against wandering enemy scouts and warbands. By the time you have a modest collection of spearmen, swordsmen, archers and cavalry (if you’re like me, all bound to a single hotkey), you will have a network of watchtowers, a few stretches of palisade, and will be considering in which direction to direct research and/or advance to the next era to give your troops a much needed edge.  

So far, so Age of Empires. Where IV feels different is by way of nods to the games that succeeded in building upon AoE’s failings; namely Cossacks, which featured significantly bigger and more regimented battles, and the early Stronghold games, which offered a vastly more enjoyable castle siege experience. In Age of Empires IV, troops organize themselves into ranks that are more convenient and effective than in games past. If you’re an RTS veteran that likes to memorize every keyboard shortcut and have units assigned to very specific control-key combinations, you can of course go hog roast wild. Meanwhile, newcomers that might have gotten used to more automated combat, can select and direct troops en masse with the confidence that each unit type will prioritise targets with some degree of competence.

Siege and sea battles

While the odd villager assigned construction detail can get trapped in the map furniture, building a stone fortification is a simple affair that requires dragging the cursor across where you want a wall to appear. Repairing walls is much the same, and adding turrets and gates is simply a matter of adding to rather than making space for them at the outset. Troops that you order to take up a position on a battlement will do so directly and without the fuss and frustration of either walking to their doom on the way there, or falling off the wall when they get into position, all of which makes siege battles – whether in defence or attack – one of the game’s triumphs. Plus,  the maps are plenty big enough to support not just extensive stoneworlds, but a soft civil infrastructure within. 

Like the fundamentals elsewhere, sea units and battles are curiously unchanged from earlier games. I say curiously because collecting resources from the sea and directing ships to attack other ships never really felt distinct from land battles in Age of Empires, and was perhaps one area of the game that would have benefitted from a more extensive evolution. Fishing boats, trade cog, war galleys, and caravels all spin and flip about like toys trapped in a draining bath, but at least they do so smoothly, which was never a quality you could apply to Age of Empires of old.

Units and civilisations 

Despite the reduced number of medieval civilizations in AoE IV compared to the last Age of Empires release – eight compared to AoE II Definitive Edition’s overwhelming 39, there’s clearly been a big effort to distinguish them from one another. It’s no mean feat that the developer has largely succeeded in that regard, especially when you consider that most RTS creators struggle to balance three warring factions. The differences between them extend far beyond the cosmetic, too, as you would expect, with variety not just between units, upgrades and buildings, but in eras as well. Then there are the units that one civilization will excel in, not just the English longbow, for example, but the even more historically significant ability for English villagers to pick up a bow and join in a fight. 

Then there are the fundamental aspects to a civilization that allow them to stand out. The aforementioned English can build and sustain an early game advantage, thanks to farming  bonuses and having solid infantry units across the board. Meanwhile the Chinese have a massive construction advantage, that allows them to erect pretty much all buildings quicker and more cheaply than anyone else. For someone who tends to favor factions that excel at turtling tactics (Rus and Holy Roman Empire being the standouts in that regard), it was a surprise to find myself enjoying the Mongols, which are nomadic and highly mobile; able to repackage buildings, and amass resources from plunder. The point is, while the roster of tribes is comparatively slight for an Age of Empire game, it is still broader than most games of its type.

Campaigns, quests, and multiplayer

The bulk of Age of Empires IV single player consists of four campaigns, The Normans, The Hundred Years War, The Mongol Empire and The Rise of Moscow. Unlike previous games, which tended to focus on a single historical character that it was easy to tire of, here each campaign takes a broad sweep through history, meandering through royal family trees over the course of 200 years or so, with each battle bookended by video sequences that could probably be stitched together to form a History Channel documentary. With additional snippets of video to unlock, this is where Age of Empire IV manages to feel distinct and more accessible than any game in the series before. Add to it a layer of contemporaneous progression, which hands out XP for completing campaign missions and daily quests, unlocking banners and the like along the way, and you have a thoroughly modern RTS.

For Skirmish battles, there are six preset battles, or you can set up your own parameters using any of the eight civs across 17 maps. There’s also a bunch of “Art of War” standalone missions, which are effectively tutorial challenges, each tasking you to complete a simple task within a time limit. They’re not going to seal the deal, but it’s a fun distraction all the same. As for the multiplayer side of things, there are 1v1 encounters all the way to 8v8 team battles, as well as free-for-all and co-op PvE. Not a bad selection, especially as it’s sure to be expanded as DLC and the inevitable Season Pass is rolled out.

In conclusion

Age of Empires IV has been a long time coming, and while we would have liked to have seen something other than an AoE II remake (either an evolution of the genre, or a new setting), what we’ve ended up with is hard not to wring a great deal of enjoyment from. Relic has stripped away the abundance of civilizations and dreary campaigns that weighed down the 2019 release, and created a more focused game that anyone curious about what made the genre great should appreciate. Relic has only taken a few tentative steps forward in terms of advancing the genre – improving and expanding the series’ siege battles – but there’s enough to have made the journey worthwhile.

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