Age of Empires IV Preview – The King Is Dead! Long Live The King!

Trail back the latest posts in this website that mention Age of Empires IV and it won’t come as a surprise that it had a rough ride. The deplorable, mobile looking graphics that were paired up with lackluster gameplay clips did a tremendous disservice to accurately showcase what the game really like. The trailers spread the idea around that this new entry in the seminal franchise of the genre was going to be another soulless, “dumbed down”, “wider audience appealing” product that barely recognise the tenets that made AoE II so great. After spending my past weekend getting my hands on the Technical Stress Test, it’s with absolute pleasure that I can confidently say: Age of Empires IV is shaping up to be a fantastic game. Nevertheless, It still baffles the mind that Microsoft and Relic have a marketing department whose air conditioning temperature is higher than the average IQ in that team. Rant’s out of the way, let’s get into it.

It’s not an unpopular opinion go state that most of us would rather have a very good, even if iterative game than an innovative stinker. What surprised me the most is how Age of Empires IV plays much like Age of Empires II, the best entry in the series to date. The unit control is tight and responsive (unlike the floaty units of Age of Empires III or, most recently, Iron Harvest), with pixel villagers and man-at-arms responding in a snapping and assertive manner to the orders given. First, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: The artstyle. It is waaaay more grounded in reality and detail ridden than what the first trailers showed. Age of Empires II did a lot of things perfectly, but more than anything else it nailed a distinct art direction with buildings and units crafted with exquisite detail, something that wasn’t unheard of for an isometric 2D game.

This is a Definitive Edition screenshot but the point still stands

This fourth entry does a phenomenal job of recreating period and culturally authentic buildings. The new 3D models are all high resolution and detail ridden, even for the most basic of houses. Better yet, Age of Empires IV doesn’t shy away from peppering the map with small, but visually impactful details.

By building edifices roads sprout in-between buildings organically, houses sometimes generate farms and enclosures that add a lot of flavour to towns and fortresses players will find themselves building. Have in mind that these roads and farms don’t impact the gameplay and are merely eye candy. It lends age of empires IV graphics a layer of authenticity akin to the one found in AoE II two decades prior.

Those gardens and those dirt roads look so perfect

Less appealing are the unit models. For some reason, the logic of which keeps eluding me, 3D RTS units have a terrible tendency of trying to look like they came out of Empire Earth or Stronghold 2. It’s not that they look necessarily bad but that they look kind of flat, lacking the kind of small details found in the buildings and the terrain. It’s especially egregious when the terrain is as detailed as in AoE IV, so the units look a tad out of place. In the developers defense, they often said- in previous interviews- that they’re going for readability first and it’s hard to fault them in that department. Units are distinct at a glance, their bright and colourful presence has them stand out against those deliciously detail-packed backgrounds. In the end, this is going to come down to user preference. As I’m not a competitive RTS player and I have not intentions of climbing the ranked ladder when Age of Empires IV. If anything, I’m going to go slap the AI around in co-op when AoE IV finally hits the shelves later this year. In this department I would rather have more eye candy, but opinions differ and in my very own, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is still better looking than this recent number four.

Units Standing Out

Now, the dust and the smoke effects: there’s got to be some reasoning behind this that’s also eluding me. It’s either that or someone at Microsoft/Relic is really infatuated with dust. Everything in this game seems to generate dust and it just ends up looking absurd. I can rationalize that an entire army moving at once might shape up the ground quite a bit. Hand cannoneers firing and polluting the air with recently burned powder? Sure. But things like arrows hitting units also generates a significant amount of dust with wooden splinters breaking out, that’s not how arrows are supposed to work! Units moving also stirs the ground quite a lot, even when it shouldn’t, like snow or a green pasture. It’s just so weird and out of place, but to be honest, that’s more nitpicking than a real concern as it’s not overwhelming to the point of ruining the clarity of perception, but it’s still there. There’s still some work to do in the animations department (mainly the archers, those arrow trajectories aren’t quite there just yet). I’m sure Relic knows this already, having addressed similar complaints in the past (such as the absurdly large arrows in the trailers having been replaced by smaller ones in the Technical Stress Test). Oh, and this game doesn’t have blood! Remember how in Age of Empires II units would fall after a fatal blow, bleed out and progressively turn into skeletons and slowly being covered by the unforgiving mixture of the elements and time? Here the bodies just disappear, Harry Potter style. I honestly hope this is just optional and that there’s going to be an option to allows bodies to stay for longer and units to bleed. Otherwise battles end up looking like toy soldiers tumbling down when hit and being swiftly puffed out of existence. It’s a great thing being able to look at a battlefield and enjoy the sight of a defeated foe, but for that to happen, there’s got to be one.

Again

To round the topic off, the zoom level appears to be a contentious point within the community, with players pleading the developing team to allow for more zooming out options and the later refusing to budge- going as far as saying that some might think they want that when in fact they really don’t. Kind of a weird thing to say to your customers but hey, here we are.

What truly surprised me in Age of Empires IV is how similar it is to Age of Empires II, almost to the point of it feeling like a natural evolution of the series if Age of Empires III never came out in the first place and Age of Empires IV came out instead, don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. Now, at first glance, Relic didn’t seem like the perfect carrier for the AoE torch but it appears that failure is the greatest of teachers. Having been on a downhill since they failed their reboot of Dawn of War III, it was now or never to right their ways as one of the best RTS developers out there. With those recent failures in mind, it’s better to play with your cards closer and avoid any unnecessary risks. Now, ally that perception with the desire of Age of Empires fans to see a return to form from their favourite entry in the series and it all seems like an easy recipe for success.

What was done here is as brilliant as unexpected if you’ve been following Relic’s latests blunders. A company known to continuously trying to spin new mechanics and small twists into games that don’t really need them. Dawn of War 1 was a great RTS, Dawn of War 2 was half RTS and half RPG, and Dawn of War 3 was a stinking turd. Company of Heroes and it’s expansions were the best WW2 arcade experience at the time and Company of Heroes 2 thought it was a good idea to ride on the backpack of russian wartime myths, being borderline offensive- the only thing missing was bear paratroopers and leather-wearing, vodka-chugging femme fatales.

Notice the different tower from the screenshot above

With AoE IV those spins and twists are here but without resorting to the obliteration of the basis of what made AoE II so memorable. The biggest change is the ageing-up mechanic. Instead of clicking on the menu and passively waiting for bar to finish loading a new era (Feudal, Castle and Imperial), players are now faced with gaming changing questions right from the get go, by being forced to choose between two unique buildings (called “Landmarks”) for every new era they go through. These buildings provide a bit of everything, from simple stats bonus, unique units, defensive capabilities and everything in between. Most interestingly, instead of having to wait for a set number of seconds before moving up the in-game calendar, players can decide to use more than one villager to build the era-changing edifice faster. The functionality of these buildings and their architecture is unique to each of the game’s civilization. This is a perfectly good example of having players spinning another plate that makes gameplay more interesting and more involved without totally gutting a previously established mechanic. For those graphical fannatics reading this you’ll be pleased to know that yes, the buildings appearance will also change as you move through the space-time continuum.

From the looks of it, the differences between civilizations won’t extend only to a unique unit, wonder and landmarks, but also towards other areas of the game. The video below, by youtuber Aussie_Drongo breaks down the Rus Civilization unique features: getting gold for each animal killed, warrior monks, palisade walls and some of their landmarks.

There’s also a new ambush mechanic, a little novelty seldom seen elsewhere. The ability to hide units in forests and having them strike seemingly out of nowhere could prove itself useful and keep players on their feet even when traversing superficially inofensive terrain. Add this to the fact that archers don’t seem to miss in this game, unlike in the original AoE II and ambushes can turn into destructive affairs. Now, I’m not sure if archers always hit their mark but from what I’ve seen it certainly appears to be that way. The same goes for other projectile units but further experimentation might be needed before I can ascertain that to be totally true. New things such as being able to man walls and some units having predefined and limited arcs of fire (very important in naval warfare) will inject some much needed depth into the gameplay.

Ultimately I ended up enjoying my first couple of hours with Age of Empires and it all comes down to this simple reason: it feels like Age of Empires and that, to me, is absolutely fantastic and I can’t wait to return to this modern but very old school RTS.

Age of Empires IV will be out October 28th, 2021.

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