Age of Empires IV
Release Date: The younger sibling of the seminal franchise launched in late 2021 to critical acclaim. As of right no downloadable content or new expansions were announced.
Genre: A modernized take on the more traditional Real-Time Strategy pioneered by the original Age of Empires II.
Best for: New players to the genre, younger gamers, and historical pundits that want to start learning their way around a medieval battleground.
Excels at: Ease to play. Teaching History in a fun and engaging (if childish) way. High Middle Ages.
Feature List: 8 asymmetric civilizations, 4 historical single-player campaigns focusing on the Norman Invasion, The Hundred Years War, The Mongol Empire, and the Rise of Moscow.
At long last! A return to form for the franchise! Age of Empires IV took what made the second great and improved upon it while updating to feel more refreshed for modern audiences. Its graphics seem like something that escaped the Cartoon network but tie that knot closely to its uncompromising focus on dishing out small history lessons on every campaign mission and what you find in this package is a strong “first-impression” real-time-strategy. As a kid, I would have loved this entry-level package and welcomed it as the best thing to ever grace the digital realm. 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. roads sprout in-between buildings organically, and houses sometimes generate farms and enclosures that add a lot of flavor to towns and fortresses. This lends Age of Empires IV a graphical layer of authenticity akin to the one found in the second game of the series. 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- this creates a weird disconnect between the units you’re commanding and the background terrain they’re walking around, almost as if they’re alien to the planet they’re in, this is especially egregious when the terrain is as detailed as in AoE IV. In the developers’ defense, they often said 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 colorful presence has them stand out against those deliciously detail-packed backgrounds. In the end, this is going to come down to user preference.
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, the ally that perception with the desire of Age of Empires fans to see a return to form from their favorite entry in the series and it all seems like an easy recipe for success.
The combat is definitely where the series has improved the most by going back to its principles and redesigning things from that classic real-time strategy basis of rock-paper and scissors balance by adding a greater mechanical depth to each unit and faction. Almost every fighting unit has its active or passive abilities that, when employed perfectly, can turn greatly influence the tide of the battle, i.e. The English longbowmen can avoid a lethal cavalry charge by swiftly putting up some sharp stakes between them and the enemy horses. The cavalry has large lances it can use to deal significant damage on impact, etc. Of course, this is an arcade representation but the fact it has a real impact on gameplay is game-changing. Woods are no longer impassible natural barriers and can be used as a tool for ambushes and better troop positioning. Better still, the walls can finally be manned and your siege equipment is now built by your infantry (this not only makes more sense, but it eases a lot of the pain of having to build siege units beforehand)! The unit control is tight and responsive (unlike the floaty units of Age of Empires III) harkening back to the series originals, with pixel villagers and man-at-arms responding in a snapping and assertive manner to the orders given.
Age of Empires IV doesn’t exist without its flaws, however. My greatest fear for the game going forward isn’t its balance or design flaws but a very real terminal case of “lack of contentinitis”. The asymmetric civilization design means that it’s harder to balance and add new civilizations, as the production time for each of them becomes significantly larger and I cannot imagine Relic will be able to surpass the number of nations their previous games had. This choice of having very unique gameplay mechanics for every faction also means that as more nations are added to the game, the smaller is the wiggle room for new things to appear and still make some logical sense. This lack of new things and match-ups to try can make the game very boring, and very fast for single-player inclined gamers like yours truly. As for the gameplay itself, it’s very hard to fault it because it has been polished to a tee but yet again, its main flaws can be attributed to the lack of content, as battles can be very repetitive affairs after a while!
My suggestion is to get Age of Empires IV on the Xbox Game Pass and play its campaigns. You can get this done in a couple of days with little effort. After that, just wait and see if Relic and Microsoft are going to release any content that sparks your interest. As it stands right now, I’m only going back to it after they add a Portuguese or Spanish campaign.