Veteran fans of real time strategy games got a welcome blast from the past this week with the announcement that a fourth edition of Age of Empires is now in development.
Pressure has been building for years on Microsoft Studios to push ahead with a new title in the series, with even Bill Gates himself occasionally popping up on Reddit to deal with fan requests.
Up until this week’s announcement, Microsoft had only committed to a 4k remastering of the original, which left many disappointed. However, it seems that even Bill Gates is not immune to fan pressure, and finally we can look forward to seeing the immersive Age of Empires gameplay updated with modern graphics. The last release was in 2005, so there should be scope for huge improvements on that front – particularly with the close-up views while playing in first person mode.
Although the teaser video is rather light on details, those of us who spent the nineties and noughties playing at being William Wallace or Joan of Arc will be dreaming of the possibilities that a fourth version may bring. Age of Empires III spanned the centuries between 1492 and 1876, so logic would suggest that IV will cover the period from the latter part of the Colonial Age until the present day. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of getting my hands on some advanced military tech such as tanks, airships and atom bombs excites the hell out of me.
It’s great that people power finally forced Microsoft’s hand into developing a fourth edition, but it’s also important to keep the pressure on designers and developers to ensure the game has the features we empire builders love so much. Sure, the Age of Mythology spinoff may have looked great, and smacking a minotaur over the head was fun…but if we want extreme one-on-one violence then we may as well play a few rounds of Postal.
What made the three previous releases of Age of Empires such a draw? Well, one aspect that excited me with the first three titles was the sheer size of the world. At least, it seemed pretty huge compared to other games that came out around the turn of the Millennium. I loved to send my scouts to go exploring the map to find new landscapes where I could later build some clever defensive structures to protect my kingdom from gangs of marauders.
Massive open world maps are a big part of the charm of other video game genres too, of course. For example, the vast landscape of fictional Chernarus in zombie thriller Day-Z makes the game such a fascinatingly immersive play, and I hope the development team don’t skimp on the size of the world in Age of Empires IV. Especially if we are going to have aircraft, tanks and other forms of mechanised travel to cut the journey times.
Secondly, what sets empire builder games apart from other gaming genres is that there are always several ways to win, which appeal to different kinds of gamers. Yes, if you like the thrill of a quick military confrontation with minimal buildup, then you can follow a rushing strategy, and there were always civilisations in the previous Age of Empires titles that were best placed for a fast win (or crushing loss). But what was truly satisfying for me was to spend a few hours/days patiently collecting enough wood, stone and gold to build a megacity which I could admire, before heading off to conquer my neighbour.
Indeed, the process of gathering resources and using them to build something you can be truly proud of has been used as a form of gamification to boost user engagement in various other genres. Games in the online slots genre are pretty much all the same in terms of their mechanics, but when slots include the gamification element of empire building, then they certainly stand out from the crowd. A good example of this is the Castle Builder slot game where players build up a collection of castles across a virtual continent to unlock progressively larger potential winnings. We hope the Age of Empires IV developers provide us with plenty of civilisations which allow for this kind of ‘booming’ gameplay – and we feel the Americans with their huge industrial capacity would be a perfect choice.
Lastly, Age of Empires has always appealed to history buffs, especially those who like to ponder the possibilities of alternative history. What would have happened had the Ottomans won the Siege of Malta? What if William Wallace had beaten Edward Longshanks at the battle of Stirling Bridge? Both these scenarios have been explored in previous AOE titles, and we hope to see something similar in the fourth release.
With alternative history TV programme The Man in the High Castle proving such a hit, then seeing what would happen if Nazi Germany had won D-Day is an obvious choice, and would certainly be intriguing. But depending on which civilisations are selected for Age of Empires IV, then there should be plenty of fascinating missions where we can let our alternative history imaginations run wild. What about Russia choosing not to sell Alaska and California to the Americans, or Britain deciding to leave the French and Belgians to their fate in 1914? The history nerd in me is salivating at the prospect of playing those scenarios, and seeing where they lead!
With Bill Gates himself open to suggestions about what fans want from the game, now is the time to throw your ideas into the ring, to ensure Age of Empires IV hits all the high notes, and continues to make the game one we want to play again and again. Don’t forget to hit the new Subreddit with your suggestions, and let’s work together to make IV the best Age of Empires ever.
Oh – and one last personal request to Mr Gates. Please try to cut down on the cheat units with superhuman powers this time round. I don’t want to spend a week building a near-perfect copy of Paris only to have it knocked down by one punch from Furious the Monkey Boy. Thank you kindly.