There has been an Age of Empires resurgence in recent years and as a fan of the franchise, I have been basking in its glory.
Despite the last major instalment being over 15 years ago, the community around the Age of Empires games has continued to grow. And as a sign of its strength, Age of Empires I, II and III all received ‘Definitive Edition’ re-releases (you can read our reviews of them here, here and here respectively), and Red Bull, among others, regularly sponsor and organise major eSports events for Age of Empires II, a game that was originally released on Windows 98.
The crowning glory of this popularity, of course, would be an all-new major instalment. That has now come to pass with Age of Empires IV, out this week on PC. In other words, it’s a good time to be an Age of Empires fan.
Before I start the review proper, I feel it’s worth noting that you can tell that there has been a lot of consultation with the Age of Empires community on the development of Age of Empires IV. After all, it’s that very community that has kept the franchise alive for more than two decades despite little to no investment until recently. The result of that is a game that feels very true to its roots; the mould of previous games from the series is clear to see, yet Age of Empires IV goes above and beyond in a number of areas.
Such is the love that’s been poured into bringing this game to life that it includes many highly detailed, very impressive documentaries on the history surrounding the medieval factions that the game portrays. Called ‘Hands on History’, these videos give a rich insight into the real-life history, technology and development of the game’s civilisations. While they don’t add to the gameplay, they’re certainly a nice touch to the overall package, giving important context to the action within the game as well as providing players an opportunity to learn. They won’t be for everyone but it’s an interesting addition, and just one of many things that shows the passion involved in Age of Empires IV‘s production.
Technically speaking, Age of Empires IV has been a smooth and hiccup-free experience for me so far. Other than some extended loading times for a number of mission scenarios, it has performed wonderfully; living up to what we’ve come to expect from the series. As someone who has spent a lot of time playing previous instalments, Age of Empires IV made it very easy for me to insert myself into – quite a feat considering it’s been nearly two decades since the last new release. Once I updated my keybindings, I was ready to go, slipping back into my usual terrible habits in no time.
There is a very clear and immediately obvious backbone here that fans of Age of Empires II will feel familiar with. Both games cover a similar time period, their civilisation ages are similar, and out of all three previous Age of Empires games, IV‘s gameplay feels most closely bonded with II. For example, both make use of the same four resources – food, wood, stone and gold – and you have to manage an economy that rakes them in while stopping your opponent from gaining them. At its core, Age of Empires IV is a simple economy-focused real-time strategy game; it’s free of unnecessary convolution and it is easy to get to grips with. At the same time, there’s enough depth that truly mastering the game takes a serious amount of commitment and skill – and that’s exactly what I want from an Age of Empires experience.
However: one thing that surely will stick out like a sore thumb for many players is Age of Empires IV‘s very small pool of civilisations. Whereas Age of Empires launched with 12 civilisations and Age of Empires II initially had 13, there’s currently only eight here. It’s likely more will be added in future expansions (II now has 39 in total!) but it means at least initially there’s a smaller variety of unique playstyles on offer, which could ultimately hurt the game. That said, the civilisations that are here are certainly diverse, but I can’t help but feel a handful more would have offered a fuller and richer experience.
Combat itself has a few innovations that I will talk about later, but at its core it has an elementary rock-paper-scissors philosophy. Naturally this becomes more complex over time, when added bonuses are taken into account, but essentially you are more likely to win a battle if you can counter the enemies’ units and maintain unit output. Then, as you get used to Age of Empires IV‘s nuances and begin to develop your own strategy on how to build out your empire, you can compliment these rudimentary tactics with more interesting plays.
Despite Age of Empires IV‘s familiarity, though, there are a number of key differences, most of which offer an improved experience overall.
As you would expect from a modern release, the UI is much more streamlined and less clunky, and the 4K visuals stand up to modern gaming standards; the map in particular is beautifully detailed while still being easy to comprehend thanks to a clever use of striking colours. The audio, too, is much more epic, and every time I play I feel instantly drawn into the soundscape.
One of the most welcome improvements, however, is a clear focus on deep accessibility. Amongst other options, Age of Empires IV supports UI narration and also has a built-in high-contrast mode. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as more and more developers strive to make their games as accessible to as many players as possible, but it’s still a big leap from previous entries, and very heartening to see. That, on top of the age-old customisable keybindings, means this may well be one of the most user-friendly games I’ve ever played.
But it isn’t only the UI and graphics that have been brought up to date for 2021. There have been some major changes to the gameplay, too.
My favourite innovation for Age of Empires IV is that ageing up – a term used to describe when a civilisation progresses to a new era – is no longer a simple act of pushing a button when you have enough resources. Instead, you’ll use your resources to build a unique structure that gives a unique bonus, which in turn makes ageing up more of an event; you can physically see your newly evolved empires emerging from the ground up. It’s a radically different experience from the earlier games, where your civilisation would simply and suddenly ‘pop’ into better clothes and buildings.
From a gameplay point of view it would be easy to think that this is a small change; that adding unique age-up structures only adds new bonuses. On the contrary, these bonuses are accompanied by an interesting new gameplay element, that ends up making the new system a game changer.
The act of physically building an ageing-up structure means you can invest your whole villager economy into ageing up quickly. In previous games the age time was fairly fixed; you had to rush your resources if you wanted to quickly improve your technology. Now you can double down on that if you want: you can rush your resources and then rush your building in order to reach the next age and its new possibilities. Doing so comes with a caveat, however: you’ll undoubtedly cripple your ability to fight and defend in the short and medium-term if you focus solely on ageing up. It adds a new risk-versus-reward gamble to the game that I can’t wait to see play out across the community.
Another new mechanic introduced in Age of Empires IV is ambushing. No longer are trees impregnable fortresses; instead, they’re treacherous areas of the map where the enemy can lurk. This means you can no longer rely on tree lines to protect you from all threats. This does change the dynamic as you can easily hassle an opponent and their resources by trickling in infantry to disrupt their supply. Alternately, many mounted units cannot enter the forests, so it means your attacking forces could use those areas of the map to retreat from aggressive mounted units.
So far, my experience with ambushing is that it makes combat much trickier to get to grips with, and it makes the use of palisade walls (which are cheaper on the whole) much more important. It has also highlighted the importance of making use of infantry; these now feel much more effective in warfare due to their ambushing abilities. It’s likely the balancing of these elements may be tweaked in future patches, however, as it’s something we’ve seen happen in all Age of Empires Definitive Editions.
Onto something a little more negative: one serious problem I do have with Age of Empires IV is the camera. The panning works fine once you tweak it to your preferences, but the camera is zoomed in far too close to the gameplay. The level of detail is excellent, and of course it’s nice to be close to the action at times to fine-tune more fiddly bits and pieces, but the ability to zoom out in order to macro-manage an empire is sorely needed. Hopefully this is something that’s addressed in a later patch as it currently feels like a large oversight.
There’s a lot to love about Age of Empires IV. It’s clear the developers have listened to the community in creating a game that feels both fresh yet faithful to the franchise. It has tried to combine the best elements of all previous games in the series and, largely, it has succeeded in doing so. Its small pool of factions may be a problem for some, and its camera issues need addressing, but in the grand scheme of things, this is an excellent entry into the RTS space. Is Age of Empires IV the best Age of Empires game to date? For me, it doesn’t quite knock Age of Empires II Definitive Edition off the top spot, but regardless, this modern entry has undoubtedly been well worth the wait.
Age of Empires IV Review – GameSpew’s Score