As Age of Empires 4 begins, returning fans will almost certainly find themselves wondering what that number actually means. If you’ve been playing the series’ remastered predecessors over the last two years, you’ll find yourself pottering through an introduction that holds your RTS hand with clammy delight, leading you into some right clicking here, and a bit of berry picking there. It’s a trawl through everything we’ve been doing since 1997, and it’s a shame that this will define your first impressions of this highly anticipated all-new entry.
Even after the decidedly beige introduction, Age of Empires 4 still takes a while to bring in its sparkly new features and gameplay mechanics. When it does, it builds to a satisfying evolution of the series that will delight decades older fans.
In order for you to get a grasp on those tweaks and additions, the game suggests playing either the Norman Campaign or hopping into the Art of War mode which has a series of challenges that allow you to explore different strategies. The Norman Campaign will likely make the most sense to most people, as it brings us the advances in Age of Empires’ enjoyable historically-based storytelling, and holds back on the challenge as you continue to learn the ropes.
Even once you begin to see some of the changes, whether its micro-management improvements like automatic farms or the awesome castle walls that you can mount troops and weaponry on, AoE4 feels reassuringly like AoE. Relic Entertainment has not so much reinvented the wheel here as given it a bit of a scrub, greased the axle and added some suspension to smooth out some of series’ nagging bumps.
The central action looks great, with pleasingly detailed troop types and villages and cities that look naturalistic. As you add extra housing it will cycle through alternate looks, roads and pathways will automatically generate amongst your buildings, while the land will level itself as you build each latest advancement. Building is as approachable as ever, but in Age of Empires 4 the results simply look better as well.
There are still moments where things don’t quite hang together. Large armies will bump and jostle their way through environmental bottlenecks, pathfinding sometimes feels a touch loose, and if you allow it to happen battles can degenerate into messy melee with a little too much ease. These aren’t things that are unique to AoE4, and the RTS genre as a whole has struggled with them for years, but don’t expect any remarkable solutions here.
You’ll soon learn that you need the tightest of controls on your army to succeed, at least on Intermediate difficulty or higher. A huge part of that is utilising Control Groups, and it’s a cinch to add units that you can then call on with a press of button. You’ll also need to make sure you’re utilising all of their secondary skills at the right time, but the rhythm of attack and defence feels just right. Be prepared to work for those victories though.
Two of the most enjoyable new features in AoE4 are the campaign narrative and unlockable content that you gain as you level up. The four campaigns – Normans, The Hundred Years War, Rise of Moscow and the Mongol Empire – focus on a full time period’s events, taking you through multiple battles and generations as you experience history as it happened.
Each time you level up, you unlock a series of videos or documents that give you context, insight and further detail on the historical events the game is covering. Everyone knows what happened in 1066, but few probably know the details of the subsequent events. Want to look deeper? How about deep dives on blacksmithing and falconry? If you check into Age of Empires 4, you’re not just going to be concentrating on walking the biggest possible army from one side of the map to the other, you’re going to learn about those civilisations and time periods in remarkable detail.
I love a bit of history – my Mum was a secondary school history teacher so our summers were spent climbing every castle wall in the United Kingdom – and AoE4 plays perfectly into that mindset. If you’ve got even a passing interest in the past, Age of Empires 4 has the material to fan the flames of obsession.
It helps that the storytelling and the additional material are provided with plenty of drama and excellent presentation. Mixing modern day footage with super-imposed imagery of the past works fantastically well, and everything has the sheen of a high-quality documentary, with the related editing down to a tee as well. This could have been an element that you’d bypass, but instead it feels utterly essential.
Relic has set out their stall with eight factions in Age of Empires 4, though there’s the promise of further civilisations being added via future DLC. It’s hard to tell at this early stage how well the balance has been found between them, but whether you’re utilising the English, the Romans, or the Abbasid Dynasty they feel individually distinct while retaining that all-important familiarity. Balance will surely come through updates after the game is in more people’s hands.
Some players may be disappointed that Age of Empires 4 is so familiar. If you’ve been playing the series since its inception, it’s like slipping on a well-worn, comfortable piece of clothing, while the improvements here and there basically amount to someone having added pockets to your outfit. They’re handy for sure, but it’s a long way from being a fashion revolution.
Nice review, I’m glad it’s ‘playing it safe’. Does it retain the home city and card deck from AoE 3?