Age of Empires IV Review | History Hit

Age of Empires IV Review

Age of Empires IV isn't a radical reinvention, but it is a highly competent revival of a landmark RTS franchise.

Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios

With an intriguing commitment to the history that inspires it and modest adjustments to the franchise formula, Age of Empires IV makes a worthy successor to the legendary RTS. It closely replicates Age of Empires II, which most fans reckon as the series’ highpoint, but this isn’t quite Age of Empires as you remember it.

As well as a visual refresh, Age of Empires IV champions asymmetry between playable civilizations, refits tactics and restructures the business of building up a medieval war machine. What helps make it stand out, however, is that it knows it’s a historical game. Differentiating civilizations has empowered designers to hook into representative traits, while its campaign is greased with stylish documentary films.

Soft counter

Age of Empires IV is a real-time strategy game premised on gathering resources, building a town, and using it to produce units with which to smash enemies. You typically start a game with a few villagers at your disposal, a scout to peel back the fog on the map, and the basis of your settlement in the form of a Town Centre.

Here Age of Empires IV is formulaic in the best sense. The formula is gold. A conservative approach has much to gain in merely twisting it slightly. The first thing that will strike veterans of the 1999 classic is that rather than sending each individual sheep you find on the map back to your villagers, sheep magnetize themselves to scouts.

This small change is suggestive of a design approach interested in slight but effective quality of life improvements. Combat, meanwhile, shares the same bones as the classics in that it is based heavily on mastering counters. Cavalry can run down archers, while spearmen can obstruct cavalry, and so on.

RTS relics

At the tiller of Age of Empires IV are Relic, the Canadian game developer responsible for the other big historical RTS of the 21st century: the squad-based Company of Heroes. From that game Relic have brought over a pail sloshing with tactical innovations. There’s directional positioning, gradated line of sight, and bonuses for securing higher ground.

There are also stealth forests in which to conceal units for ambushes, and units with special abilities. The French Arbalétrier, for example, has a large shield called a pavise, while English longbowmen can deploy stakes to protect them from charges.

These abilities introduce an extra layer of depth onto the simplistic brawls without making them fiddly. Notably absent, however, are larger features like the active pause system Relic has already incorporated into their upcoming Company of Heroes 3.

Ways in

There are different ways of enjoying an Age game, but building walls might be the most satisfying part of Age of Empires IV. These oversized fortifications, bigger here than they ever have been, are essential to defending your upstart vill. The initial joy here comes from the satisfaction of shaping the environment, but AoE IV lets players garrison archer units on walls, too.

You’ll build a simple palisade around your town centre at the start of a game to fence in your burgeoning economy. As you churn out your villagers, the worker bees in your rapidly elaborating hive, and your economy booms from your effective exploitation of wood, food, gold and stone, you’ll be tempted to crenellate your settlement with big stone blocks.

How many walls and castles you can build is of course moderated by your stockpile of stone. The scarcity of resources, particularly of gold, on any given map will inevitably draw all players from gathering to fighting.

Speaking of which: destroying walls gives building walls a run for its money on the pleasure spectrum. Rams and towers can now be built on the fly by infantry, while we also have the mangonel and the fan favourite trebuchet. The trebuchet in particular has a wonderful sound, which describes the fall of the counterweight, the groan of the beam and the impact of its payload.

Landmark improvements

Age of Empires IV features eight ‘civilizations’: English, French, Chinese, Abbasid, Rus and Mongols. While this is a lighter offering than its forebears (AoE II has a grand total of 39 as of October 2021), each of these civilizations are differentiated to such a degree that they offer varied playstyles.

Historical stereotypes are conscripted to form these specialities. Where the English excel with longbowmen and defence, the French focus on heavy cavalry and speedier routes to economic booming through cheaper technology and resource drop-off buildings. The Mongols are super-mobile and can move their bases, while the Delhi Sultanate researches technology at zero resource cost but over a longer duration.

Civilizational specialities are reflected in bespoke buildings called landmarks. These bring technological advancements and new lines of recruitable units. They cost a lot, too, but are necessary for levelling into the next one of four ‘ages’. The Royal Institute houses all French unique technology, while the Great Wall, available in China’s final age, improves nearby units.

Make history

The four included campaigns are where you’ll get to grips with the game’s mechanics. Playing through the Norman campaign reminded me of rainy Sundays playing and replaying the older titles. Conceived more as a narrative history than a ladder of entertaining singleplayer missions, it moves between pitched battles, pausing at times to offer a novel challenge.

The Norman campaign begins with Hastings in 1066 and ends with the Siege of Dover in 1216. It refrains from too much excitement, but a highlight has us using the historical figure of Willikin of the Weald to ambush French forces en route to Dover Castle. I’ve hardly sampled the other campaigns, which cover the expansion of the Rus, France and the Mongol empire.

Sage of empires

Breaking up and introducing missions are roughly an hour’s worth of documentary film content. These are high quality films, shot on location and sometimes featuring presenters, overlaid with animated line figures that make them sparkle. While keeping things rather sanitised, they discuss fortifications at experimental archaeology site Guédelon Castle, and pan from siege warfare to more esoteric topics like the extraction of pigment from ore.

For all the filmic charm, however, stitching together assorted battles from over a few centuries doesn’t amount to a cohesive narrative. Particularly when Crusader Kings demonstrates the success of grounding strategy in characters, it seems a strange moment for AoE IV to forget that the franchise’s most memorable campaigns were led by big personalities.

Maybe the most satisfying thing gained from Age of Empires IV’s singleplayer is knowledge, then, because these documentaries outshine what turn out to be rather plodding missions. Instead, the story mode is probably best understood as a way of bringing new players into the Age of Empires fold. It’s online multiplayer that matters most to AoE IV’s longevity.

Build orders

Despite repeatedly matching with (and subsequently being crushed by) professional Age of Empires players fresh from the History Hit Open, I spent enough time with Age of Empires IV’s online component to feel reassured. In fact, playing a 1 vs 1 on Black Forest, you can almost see AoE II through the treeline.

Multiplayer and skirmish matches are the heart of Age of Empires, and overall it’s a familiar experience here. A new mode based around control points adds variety, but most matches devolve to total annihilation of the other opponent. Supplementing the essential multiplayer experience are ‘masteries’, which are 15 fairly basic tasks for each civilization. Even here, there are historical gobbets stitched into the descriptions.

There are maps which take advantage of the game’s verticality, others with stealth forests, as well as a version of Arabia. There are few experimental choices, but the seeds of each map can be adjusted and there’s scope for custom maps, too. The environments amount to glossy reimaginings, but they often miss the atmosphere that made idling inside 2006’s Age of Empires III so enjoyable.

History Hit

Age of Empires IV isn’t a grandiose reinterpretation of a landmark series of video games. Nor does it feel particularly urgent when Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition remains in rude health. But it is highly competent, uncomplicated and evenly executed. It’s suitable for people who haven’t touched an RTS before and those who cling to memories of 1990s historical strategy games.

I’m a little disappointed on behalf of my dear AoE III, whose RPG-like home cities and scripted storylines are nowhere to be seen. Yet it’s hard to fault Relic for playing it safe. Few franchises are as treasured as Microsoft’s empire-builders, and frankly it’s an achievement not to have messed it up. It’s no real-time strategy revolution, but Age of Empires IV is a first-rate and easily recommendable game.

Kyle Hoekstra