Age of Empires IV  Is a Solid Strategy Game Stuck in the Past

It’s the perfect introduction to Age for new players, but veterans may be underwhelmed by its campaign offerings.

Age of Empires IV is the first mainline Age of Empires game in 16 years, and a wait of that magnitude creates expectations. That it even exists is partially because Age of Empires II has enjoyed a massive resurgence. Released in 1999, AoE II is now seeing tournaments with 75,000 viewers and $87,000 prize pools, thanks to a vibrant Twitch and YouTube scene, and the release of 2019’s Definitive Edition. Fans have been both clamoring for a new entry and worrying that a new entry won’t do the series justice.

Age of Empires IV feels like an attempt to capitalize on AoE II’s momentum while welcoming new fans to the series—and to a real-time strategy (RTS) genre that’s suffered a dearth of major releases—while sloughing off 22 years of accumulated nuances and oddities that have made AoE II both beloved by fans and intimidating to newcomers. It’s so beloved, in fact, that a small but vocal minority of its players have been rooting for AoE IV to fail so as not to split the fan base. But Microsoft believes the games will complement each other, filling two different needs in the RTS community.

AoE IV certainly feels like a modern take on AoE II, albeit with pinches of Total War and the more asymmetrical factions of AoE III, which sees some civilizations manage their growth in fundamentally different ways. The series returns to a medieval setting and launches with eight relatively varied civilizations, compared to the staggering 39 that AoE II has amassed. Its four hefty single-player campaigns cover the years between the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the 1552 culmination of the Russo-Kazan Wars, while five economic and military tutorials offer a multiplayer crash course. However, much is left unexplained or quickly covered with tool tips—with the lack of a raid defense tutorial being an especially glaring omission.

Gone are many of AoE II’s most byzantine features. Players can no longer micromanage their units away from arrow fire or trap raiders with instant walls, and archers can’t defeat the siege engines ostensibly designed to counter them by dancing around their projectiles. Gone too are the medieval vibes of AoE II’s interface; AoE IV’s is simplified to the point of blandness—but it is easy to always tell what unit or upgrade you’re purchasing.

The result is a quick, punchy game. Your economy is easy to get rolling and requires far less babysitting than in AoE II, and your soldiers are generally smart enough to behave themselves and make reasonably intelligent decisions. New and returning victory conditions, including the elimination of key enemy buildings and the control of sacred sites on the map, encourage knockout blows rather than lengthy slogs. While it’s possible for players to amass powerful defenses, you’ll also start trading blows much faster than it takes a standard AoE II match to really get rolling.

Age of Empires IV screenshot
Courtesy of Microsoft

AoE IV wants you to take a larger view of the battlefield, whether it’s planning your city’s layout to take advantage of special buildings, hiding your troops in stealth forests to ambush your foe, or firing off unit skills. Cavalry, for example, can hit harder by charging the enemy, while longbowmen can ward off those charges by placing spikes. There’s still plenty of room for micromanagement, but, at least in theory, AoE IV is emphasizing smart tactics over raw clicking.

The bulk of AoE IV’s single-player offering comes from its 35 campaign missions. They’re presented like playable History Channel documentaries: Each mission is introduced with live-action footage of weapons being prepared and modern cities being traversed by the ghosts of soldiers long gone.

The style is initially compelling, but once you discover that all four campaigns use the same detached narrator, the novelty wears off. Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan were very different people, but AoE IV makes them feel like just two more units. The two campaigns I finished devolved into a series of largely identical castle sieges, a feeling further enhanced by bland, empty maps that were just perfunctory backdrops for clashing armies.

The campaigns often feel more interested in funneling you through big moments than cutting you free to harry and conquer organically. Sometimes it works; despite graphics that could charitably be described as accommodating to older computers, it’s thrilling to watch two massive armies smash into each other as you unleash a line of trebuchets on a heavily fortified castle.

But sometimes it just becomes a slog. The Mongol Empire and Hundred Years War campaigns tread similar narrative ground to what AoE II covered, and all four feature a limited number of civilizations. Did we really need both a campaign where the English fight the French and one where the French fight the English? Maybe the presentation makes it impractical to capture live footage in India, China, or Iraq, but it’s underwhelming to finally play a new Age game after 16 years, only to be forced to revisit the conquests of Genghis Khan while intriguing new empires like the Abbasid Dynasty and Delhi Sultanate wait in the wings.

AoE IV does have a lot of clever modern touches, like units dropping their voices to a whisper while hiding in ambush forests. It also has baffling omissions. Hot key customization is limited and missing several genre staples, such as the ability to jump straight to an archery range or stable. There’s no option to skirmish with random civilizations or maps, and so-called “smart” unit selection does nothing to keep you from ordering villagers into battle alongside your army. The result is a game that feels like it was polished to a sheen while dirt accumulated in the corners.

Age of Empires IV screenshot
Courtesy of Microsoft

But, as an intro to the RTS genre, AoE IV works well. Age’s classic counter-unit system makes your strategic options feel varied, and it’s as rewarding as ever to build your tiny town into an industrialized war machine. If you’ve never played an Age game, this is now the one to start with.

Whether AoE IV will grow and maintain a large player base is another question. It is boldly launching without a ranked ladder or scenario editor, two essential features for the long-term health of a strategy game. Microsoft has promised them in spring 2022, as well as a smaller preholiday update and a post-launch road map. AoE IV clearly hopes to stick around, but while the game is trying to win new converts to the genre, its long-term health could come down to how much help it gets from the community that brought AoE II back from the brink.

It takes months, even years, for an RTS’ strategy to develop, and it’s conceivable that AoE IV will end up with just as many micromanagement and gameplay quirks as AoE II piled up. In the meantime, AoE IV feels effective but cautious, like it’s trying to create a broader fan base while convincing veterans that little has changed. It’s both taking advantage of the Age namesake and being held back by reverence for it. AoE IV’s greatest strength is that it offers a fresh start; whether enough players want that remains to be seen.


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