Throw up your stone walls, place your armaments, gather your military powers, and crush your foes with the strength of a thousand arrows and trebuchets—it’s the age for the might of empires once again with Age of Empires IV! Following on from the successful definitive edition remasters of Age of Empires II and Age of Empires III, Xbox Game Studios have brought back the popular RTS for a new age of play designed to appeal to both veterans of the series and new fans alike.
Microsoft provided me with a copy to get an early hands on look at what is to come on October 28, and quite frankly I have had a blast.
If It Ain’t Broke…
Developed by Relic Entertainment (Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Company of Heroes) and overseen by Microsoft’s in-house World’s Edge studio, Age of Empires is a return in many ways to Age of Empires II, a firm favourite of the series. IV takes on the same High Middle Age and Late Middle Age period as II while also retaining many of its core mechanics with a few quality-of-life improvements and modern updates. Though this may sound disappointing to some, particularly for a series that early on was ear-marked as an innovator in its genre, IV very much showcases an “if it ain’t broke” quality as the game flourishes under the old and new of it all.
There is enough simplicity to Age of Empires IV to not feel overwhelming to new players while also having enough in it for older players to grab onto and dive deep with. The villager resource gathering system returns with IV, whereby resources will be accrued by setting your villagers to build resource gathering sites near gold veins, forest areas, stone boulders, hunting lodges for food or building your own farmlands. The process is typically the same for most of the eight civilisations, however some empires, such as the Russians or the Mongols, benefit from a few abilities that will slightly change up your tactics for gathering resources. For me, this resource system is far simpler and much more satisfying than say that of a Civilisation game, and it is also a fun challenge to also consider how too much production at once can deplete an area of its resource, since trees and gold veins are finite and do not grow back. This can lead to key strategies in some of the skirmish maps where you’re going to want to seek out rich resource choke points before your enemies, or to cut off their own supplies with raiding parties.
The game also handily lets you instantly know which villagers are inactive so that you can always be quick to set them working again—there’ll be no non-contributing citizens in my mighty kingdom!
Combat is also the same simplicity of II, though with a few nice additions to allow you to more strategically plan out attacks. Unit types work in a kind of rock-paper-scissors system: spearmen beat horsemen, horsemen beat archers, archers beat spearmen, etc—so you’ll have to prioritise which forces to set and use in any given situation. Thankfully you can easily create groups with keypad numbering to switch quickly between them, meaning you can quickly set up strategic positions and launch tactful attacks as and when you need to. It’s a lot of fun to scope out key ambush areas and leave, say, a group of spearmen out as bait on the road while your archers hide in the forestry to the side, or your horsemen lay in wait just out of view atop the ridge behind, ready to spring a pincer attack around your enemies. If you’re quick and clever you can really decimate your foes with a deft deadliness. Charging just straight into battle, on the other hand, can have catastrophic results if the enemy is better prepared, even if you have the advantage of numbers on your side. There is plenty to be said for sheer military might, but the greatest generals require clever strategy on their side too.
Put simply, if you enjoyed the gameplay of Age of Empires II back in the day then you are going to perfectly enjoy this too since the game quite rightly, in my opinion, leans into the best strengths of the series’ history while sprucing it up just enough to still feel with the times.
Age of Empires IV brings 4 new story campaigns charting various famous wars and empire expansions of the High to Late Middle Ages. These campaigns are both useful as a story platform and a tutorial for how to best play the game. The first Norman campaign is almost explicitly a guide to get to grips with the game. This campaign is the simplest of all to ease newer players in while also showcasing some of the new additions for old players.
The Norman Campaign charts the Norman Conquest of England where the likes of William the Conqueror led a battle spree across the nation’s lands, claiming what he believed to be his. As such a lot of this campaign is about leading attacks on fellow kings to start, before then defending what you have taken in the later stages. The campaigns all contain a nice addition of live action video scenes to give a bit of brief history on the lands that you’ll be battling on and the real-world effects that can still be seen today in English towns like Lincoln, or London. This is part of an intentional strategy on the part of Relic Entertainment who have sought to show respect to the people and periods of history by telling their story with the appropriate seriousness. With every level completed there are also a few unlockable video docs and art piece bonuses for history buffs to really dive down into, if they want.
The second campaign charts the Hundred Year’s War between France and England, with you taking control of the French in this bloodied campaign. It is a lot like the Norman Campaign in style, quite honestly, although maybe with a bit more desperation and loss to it, and less hand holding. You’ll find yourself starting with your back against the wall a lot more in this campaign, suffering through brutal invasions with which you can only barely scrape through.
The third campaign has been by far my favourite, charting the rapid expansion of the deadly Mongol Empire from 1223-1278. The Mongol empire is a new addition to the series and has a distinct playstyle that is very thrilling, favouring quicker movement and roaming parties over still empires. Genghis Khan’s mighty empire was famed for its stampeding horseback military that could burn through towns and armies with deft might, and as such the playstyle of the Mongols in Age of Empires IV tends to be a lot quicker and “active” than others. The horseback archer’s specialist skill allows for a different style of combat, with the advantage of attacking on the move affording you the ability to draw your enemies out into ambushes, or circle them around and around while showering them with deadly arrows. The Mongols also have the distinct bonus of accruing resources through the destruction and pillaging of enemy towns, making it far more advantageous to go quickly on the offensive. You can really blitz your way through towns in a hugely satisfying way. The Mongols were also a nomadic people, meaning that your towns can easily be packed up and carted to different locations at any time, so again your playstyle will be quicker and on the move constantly. For me this is where Age of Empires IV really flourished, becoming an even greater game than its famed predecessor by taking the old and adding just a deft touch of new to it.
The fourth and final campaign covers the longest period with The Rise of Moscow from 1238-1552. The Russians, unlike the French or English, are a lot scrappier and resilient, with unique abilities in resource gathering and rebuilding.
Campaigns can be played in 4 difficulty modes, from easy, to intermediate, to veteran, or a story mode for those that just want to enjoy the history lessons and see some of the most epic medieval battles in peace.
For now it is just those 4 campaigns, but there are the Art of War challenges too, adding unique challenge scenarios with scores to beat, plus Relic Entertainment have also indicated that Age of Empires IV is a long-term project with quite a few more post launch updates to come, perhaps adding new civilisations or campaign modes.
The Chaos of Skirmish Mode
I have spent most of my time in the campaign modes so far since there is just so much to dive into there, but I of course booted up a classic old Age of Empires skirmish match and ploughed into a world of pure chaos and constant battle. Skirmish mode now allows up to 8 players, AI or PC controlled, for an all-out battle of supremacy.
There are a number of map types with varying objective types, from naval battles across islands, king of the hill resource grabs, valley chokepoints, cliffs edge battles, or just a typical flat-land war of attrition. I booted up a 6-empire island battle and the speed and chaos of this mode was all out—I dread to imagine what 8 could be. Straight away empires were on the offensive, leading charges upon my beaches and messing up my resources, or burning through my allies on the mainland. It was at once overwhelming and immensely fun. The different difficulty modes will dictate the aggressiveness of your foes, but even at intermediate it was nothing short of a brutal, constant assault at my hastened together walls. I was having a blast, taking my play session long into the night—the ultimate compliment for any RTS.
With many of the different map types favouring different scenario types there looks to be a lot to grab onto with skirmish mode, and each of the 8 civilisations too are going to offer up their own advantages and playstyles too. I have no doubt that you’ll be able to come back again and again, and it shows good signs too for Relic Entertainment’s intentions to keep this as a long form, ever-growing, project.
Age of Empires IV is designed to allow technical specs of all ranges to play, although with higher end builds you’re going to get a lovely, glossy 4K graphics package to make battle just that bit more visceral. On my mid-lower budget laptop the game ran mostly fine with graphics that, though anything but special, were serviceable. Load times were a pain, however, and the game also warns of trying a skirmish mode beyond 4 players with lesser hardware. That said I didn’t hit too many technical difficulties even when trying to push the graphics spec and player number up a bit.
The game has a tendency to freeze momentarily during saving, but Relic Entertainment are well aware of this issue and working to fix it currently, so it may be patched come full release. There were never any issues even during the intensive hardware load of hundreds of combatting units and destruction burning its way across entire large-scale maps. Do not be put off if your PC is of a lower spec. You are still going to be able to have a solid experience overall.
A High Recommend
Age of Empires IV is an excellent return to form and a must buy for fans of the series and those looking to break into the RTS genre. There is plenty here to grapple with between the campaigns, challenge modes, and huge skirmish modes, plus battle is just plenty of fun in its own right. If you’re in need of some long, addicting play sessions then Age of Empires IV is most assuredly a game for you.
So, draw out your battle maps, line up the battlements, and get going on October 28 to crush your foes and claim ultimate supremacy for your empire!
Age of Empires IV launches October 28 for Windows PC and is available day one on Xbox Game Pass for PC. Copies were provided by Microsoft for this review.
Final Score: 8.5/10