The Age of Empires franchise is a real-time strategy behemoth that many spent their childhood with. Even though the genre has stagnated in the high-profile entry front, Age of Empires built a strategy landscape so strong it’s gaining popularity even today, largely thanks to excellent remasters. Now, after a 16-year hiatus, someone realized it’s time for a new mainline entry. Enter Age of Empires IV.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was my jam back in the day. I have fond memories of playing the campaigns repeatedly on our old Pentium computer with my brother, employing my genius tried and true tactic of building a giant army and steamrolling the AI. Who cared how much time it took? Since then I’ve pumped my time into Age of Mythology, the Command & Conquer series, Warcraft III, Star Craft II, the Age remasters, and plenty of other RTS experiences. I am by no means a highly competent competitive player, just a huge fan craving for new material.
The studio most known for the Company of Heroes franchise, Relic Entertainment, is the force behind Age of Empires IV. It is an entry that plays thoroughly into franchise strengths instead of reinventing the wheel. Has it worked out? I think it has. Here are my thoughts on this long-awaited return.
Gameplay and UI
Age of Empires IV (Age IV) builds on the foundations that made Age of Empires II such a satisfying strategy game. Factors like the asymmetrical civilizations and careful modernizations does set it apart, but from the macro and micro-management similarities to the eras it is situated in, Age IV is looking up to its predecessor for guidance on how to be great.
Age IV features literal knights in shining armor, multi-barrel gunpowder weapons, and even warships, yet the simple villager is the most important unit at hand. Keep pumping the little workers out and they will happily collect and deposit the Food, Wood, Gold, and Stone needed to keep the empire rolling and hammer out buildings ranging from houses to wonders. Without well-utilized villagers, it’s impossible to maintain an economy that can advance a civilization through the Dark, Feudal, Castle, and Imperial ages, and also power a war machine to beat the other side senseless. Waiting too long until investing into military units will end the game no matter how filled the coffers are. This balancing act between warfare and economy is what makes the series both tricky to nail and addictively fun.
Seeing the resource numbers tick up and tumble back down when lines of foot soldiers, cavalry, or something else entirely, trickle out of buildings to finally form an army feels like a great accomplishment every time. Even the most elite units have counters to balance things. Archers can rain death on most unarmored foes from afar, but a simple cavalry charge will decimate these light units if hardened soldiers, preferably some spearmen, are not there to take the hit. If high armor units are posing a problem, crossbows become the answer.
However, the key to a good army is not simply diversifying to cover all weaknesses, it’s scouting the enemy and preparing effectively, something I wish I remembered more often. The amount of information a cheap Scout can offer far outweighs anything else on the battlefield.
Being an RTS, reducing the friction between the player and the controls is vitally important. Age IV is managing this very effectively. Queuing tasks for units multiple steps ahead to focus on other things a little better, setting waypoints from barracks, building miles of stone walls to top them with archers, all function smoothly without even a minor hitch. The UI and color-coded icons on buttons are clear and straightforward about what they do, just from a glance. The previous games’ tradition of tiny artwork on buttons that require you to hover your mouse so much is no more, and I am delighted about this.
Holding down the right mouse button and dragging on the ground positions units in the desirable direction with the selected formation. A wide range of hotkeys and genre standard control groups also allow for precise and rapid adjustments. To streamline this further, Relic employs a grid system for the keyboard like many other modern strategy titles. This allows for utilizing the menu buttons of units and buildings without needing to move your hand much. It is both brilliant and restrictive, unfortunately.
The system works off the button position instead of individual hotkeys for each option. The House lives in the top left corner in the builder menu. With the default layout, pressing Q once selects Feudal age buildings, then pressing Q again selects the upper left slot, the House. If it’s something situated in the bottom right corner of any unit’s UI, it would be the V key, and so on. This translates to every single entity in the game, from unit formations to research buttons. If you’re coming from another modern RTS or are acclimated to always keeping a hand on the WASD keys like me, this will be an extremely intuitive system.
Grid keys’ restrictive problem arises from the system not being optional, it replaces the ability to set hotkeys for individual buildings or unit abilities entirely. Assigning unique hotkeys for any task, like build a house or attack move, is not possible without upending the entire grid layout. I don’t understand why both systems can’t exist as options. Adding even more to the weirdness, there’s a few hardwired shortcuts like the Alt key for camera rotation and restrictions on assigning hotkeys to extra mouse buttons.
Age IV ships with eight civilizations — Chinese, Delhi Sultanate, English, Mongols, French, Abbasid Dynasty, Holy Roman Empire, and Rus — a meager number if you’re familiar with Age of Empires II, but let’s look under the hood. In addition to unique bonuses and units, there are substantial differences in playstyles for most factions available with upsides and down.
The Delhi Sultanate gets to research all technologies for free but requires investing in Scholars to speed up the process. Tanky War Elephants also lift their military effectiveness. On the other hand, the Rus’ economy focuses on Gold bonuses for hunting animals and building near forests. Their soldiers can also make walls instead of waiting for villagers. That may sound underwhelming in comparison, but Rus are a difficult civilization to outpace from the early game thanks to those boons. However, easily the most unique are the Mongols. Playing into their nomadic nature, Mongols can freely pack up their entire city and move to a different spot on the map — insert “Imma Head Out” meme —, gains resources from burning buildings, but do not have access to any kind of walls, meaning playing on the defense is a bad idea.
Each faction can also progress somewhat differently in every match when advancing to a new Age. Instead of a researching into one, villagers must be pulled from their valuable work to construct Landmarks to advance to new technology tiers. Each Landmark provides a unique and powerful bonus that should stay impactful through an entire match, and two choices are presented at each stage. These can apply permanent buffs to nearby units, be a cheaper unit-producing military facility, an economy building, or simply just a powerful castle. The choice adds another layer of intricacy depending on how the match is going at that moment. Of course, even this mechanic is subverted by a couple of civilizations. The Chinese, for instance, can build both Landmarks of each age unlike everyone else, while the Abbasid Dynasty only has a single Landmark which is upgraded similar to the classic games, freeing villager time.
However, not all civilizations are so drastically different; to keep my brain from overloading, I first tested the waters with the English and French, the lowest in the faction difficulty ratings. They play very similarly to Age of Empires II civilizations, touting simpler percentage-based bonuses, stronger defensive elements, and a few unique units. Every civilization also has an aura bonus that must be considered. These range from simple reductions of unit costs and buffs to deeper systems like tax collection, requiring a special kind of unit.
Either sticking to one or attempting to master all eight, there is something here for any type of RTS fan.
It is not an Age of Empires game without historical campaigns, and Age IV leans into the historical aspects like no other game. At launch, campaigns exist for the English, France, Mongols, and Rus. The four paths delve deep into conflicts spanning hundreds of years and are each presented with beautifully crafted live action and augmented footage with narration that give context to the wars, the cultures involved, and how they shaped the modern-day landscapes of the countries involved. Battles in a campaign can usually leap decades forward in the timeline to weave an intriguing path through major events.
There’s usually at least one ‘hero’ unit like Genghis Khan, or William the Conqueror, or a descendant to lead armies in story missions. They employ small but useful abilities to buff nearby units like adding extra damage to cavalry charges or healing. Other units can revive them If a hero goes down, so there’s no need to reach for the quick load button. Difficulty levels range from ‘Story’ where the AI treats battles like a reenactment event, to ‘Hard’ where the pressure never lets up.
The missions aren’t sporting simple “defeat red army” objectives either. For instance, in the memorable opening mission of the 100 Year War French campaign, a knightly chivalrous tournament sets the stage with side objectives for strengthening the available contestants. Other spins like giving the option to pay off or annihilate a secondary raiding faction, and using a small group of units to cut off supplies to an enemy siege while also defending from said siege, all keep the campaigns fresh and continually engaging. Showcasing the differences between faction playstyles I mentioned previously is a strong focus here too.
I averaged around 30 minutes per mission in campaigns — my astounding childhood strategy still works wonders —, and the game ships with around 10 missions each, per faction storyline. Considering the series’ terrific history of post-launch support, I’m looking forward to seeing more historical campaigns and factions from the rest of the world join in. Who knew history lessons can be so engaging, right?
In addition to the videos sandwiching in each campaign mission, there’s also ‘Hands on History’, one of my favorite new features. These are high budget — I'm talking piles of money only a trebuchet could throw at them —, short documentaries with expert hosts, that dive into the medieval technologies fueling these wars. The kind of stuff the History Channel doesn't broadcast anymore. These shorts unlock steadily as rewards for completing campaign missions, as if even more incentives are needed. Ever been curious about just how incendiary arrows stay lit in flight? How were castles built to withstand trebuchets? How whistling arrows were communication methods in the heat of battle? You can even watch them while matchmaking. Genius. To witness these gems in full 4K HDR, an optional download is available if you don’t mind doubling your game size.
Even with the fantastic campaign experience, multiplayer is a whole other addictive and untamable beast. Multiplayer in Age of Empires is where your dreams of crushing the enemy, like in the campaigns, get put down fast. Still, losses that bring shame to my ancestors have not stopped me from going back. Just like with any other competitive play-focused strategy game, getting good involves multitasking so hard you will wish for a third hand just to wipe your brow.
Taking calculated risks is the winning formula, but if you're bad at math like me, that's a hard problem to solve.
To ease players in, one of the best returning features from Age of Empires II to Age of Empires IV is Art of War. These are a series of tutorial scenarios made to sharpen your abilities for multiplayer, like a concentrated shot of good sense. Since metas haven't developed yet, Art of War serves the function of building a good skill foundation, making it wildly helpful to just about anyone. I'm sure the developer will add more scenarios or even modify the current lot as the community finds the most efficient methods of war. In the early days of a new strategy game, every crackpot strategy is viable depending on the opposing force’s ability to react.
There’s a wide variety of maps to force different strategies. The Black Forest map offers early protection thanks to the maze of trees in between competitors, while King of the Hill masses piles of resources in the middle of the map to overcharge expansions and conflict. Victory in a match can be achieved in different ways: destroying all landmarks of a side, capturing and holding certain strategic locations for 10 minutes, or building an ultra-expensive Wonder and defending it for 15 minutes.
A multiplayer match can end within 10 minutes or stretch out for over an hour depending on skill levels, the number of players involved, or in my case, simple hesitancy to attack early. Invading with a meager force in the early game is a greedy and intimidating tactic, a wrong move can mean you’ve basically handed the win over to the opponent on a silver platter.
At my ghastly skill level, all micro-intensive intentions to rotate out low health units, avoid being surrounded, or aim archers at squishy targets get thrown out the window when armies clash, still making satisfying pockets of chaos. As the front lines crunch together, the troops in the back automatically try to fill the gaps of falling comrades. A good hit with a Mangonel onto a group of soldiers still makes me squirm in my seat from satisfaction. And when the costly gunpowder units finally enter the fray, their brutal effectiveness makes up for their owner’s emptied treasuries, with even the most armored units, castles, and walls becoming literal cannon fodder.
There is a constant and frantic dance of trying to manage the economy while not starving your armies out of reinforcements. In so many instances I’ve had to stop a military advance because I didn’t notice my gold pile had run out and villagers have been idle for a minute (might as well call it an eternity). This requirement of dividing attention across every aspect is also why so many strategies are viable, from decoy armies and dropping a castle beside the enemy, to exhilarating last-ditch rushes at opponent Landmarks to win the game as they fall prey to tunnel visioning on the wrong things. At the end of every match, a breakdown of each player’s performance is provided by the game, and match replays are also available. Two crucial things for anyone looking to improve their playstyle.
Interestingly, in team games, the asymmetrical civilizations can cover for each other’s weaknesses and share benefits. A Mongol player could put up a few sheep spawning tents at an ally base for easier Food collection and get walls in return to cover for the Mongol’s lack of them.
The development team will be monitoring the balance in casual playlists before introducing its highly competitive 1v1-only Ranked Seasons experience and rewards in a post-launch update. The casual Quick Match system available at launch still functions using ELO rankings and supports up to eight players — 1v1 through 4v4 — offering massive maps made to contain the possible total of 1,600 units (200 per faction).
If customizability is more a priority, the included traditional server browser is the ideal way to go. Whether it be against players, bots or a combo, everything about a match can be tweaked, including specific team sizes, map choices, biomes, victory types, and more. Once mod support becomes a reality next year, this section of the game will be even more important. Chilling with a cooperative game against AI (either with friends or via matchmaking) is thankfully still an option too, where stress is markedly lower.
Graphics and performance
Undoubtedly the most divisive aspect about Age of Empires IV is its art style and graphics. From the moment the game was announced to the latest gameplay showcases, there are always "calm" debates surrounding how it looks, giving me flash backs of Civilization VI's reveal. The look of the game is something even I was hesitant about at first, especially in the ways Microsoft kept showing it off, but finally playing the game is when I came to appreciate it. Obviously, this has been a conscious decision considering Relic Entertainment's development ancestry, the deep pockets of the publisher, and the amount of care that has gone into all areas of the game.
The most obvious reasons for this direction are readability and performance. A quick glance at any battlefield in any of the six biomes gets you completely updated on the situation. Even when hundreds of units from multiple players are clashing, the colors and models cut through the clutter to provide crucial data, which is invaluable for a fast-paced real time strategy game. The same can’t be said for some faction buildings unfortunately. With weeks of playtime now under my belt, can I tell you which buildings does what from looking at the below screenshot? Sure. Would I be able to do it while being raided and trying to build a quick reaction force? It will be a real struggle, as I've found out firsthand.
Being a PC exclusive, the lower hardware barrier of entry cannot hurt either, the minimum requirements ask for integrated GPUs after all. The performance on my aging Radeon RX 580 8GB, which delightfully sits right above the recommended tier, has been stellar, squeezing out 60+ FPS at 1080p with all settings except for Anti-Aliasing set to maximum. Granular control is offered over a sea of graphics options to squeeze out any stubborn frames. Suffice to say, if you can run the franchise’s remasters without hitches, you probably won’t have issues with Age of Empires IV.
The game can still be very pretty in motion. The rolling hillsides covered with shimmering grass or snow, quiet rivers flowing across maps as clouds cast shadows from above, dense forests spread across valleys and on top of cliffs, and cute little sheep with their bows (as Scouts lead them to their deaths) all look vibrant and pop out of the screen. Minute details such as automatically generated paths between buildings, sacks of food nearby mills, and fenced off gardens near houses also plump city density and immersion.
With all that said, even now I have friends I'm in the process of convincing to give the game a shot before judging it too harshly over the supposed subpar graphics. This will undeniably be an uphill battle for Age of Empires IV. Thankfully, Game Pass should come in clutch here.
The sound of thousands of hooves hitting the ground makes everything rumble even before the cavalry charge come into view. You can hear the fear in a villager’s voice as they defend against a wolf attack alone. Echoing whistles of Scouts as they spot rival camps. Ambient noise near busy cities. The roar of armies as they encounter enemy troops and laugh with obvious mirth after winning a skirmish. It is all distinct, clear, and just so well executed. I feel for the throats of all the voice actors who had to scream their lungs out for these recordings, but their sacrifices weren’t in vain. This is easily the most impressed and blown away I’ve been about audio in a strategy game.
Instances in the campaign like the music being pulled back as Mongol hordes approach Moscow before returning with drums just before waves of horsemen appear elevates the entire encounter. The same drums keep up the pace and crack through the air during Mongol raids in their own story. Even in multiplayer, as every sound in the battlefield is directional, my hand starts moving the camera before I even check the minimap for where the altercation is happening thanks to the precise audio.
It’s not just a high-quality implementation, it’s the attention to detail. When under cover inside a forest, units acknowledge commands with hushed voices. Unit dialect evolves with the Age of their civilization. The voices of at least the English go from incomprehensible in the Dark Age to having almost modern lines in the Imperial Age. Even in the main menu, the game slowly melds in different instruments and styles of music from appropriate cultures when browsing through factions. These decorative additions did not need to be here, but the developer spent a lot of effort, and I am glad.
Instead of going back to the drawing board and ending up losing the spark that defines the series (Command and Conquer 4 anyone?), Age of Empires IV manages to tactfully take the best parts of its predecessors and build a modern and accessible experience. This translates to stellar historical campaigns bolstered by documentary-style complementary videos and the fast-paced, deeply tactical, and exciting multiplayer playgrounds. Age of Empires IV can be extraordinarily complex if you want it to be. The creeping buildup of knowledge that translates to more lively and enjoyable games is an addicting cycle whether you’re interested in competitive multiplayer or in co-op against AI with friends.
There is a massive focus on tightening up the gameplay, having visual clarity, and not being a performance hog over beautifying the experience, a divisive approach. At the same time, the attention to detail for the audio will spoil your ears with a perfect implementation across the board, making this the best sounding strategy game yet by a wide margin.
For all the campaigns that marry history lessons and entertainment, distinctive asymmetrical civilizations and their interactions with each other, a surprise was the level of polish in the experience. I’m yet to even see a bugged objective marker let alone a crash. Don't mistake this for me saying improvements aren't needed. More easily distinguishable building models would be appreciated, and the decision to lock down some hotkeys is absurd.
It has been too long since the genre has been graced with a new face from a key player in the gaming world. It is a space that is dominated by classics, and thanks to Age of Empires IV's approachability and satisfying mix of new and old mechanics, there's nothing stopping newbies, wanderers from other RTS games, or old fans wanting to see what’s new from jumping in face first and having an enjoyable time. Right now, Age of Empires IV's greatest rivals are poised to be other games in its own franchise, and I don’t think Microsoft will mind that very much.
This review of Age of Empires IV was conducted on a pre-release copy of the Steam version provided by Microsoft.