Oh, boy! To say that RTS fans ate well in 2020 is an understatement. Crusader Kings IIIwas one of the biggest hits for Microsoft Game Pass of the year. Sega finally did right again by Total War fans with the epic of Troy: A Total War Saga and its amazing DLC packs. Orcs Must Die! 3killed a lot of orcs and none of the series’ freshness.
So I have to say that I was not looking forward to 2021 dropping Age of Empires IV in my lap and saying, don’t worry, it’s fine again. I am here to tell you that it mostly is fine.
New series developer Relic Entertainment has a pretty good track record of respecting and reviving IPs like Warhammer 40,000 and Company of Heroes, so it’s no surprise that they’ve created a safe and yet satisfying addition to the crown jewel of RTS games. While Age of Empires IV doesn’t really bring much new or revolutionary to the series or the genre, it adds a slight next-generation flair and some convenient lifestyle improvements.
Age of Empires IV — A Documentary in Deployment
So much of Age of Empires IV‘s wow factor comes from the amazing things we can do in video game engines now. During each stop along the game’s campaign, you’ll unlock a mini-documentary called Hands-on History presented in 4K with actual historians, hobbyists and presenters breaking down things like how to build castles and chainmail, mix gunpowder and even construct the Great Wall of China, as well as explaining what happened in the real-life battles as they play out before your eyes with ghostly gold character outline layered over. For those who don’t skip cutscenes, it’s quite the treat!
In terms of overall appearance while in battle, there are so many of the same old stylings here to love. People and buildings still very much appear lacking a modern level of detail and polish to them, which I guess can be charming when it comes to RTS titles. There is a lot to love when it comes to lighting and movement, as each has been carefully tweaked to achieve fluid motion and detail. One of my greatest critiques of the series to date is that it hasn’t always performed visually. As the action unfolds, shadows and models have seemingly just crept along at times — you might recall that I greatly disliked this when playing through Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition.
in Age of Empires IV, battles play out in a way that’s not overly visually simplistic. Still, it could also have benefited from the boost this generation of gamming could indeed offer. Two or more warring armies merely and very slowly meet in a battle where there’s often a side encircling and a side defending. Men simply crumple and fall while grouping breaks apart. Even in the siege and naval battles, walls fall, and ships simply sink. I can recall games that came out in the time around 2005 that had more satisfying levels of death and destruction. it’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s pretty close.
I have the High Ground
Age of Empires IV adds in an extreme level of high-level tactical skill that has the potential to leave you feeling punished, but it also dramatically rewards those who understand and appreciate its tactical trappings. I’ve been playing the campaigns on the middle-rung Intermediate difficulty, and the game has been punishing me with its random attacks on my fortifications and the sheer number of troops present when I launch counter-attacks. If you go anywhere above Easy, be ready to really work through the ages!
Primary to tact is the new topographical map system that rewards those who pay attention to the golden, glowing elevation lines that surround the map. Units like archers, gunners and siege weapons benefit from better vision and attack when they are stationed at a higher elevation. Meanwhile, lower elevations are usually hiding dense foliage that units can use to hide in until they are primed for attack. There were several cases where I was able to take on larger forces by baiting them to attack an outpost or a garrison on a hill with a cavalry charge hidden in wait until the enemy was far enough up a hill that they were trapped between an arrow and a horse hoof.
I’ve come to greatly admire knowing how the elevation of the ground I’m on is going to affect the battle. It adds a layer of detail that really makes the series more than just Rock, Paper, Scissors with the addition of tactical troop placement.
Pause for Placement
One of the greatest lifestyle updates to Age of Empires IV is its focus on grouping together units for and in battle. Units will organize themselves in terms of placement of cavalry upfront with spearmen and swordsmen next, followed by archers and gunners. There’s also the ability to further group units by assigning them a numbered hotkey so that you can quickly command your troops in battle. Along with these hotkeys, there are also new ones associated with troop formation, as well as the ability to quickly drag out formations for your troops, so they are in the right place to do the greatest amount of damage. This does wonder for improving tactical action as you can quickly stager out a group of swordsmen so as to spread cavalry out. Or drop two sets of archers quickly onto a ridge to deal with a coming spearmen charge.
Siege engines are another place where Age of Empires IV gets troop placement right. Because these units can not be built by ranged units wherever they may be, you no longer have to wait for their slow advance. I can’t tell you how much time this has saved me in battle! Gone are the days where it felt like you waited an eternity for siege weapons to arrive before you’re able to take a town.
I do wish that there were a stop time button, at least in Campaign, as it can feel rushed using these hotkeys and tactical groupings in the heat of the moment, but I am willing to cede that there’s an ethical dilemma of real-time strategy involved in that ask. But I am going to ask every time I review an RTS game because you never know who’s reading!
Where Age of Empires IV’s multiplayer is best is in its factions and their unique abilities. There’s plenty here to make the eight playable civilizations with unique heroes who can feel the same at times. In both Campaign and Skirmish, hero units feel somewhat impersonal as there are no lines of dialogue or any level of characterization to them. This is even somewhat of a step back from the voiced cutscenes of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition. The slick documentary scenes in the Campaign are visually exciting and educational, but when it extends into explaining outright what is happening in the campaign and leaves heroes silent in Skirmish and Multiplayer, there’s really nothing to heroes aside from special abilities that help in combat or in the building. I would have loved to see something along the lines of personalities being built out, as you’d find in, say, Civilization.
On the positive end of things, Relic Entertainment has done a fantastic job of tweaking factions so that they benefit different play styles. The English are who you start Campaign mode with and are basically your bread and butter resource-collecting and outpost-building civilization. The Russians play very similar but have an ability that allows them to generate more deer for food without having to go track them down and adds gold earned for all deers killed, essentially meaning the civilization grows with communism and the means of production. Newly added Delhi Sultanate has a devastating special cavalry unit in the war elephant and also uses a unique unit in the scholars to quickly develop technologies.
You’ll want to learn all eight factions because it’s highly likely that one or two are going to click with you in terms of what you’ll use in Skirmish and Multiplayer. Campaign currently teaches you how to use the English, Mongol and Russian factions, but paired with the Art of War training courses Skirmish and Multiplayer, so you’ll find out what matters most to you and how you use that to your advantage.
Some things stay the same
Multiplayer victories are more or less the same as they’ve always been. And that’s fine! Victory is still heavily tied to how you advance through the ages and focus on taking the victory. Military victory is possible. All you need to do is squash your opponent’s landmarks that are constructed through the ages. But it’s still faster to try and defend the map’s holy sites for 10 minutes to cash in on a religious victory. If you want a wonderful victory, you’ll have to create your late-game wonder and defend it for 10 minutes. So a lot is the same in terms of how you win, but I’m more than willing to bet there’s going to be some real development in how people go about that. I’ve already recognized that players going for wonder victories seem to favour China for their ability to build two wonders at the start of every age — greatly helping with ensuring they survive long enough to build a great wonder and hold it for victory.
Age of Empires IV isn’t revolutionary. In fact, it still very much feels like it may be lagging behind in terms of modernizing the RTS genre. Relic Entertainment has chosen to play it safe for now, and that’s either going to be fine with you, or it isn’t. I, for one, am enjoying the documentary telling of the campaign, even if its characters lack personality and depth. The lifestyle improvements added to this instalment are sure to demand tactical thinking, but in exchange, they make it easier for you to dispatch your foe. All and all, this is the most fun I’ve had with an RTS game in a while. This is a great addition to the field.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]