Age of Empires IV Review – Return of the King
Age of Empires IV28th October, 2021
If you had come to me seven years ago and told me that Age of Empires would be a thing again, I would have called you a fool. I would have said to you that Age of Empires is dead, Microsoft killed it and that Microsoft should piss off out of the games industry because they are ruining everything they touch. At the time, I was right. Recent titles (Gears Tactics, Microsoft Flight Simulator), and traditional Xbox console exclusives coming to PC, indicate that the company knows the PC is a significant market. After a string of top-notch remasters, all eyes are now on Age of Empires IV.
Bringing in Relic Entertainment was a brilliant move by Microsoft. The simple reality is that no developer, except for Creative Assembly and Eugen Systems, comes close to Relic in making real-time strategy games of consistently high quality. It also lends a pedigree to Age of Empires IV, one that - despite the aforementioned remasters - could have been lost due to time, the demise of Ensemble Studios, and the damage titles like Age of Empires Online and Age of Empires: Castle Siege caused to the franchise. It also allows World's Edge, the future AoE/Strategy studio, to work with and learn from one of the best in the industry.
You may wonder why I've talked so much about the studios, not about the game. Is it because the game isn't as good as I'd hoped? Am I just playing for time before I let it drop that Age of Empires IV is just not that good of a game? Nah. Even if that were the case, it's coming to Game Pass, so it's not like you'd be losing out. Fortunately, this is a game that is great in many ways. It's also addictive enough that I've had a few days of looking up from my monitor to realise that I've been at the computer for far too many hours, and I'm starting to look malnourished, or I'm looking up to realise that it's almost morning.
Much like binge-watching an excellent series, or fascinating documentary on Netflix, there's something in Age of Empires IV that keeps my eyes glued to the screen. Part of this links to the idea of a documentary. The campaigns here are both lengthy and meaty but also interesting, informative, and very well done.
The start and end of missions will give you shots of real-world locations with representations of the forces you're about to control or fight. Sometimes you'll see other live-action shots representing significant elements of the period of your current campaign. It's all so very interesting for a history nerd like me, and I've learned something. It's a positive in my eyes that this can be fun, interesting, educational, and addictive all at the same time.
Age of Empires IV has four campaigns, covering over thirty missions. Some of these are reasonably short; others will take you well over an hour to complete. Each of them offers the variety you would find in older Age of Empires titles, from missions where you only control military units to city-defence missions or ones where you're laying siege. The campaign runs the whole gamut and, even on medium difficulty, will offer a decent challenge.
Some of these campaigns seem to have been selected to highlight the differences between the factions. There are only eight factions in the base game. At first glance, this seems small at launch compared to the twelve in Age of Empires and thirteen in Age of Empires II, though it's the same as Age of Empires III. The key difference here is precisely that: difference. These factions feel unique in various ways, each of them offering unique buildings, perks, and units. However, there is one outlier.
This outlier is the Mongols. Everything about them is unique and fits with the nomadic nature of their culture. For example, every structure within the faction can be packed up and moved. Your settlement is mobile, as was true of the Mongols. They aren't the easiest faction to use, however. Positioning is everything, with you particularly wanting to place your buildings around an Oovo built on stone. Setting structures around the Oovo enables you to research more advanced upgrades. It's an interesting balance, and frankly, with the Mangudai as your core unit, you're always in with a fighting chance.
No other factions are that interesting. It's a curse of the period the game covers. They all have their little perks. English longbowmen, for example, have an ability that lets them place down palings as a layer of defence. You've got the War Elephants for the Delhi Sultanate, camels for the Abbasids, and more. Add onto this resource or defence building perks for China or the Rus, or economy boosts for the Abbassids, and you realise how different each faction is.
Having seen what Relic and World's Edge can do, I am certainly interested in seeing more. I can only imagine what they could do with Japan and a campaign chronicling the Sengoku period or the Ottoman Empire and the many campaigns they had. It's fascinating to me when you include the mechanics of how you move from one age to the next, having to choose a landmark (unless you're China, which can build both) and how other factions will play with this, and more.
I'm talking about what could come down the line for Age of Empires IV there; I can't review the game based on that. I will say that the factions feel varied and far from interchangeable, so the lower number of eight isn't a problem. All of this talk about the extensive campaigns and the various factions are fine, but how does it play? Nothing matters if that isn't good.
Anybody familiar with Age of Empires and most strategy games will know the expanded rock, paper, scissors strategy that permeated the genre. Age of Empires IV is in no way different, only with what feels like a broader range of units offering an ever-increasing expansion on that sort of gameplay. It also helps that the AI provides a reasonable amount of challenge, pathfinding is spot-on mainly, and there are more features to help make the game more tactical than ever before.
One new feature is the line of sight. No, wait a minute, let me explain. There are now tall grasses that you can hide your troops in and ambush enemies. You'll also find similar things using your navy, such as tall reeds, which adds a layer to naval combat. Remember, your line of sight is also lowered, which is why you're best off bringing a scout or having other units in place so you can see the enemy coming. Another feature present in older Age of Empires titles is increased sight and bonuses from holding the high ground. This is more pronounced than ever before, thanks to the design of the maps.
That's another thing that's worth speaking about, design. Age of Empires IV is a great looking and sounding game. The quality of the models, the terrain, and its variety are great and different parts of the world look very distinct. In addition to this, bits of paths that appear as you place your buildings down or enclosures pop up as you build a house, making your settlement look like an actual settlement. The only downside is unit models, which are not as good as the rest of the game.
Include, then, the excellent soundtrack, which has music that varies depending on the faction you are playing and is generally quite pleasant to listen to, never overbearing. Further, there are small bits of audio like the voices of units - never usually something to pay attention to - that change depending on your faction and seem to also change in the campaign, depending on the time your mission takes place. It all helps to increase immersion in a genre that rarely goes to that sort of length.
If this were all, that would already be enough, but there's more. Now, I'm not exactly that enamoured with the always-online XP profiles nonsense, so I'll be honest and say this doesn't appeal to me. However, Age of Empires IV also has an XP system, daily challenges, and masteries for each faction. Masteries, and other challenges, unlock cosmetic options for your banner as well as a monument that shows on your town centre in multiplayer matches.
I only have one real problem with Age of Empires IV, the population limit. Returning to the series norm of 200 feels restrictive, in all honesty. I know full well that my computer could handle more, and with the size of the huge maps in a skirmish, the map could take more. Also, maybe this is due to the same reason as the population cap, but when your units die, they just disappear. I want to see my blood-stained and body-littered battlefields, not just remnants of destroyed buildings.
The reality is that when you also include the myriad of options in skirmish mode, online play, and the extensive campaign, Age of Empires IV is a great package. It doesn't revolutionise, but it doesn't need to. This feels like the authentic, logical sequel to Age of Empires II, and I couldn't ask for more. Would I recommend buying Age of Empires IV? Yes, I most certainly would. That or play it via your game pass subscription.
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Age of Empires IV is, in almost every way, a true sequel to Age of Empires II. It plays great and has a few new features that add more tactical elements to combat and how you develop your faction. On factions, it truly allows them to differentiate themselves from each other. There are slight issues, such as the population cap that feels very restrictive and the lower-quality of unit models, but these are minor in what is an otherwise outstanding game, and one where an undeniable amount of effort and work has gone into - which includes hours of documentary-style clips to support the campaign.
- An excellent campaign offering a lot of variety, as well as being supported by very interesting documentary-style clips, as well as information given throughout the missions.
- Strong AI for both the enemy and your units avoids many issues that tend to plague games of this type.
- Factions feel more varied than ever before, with a wealth of unique units, buildings and features.
- Added tactical elements, such as tall grass to hide and ambush, let the game stand out from previous iterations.
- It looks and sounds great, with little details in audio and visuals helping to let the game stand out...
- ... However, unit models stand out for the wrong reason, looking poor compared to the rest of the game.
- Limits itself to 200 population, which feels unnecessarily small, especially on larger maps.