It’s been almost 15 years since the last instalment of Microsoft’s seminal real-time strategy (RTS) game. Man, it’s good to be back playing the newest game in the series, Age of Empires IV. Back in the day, Ensemble Studios was the proud custodian of the Age of Empire mantle but that developer has sadly long since departed. The reins have now been handed to Canadian development studio Relic Entertainment, an experienced developer with a fine pedigree of RTS games behind it like Homeworld and the Company of Heroes series.
Returning to the medieval age, AOEIV offers eight civilizations (English, Chinese, French, Rus, Roman Empire, Delhi Sultanate, Mongols and Abbasid Dynasty) and a handful of single-player campaigns running from the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 up to the Russo-Kazan wars of 1552. It also offers multiplayer.
Like all good RTS games, Age of Empires IV has its foundations set firmly in RTS stone: Use resources to build your empire and army – and conquer the world.
Training wheels? Absolutely.
The game has a nice tutorial mode, nicely narrated, that will teach newcomers all the basic game play mechanics. There’s also a dedicated training mode that you can play once you’ve completed the opening tutorial if you want to learn more details about the game. If you’re new to the series, I’d recommended it highly.
The campaign starts with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and before each battle there are rather good documentary-style introductory clips that provides context around the battle and a bit of History Channel atmosphere. The videos really do add a sense of history to the whole affair and are extremely good.
Gameplay wise, Age of Empires IV will feel familiar to anyone who has cut their teeth on the series but it’s accessible enough for new players so they aren’t overwhelmed by complex systems. I think newcomers will find it easy to pick up and play and I liked how the AI was smart enough (most of the time) to generally get on with what they were tasked with. Most of the time, anyway.
The game has taken its roots and moved them into the modern age but that’s not to say that it won’t kick your arse from time to time if you employ the wrong tactics or put all your eggs into one offensive basket.
Leaders learn from mistakes too.
Case in point: It had been a while since I’d played an Age of Empires game. So when sacking the capital of York during the Battle of Hastings campaign, a rather embarrassing defeat at the hands of King William’s forces reminded me that I definitely needed to keep my archers away from the action. I positioned them in a location where they remained safe but their ranged abilities enabled them to pick off the enemy forces one by one. I favoured the “swarm the enemy with everything I have” strategy, but really should have been tactically using my lancers and horse-based troops to systematically take out enemy foot soldiers and archers. It was a sobering lesson but one I did not repeat for future campaigns.
While Age of Empires IV’s structure is fundamentally the same as previous games in the series, it has brought the ability for you to allow your troops to ambush enemies by hiding in forests (including them whispering to each other to avoid detection) and it was a nice touch. Of course, enemies can do the same thing so there is more of an emphasis now on using the scout unit to survey the battle field, rather than just revealing the map as he moves forward.
The Age of Empires IV nitty gritty.
Battles did feel a little repetitive early on though. Especially in early campaigns where unit types are sparse and the game is limited in campaign content at the moment. Thankfully, battles open up the further you progress through the ages and unlock better technology like trebuchets.
Graphically, Age of Empires IV has a real painterly style to it, which I liked, but it’s not the most graphically demanding game out there.
I noticed quite a bit of environmental pop-in, especially in the opening in-game engine cutscenes. Trees, especially, seem to pop into view as the camera zooms in. Units are extremely well animated, though, and in a nod to the low-spec machines that have run AOE games of yore, it has a low-spec graphical mode which lets users with less-cutting edge PCs and laptops play it in a lower resolution with less visual flair and reduced lighting effects. On the counter, it will offer higher frame rates, so silver lining, right? I also noticed frame rate drops when you move the in-game camera around, too, so hopefully these issues will be fixed with a patch or update.
Age of Empires IV in summary.
I was playing on a PC with an Intel i5 10600K CPU, 16Gb RAM and a Sapphire RX580 (8Gb of memory) GPU, and AOEIV set the graphics to a mix of medium to high graphical settings. According to AMD’s inbuilt Adrenaline software FPS counter, I was averaging close to 80 frames per second (78.6FPS, to be specific). You can also lock a specific frame rate if you want, too (30, 60, 75, 120, 144 or 165).
Age of Empires IV seems to me to be the start of a comeback for the series and it does what it does well, but just don’t expect innovation.
Age of Empires IV is a good, solid entrant in the series – it’s building the foundations for the future of the series moving forward. That should satisfy long-time players of the series, although the lack of content may frustrate after a while, and is accessible for newcomers to the series.
Highly recommended by me.