Age of Empires IV is something of a marvel, a modern-day RTS released at a time when the real-time strategy genre exists mainly on the periphery of the genre landscape. Dating back to the time PC games first integrated the mouse and keyboard for input; the isometric perspective of the RTS, the real-time combat, the shoring up of defences, and training a large force to take on threats is still timeless. And with examples few and far between in 2021, having something exceptional arrive takes on an extra special quality.
The Age of Empires franchise is one that has a rich history in the PC landscape, whilst using real-world history to define its distinct tone. Realistic units and weapons and structures filtered through the guise of something that is fun to learn and play. Age of Empires IV might be the first mainline release since 2005’s Age III, but thanks to a string of Definitive Edition remasters and continued support in the form of content drops for games like Age of Empires II -- it’s relevancy hasn’t waned.
With Age of Empires IV, you’ve not only got a game that feels in line with the best of the series, it’s the most impressive strategy game in years.
The word streamlined or simplified can take on a certain meaning when it comes to the strategy games we play. For a genre steeped in keyboard shortcuts, understanding tech trees, the importance of a build queue, and multi-tasking so you can turn that gold into gold-plated armour, Age of Empire IV’s easy-to-learn interface and systems go the opposite route to what you’d expect when throwing the word ‘streamlined’ into the mix.
The Age of Empires franchise is one that has a rich history in the PC landscape, whilst using real-world history to define its distinct tone. Realistic units and weapons and structures filtered through the guise of something that is fun to learn and play.
It’s still every bit the “PC game” that Age of Empires II is, albeit with several key refinements. From the clean and intuitive UI to the wonderful Art of War missions that teach you high-level play via simple to follow instructions, there’s a simplicity here that doesn’t belittle or soften the deep layer of strategy sitting below the surface. That whole “PC game” label is in reference to Age of Empires IV baking in things like managing groups and different units via the keyboard into the very core of the experience.
That said, one of the many brilliant touches is the automatic way troops and armies always fall-back into and attack in formation. Cavalry at the front, archers at the back. How units path-find and even cheat a little when moving through each other so as to not bottleneck is another nice touch.
Make no mistake about it, Age of Empires IV is complex. It requires an understanding of not only how to do something but what tools will best help you achieve that something. And how those tools fit into the larger picture. But the learning curve never feels steep, it’s one that invites you to try new things. To refine a strategy, to better learn positioning and how siege warfare works. Best of all, to learn what makes each civilisation click.
Sacking towns and buildings to generate resources as the Mongols, placing out of the way Hunting Cabins in the woods to amass gold as the Rus, getting access to game-changing canons as the French.
Even after you finish the engaging Moscovite campaign (after lengthy and memorable jaunts as the Normans, French, and Mongol empires), in an epic siege that sets the scene for Ivan the Terrible to begin his reign over most of Europe, there’s still a trove of things to discover.
It’s still every bit the “PC game” that Age of Empires II is, albeit with several key refinements. From the clean and intuitive UI to the wonderful Art of War missions that teach you high-level play via simple to follow instructions, there’s a simplicity here that doesn’t belittle or soften the deep layer of strategy sitting below the surface.
Not in the abstract or hidden-knowledge-through-expertise sense, once the final campaign wraps you’ll want nothing more than to jump back into a skirmish. To try out one of the many playable civilisations not featured in the documentary-driven campaigns. To team-up with a friend to take on some AI, or to try your luck in an online bout of APM skill. To further hone your skills via the aforementioned Art of War missions.
History has always played a role in the Age of Empires series, but in a way that separates fact from fiction. Like the Civilization series’ take on the sim, the action is historic but built around RTS staples like the ability to amass armies and build towns in a matter of minutes. There’s very little in the way of personal or emotional stakes in play -- outside of forgetting to put up walls and having to fend off a too-close-for-comfort ambush. If the nameless villagers building a landmark to advance your civilisation to the next Age are, well, killed, train a few more using food stores in your Town Centre to get things back on track.
Units and structures with real-world reference points, but a pace and level of interactivity that is anything but realistic. In Age of Empires IV religious buildings train monks and priests with the power of Holy Heals.
In Age of Empires IV this separation between for reals history and game stuff is clearer than ever thanks to the documentary-driven campaigns. Split into various historical empirical periods, each mission looks at key battles or moments, with years and even decades separating each encounter. There’s an inherent disconnect that comes from this setup, the documentary shorts coupled with the matter-of-fact in-game narration keep you at a distance from the historical moments depicted. Even with ‘hero’ units like Joan of Arc, you lose out on intimacy and personal stories. Stuff seen in the many RTS campaigns of yore.
But the documentary-as-a-campaign fits the Age of Empires mould so well. It’s remarkably engaging, informative, thrilling, and expertly put together. History in a text-book meets entertaining BBC doco sense, where one minute you’ll learn how crossbowmen maintained and fired their ranged weaponry to then spotting your own stone-wall positioned crossbowmen animate in the very same way.
As someone who’s knowledge of medieval warfare is rudimentary at best, the way Age of Empires IV adds context through documentary footage is remarkable. And in terms of documentary clout, it also manages to create a distinct look thanks to the blend of real-world footage and locations with an animated overlay. It all looks fantastic, with great cinematography, wonderful music, sound effects, and exceptional video quality. That last bit might sound superfluous to throw in but it’s weird how many games, even in 2021, ship with heavily compressed cinematic sequences. Stuff that makes YouTube compression look good.
The documentary-as-a-campaign fits the Age of Empires mould so well. It’s remarkably engaging, informative, thrilling, and expertly put together.
It’s a small thing, to say the quality of the documentary footage in Age of Empires IV is great. It’s also indicative of the entire game. In terms of in-game performance Age of Empires IV scales well across a wide range of PC hardware. Not only that but performance remains stable even when the action heats up and stone walls begin to crumble. On the ultra-high end, the land of the GeForce RTX 3080 and RTX 3090, maintaining a native 4K presentation and 100+ fps is possible. Playing on an RTX 3060 powered laptop, maintaining a smooth 60fps at 1080p is pretty easy too.
Age of Empires IV looks wonderful in motion, where everything from individual unit animation to ambient sound design is given room. It’s all of a quality rarely seen in the RTS space, but even here things are streamlined and expertly crafted. Even with 200 units on-screen, environmental detail isn’t what you’d call realistic or at a fidelity that would put any rig to the test. The omissions and clarity is designed with an eye towards readability and not losing sight of the tides and turns of a battle. Being able to track production and teching up is important, and the visuals here are in service of that.
It won't take long before you're zipping around the mini-map building walls, upgrading units, and training new soldiers in a click-frenzy. It’s this clarity that makes what was seemingly a downside, a plus.
In playing a number of skirmishes it was hard to shake the feeling that a lot of the units and structures found across each civilisation looked a little too familiar. A sentiment that carried across to shared units like spearmen and archers. But it’s this familiarity that plays into the clarity of the battlefield and the nuance and differences that each faction brings to the table.
Outside of the more unique units and structures there’s a foundation here that is commendable, a balance and flow that ultimately keeps the campaign feel like a singular story, even though you’re talking about the Hundred Year War between the English and French and the Mongol Empire in the east.
Age of Empires IV isn’t something strictly for fans, there’s no accrued history you need to know before jumping in. It does however feel like a natural extension of Age of Empires II’s brilliance -- and for that does feel like the return of something great. What you’ve got here is a modern progression of the age-old, well, Age of Empires formula with all of the style and depth you could hope for. As a foundation for more campaigns, more maps, and more of everything to come it’s exciting. The documentary approach to the four campaigns on offer is not only a winner, but a confident step forward for the series. Historical warfare with an eye toward the educational. Age of Empires IV is not only one of the very best slices of real-time strategy gaming, period, it’s a candidate for best game of 2021.
What we liked
Documentary-style campaigns are wonderful
Streamlined and intuitive without losing and complexity
Challenging in all the right ways
Faction variation is wonderful and draws on history to create fun mechanics
Deep and rewarding strategy that’s accessible
Art of War missions are great for learning the RTS ropes
Smooth and stable performance across a wide range of PC hardware
Feels every bit like a great and modern take on Age of Empires
So many great little touches
Nails the siege stuff
That first time you take down a stone wall with canon-fire… so satisfying
What we didn't like
Some AI behaviour needs work, some troops stand there while nearby units are hit by artillery
Campaign lacks a bit of personality in the voiced-characters department
No naval or Sultanate in the launch campaigns
A few more Art of War missions would have been nice too