Age of Empires 4 is here, 16 years after the last main installment in Microsoft’s iconic RTS franchise and more than two decades after the popular entry this fourth title is actually trying to emulate, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings.
There are few gaming franchises that have stood the test of time quite so well as Age of Empires. First released in 1997 as Microsoft’s answer to Command & Conquer and Blizzard’s Warcraft, Age of Empires offered something few other games had in the decade beforehand — a base in historic realism.
The series then hit its true fever pitch in 1999, with the release of Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. Gone was the Roman focus, forgotten were the Iron Ages. In their place, players were thrown into the war-torn Middle Ages in all its bloody glory.
22 years later, the franchise is still going strong.
This time around, Microsoft is looking to mine deep into that ever-lasting Age of Empires II hype, returning to medieval warfare with a heaping of modern upgrades.
Age of Empires 4 – Key details
- Price (Standard Edition): $59.99 (USD) | £49.99 (GBP) | $79 (AUD)
- Developer: Xbox Game Studios
- Release date: October 28, 2021
- Platforms: PC
Age of Empires 4 trailer
Blast from the ancient past
There’s one major feeling that I get as soon as I load into the game — nostalgia. Everything feels just like Age of Empires II, which, full disclosure, I’ve been playing near-nonstop since it was first released in 1999.
While I always enjoyed Warcraft and Starcraft, and am a pretty big sucker for Sid Meier’s Civilization series and everything it offers strategy fans, there’s a spot in my heart for Age of Empires II: Age of Kings that no other game holds. Even 22 years later, a hard-fought victory in AOE is a feeling few games can emulate.
So, loading into Age of Empires 4 felt like a homecoming.
There’s plenty of new icings to look at, and upgraded features Xbox Studios has squeezed into the game engine — built on Relic’s system just like the Age of Empires I and II remasters — but at its core, everything feels the same.
From the medieval polish on the game menus, to the chirpy unintelligible voices of villagers and soldiers, and even the string-heavy music from the Middle Ages, everything feels like a harkening back to the 1999 release. It’s near-impossible to forget you’re playing an AOE2 sequel, not something tied to the less popular Age of Empires III, and Microsoft heaps the style on from start to finish.
This was most evident in the early gameplay loop of the new sequel. I queued up some villagers, built early houses, farmed food and wood (via berry bushes and trees), pivoted into farms and gold, and climbed towards the first age advancement that would give me access to more buildings, options, and powerful fighting units.
Small things have changed along the way. A big one was that upgrading between the ages now requires you to choose special buildings that grant bonuses after their construction and are civ-specific. Another is that sheep move at a snail’s pace without a scout guiding them, basically “nerfing” their use as scouts themselves.
On top of all this, there are slicker animations given to builders, fighters, and all units’ movement across the map. It feels like Xbox Studios has gone back to Age of Empires II, learned it inside and out, and brought it into the ‘20s.
Therein, however, lies the rub — Age of Empires IV has a problem at its core; after Age of Empires III’s failure, the devs have become afraid of too much change.
Age of Empires 4 stuck in Feudal Age
Every good sequel, whether it be in gaming, film, television, or in the written world, always builds on what has come before. Adaptation and evolution are vital to breathing fresh life into any franchise, and without it, follow-ups feel stale.
Playing Age of Empires IV felt like going up from Feudal Age to Castle Age, but being locked with the second-age upgrades. You can’t build Castles, Siege Workshops, Universities, or Temples, and are instead stuck with Spearmen, Men-At-Arms, and Bowman. That’s how AOE 4 feels, described in AOE 2 terms.
In a bid to play it safe, Xbox Studios just didn’t do enough.
For players returning to the series after a lengthy hiatus — for some, that may well be a whopping 22 years since they last played an Age of Empires game — these problems won’t loom as large, but for those that stuck with the franchise over the past few decades, matches quickly feel like more of the same.
Playing through the same gameplay loop with a coat of paint is exactly what AOE fans did with Definitive Editions just a few years ago, so that’s not a new feeling either.
There was one thing I kept thinking as I was playing through the Standard Match games against AI enemies; I wish there was something new here. Age of Empires III was publicly lashed and quickly forgotten for deviating too far from the mold the first two titles and their expansions had set, but that didn’t mean the devs had made a mistake breaking away from what made Age of Kings great.
Xbox Studios needed to push the envelope but haven’t.
Everything from the buildings to build orders, military options, and pathways all feel like Age of Empires II. At stages in my preview, it almost felt like I was on auto-pilot, smashing out build orders I’d run through hundreds of times on Age of Kings.
Getting bored of the gameplay you’ve been playing for the last 22 years is a bad sign when you’re only hours into a long-awaited sequel over 16 years in the making.
History’s stories where AOE 4 shines
Putting matchmaking issues and Age of Empires II memories aside for a moment, there was one section where Microsoft’s new real-time strategy release really shone, and bright at that — the history-filled, story-heavy Campaigns.
I found myself getting lost in these historical retellings.
First up is “The Normans,” spearheaded by William the Conqueror and his grand Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. This starts (where else) with the Battle of Hastings in 1066, allowing you to take control of the grand victory that has continued to ring through the annals of history for the next thousand years.
It was here that Age of Empires IV really felt like it hit high gear. Live-action cutscenes showing off the battlefield, areas of concern, and the English coasts were riveting, especially once Xbox Studios loaded in the animated soldiers in battle formations, marching orders, and the din of battle.
This was even furthered by narration loaded over the top, setting the scene and really explaining the setup of each turning point in the war, which helped turn every skirmish into an epic contest.
So much of Age of Empires’ strengths have come from its base in reality. The franchise outshone Starcraft and Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and pop culture RTS riffs like Dune, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars with its focus on real-life playing out on the computer, and that same energetic storytelling is alive here too.
The same can be said of the next three campaign storylines.
There’s plenty on offer here. “The Hundred Years War” charts the epic conflict between England and France in the Middle Ages, before we head further east for “The Rise of Moscow,” and then finally into the Steppes for “The Mongol Empire.”
The most disappointing thing about the Campaigns was that they were often over too soon. The battles themselves were sometimes easy to finish, and there aren’t an endless amount of levels, but the rich history, storytelling, regular narration, and how much attention to detail the developers had all lifted the core single-player mode together.
The Campaigns give me great hope for Age of Empires IV, and leave me eagerly awaiting news on the DLC front: the game will benefit from more stories like these.
AOE 4 starts too far back
I understand that Microsoft and Xbox Game Studios would have been worried about Age of Empires III-style backlash, but they’ve gone too far to avoid it this time.
Considering many casual RTS fans see Age of Empires as one of the stalwarts of the genre, and would return to play the game just for its fourth release, to see a new riff on the franchise’s 1999 title will disappoint many. I have the highest of hopes for the title — AOE II is, of course, a testament to how strong the series can be — but Microsoft has a lot of work to do to make Age of Empires IV its own beast.
They already have a great starting off point with Campaigns, however. Leaning into the storytelling and rich history at the game’s fingertips and there’s a gem waiting there under all the rehashed mechanics and build orders.
I have high hopes for Age of Empires IV. There’s room for Microsoft to start taking the risks the series now desperately needs, within the framework of what they know already works. More stories, extra buildings, units, and of course loads more Civ options will build AOE back into its empire of old.
History’s greatest warlords, from Hannibal, Napoleon, and Caesar, to Age of Empire 4’s own darlings William the Conqueror, Dmitry Donskoi, and Genghis Khan, took immense risk for great reward.
For Age of Empires to succeed, Microsoft must do the same.
Reviewed on PC.