Its historical immersion is rich, but sadly, its multiplayer portion is lacking.
After more than a decade of waiting, a new Age of Empires game is finally here. With the originals developed by the now-defunct Ensemble Studios, Relic Entertainment has taken up the challenge to create a game that will appeal to both existing fans and new players. From what I can tell after playing over the past few weeks, they've certainly managed to develop an enjoyable real-time strategy game that many players will embrace, but there are also some annoyances that I think the older games simply did better.
For those who don't know the game or the series yet, Age of Empires IV is the spiritual successor to Age of Empires II from 1999, which was also set in the Middle Ages, and sticks quite close to the classic elements of real-time strategy games: building your base, training villagers in order to extract resources such as wood and gold, and quickly building up an army to fight your enemies. Military units follow a rock-paper-scissors principle, with spearmen countering cavalry, cavalry countering archers, and archers countering spearmen. Age of Empires also features an age system, where you progress from the lowest 'Dark Age' to the highest 'Imperial Age', allowing you to gain a technological advantage over your adversaries when you invest in your economy.
Age of Empires IV launches with eight playable civilisations with unique advantages. There's a core of shared buildings and units, but with civilisation-specific skins, and some unique units such as the Mongol Mangudai cavalry archers, Delhi's armoured elephants, or English Longbowmen. All unit taunts are in a historic language such as old French or Mongolian, which together with the music adds to the immersion of a historic game. Age of Empires IV is running on Relic's latest Essence Engine 5, offering highly detailed and colourful buildings and units, including the ability to turn the camera 360 degrees around to enjoy the scenery.
The first thing I did when I started playing the game was given the single-player campaigns a try. And really, I think Relic did an amazing job here as the campaigns are really well-made and enjoyable. They allow you to relive the struggles and conquests of either the Normans, French, Mongols, or Rus, offering a great combination of concise, high-quality documentary videos narrating the campaign story and missions that drop you right into the action to play out important events. Watching the present-day site of the Hastings battlefield in the video first and then playing out the battle simply felt very immersive for me. At other times, important figures or events are illustrated using contemporary drawings such as the Bayeux Tapestry. The combination of great visual storytelling and dropping into the action during missions makes it feel as if you're playing an interactive documentary, which I really enjoy.
Besides the videos that propel the campaign story forward, there are additional videos zooming in on specific topics relevant to the campaign you're playing. There's content on castle construction, horse archery, and Mongol war drums, for example, which do a great job of amplifying your campaign experience. Even as a historian who's read lots of books and articles on history, I feel like I've got a novel emotional experience playing the campaign of the Mongol Conquests, for example. The fact that units speak their authentic languages and the game's music and visuals add to the experience while playing. All in all, I think the campaigns are definitely a high point in historical strategy gaming.
I'm also having a good time zooming in and looking at my units and buildings. Relic's new Essence Engine does a fine job at delivering a highly detailed environment, colourful buildings, and authentic-looking units. I felt the unit's weapons were a bit too cartoony at first because they're relatively big compared to the units, but it's something you can get used to really quickly. It's also easy enough to discern different unit types on the screen. Buildings that get damaged also have neat destruction animations and the camera allows you to rotate freely, so there are plenty of things to like. The UI is very minimalist and could've used some more historical bells and whistles, besides not distinguishing clearly between units or buildings, but those things probably don't matter in the long run.
There are also things I don't like though, things that also don't seem to fit the game's Age of Empires legacy. When I'm playing multiplayer maps or skirmishes against the AI, the maps in the game often feel very small. When building your base, there's only limited space available to place buildings. Civilisation bonuses also require you to pack your buildings close together. The base building element in the game, therefore, feels more along the lines of Starcraft 2 and a clear break from Age of Empires II. Coupled with a lower zoom level, the map feels cramped at times. I'm also thinking this will impact the multiplayer part of the game. Longer multiplayer matches in AoE II often result in 'trash wars', where players build lots of military buildings, spamming low-cost units onto a battlefield ebbing back and forth. The lack of buildings in this game means you're unlikely to rebuild an army quickly after a lost battle, especially considering buildings are destroyed much faster than previously.
Another thing I dislike is the siege weapons. The medieval catapults and arrow-shooting ballistas that are in the game move very clumsily in my experience and take up a lot of space on the smaller maps. In contrast to previous Age of Empires games, they also don't damage friendly units. This means a melee fight is mostly won by the side who throws in a couple of catapults at no penalty whatsoever. Naval combat suffers from the same issues as the siege weapons. What's nice is that ships are clearly distinct between the different civilisations and there are some really nice-looking ones, like a big cannonball-firing Chinese 'Baochuan' warship. Unfortunately, the ships move in the same clumsy way as siege weapons and quickly fill the screen in large numbers. It's also a shame that they're often rotating left and right uncontrollably as if they're in constant doubt where to go next. There are some other annoyances, such as the inability to target specific units with your fortifications, which often auto-target the least optimal units.
It would be unfair, though, to only see this game in the light of previous Age of Empires games. Because as soon as I let go of preconceptions about how Age of Empires should be, I have to admit that I'm curious to see how I will fare in multiplayer when the game launches on October 28. The pace in the game is going to be quite fast based on my (limited) multiplayer experience so far. For example, the French are capable of doing a knight rush around the 6-minute mark, which moves the series more towards a '6 pool' Zerg rush in Starcraft 2. Based on your civilisation, you'll need to prepare for what's coming from your opponents. Rushing the Rus will be difficult for example, as they have early access to good fortifications, while the Mongols can pack up their base to grab fresh resources. I, therefore, think the asymmetry between civilisations which the developers claimed in the previews is definitely there and will lead to interesting strategies and metas, but this is something that will appear only when large numbers of players start playing the game. So far, I expect it to work out well.
Relic has also added some novel elements to the game. There are now neutral trading posts on the map, many ways to boost resource gathering, and religious sites that trigger a timed victory just like relics and wonders used to do in older Age of Empires games. I felt annoyed when the AI won the first skirmish match this way, but it's a way to keep players on their toes by offering multiple means of victory. Aging up is also more complex than before, requiring you to build landmark buildings like in Age of Empires III. They can fit in with your overall strategy well, as they can sometimes offer a strong defensive upgrade for your town or an economic boost if you're planning to boom and strike later in the game. Like the asymmetry between civilisations, I feel it's a nice challenge ahead to master my preferred strategy in the coming months playing online.
So what's my final verdict about Age of Empires IV? From the perspective of historical immersion, Age of Empires IV's campaigns are definitely a high point in the series. Gameplay-wise, the game incorporates a lot of things from the older games that work well, while upgrading the series to a visually pleasing game engine. However, it also does some things differently that I'm not that fond of, primarily the sense of smaller maps and clumsy ships and siege weapons. On the other hand, looking at Age of Empires IV by itself, there's a lot of depth to the strategies to be discovered in competitive play with the new asymmetric civilisations, strategic options when advancing to another age, and a faster game pace which brings it closer to other games such as the Starcraft series. Ultimately, I'm looking forward to playing the multiplayer over the coming months, to see which strategies players will come up with and figuring out ways to beat them.
7 / 10
Great visuals, excellent singleplayer campaign, civilisation variety.
Cramped multiplayer maps, zoom level, clumsy siege engines and ships.