Age of Empires IV Review
Long live the King
One year on from Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, we finally have a brand-new entry into the Age of Empires franchise. In fact, it has been a long 16 year wait for a sequel to AoE III and a lot has happened in the RTS genre since 2005. After such a long absence, it does beg the question as to whether Age of Empires IV sticks to the older core gameplay of the series, or does it try something new?
The simple answer is that AoE IV retains the old Age of Empires formula. It retains the same foundations of base building and rock, paper, scissors combat. Spears beat cavalry, cavalry beat archers and archers beat infantry is the combat in its simplest form. Some units within certain factions have special abilities to counteract this balance, ie English archers can use Palings (wooden stakes) to defend their position from a cavalry charge. Heroes also have special abilities to give an advantage to your units in the heat of battle, such as William the Conqueror who can increase the attack speed of allied units within radius of him.
The gameplay requires micromanagement of your troops and villages. When it comes to attacking enemy units, it's normally wise to select an attacking stance and to select an area for them to move to, as long as they pass the required enemy unit. Selecting an attacking stance essentially means your selected units will attack any enemy forces in their way. While helpful, it doesn't allow for any finesse. This issue presented itself most with cavalry. Despite orders to attack archers, they always ran into infantry and sustained heavy losses. Another issue is that if you right click to attack an enemy, your units will only focus on the one soldier you've selected. This leads to an issue where that solider may die and so you'll have plenty of units standing around doing nothing because they didn't get involved in the fight. This means every battle needs to be micromanaged which can take away from the base building. This can be particularly frustrating if you have idle villagers as you have to neglect your army to put them to work, which usually comes at the cost of your soldiers.
Beyond that, there is a problem with the AI path finding, which can be unintentionally hilarious. They always have problems on bottlenecks like a bridge or the terrain where they get easily stuck, which will weaken you in combat. I also had issues with the camera. It should be a bit more flexible as you can't zoom out very far which did cause me some frustration when I wanted to survey the situation. During more hectic periods, I had to chase units around the map, moving the camera with the arrow keys to find them, instead of being able to see zoom out to see them all at once.
Despite these issues, I still found the gameplay surprisingly entertaining. If I left a battle unfinished, I would spend my time away from the game thinking about manoeuvres and strategies I could use to win. There was something about the game that kept pulling me in. This is in part due to the surprisingly smart enemy AI, especially on higher difficulty settings. An example of this was during a campaign mission, I set up a defensive position on a hill but the enemy flanked me. This leads to genuine tactical thinking and makes you weigh up the pros and cons of each action at a moment's notice. However, there were some aspects of the game which bugged me, with one issue sticking out involving archers on top of defensive walls. In most RTS games, it would make sense to focus your siege weapons on areas of the wall with units on top to wipe them out. But, instead of killing them, when you destroy a wall, they just teleport to the ground unharmed. It's only a minor nuisance but it feels like an overlooked detail.
On top of the combat comes the base building. This is usually includes collecting resources, constructing buildings which allow you to recruit an army, upgrading your soldiers and upgrading your resource gathering. The way some resources are gathered changes with each faction, for example gold is collected through an Imperial Officer with the Chinese as opposed to mining gold. You can also move to a new age once you meet the resource requirements. This gives you a choice of special buildings to advance to that age, with each building giving a unique bonus such as healing units or applying a buff to gold generation from buildings. This means you have to pick a building which will benefit you most in the long run. Keeping your settlement ticking over is just as important to success as it is to keep a strong military, so it shouldn't be ignored.
All in all, there are 8 factions to choose from, some with more interesting playstyles than others. The English and the French are the most basic factions and play as you would expect. Luckily, there are some more interesting factions such as the Mongols who are a nomadic faction which allows you to pack up your town centre and move somewhere else. The Rus let you field mounted knights in the Feudal Age as well as earn gold through killing animals. These are the two factions you can play through a campaign with on top of the French and English. Beyond that, there are 4 other playable factions including the Delhi Sultanate, Abbasid Empire, the Chinese and the Holy Roman Empire.
I found the campaigns to be a highlight of Age of Empires IV. There are 4 in total, with each campaign having 10 missions. Each campaign takes place within a century or more of history, for example, the Norman campaign starts with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and ends with the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. There is plenty of variety within these missions with some taking longer than others and requiring different tactics to complete. It actually makes the campaign feel like an in-depth tutorial as you get time to play in each era and learn how combat and base building work in strict scenarios. Each mission comes with various bonuses unlocked at the end. These bonuses aren't in-game related but are rather cutscenes, description of historical documents or documentary videos. For instance, in the Norman campaign you can unlock a description of the Domesday book and videos on how to make chainmail, crossbows and how Norman castles were built. As someone who is interested in history, these additions are incredible and give an extra incentive to complete each campaign.
Due to the game requiring micro management, there are some missions which highlight how annoying this can be, with one springing to mind coming from the Norman campaign (The Siege of Wallingford). You have to withstand attacks for 10 minutes, after which you are gifted reinforcement to begin an offensive, all the while still under attack at Wallingford. This balancing of defensive and offensive strategies at once proved challenging. Luckily, you can change difficulty at any time, which reduces the number of enemies you face, their strength and the intelligence of the AI.
On top of the campaign, there is a Skirmish mode available as well as the Art of War which is just a tutorial mode. There are 5 Art of War modes which cover the early economy, late economy, basic combat, early siege and late siege. The Skirmish mode has several presets which include a 1v1 against the AI, a 3v3 mode with AI teammates as well as situational modes including The Three Crowns which features you and 2 AI opponents in a free for all on a maze-like map. You can also create your own skirmish game, so you're not limited to the presets. Skirmish mode is AoE IV in its purest form with base building and RTS combat all coming into play through all 4 ages. Furthermore, there are daily quests and masteries to complete which help level up your profile. Levelling up your profile can only be done if you have an active internet connection, but it does net you avatars to show off to your friends and enemies online.
The multiplayer at launch just consists of a quick match, custom matches and observations. The matches themselves can be a standard mode with various win conditions such as controlling all sacred sites, building and defending a wonder or destroying all enemy landmarks. The sandbox mode allows matches to take place without win conditions. Further game options can control the amount of starting resources, map state and where people spawn at the start of a match. These matches certainly showcase how much fun can be had with Age of Empires IV and allows the game to properly flex its mechanics. Unfortunately, ranked matches are not available at launch which feels like a big miss. That aside, it's easy to get into a game or set one up for a private party with friends. Both AI opponents or teammates can fill out the lobby.
One of the weaker aspects of AoE IV is the graphics. They're nothing special and can actually come across as quite bland and boring. On top of this, there are some janky animations with the units. I remember watching my Mongol cavalry ride in a zig zag for no apparent reason, and they weren't being attacked or evading anything. Fortunately, the sound design is an improvement. The rumbles of a moving army or the collapsing of a building sound sufficiently weighty and satisfying.
During my time with Age of Empires IV, there were no noticeable performance issues, although there was some slight stuttering on the menus. I did notice some visual flickering with the shadows and lighting which were occasionally distracting, but these were not constant enough to pose a problem.
Age of Empires IV feels like a throwback to a simpler time. It doesn't fundamentally change our understanding of what an RTS can be, nor does it reinvent itself in any surprising way. It is a pure strategy game like all the entries before it. There is the basic combat gameplay with some special abilities to level the playing field. The base building is also relatively unchanged with the biggest variation found in the Mongol faction. I found myself having a lot of fun in my time with AoE IV, even with the micromanaging. The historical focus with the campaigns kept me engaged, especially with periods of history I wasn't too aware of. If you're a fan of the franchise, Age of Empires IV will feel distinctly familiar to returning players and it is accessible enough for new players, just as long as they enjoy an RTS with an older sensibility.