Age of Empires was a game that defined my early PC gaming days, and its sequel is the stuff of legends. AoE II was one of the games that got me started in the RTS genre, rich with story and strategy from start to finish, and I have fond memories of staring into my giant tube monitor into the night as I carried my empire out of the dark ages. Whether it was familiar stories for Joan of Arc and her rally across France, the tragic tale of William Wallace and his fight for freedom, or something more exotic like Vlad Dracula or Kotyan Khan, this series has been a mainstay on my PC. Even Age of Empires III saw a return to my PC when the definitive edition was released in 2020, even if just to tide me over until this very moment. After a very long wait, and entirely too much anticipation, it’s time once again to gather our armies as we play Age of Empires IV.
There are few studios that I feel could take up the reins on such a beloved series, but Relic Entertainment is very high on that list as they’ve made two of my most beloved game franchises of all time — Company of Heroes and Homeworld. They’ve also made more than a few games in the Warhammer universe, so clearly they understand worldbuilding and large-scale combat. Partnered with World’s Edge (who have several Command and Conquer alum, including the original game’s director) and Microsoft Game Studios, their intention is to build a game that respects the history of its predecessors, updates it for modern audiences, and somehow does all this while retaining the soul of what made us love Age of Empires in the first place. A daunting task, to be sure — let’s see how they did.
The campaign begins with The Normans in the year 1066 — at a battle known as the Battle of Hastings. In this battle, The Norman-French William of Normandy set out to wrest the Kingdom of England from the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson to determine who would be the rightful king. The English army, composed mainly of archers and infantry, defended against incoming cavalry, pikemen, and infantry. The very first battle of the game showcased this assault, as well as the tactic that William used to attempt to turn the tide — feigned retreat. In the end, conservative estimates from historians estimate that over 6000 people died in this battle for control of England.
Historic battles have been the cornerstone of the Age of Empires franchise, and I’m glad to report that this remains the case here. The single player campaigns cover The Normans, The Hundred Years War, The Mongol Empire, and The Rise of Moscow. These span 500 years of history across 35 missions and four difficulty levels. I tend to take my time (If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing, right?) so it took me nearly 35 hours to complete them all. Rather than just running the tech tree for four factions, the Relic team gives us some excellent variety to the mission structure. During one sequence you’ll face off against the English in a Tournament of Champions. The next moment you’ll find yourself cornered inside Paris, defending against the English invasion. Defending Moscow when it was little more than a village is exciting, as is the gunpowder-fueled end of the Hundred Years War. This variety breaks up the base building and assault gameplay loop nicely, keeping the whole adventure fresh.
Each mission has two or three bits of locked content, often a pre-rendered cutscene or real-world scene that introduces the level you are about to face, a “page from history” which gives you some insight on the mission you just completed, and finally a second video that is truly the main draw. These are often the sorts of documentary pieces that you might find on the History Channel giving insight into, for example, how the individual stones of a castle might have been made. These are absolutely amazing, especially when you see structures built in such a crude fashion that have remained intact for over 1000 years. Another example could be the inner workings of a crossbow, or how chainmail or plate armor is made, and many other incredible historical documentaries. I was surprised to see them, and before long I found myself eagerly anticipating what I’d see next.
The physics in the Definitive Editions of Age of Empires II and III were magnificent, especially when you’d hit a stone structure with a trebuchet-lobbed stone. Watching the debris cascade off the structure, ultimately causing it to disintegrate into its component parts, spreading rubble around the base of what used to be a reinforced tower or castle was a thing of beauty. It’s the same here in AoE IV — structures take incremental damage, showing many states of disrepair until they ultimately collapse, sending splinters and chunks of rocks spilling across the ground. The first time the enemy destroys a reinforced gate structure only to take with it the two towers adjacent to it, you’ll be more mindful of your future placements.
To help new players, or just ones returning from a long hiatus, there is a tab called The Art of War. In this section there are training challenges with specific goals to ease you back into the action. The first is called “Early Economy” and teaches you how to construct landmarks as you move from the Dark Age to the Feudal. Similarly, there are videos for Late Economy, Basic Combat, as well as Early and Late Siege. If nothing else, you could play them to earn a medal and level up your profile. All of these are fully voiced and walk you through all of the steps necessary to get your war machine moving.
Every time you take an action in Age of Empire IV you are earning experience on your profile (steady yourself, folks who didn’t like the XP system in AoE III — there’s nothing like that here). Your profile lets you unlock various cosmetics such as monuments that you might place in your village, hundreds of Coat of Arms customizations, and dozens of portrait options. You’ll unlock these by completing challenges.
All five training missions, as well all eight of the nations you’ll play in the game, have a set of masteries you can earn. The training missions have five goals, whereas the eight nations have 15 each. These all unlock the aforementioned cosmetics with goals being as simple as killing an enemy scout or constructing a number of buildings, with the latter ones being more complex like completing specific research and then executing a Wonder victory.
There is a depth to the Age of Empires series that dramatically extends the gameplay beyond what other titles in the RTS genre afford. For example, your cavalry is incredibly effective against archers, able to close the distance quickly and destroy them at close range. That is, unless those archers deploy palades (large 45 degree spiked posts) to keep the cavalry horses from getting inside their ranks. Similarly, a group of pikemen will spell trouble for knights, but plate armor is incredibly hard to sunder. Bowmen struggle to punch through it, but Arbalests will do the job. Every unit in the game has a counter. Thankfully you don’t have to keep a spreadsheet handy to keep track of all of it — every unit lists their strengths and weaknesses in their build menus.
More applicable in multiplayer than the campaign, each faction has something unique to them. Russians can build special buildings that grant bonuses to their wood collection, for example, as well as giving them some added perks if they hunt animals instead of merely farming. Special units unique to their timeline or region are also present, and can often grant an advantage, if you can construct and deploy them in time. For example, the French have a cannon that will absolutely obliterate even the toughest of stone walls. They are prohibitively expensive, and they are very lightly armored, so you’ll want to protect them at all costs.
There is one area where I feel like Relic had a thought about terrain usage, but didn’t quite flesh it out. In the real world, an elevated archer brigade is absolute death to an army below them, and similarly, they can see further than any scout. While the visibility aspect is there, I never felt like elevation gave me any advantage during gameplay. There are terrain marks on the map, so it seems like the thought was there, but it didn’t quite make the cut.
The single player campaign in AoE IV is strong, and multiplayer is going to keep us all coming back for quite some time, but having a sandbox to train before you step onto the battlefield and get stomped is a welcome feature. To that end, we have Skirmish. In this mode you can tackle solo battles against the A.I., or team up with A.I. teammates in a 3 on 3 fight. “Forging a Way Through” is a 3v3 battle that adds landmarks to the mix, and subsequently adds the landmark victory condition in addition to the usual all-out destruction win condition. “Anarchy at the Gates” pits you against the A.I. once again, but in the middle of a difficult Arabian desert map, with landmark, sacred, and wonder victories all possible. “A Contested Front” is a 2v2 battle, but tests your sailing skills, adding large bodies of water and naval combat to the mix. “Against all Odds” pits the French against superior English and Holy Roman Empire armies in a 2v3 battle on an Archipelago. There is a great deal of variety here, but that’s not the only way you can experience them.
All of these preset skirmish maps, the victory conditions, and what type of A.I. players you’d like to either team up with or against can be tweaked to your desired difficulty level. You can also, of course, simply build a Skirmish game from scratch with your own conditions, modifying what starting age, how many resources are available, what win conditions exist, and even whether the map starts concealed or revealed. There are a total of 17 pre-generated maps, with a “crafted map” system of some sort in the “coming soon” stages, but suffice it to say, there’s plenty of content available here for “quickplay”.
You can engage in multiplayer in matches versus other players, or in cooperative play against the A.I., and you play one on one all the way up to 4v4. You can even just observe matches to learn from the pros. PvP and PvE options are available for all maps — simply select one of the pre-built scenarios, or hit the custom button and define your own. Inside the multiplayer you’ll find the other factions, including the English, Chinese, French, Holy Roman Empire, Mongols, Rus, Delhi Sultanate, and Abbasid Dynasty, with each having civilization bonuses. For example, the Abbasid gather from Berry Bushes 25% faster, and their infantry can construct Ram and Siege Towers without researching Siege Engineering. They also advance in ages by building wings from their House of Wisdom, which conveys +5 fire armor for any adjacent buildings. They enter a Golden Age to speed up resource gathering, research time, and production speed. They also can construct docs at a 50% cost reduction. David Burdette and I tackled a cooperative multiplayer match — his first, in fact. It went very, very poorly. We then tackled another one and managed to eek out a victory.
To keep you coming back, you can also level up your overall profile. There are a number of daily quests to tackle ranging in difficulty from purchasing (hold up — no microtransactions anywhere in this game, thankfully) all of the upgrades for a particular unit for a match, using a particular weapon or skill in battle, or simply achieving a victory in a single or multiplayer match. There are hundreds of customization options available so it’s just one more way to keep players coming back for more.
The UI for Age of Empires IV has gotten a solid upgrade, as have the controls. The improvements are literally everywhere, so it’s hard to call out just one. There are a metric ton of accessibility options such as remappable keys, contrast adjustments and subtitles, as well as text scaling and more. It helps as the game can be played at resolutions at up to 4K with the text adjusting automatically. I, for one, can’t wait to play this on a Steam Deck on the go.
I ran into two hiccups during my time with Age of Empires IV, and both of them are incredibly minor. The game is demanding, and on my 2080 Super I saw some occasional framerate hitches, though it didn’t seem to be triggered by having too much on the screen — it’s random and thankfully fleeting. The second one I encountered twice in the campaigns — an unrecoverable box. As you complete objectives, free towns, and otherwise press forward in your mission you’ll find gold in boxes waiting to be retrieved. Twice I was unable to do so because the game would only select the trees that were covering it. Again, a minor issue.
The only major issue I encountered is an inattentive AI. I’ve watched as pikemen obliterated my precious villagers while my cavalry stood around and did nothing just a short ride away. The ability to put them on patrol with waypoints, or to be more reactive to attacks inside the perimeter would solve this problem.
Age of Empires IV sets a new bar for the RTS genre, and it’s a welcome return to form for the franchise. With epic visuals and tightly balanced factions, it’s everything we’ve been waiting for.
Age of Empires IV
Age of Empires helped define an entire genre, and under the steady hand of RTS masters Relic Entertainment, it may once again wear that crown -- Age of Empires IV is that good.