It’s hard to believe that there might be anyone who hasn’t experienced Age of Empires. If you’ve been drawing breath since 1997, you’ve probably had access to at least one version of this game.
Since the time they used to give away copies of the game in boxes of cereal, Age of Empires has practically been part of your digital furniture. Whether you consider it an essential couch, or an impractical hatstand, it’s still there in your home just being awesome. Now, with all of the polish you would expect from modern 4K gaming, Age of Empires IV storms back into the frame, practically saturated with nostalgia.
Fans of this Real Time Strategy (RTS) behemoth will know what’s here. An interesting, historically-minded strategy game with resource management and combat gameplay carefully considered. Although a lot of these elements are fairly one-note, the mid-to-late game combat and defence can be both complex and troublesome. This is not, however, Age of Empires as you’ve seen it before. The luscious animations of the buildings, units and environment are all artfully captured and beautiful to look at.
One of the jewels in the Age of Empires crown is that it is incredibly easy to immediately pick up and play, and then addictively hard to put down. The well-paced gameplay of the story modes provides an almost tutorial-lite approach to the game, showing you one or two elements at a time, and then challenging you to use them in practical scenarios. All that wrapped together in some creatively stitched together historical timelines to give you tools and knowledge to proceed to the much more open skirmish games. And once you enter skirmish mode, against both AI and other Earth people, it’s like you’ve been given the keys to the candy store.
“The luscious animations of the buildings, units and environment are all artfully captured and beautiful to look at.”
For newcomers to Age of Empires, firstly: welcome! Secondly, there’s something you need to know about the AI tactics in this game. They are relentless. Constant waves of attacks to harass your main city are just the beginning. They’ll spread out far and wide, manage map coverage through constant development of scouts, and will beat you down with an awe-inspiring management of their resources. They’re fast, and can easily overwhelm you in the early game if you aren’t at least aware of the potential danger. It’s advisable to not go looking for a fight that you might not be capable of finishing.
Turtle, Develop, Retaliate. It’s a tactic that worked on all three iterations of Age of Empires, and it works again in the fourth. Basically, you defend until you’re ready to send out a significant strike force and then overwhelm your opponents in one swoop. You can achieve this by building increasingly formidable walls, constructing defensive outposts, pouring everything into early resource acquisition, building armies with every available resource, and developing your technologies to improve unit functions. The options can be overwhelming at first, but once you find your rhythm, you’ll see your empire humming along at great speed. There are any number of tactics you can apply, but it’s good to know that the old ways still work.
Alongside some of the changes and new features in Age of Empires IV, it’s a little disappointing to find the different factions are still quite the same. While you may have access to slightly different technologies, buildings and units in appearance, in practicality they function very much the same way. The nomadic Mongols are an interesting choice, especially in multiplayer as they reward mobility by allowing players to pack up and move their entire town to new locations, which makes finding them a big challenge. Whereas the traditional English or French forces dominate the landscape with giant fortifications that look more imposing than they actually are. Some of the late game combat units are different but, overall, they’re not different enough. Each empire has certain strengths that will work towards your preferred tactics, so it’s good to get a feel for each of them early on to understand how they play, and which option you will choose as your go-to faction.
Age of Empires IV feels like slow progress, especially for anyone who has played and enjoyed the recent re-release of the Age of Empires: Definitive Edition. There isn’t enough “new” here to really make it feel like an essential release. That being said, graphically this is a massive step forward, with smooth framerates and gorgeous animations. If you aren’t mesmerised by the swaying wheat fields then your eyeballs may need correcting. The new maps on offer in the skirmish mode are fun to play, and there are a large number of multiplayer improvements that just make sense. Age of Empires IV is the quality-of-life upgrade that we never knew we needed.
At its heart, Age of Empires IV does what all its predecessors have done, by providing hours of captivating strategy for almost every experience level and doing it in style. Overall, this feels more like a modern reimagining, which is to say an incredibly welcome nostalgia trip 20-plus years back in time.
Age of Empires IV is available October 29 on PC.