Age of Empires IV: Review
Sam Hollins and Amy Louise Smith | Lancaster University
Review Platform: Windows X
Developer: Relic Entertainment & World's Edge
Publisher: Xbox Games Studios
Sam: Real-time strategy (RTS) as a genre holds a special place in my heart. I have particularly fond memories of playing Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War on my old, and terribly underpowered laptop, when I was at school. I also loved, and eventually lost, Rise of Nations, a game which is somewhat of an intermediate between the epoch-spanning scope of the Civilizations series, and the more contained nature of Age of Empire (AoE). What AoE offered players was, in my submission, the chance to feel like a feudal lord. Slowly but surely building an empire (it's in the name after all), advancing through a rough approximation of medieval ages (wow, who’d have thought), and eventually obliterating your rival empires. There is something inherently cathartic about this gameplay loop, and I suppose this is why so many games over the years have replicated it.
Amy: I started playing Age of Empires II: Age of Kings when I was in primary school after being introduced by a classmate. I credit AoE II, at least in part, for kindling my enthusiasm for history. There’s nothing quite like building a mighty and intricately designed empire and then obliterating your enemy, cavalryman by cavalryman. The HD Edition on Steam – and the excellent downloadable content (DLC) – has kept me playing for twenty years. I was embarrassingly excited for the release of Age of Empires IV.
Sam: If you have played AoE games before, then you are unlikely to be surprised much, if at all, by this release. That is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, gamers (I use that term begrudgingly) are a testy sort, stuck between unfounded reverence for the old and an insatiable hunger for the new. The basic gameplay loop is essentially identical. In a way, this makes AoE IV feel dated. It is still an immensely fun loop for sure, but it's simplistic and pales in comparison to the kind of system intricacy you find in other games. The user interface (U.I.) is serviceable, and the cute little audio touches to the peasants are endlessly endearing.
Amy: There are no surprises with the gameplay, and ‘new’ features don’t take much learning. There are more than enough throwbacks to make seasoned AoE II players feel at home; the ‘sheesh-ho’ when creating villagers is delightfully nostalgic. The soundtrack is a triumph too, weaving the original score with new civilisation-specific sounds.
At times, the U.I. is a bit basic. You cannot zoom out very far at all, which robs you of feeling like an omnipotent god. Other little details are missing too. The menus, which are styled differently for each civilisation in AoE II, are all dark grey in IV. In sandbox mode (called ‘skirmish’ mode in-game), the A.I. are not easily differentiable: they do not have names of their own and are called ‘A.I. Intermediate’ or ‘A.I. Hard’, which somewhat breaks immersion.
Sam: This, too, is mirrored by the A.I.’s relative stupidity. Do not even bother to play this game on anything below intermediate. The developers indicate that this is the way the game is meant to be played, and I would agree. Even at intermediate, the A.I. is fairly easy to dupe and relies essentially on a steady stream of attacks rather than anything resembling coordinated and planned assaults. It ends up feeling like the A.I. is simply programmed to spam units at your empire, which, when you build stone walls and invest in defensive towers, becomes hilariously ineffective.
Amy: More dynamic terrain – valleys and hills, cliffs, rivers etc. – facilitate more interesting set pieces. The game encourages you to think about the landscape when planning your assaults, such as placing archers on the high ground, out of harm’s way but within firing distance. The melee engagements are less well adapted, but the choice of cavalry versus infantry can still come down to the space available. AoE II was always a bit of a numbers game, trying to match up attack and defence scores. IV tries to combat this, making it more about strategy than maths. However, simplifying the existing combat mechanics is also to its detriment; ultimately, it is too easy to play. The A.I., in both the sandbox and campaign, is too easily outwitted, even on the higher difficulties.
Look & Feel
Sam: Graphically, the game is very much a mixed bag. At times, your sprawling empire can look downright fantastic, but at others, the combat can look like a mush of bodies. Whilst some historians might well argue that medieval melees were indeed essentially just humans piling on each other, I am not sure this is how it should be done. Take the Total War series for example; Total War: Warhammer I & II have far more complex combat systems. This is to be expected given that that is the games focus. But given the immense scale of their battles, its curious that the animation quality of soldiers, beasts and artillery are leagues beyond what AoE VI offers. It seems a minor detail, but in a game, which relies on scaled up representations of people, buildings, and places, animations are all the more important. This is puzzling as this is certainly an area where new game engines, greater movement capture technology, and more powerful PC hardware could have been leveraged to bring AoE into the new decade for the better.
Amy: The 3D modelled architecture is incredible. The kingdom you can build playing as the Chinese is visually stunning. Although, in comparison, the modelled people and cavalry are somewhat inelegant. They are large (presumably for ease of use) but seem bizarrely out of proportion – not large enough to look like game pieces, a la Sed Meier’s Civilisation VI, but too big to interact naturally with buildings, boats, trees, etc. Perhaps a symptom of the scaled down choices, it also feels like there is less variation between units.
There are eight civilisations to choose from – the English, the French, the Rus, the Holy Roman Empire, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Abbasid Dynasty, and the Delhi Sultanate. Changes to these, English rather than the Britons and Celts of AoE II, for instance – make sense for the shift in chronology. Its predecessor’s tagline (‘Rome has fallen and the world is up for grabs!’) implied a strictly dark age setting, IV claims to span ‘500 years of history, from the dark age to the Renaissance’. This is admirable ,and welcome, but will require a bit more content to be convincing.
Amy: There are four campaigns, which totals thirty-five missions. In some places, the choice of campaign is a little uninspired (Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan? Didn’t we do that last time?) but they are nevertheless well produced, enjoyable, and educational. AoE IV capitalises on the historical element, which is particularly satisfying as so many games play fast and loose with the past with little explanation. AoE II tried to do this, but perhaps missed the balance between entertainment and illumination, the history section was a gift but was a lot of reading for a video game, and I am still haunted by the appalling Scottish accent that accompanied the William Wallace campaign…
Sam: The best thing AoE IV adds is documentary style videos in the campaigns. The interaction between curated and staged gameplay, and historical documentary style videos is interesting, and for history buffs, a real pleasure. You have four campaigns to play offering a substantial amount of content. These are fairly general affairs, but the production quality of the videos adds something unique. Videos are layered with ghostly apparitions of those who came before. Whether that’s Viking longships skirting the coastline of England like baying wolves, or Norman men-at-arms marching across green English fields, it’s a nice element. It does, however, often feel like a distraction from legitimate series innovation. Although distractions, as tends to be the point, can be rather fun.
Amy: The videos that intersperse the action are beautifully produced, and have enough vitality to not disrupt the pacing as you move from battle to battle. Sweeping shots of historic sites bring the history to life and give you a better sense of what it is you are re-enacting. It is a shame that actual history documentaries are rarely so well made.
Amy: Playing a sandbox mode that feels less full and rewarding than the version built in the late ‘90s is a bit disappointing. Issues raised in the Beta test have not yet been addressed, which gives me hope that the game will be patched over the coming months to fill the gaps. I also hope that the developers don’t rely too heavily on the promised mod tools to populate the game, user-generated content is great (see Cities: Skylines) but is no replacement for much needed U.I. changes and additional customisation options. As an avid fan of city-builder games, I hoped that there might be more options for economic development and trade; seafaring has been particularly neglected. If boats and trade are your thing, the 1404 and 1800 instalments of the Anno series will be more satisfying.
Sam: It’s hard to formulate an overall opinion of AoE IV. At once, I am both elated to be able to experience something so reminiscent of my early RTS experiences but also puzzled by the rote nature of the game. I feel like so much more could have been done to bring this series into this decade. I love it for what it is, but I hate it for what it’s not. If you have Xbox Game Pass, download it and give it a go. It’s definitely not worth the RRP of £49.99, so for now, unless you are a diehard AoE fan, then wait for it to go on sale.
Amy: Agreed - well worth playing, especially for historians. But I’m not sure it’s worth £49.99. Yet.
Sam is currently undertaking a PhD in History at Lancaster University, where he is exploring the political, economic and strategic rationale of Britain during the Cold War. Sam’s research focuses primarily on the development of the Panavia Tornado Multi-role Combat Aircraft as an example of early European defence procurement collaboration. Sam also serves as the International History Editor and Social Media Manager for EPOCH.
Amy Louise Smith is a third year PhD student in the department of History at Lancaster University. Her research explores how song was used by the early-modern commons to express grievance and to challenge authority. She is also the Art Director and Cultural Editor for EPOCH Magazine.