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Age of Empires 4 Review [PC] | Back To The Classics

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As a huge fan of the original Age of Empires games, the news of a whole new entry into the real-time strategy game has left me a little skeptical. How do you keep up with one of video game’s most beloved strategy games so long after it was last released? Despite the recent surge in popularity thanks to the Definitive Edition remasters, I was still worried that this new title would feel overshadowed by its predecessors.

Unlike the original plan for the Age of Empires series, where new entries would continue to progress through history and into the future, Age of Empires 4 takes the stage back to the medieval period. For example, the first campaign mission opens with the Battle of Hastings (1066) and offers a pretty epic introduction to the combat of the game. The improvements in all levels of graphics, gameplay and overall design are clear as the day and the night. But how does the game stack up against its previous entries, and is it worth your time?

Credit: Relic Entertainment

medieval war

The following campaigns all take place during this period, illustrating periods such as the legacy of William the Conqueror, the Hundred Years’ War and the rise of Moscow. While short, each campaign mission has enough uniqueness to feel diverse and fun in its own right. While the settings themselves seem very Eurocentric, the mission selection screen is obviously set up to bring in new events and historical periods via future updates. I will not rest until we see the campaigns unfold in the Kamakura era in Japan or in the Kanem-Bornu Empire in Africa.

One aspect that I found extremely cool was to open up each campaign mission with a live action segment and accompanying storytelling. Relic Entertainment has toured the UK and filmed this footage for you to learn the story behind each historic skirmish. This also extends to other informational videos that detail different aspects of medieval culture. This includes how castles were built, how trebuchets worked, and how chain mail was made.

The actual images in each sequence are stunning and have high quality production value. It feels like watching a documentary on the History Channel. Not only does this add a larger context to what you do, but it will hopefully prove to be a great resource for introducing history to new generations.

Credit: Relic Entertainment

too familiar?

If you are particularly an AoE veteran, the gameplay of IV will feel familiar to you. It appears that Relic Entertainment considered the popularity of the second game in the series when designing the fourth. Everything from units, buildings, ages and tech in Age of Empires 4 looks like a direct evolution of this one more than any other, albeit with a move to 3D.

And to his credit, the game’s 3D look is stunning. I’ve always thought that Age of Empires 3’s three-dimensional design came a bit too early and looked very ugly. Although it has been significantly improved in the recent Definitive Edition, this is one of the reasons why I have never been able to enjoy this original entry as much as the previous two.

On the flip side, Age of Empires 4’s graphics are some of the best I’ve seen in the real-time strategy genre. It’s stylistic in a way that’s reminiscent of the original games. Everything from the grass, water, buildings and rocks stand out very well and provide a comfortable space to explore. It’s a much better way to approach your game than going for realism, which can run the risk of feeling a bit too soulless.

Credit: Relic Entertainment

Genghis cannot

Getting back to the design, the reduced number of civilizations in Age of Empires 4 allows Relic to balance them out much more effectively. Releasing a game with more than a dozen factions to play can be a balancing nightmare, especially as you add more over time (can you believe Age of Empires 2 has 39 civilizations now? ?). Reducing that number to eight at launch means Relic can focus on making the base game run smoothly first.

And civilizations feel very well balanced in themselves. Matches against the CPU and other players never felt one-sided. Obviously it depends on the skill level of the player, but there are many skirmishes that have played well in the overall design of tug of war in RTS games. You would dominate an opponent, when suddenly they bring out an army of cavalry to absolutely decimate your archers.

One gripe I have with the design of AI, however, is that it’s too aggressive at the moment. Even in the simplest difficulty, enemy teams will rush you with armies and force you to play much more defensively. And that is if you are not already advancing on them with your own armies. Sometimes gamers just want to play RTS games at a relaxed pace, often taking hours to even think about attacking the enemy. It would be nice to have a difficulty option for this during skirmishes. Campaigns do have a “story” difficulty mode, however, allowing you to take advantage of it for historical value rather than delving into RTS mechanics.

Credit: Relic Entertainment

Less than the sum of its parts

There are other parts of Age of Empires 4 that also feel a lot more stripped down from the previous entries. Skirmishes offer far fewer options for customizing your experience, including maps, modes, and additional options like resources and time limit. Despite the random nature of these games, that means every game ends up looking the same.

There’s also no map editor available at launch, which was my favorite thing to do in Age of Empires 2. The community behind the series has thrived over the past two decades creating custom content for this games. But with no sign of any publisher or mod support, I’m concerned that many will give up on this game and revert to one of the older entries.

There are, however, some big improvements that I think work well in Age of Empires 4’s favor. To progress through each age, you now need to build a unique landmark somewhere on the map. These buildings offer their own advantages to your civilization, such as passive upgrades or unique units. It adds a tactical choice to how you want to move through each map. Choosing between two landmarks, each of which provides different boosts, is crucial when planning your skirmish.

The verdict

So Age of Empires 4 then. It is certainly a competently designed RTS. With unique units, buildings and technologies, playing with each civilization is fun and provides a different experience every time. Unfortunately, with a feel so similar to Age of Empires 2 but with a lot of streamlined features, it’s extremely difficult for me to recommend spending £ 50 for it when you can buy Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition for £ 15.

It might get better after a few updates, but for now it reminds me of better games.

The code was sent to us by PR for review.

Tested on a PC including:
Ryzen 7 3700X processor
Corsair Vengeance 16 GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 graphics card

Featured Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios / Relic Entertainment



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