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

As a massive fan of the original Age of Empires games, news of a brand new entry to the real-time strategy sweetheart left me a bit sceptical. How do you follow up to one of gaming’s most beloved strategy games so long after its last release? Despite the recent surge in popularity thanks to the Definitive Edition remasters, I was still worried that this new title would feel eclipsed by its predecessors.

Unlike the original plan for the Age of Empires series, where new entries would continue to advance through history and into the future, Age of Empires 4 takes the setting back to the medieval period. For example, the first campaign mission opens on the Battle of Hastings (1066) and provides a fairly epic introduction to the game’s combat. The improvements across the board to graphics, gameplay and overall design is clear as night and day. But how does the game compare to its previous entries, and is it worth your time?

Credit: Relic Entertainment

medieval warfare

Following campaigns all take place within this period, depicting such periods like the legacy of William the Conqueror, the Hundred Years’ War, and the rise of Moscow. Although short, each campaign mission features enough uniqueness about them to feel diverse and fun in their own right. Although the settings themselves feel very Euro-centric, the mission select screen is obviously set up to bring in new historical events and periods via future updates. I shan’t rest until we see campaigns set in the Kamakura period of Japan or the Kanem-Bornu Empire in Africa.

One aspect that I thought was extremely cool was opening each campaign mission with a live action segment and accompanying narration. Relic Entertainment actually went around the UK and filmed these sequences to allow you to learn the history behind each historical skirmish. This also extends to other informational videos which detail different aspects of medieval culture. This includes the way castles were built, how trebuchets operated, and how chainmail armour is made. 

The actual footage in each sequence is gorgeous and has a high quality production value behind it. It makes you feel like you’re watching a documentary on the History Channel. Not only does it add some wider context to what you’re doing, but will hopefully prove to be an excellent resource for introducing new generations to history.

Credit: Relic Entertainment

all too familiar?

If you’re particularly an AoE veteran, the gameplay of IV will feel familiar. It seems Relic Entertainment looked at the popularity of the second game in the series when it came to designing the fourth. Everything from the units, buildings, ages and technologies in Age of Empires 4 feels like a direct evolution of that one more than the others, albeit with a jump to 3D.

And to its credit, the 3D look of the game is gorgeous. I was always of the opinion that Age of Empires 3’s three-dimensional design came a bit too soon and looked very ugly. Although it was massively improved in the recent Definitive Edition, it was one reason why I could never enjoy that original entry as much as the previous two. 

On the other hand, Age of Empires 4’s graphics are among some of the best I’ve seen in the real-time strategy genre. It’s stylistic in a way reminiscent of the original games. Everything from the grass, water, buildings and rocks pops out really well and provides a comfortable space for you to explore. That’s a much better way to approach your game than going for realism, which may run the risk of feeling a bit too soulless.

Credit: Relic Entertainment

Genghis Can’t

Going back to the design, the reduced number of civilisations in Age of Empires 4 allows Relic to balance them much more efficiently. Releasing a game with over a dozen factions to play as can be a nightmare for balancing, especially as you add more over time (can you believe Age of Empires 2 has 39 civilisations now?). Reducing that number to eight on launch means Relic can focus on getting the core game right first.

And the civilisations do feel very well balanced in their own right. Matches against both the CPU and other players never felt one-sided. Obviously it depends on the skill level of the player, but many skirmishes played well into the whole tug-of-war design in RTS games. You’d be dominating an opponent, when suddenly they pull out an army of cavalry to absolutely decimate your archers. 

One gripe I do have with the AI design, however, is that it feels too aggressive at the moment. Even on the easiest difficulty, enemy teams will rush you with armies and force you into playing much more defensively. And this is if you’re not already advancing on them with your own armies. Sometimes players just wish 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 though, allowing you to enjoy it for the historical value rather than getting deep into the RTS mechanics.

Credit: Relic Entertainment

Lesser than the sum of its parts

There are other parts of Age of Empires 4 that also feel much more stripped back from the previous entries. Skirmishes offer much fewer options to customise your experience, including maps, modes and extra options like resources and time limit. Despite the randomised nature of these games, it does mean that every match ends up feeling the same.

There’s also no map editor available at launch, which was my favourite thing to do in Age of Empires 2. The community behind the series has thrived for the past two decades creating custom content for these games. But without any sign of an editor or mod support, I fear that many will abandon this game and return to one of the older entries.

There are some big improvements though that I feel works well in Age of Empires 4’s favour. Advancing through each age now requires you to build a unique landmark somewhere on the map. These buildings offer their own benefits to your civilisation, such as passive upgrades or unique units. It adds a tactical choice to how you want to advance in each map. Choosing between two landmarks, which each provide different boosts, is crucial when planning out your skirmish.

the verdict

So, Age of Empires 4 then. It’s certainly a competently-designed RTS. Thanks to unique units, buildings and technologies, playing around with each civilisation is fun and offers a different experience each time. Unfortunately, with it feeling so similar to Age of Empires 2 but with many stripped down features, it’s extremely difficult for me to recommend spending £50 on this when you can grab Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition for £15.

Maybe it will be better after some updates, but right now it’s just reminding me of better games.

Code was sent to us by PR for review purposes.

Tested on a PC featuring:
Ryzen 7 3700X Processor
Corsair Vengeance 16GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Video Card

Featured Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios/Relic Entertainment