Review: Age of Empires IV

PC gamers rejoiced when Xbox Game Studios announced that Age of Empires would be returning with Age of Empires IV. While the third release left a lot to be desired, it has been many years since that release. Microsoft tasked the team at Relic Entertainment, the development team behind the Company of Heroes franchise, to rekindle what made the first two Age of Empires games so great. Relic is focused on building a better version of Age of Empires II, as the title received a HD remake in recent years that has been highly touted by the community. With Age of Empires IV, Relic has created a modern version of that second game with a deeper focus on the historical aspect of the civilizations involved.

If you are new to Age of Empires, this real-time strategy title is based on a variety of ancient civilizations that answers the question “who was the greatest?” Age of Empires IV offers eight different civilizations at launch as Relic has updates planned to bring more content to the game beginning near the Holidays. Having only eight may bother fans of the original title, but the units for each of these eight civilizations is more distinct. Building and growing a settlement while researching technologies and preparing your military for combat is how the game is played. The settlement building aspect of Age of Empires IV feels engaging and easily understandable thanks to how Relic has laid everything out. There are new shortcut keys to easily do actions such as create military units and cycle from structure to structure. It takes how AoE2 was designed and adds a faster and more simplistic design.

The best thing about being new to the series, or even for older fans who haven’t touched the game in a while, are the tutorials. There’s tutorials that walks through the process of building bases, gathering resources, upgrading structures and creating a military. You can also view the tech trees for each civilization to get an idea of what they offer. The Art of War mode in single player is not only more tutorial options, but also a race against the clock. The civilizations that Relic have included at launch are the English, French, Mongols, Delhi Sultanate, Abbassid Dynasty, Holy Roman Empire and the Rus. Each of them have direct historical ties to the campaigns included in Age of Empires IV.

The team at Relic that helped to develop Age of Empires IV are history buffs. They did their homework for providing historical accuracy and appreciation as research was done at these locations of historical battles and to learn the culture of each civilization in the game. The team also sat with fans of the previous games to sort out what has worked and what was needed to bring the series to the modern age. The historical appreciation can be seen in the single player campaigns. There are currently four available at launch with hours and hours of gameplay here. These four include The Normans, The Hundred Years War, The Rise of Moscow and The Mongol Empire. There are 35 missions total that span 500 years of history. You play the chronological timeline of each as real events are matched up.

To really bring its player base into the actual history of these events, Relic has included narrated videos describing the facts behind the events of each encounter. These videos add silhouettes over the current locations to give an idea of what actually went down at the time. These are engaging and add life to the campaign as opposed to plopping you on a map and giving missions. The campaigns will actually provide guidance and after each goal or mission is complete, the narrator provides information on the results to help create this historical documentary that seems pulled from the History Channel. This is the best campaign experience to ever exist in a real-time strategy game.

The skirmish option has always been my personal go-to for real-time strategy games. While the campaign is fantastic and engaging, the skirmish gives players preset options to choose from or they can customize a match with the AI from the beginning. There are generated maps that allow for different weather conditions for aesthetic purposes. Custom maps are coming along with mods and custom content down the road, which will add a lot more to the game. Up to a 4v4 match can be set with the AI as skirmish will have you building your base and military from square one as you research. Multiplayer throws in the option to do a quick match with 4v4 or do cooperative versus the AI. In the current status, connectivity seems to be fine.

Not everything is perfect with Age of Empires IV and this comes more on the technical side of things. The battles feel like they were also brought to modern times with little change. While each unit seems to have a greater effect with its strengths and weaknesses than in the past, the actual combat is clunky. It feels somewhat like it was pulled from Total War as a mob just surrounds another mob and it ends up being a test of attrition. Archers and long range infantry or weapons seem to have the biggest effect. You can even gang the high ground to increase line of site, but the close combat is a mess. Each individual unit treats other units like they are a wall and it’s just awkward.

The AI seems worse and more akin to a RTS from 2000. Having the option turned on to look out for enemies and react makes little difference. Enemies will run up and your units will do nothing. The scout also had the option to automatically scout the map removed, so having to keep up with him and his inability to run through forest areas is rather annoying. It helps early on in a match, but ultimately you forget about him. The automatic decision making in what units to attack is not always right, meaning you have to stay on top of multiple divided units on the field. Things like this can hopefully be patched, but while the settlement building and research is great, the actual combat needs work.

Outside of the AI and combat issues, graphical issues are apparent. Age of Empires IV runs on Relic’s Essence Engine, which dates back to the original Company of Heroes. There have been updates to the engine and while this game provides greater visual fidelity than the past games, it won’t blow you away. Items on the map will pop in and out such as trees or other backdrops. Relic has touted that this was designed to run on almost any current system out there, but also touts that it offers 4K visuals. RTS games tend to be more CPU-intensive, but the GPU ran at nearly 100% the entire game. With a system consisting of an Intel i7-9700 and a RTX 3080, playing this in 4K would see performance ranging from 80-110 FPS about 75% of the time. When graphical effects such as fog or an abundance of activity would happen, however, the frames would drop into the 50s and even had an instance where it tanked to the 30s. The game simply isn’t optimized well and hopefully this can be worked on. The audio brings the familiarity of the series to the modern day with individual dialogue from each civilization. The clanks of swords on shields and other battle sounds are excellent. The soundtrack is perfectly fitting and they even brought the little sound the originals made when a unit build is complete. The narrator does a great job at providing a compelling feel to the documentary videos.

Closing Comments:

While there are technical issues, Age of Empires IV truly feels like a successful modern take on a classic favorite. The campaign offers a compelling experience as you learn about the history of not only the battles, but the civilizations involved. The videos are perfectly done as the Hands on History were done alongside Lion TV. The actual combat can get awkward, but the strategy of exposing strengths versus weaknesses seem greater here than in the past. While there are currently only eight of these empires to choose from, there’s a greater detail on each. Age of Empires IV makes up for the misstep of the third game while providing fans of the first two with everything they could have hoped for in a 2021 version. Hours will go by and you won’t even know it, which is the way RTS titles should be.