Age of Empires IV — Review
History as a playground, meet history in the making.
[Disclosure: I received a review copy of the game courtesy of Xbox ANZ, as part of the Game Pass Ambassador program]
The death of the real-time strategy genre has been largely overreported, and Xbox Game Studios, World’s Edge and Relic Entertainment have brought one of the biggest real-time strategy releases in recent years. Building on the lessons learned with the Definitive Editions of the original Age of Empires trilogy, Age of Empires IV is built with an approach that I feel welcomes new players, and has plenty to delight players of all skill levels with.
Starting on a delightful, and increasingly common note, Age of Empires IV has a brief accessibility setup, allowing players to turn on and customize the subtitles used throughout the game, text visibility, and other accessibility basics.
Past that, the game opens with a narrated introductory mission which goes over the game’s basics, and it’s your first chance to look at the game’s art direction. It’s reminiscent of Age of Empires II, but time and care has been taken to translate the look and feel into 3D, as well as add new and distinctive touches, such as the golden, illuminated elements that appear during construction of buildings, representing both the amount of time and the amount of community effort it would take to build these structures for real.
As the introductory mission continues, you’ll be gathering from nature, using mills and camps, and then eases into combat and the basic “rock paper scissors” of AoE combat. Cavalry are effective against archers and other slow movers, archers are effective against spearmen, spearmen are effective against cavalry.
This introductory mission took me about a half an hour in my playthrough, it’s thorough and clearly designed with new players in mind, in a way that I don’t recall my last Age of Empires game (Age of Empires III) doing. Speaking designing with new players in mind, the Art of War from Age of Empires II and III’s definitive editions returns, providing even further tutorials for new players, and timed challenges for those who want to push themselves further.
Age of Empires IV also has a set of 4 campaigns to play, each focusing on one of the in-game civilizations, and spanning a period of real history. The Norman campaign, for example, starts in 1066, and focuses first on William the Conqueror.
What’s interesting about the campaign though is that it’s not only generally well scripted missions, but it also provides a series of gorgeous, high quality videos which cover the real history behind the events you’re playing out, as well as additional knowledge about specific pieces of that history. After completing the mission “North to York” for example, you unlock a video detailing the Norman’s use of crossbows, what made them effective, what materials they were made from, and how they were able to be drawn without wearing down the user too much.
These videos are absolutely fascinating, and feature interviews from historical experts across a variety of disciplines, and they’ve been shot in 4K with HDR support, so if you’ve got a capable display, you’ll be in for a real treat. However, these videos really only cover some basics, and lack an interrogative lens into certain aspects of the retelling, such as the Harrying of the North. I’m not a history buff by any means, but if you’ve had a passive interest, Age of Empires IV may very well serve to ignite something more in you, and prompt further research and learning.
In fact, I think that approach is one of the best things that Age of Empires IV has going for it: it is focused on teaching the basics of both real history, and game mechanics and encourages you to learn. It’s kind of magical in that way. Learning is promoted through the history lessons the game offers, through the Art of War, and through a Mastery track filled with challenges for each of the civilizations. Every time I started the game, I was confident that I was going to learn something, whether that was learning the game’s mechanics or a piece of history. Age of Empires IV really puts this lens of learning on as much as it can, and I think that’s what sets it apart in the real-time strategy genre, let alone in the niche for historical RTS.
Age of Empires is a series with a lot of history in and of itself, and Age of Empires IV adds onto that in significant ways with an attractive art style, a lovely soundtrack, great options and tutorialization for first time players, and a wealth of interesting, real history to learn about, earning it a solid recommendation from me.
Age of Empires IV is available on Xbox Game Pass for PC, and Steam, on Oct. 28th, 2021. An affiliate link to purchase the game through Humble Bundle is available here.