It’s tempting to bang on about the history of Age Of Empires, but let’s be real here, you already know it well enough. Even if you haven’t played them, the Age Of Empires games were a pillar of RTS design, and probably the most popular candidate for a comeback since publishers largely abandoned the genre in the 2000s.
Let’s not argue about which of its elements is the defining one. They’re base building, four-resource-gathering contests between factions based on historical world powers, and progress throughout a match happens in explicitly tiered eras that loosely represent historical ages. Age Of Empires 4 has all of that, across four 9-mission single player campaigns, 17 skirmish maps (which can be slightly modified with seed numbers, and we’re told more map options are coming), and 8 playable, well-differentiated and slightly unequal civilisations. And I kinda like it.
The natural place to start is the campaigns. Each follows one civilisation over a decades long campaign of war and conquest. The usual RTS thing of removing more advanced units from earlier missions applies, and here lines up neatly with the eras and timescale – the Mongols don’t have their mega-trebuchet until a few generations have passed in the story and it’s actually been invented, for example. Overall, narrative isn’t exactly a central concern though. Rather than running through Joan of Arc’s life with actors or fictionalising the Norman conquest, each campaign is presented exactly like a certain type of TV documentary, complete with footage of modern cities and landscapes superimposed with animated figures waging wars from long ago. Even the narration is a pitch perfect earnest history voice.
It’s a very weird vibe, if I’m honest. It’s a style of documentary that I personally never quite got on with. By no means bombastic, obnoxious, or patronising, it’s still just a little too dramatised for my liking, while also not going full costume drama with it. It wouldn’t be fair to slam the game for any of this, though, and I will say in its favour that it’s both a novel approach and done with very impressive production values. It probably doesn’t help either that because the campaigns cover such a timescale, the documentaries get condensed – and in the case of the Norman conquest one, presents a duly overfamiliar story to anyone who grew up in England. A conqueror arises, fights a few neighbours, and succeeds for a bit. It’s hard to get very excited.
Fortunately, the missions themselves are strong enough to carry you through (although I gave up on England – and in the game), with the Mongol one in particular doing a decent job of highlighting their strengths and the mindset necessary to make them work. Raid, raid, skirmish, harass and raid is the order of the Khans. Mongol players can move almost all their buildings freely and quickly, and buildings camped around a stone mine can train two units at once. That mine itself is their weakness; you can have only one at a time, and its production can’t be sped up with villagers like most other gathering. You can’t trade for it either, but you get free stone whenever you destroy enemy buildings, so you’d better make the most of that mobility.
“In theory, I love the Mongols, but the truth is I’m far too slow for them, and get on much better with the Abbasid, who get anti-cavalry camels.”
The Delhi Sultanate, meanwhile, never pay for research. But they do have to wait a long time for it, making them a natural tech-based side. Each civilisation has enough going on to stand out without straightjacketing the player, and it’s clear just from a week’s play that people will be unearthing the kind of elaborate tricks and strategies that will make learning a faction’s ways a necessity to keep them from being stomped by a nasty surprise in the later eras.
In theory, I love the Mongols, but the truth is I’m far too slow for them, and get on much better with the Abbasid, who get anti-cavalry camels. More importantly, though, the Abbasid advance through the eras by simply researching new items from one building. Other factions, see, have to choose and place their advancement buildings, thinking about locations and bonus ranges and space and labour management and defences. The Abbasid plonk their main building down somewhere safe and leave it at that.
This suits me well because… okay, look, yes, I’m exactly 4000 years old, but it isn’t just that. The series has always involved too much plate spinning for my tastes, and Age Of Empires 4 could be doing more to feel like a strategic challenge rather than a clicking one. It’s relentless. Take animals as an example. Sheep and deer (and annoying, but thankfully rare wolves) dot every map, and can be shepherded back to your base by a scout, whereupon villagers can feast upon their precious flesh. You’ll want to do this even if just to deny your opponents, but it’s a hassle, man. Hunting is worse – deer must be killed and then manually picked up and delivered back to base, one by one. Most factions (notably excluding the Rus, who actually get free gold for doing this, making it even more of a pain) even have to research this first, making the whole thing a massive ballache that really ought to be automated.
Maybe that sounds like heresy, but I have better things to do, you know? Villagers could be a little more proactive in repairing and finding something new to do if the berries are all gone, too. And why do I have to manually click on every treasure chest? As for the relics… it’s just another thing to deal with on top of ordering more soldiers, then replacing those villagers, moving the archery tent, repairing the dock, and ignoring the notifications because they’re basically constant. The game makes no differentiation between “the archers in front of you are shooting the thing you told them to shoot”, “your second village is on fire”, or “your ally’s scout has the hiccups”.
It’s a lot. A lot.
Some of you like this, though. This is the whole point of the genre to a fair chunk of players, and to an extent, I accept that. AoE4 offers some keyboard shortcuts too, and a handy breakdown of what your villagers are doing is always ready in the corner. But I still feel like it could use some more options. A way to drag-select military units only. A shortcut for “select all wounded”. A routine for horse archer harassment that didn’t force me to micromanage them so much that I stopped bothering with them entirely. I like that units only pursue enemies a short way before returning (making kiting useful, but limited rather than all-powerful) but I could use patrol options, or engagement radii, or even a “retreat if x” routine.
The same would help for training and building, too. Yeah, I know, manually replenishing forces is “How It’s Done”, but the way armies enter little formations and scurry about, the unit-specific counters, and particularly the way units yell at each other when they’re near enemies all make me want to manage battles and tactics and maneouvres. Instead I’ve got to click back to the stable and get more lancers, and back to the fishing boats to tell them to search for fish, and back to the barracks to tie the latest recruit’s shoelaces. Same as it ever was.
More importantly though, I’ve got better at it. I’ll never be an expert, but I’ve got the hang of knowing when it’s time for more houses, when to shift from wood to gold, when I can afford to pump out a constant stream of handgunners. I can see myself getting into this in a way I never quite did with the rest of the series. It helps that it looks and sounds terrific, particularly the siege weapons and the gradual crumbling of buildings and walls (although I still struggle to differentiate between some of the units at distance, not helped by a zoom function that badly needs to stretch further in both directions).
But I wince when a lone soldier is caught out by a bombard, I recruit gunners just to enjoy their broadsides, and I love that some units whistle alerts, and the English ring church bells when their towers spot trouble. I’d like to spend more time enjoying those details and less squinting at the minimap (which also badly needs zoom options, or even resizing). Maybe the animations shouldn’t matter, but they’re the reward to me for successfully destroying a keep, not the completely superfluous levelling system that pops up after every match purely to make me roll my eyes. +40 XP? Sir, this is tetris.
I don’t feel very strongly about Age Of Empires. That might sound damning, but I’m someone with no particular stake in the series, perhaps even slightly biased against it. Yet I’ve never wanted to stop playing AoE 4 all week. It might not be a huge step forward, but it’s a sure step in a genre whose comeback is long overdue, and it doesn’t appear to have ambitions beyond that. I’d like to see more clear innovation, I’d love an active pause and speed controls in single player at least, and a pull towards macromanagement, and a heap of smaller tweaks that may well come in time anyway. Fundamentally, the best I can say is that I enjoyed it more the better I got, I got steadily better the more I played, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.