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Age of Empires IV

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Release Date: Oct. 28, 2021

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.

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PC Review - 'Age of Empires IV'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Oct. 25, 2021 @ 12:01 a.m. PDT

It's time to battle through history once more in the latest entry of the landmark Age of Empires franchise.

Buy Age of Empires IV

It's been over 15 years since the release of the previous mainline Age of Empires game, 2005's AoE3. In that time, the RTS genre has seen the rise and subsequent decline of numerous milestone entries from Relic Entertainment's own Company of Heroes to the trio of StarCraft 2 releases. Any way you look at it, the release of Age of Empires 4 is the return of a giant, but it feels like a reintroduction of the franchise rather than of an attempt to reinvent it.

Age of Empires 4 has benefited from its time away. Under Relic's development, the game is a love letter to fans of the franchise and especially to those who enjoyed Age of Empires 2. Despite the new campaigns, flashy presentation, and some other bells and whistles, the basic gameplay in AoE4 isn't that much different compared to the older game. It's largely the same units, and critically, it is the same "rock paper scissors" dynamic. For example, cavalry is countered by spearmen, who are laid to waste by swordsmen, and they fear just about anyone on horseback.


This isn't a problem in and of itself; regardless of the age of the system, it allows for a significant amount of depth when it comes to planning assaults or making tactical changes in the middle of a battle. You want to get your cavalry out of the way of spearmen, perhaps to get them to tie up enemy archers if you can get swordsmen to cover their withdrawal. While the melee rages, you might want to consider how your archers are placed or who your siege weapons are engaging. Mastering that micromanagement of your forces is important at any difficulty level.

At the default "Intermediate" difficult and up, the micromanagement of forces becomes critical. Drag a box around your army and give it an attack-move order without caring about how the battle develops is a sure-fire way to lose a lot of units needlessly. You need to remain vigilant over how the skirmish unfolds and make any changes necessary to retain your advantages. Failure to do so sets you back in terms of the time and resources to replenish your army, and in some missions, there are periods of time when you lack the means to replenish your units at all.

The four campaigns are a mixed bag. Their content is interesting enough, and across the game's 35 campaign missions, you'll command everything from the knights of an English army to the horseback archers of the Mongols. My main issue is that they are structured to a fault, rarely allow for flexibility from the player, and in the rare times it does, the player lacks the time to do anything other than react instead of strategize.

One particularly problematic mission comes in the English campaign, in which you must defend a castle from an ongoing siege. You start with a sprawling base fortified with stone walls, and you barely have time to learn what buildings are where and what upgrades you may need before waves of attackers begin their assault on the walls. From there, it becomes a frantic balance between getting in some upgrades and producing your units, all the while moving your forces around to wherever defense is needed. It's difficult to keep up with, and at times, it feels as though the best bet is to fail, restart the mission, and respond to enemy actions that you now know are coming.

 


More problematic is in how the enemies in the campaign mission have no interest in following the same economic restrictions that you do. In the same example from before, your task is to defend the castle until a friendly army arrives, and wipe out four enemy outposts to stop the siege. Despite none of the outposts gathering resources of their own, the enemy can spawn small armies worth thousands of resources every few minutes. Even if two or three outposts are destroyed, the intensity of the free forces given to the enemy remains unchanged. It is incredibly frustrating to put together a plan where you guide your forces around their walls for an ambush — only to be thwarted because the enemy can spawn in an army with a couple of mangonels that immediately fire and wipe out a quarter of your forces with the first volley.

There is one cool feature that may provide a decent incentive to keep putting those campaign missions to rest. At the end of campaign missions, you unlock what initially seem like cut scenes, including the ones you saw at the start and end of the mission. These videos are neat and use real footage of the locales and at times overlay "holograms" of units and fortifications to give an idea of what the battle may have looked like in real life. It's an interesting touch, and the use of real footage bridges the gap between the actual historical record and its presentation within the context of the game.

The truly cool part of the feature is regarding the "Hands-on History" segments. Each is about three to five minutes long and is a focused dive into a particular topic. My entry into these videos was with the "Crossbows" one, and I sat through the whole enthralling run as the history and operation of the weapon was covered in welcome detail. Other topics include trebuchets, how to make chain mail, medieval surgery, and castle construction. The rest of the game makes use of history; the "Hands-on History" segments celebrate it in a way that is as unique as it is well-produced.


The multiplayer aspect of the game doesn't bring too much new to the table, continuing the tendency to take what wasn't broken from Age of Empires 2 and leave it be. The standard RTS fare is there; you can play against the AI with four potential difficulty levels per AI slot, against players, and team up with players cooperatively against the AI. There are eight civilizations to choose from, each with its own benefits and changes to its intended play style. There's a little something here for everyone, and despite how unchanged it feels from prior titles, it's difficult to find too much fault in it.

It's that safety in embracing the past that represents Age of Empires 4's most obvious flaw. In many ways, it plays and feels like the game is simply Age of Empires 2 with a very well applied fresh coat of paint. Love letter or no, between the rough issues with the campaign and the reuse of the multiplayer, it feels more like a remaster of an older game than of a new entry into the series. It is not easy to please fans of the long-running franchise while also attempting to attract new ones to it, and Age of Empires 4 finds itself in a strange no-man's land between those two goals.

Score: 7.9/10

Reviewed on: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, 32 GB RAM, NVidia GTX 2070 Super



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