Age of Empires IV
The Good: Gobs of Triple-A polish. Videos, graphics, music, voice work – all first rate. Big single player campaign.
The Bad: Iffy pathing. Have AIs really gotten no smarter since 2005? Uninspired multiplayer.
The Ugly: I waited 15+ years for this?
And really, it’s been more like 22 years (on a side note, wow I’m old), because I’ve always considered AOE3 in 2005 to be a fair step down from 1999s AOE2, and it is clear that AOE4 is more of a spiritual successor to AOE2 with a return to four collectable resources (food, wood, gold, stone) and the removal of the questionable card system of AOE3.
Whichever, RTS games have always been my go-to genre, and with the demise of Command and Conquer franchise and the seeming end of the AOE series and the stagnation of Starcraft (and argue with me if you like, but the whole Total War series I have always seen as too complicated to scratch my simple RTS itch), it was pretty much just Company of Heroes to sustain me (great series though that is), and I had been losing hope. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard AOE4 was coming out, and now that I’ve played it, I find it has a lot to offer. At a time when several games are abandoning single player content entirely (not an RTS, but I’m looking at you Battlefield 2042), AOE4 delivers an enormous single player campaign that spans forty missions (I had to look that number up online – after about 15 hours of playing, I’m apparently less than halfway done). The missions are introduced using real video footage with soldiers appearing as wire frames. Building construction uses that wire frame animation as well, and it’s neat. Civilizations still advance through ages as in previous AOE iterations, though in this instance players are given a choice of different special buildings to construct to advance which provide different advantages. There are 8 playable civilizations each with unique units and bonuses (and interestingly the Mongols have a portable city center and build no buildings), and their own voice work and theme music and unit graphics – very snazzy. Though I’m sure some will complain, I find the balance between them pretty good.
But there are some weird hinks, like it is easier for an army to breach a wall than a gate (the gate seems to have way more hitpoints), and from a tactical standpoint it is easier to just bust down stone walls with a battering ram than mount the walls with a siege tower and try to storm a city that way. I’m also surprised by how poor the pathing is at times when groups of units get tangled up moving past buildings, trees, and other unit formations. Also, when you command an attack against a group of units, as the enemy numbers dwindle, your units have difficulty finding a way to move into combat range with the few remaining soldiers. In general, things like a cavalry charge look great right up to the moment of collision, when they pull up short and then the units just kind of mill around poking each other with their various weapons.
I’ve also got some complaints about the enemy AI. Units have a very clear range of engagement, and you can have a group of archers plink a cluster of enemy units, and then run away – the enemy units will give up the chase and return to their original position after just a short distance. Wash, rinse, repeat, and it’s a very cheap way to kill a lot of enemies. I’ve also noticed on standard difficulty, that the enemy will try and breach your defenses with, say, six horsemen, and when that fails, they’ll try to breach them again with six more horsemen, and then for some variety try again with six more horsemen. At least on intermediate difficulty, the Ai doesn’t put up much of a fight. Your units need a lot of micromanagement as well, as the enemy can engage a long formation of archers and only some of the line will get involved, and pikemen told to stay in place to thwart a horse charge may wonder off their mark to do something else. Controlling big groups of different units remains just as much a pain in the keister as ever. Frankly that I saw these AI problems in AOE2 in 1999 and still see them today is disappointing.
Multiplayer is entirely skirmish, 1v1 through 4v4 where you fight for either military victory, be the first to build a wonder, or take and hold a number of sacred sites on the map. I had been hoping to see some new multiplayer modes, but alas not. There are some setup and function controls in the multiplayers screens that don’t do anything yet, like the choice of using a created map instead of one of the generated ones, but there aren’t any maps in that tab yet so presumably that map making tool is coming. You can also play the maps against a collection of enemy AI if you choose. It all feels like a weird throwback to C&C3.
So Age of Empires IV is well put together and polished to high hell. I wish that something new had been done to bring the RTS genre that has been sitting more or less idle for a decade or so into the modern era, but you can’t have everything, and I suspect that more stuff like a map editor will be added in the future. Beyond that, with the recently released AOE2 Definitive Edition, that title, now 22 years old and $30 cheaper, already comes with a map editor that AOE4 lacks, and roughly a trillion player-made maps, and is probably the better bargain for your gaming dollar, especially if somehow you never got around to playing it previously.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
This review is based on a digital copy of Age of Empires IV for the PC provided by Xbox Game Studios.