Age of Empires IV is something very special. It's a game players have waited over 15 years for. It's for a good reason, too. How do you follow up on some of the best real-time strategy games of all time? Needless to say, Age of Empires IV has big shoes to fill, but if successful, it could lead to a new age for both the series and strategy games in general. I'm very happy to say that those shoes were too small for Age of Empires IV because it far exceeded my expectations and will delight longtime fans and newcomers alike with its incredibly fun campaign, creative and asymmetric civilizations, and outstanding presentation quality.
Off to War in Age of Empires IV
This is an incredibly accessible title for any and all players. Longtime fans will find familiarity with the mechanics of gathering resources, advancing ages, and amassing giant armies to stomp opponents. For newcomers, there's plenty of tutorial content that competently explains mechanics to get them acclimated to Age of Empire's iconic style of gameplay. Moreover, the four campaigns spanning 35 total missions will appeal to both parties. It's the most fun I've ever had with a real-time strategy campaign thanks to the engaging tactical scenarios and historical stories told.
There are four campaigns total, comprising the Normans (English), French, Mongols, and Rus. The Norman campaign chronicles the battles of William the Conqueror and his descendants. It's a story filled with constant strife between the English and French. Castle sieges and defense take a key focus here. Utilizing the iconic English longbow, it's particularly engrossing to pick off enemies from afar with these long-ranged archers. Players will even learn how to manage a new mechanic -- ambushes -- in this campaign, by conducting guerilla warfare.
The campaigns within Age of Empires IV offer an interesting juxtaposition of playing one faction; after completing one civilization's story, you then take command of the enemy in the next one. So, the French follow suit as you battle the English, this time in the Hundred Year War. Now you're on the other side of the fearsome English longbow, and you get to experience the very same weapons you were just using to terrorize armies in the prior campaign. I absolutely love it.
While there are some exceptions, history is hardly ever black and white, and Age of Empires IV proves this point through exciting and educational storytelling infused in its mission-based story.
The two most intriguing campaigns are by far the Mongols and Rus. Rarely do players take command as Mongols; like in Ghost of Tsushima, the Mongols are most often portrayed as the villains due to their unrelenting nature of warfare. During the Mongol campaign, you'll spend much of your time setting fires to towns in Eastern Europe and China. Mechanically, Mongols gain resources from razing villages, so it's a necessity to cause such destruction. Learning the history of the Mongols is also a joy. As they are portrayed as bad guys, we often hear more about the sides being subjugated by the Mongols much less about the conquerors themselves. Little did I know that their influence expanded even to Russia.
The Rus civilization is the final campaign of the four. Like the Mongols, the gameplay style of this campaign is rather unique. Several missions take place within Moscow as the city constantly went through a cycle of destruction and rebuilding. You'll see how Moscow grows during the ages and even take part in the effort to expand the city's influence and prosperity. This is another exceptionally well-done bundle of missions that will test how well you can maintain defenses and build your economy.
I deeply enjoy how each campaign teaches different ways to play. Other than enlightening players on how to use each faction effectively, some campaigns focus more on sieges; alternatively, others will highlight defense. Some missions -- particularly with the Mongols -- will help new players learn how to utilize units to succeed in massive battles. Whether you're a new player or a longtime fan, you will find challenges here. There are four different difficulty options, after all. The easiest of which is Story, which means that literally anyone can play Age of Empires IV's campaign and beat it. This can be tweaked from mission to mission, as well.
Admittedly, this is the first game in the series where I've actually completed all of the campaigns. The pacing of the campaigns is exceptional and I was able to play multiple missions in a row. There were times in previous games where a single scenario was exhausting, but that was not the case here. My only complaint is that there are only four campaigns to choose from. I would have liked to see the other factions -- particularly the Dehli Sultanate and Abbasid Dynasty -- have some sort of story, too. Moreover, the Chinese get no chance to redeem themselves after the devastating destruction wrought by the Mongols. If I had to guess, there are more campaigns on the way, and I hope and expect to see the same quality as I did these first four. With no naval missions to speak of -- a disappointing exclusion -- I would also want to see these included in the future.
Age of Empires IV's Asymmetric Faction Design
My initial disappointment that there were only eight factions was soon and mostly alleviated due to the way each civilization works. The civilizations in Age of Empires IV are the most distinct in the series, each one playing vastly different from the rest and catering to all manner of playstyles. First, there are some similarities between them. You'll have access to most of the same buildings and units. Be that as it may, civilizations still have several units they alone have access to, as well as a boatload of distinct technologies to research and other mechanics besides.
Each civilization has a very clear, individualized look. The English and Holy Roman Empire have the more stereotypical medieval imagery; conversely, the Rus utilize wood in all of their architecture. Mongols boast a tribal look with heavy use of tents as structures which is also authentic to history. While it would take an excessively large amount of information to explain each faction's intricacies, know that these civilizations are all wildly fun to play.
I have said a lot about the Mongols and Rus, and that is because their style of play is most unfamiliar compared to other Age of Empires games. That is also why I took a heavy interest in them. For example, most Mongol structures can quite literally pick themselves up, plop them on a cart, and roll off. Their entire civilization is literally mobile; after all, these are nomadic people. I can only imagine the possibilities players will discover.
Just imagine, you're building up a fortress of walls, only for some player will Mongols to sit their town next to yours and destroy everything you've worked up to.
The Rus, on the other hand, make strong use of hunting. The more they hunt, the more gold they earn. They also use buildings that facilitate faster deforestation as this is a lumber-based civilization. Hunting and woodcutting are important, and I found and this to be a fun and different way to play. It incentivizes a style of play I've never considered, yet one I now enjoy.
More to the point that every faction plays differently, Dehli Sultanate is quite unlike any other civilization available. This civilization is a knowledge powerhouse, making special use of scholars. Scholars enhance the speed of your research. This is central to how they play when realize the Dehli Sultanate researches technology at a significantly slower rate than other civilizations, but as a benefit, research costs no resources whatsoever. Moreover, a single unit is pivotal to your progress whilst playing the Holy Roman Empire. A prelate is a unit which increases the speed in which your villagers gather resources, which is advantageous to this civilization that focuses heavy on defenses. To learn how to play each faction differently is a difficult task due to their noteworthy differences, but one that is rewarding once you understand their intricacies.
What remains constant between each civilization is the usage of landmarks. To advance to the next age, you'll have to spend a large number of materials to craft your choice between landmarks. Each landmark offers a different boon. Being the economic powerhouse that it is, the Chinese's first landmarks offer choices between a building that generates much more tax to nearby buildings or one that is a strong defensive fortress. In general, landmarks offer some advantage to your economy, military, or defenses. Each civilization has a set of unique landmarks, which adds even more ways to play. One of the English's allows for you to recruit longbows at a much faster rate, which cna lead to a ridiculously powerful army. Overall, with two choices for each age and up to the Imperial Age, there are so many different possibilities for players to choose from. Depending on how a skirmish plays out, you'll definitely end up picking one landmark over the other based on what's needed at that time.
While I still begrudge the fact that there are only eight factions, I also hope that more will come with the success of Age of Empires IV. I cannot rate a game based on what will come, but I am nonetheless excited at the prospect of more ways to play. The way civilizations are designed will mean that any new content is sure to be significant in nature and bring exciting changes to the meta. As it stands, these eight factions are all distinct enough from one another that there's no chance you'll get bored soon. After several dozen hours in I still feel like I've only scratched the surface.
The Exceptional Presentation of Age of Empires IV
Addressing some concerns prior to the Age of Empires IV's launch, the graphics aren't going to knock your socks off. Age of Empires IV does not look dated, but it's also not particularly striking. I do, however, take a great liking to the vibrant colors of the landscapes and units. There's a more cartoonish look to this game as well, but it's a very charming look. I think the choice for this style was a natural transition from Age of Empires II, which this title clearly takes more inspiration from than the third in the series.
I like the more subtle details put into this game. Paths are automatically created between the buildings you play. Whereas in Age of Empires II you could stack buildings next to each other and create a horribly ugly city, now you have these paths, which makes the city feel more organized and legible. The terrain looks detailed and makes me excited at the thought of crafting my own maps when the scenario editor arrives post-launch.
Music and sound design are of the highest caliber, too. Zooming into a large army in the midst of battle will treat your ears with a cacophony of roars, grunts, stomps, and launched arrows. The voice acting for each unit is subtle as there are only a few lines for them, but it's also an iconic part of the series. Villagers speaking their native tongues is a touch that adds to the care and authenticity put into each faction. The English faction's units are very difficult to understand, but realizing that Age of Empires IV takes place centuries ago, it makes sense that the English language as we know it has changed significantly since then. The music as you play skirmishes and span the ages is calming and always has an authentic feel to it.
Weirdly enough, one of, if not my favorite aspects about Age of Empires IV is its use of real-world footage. The campaign has cutscenes between missions that make use of sweeping aerial drone shots, cinematic camera work, and video of iconic landmarks. These cutscenes feature locations where the actual battles took place. There are times when clear yellow silhouettes of soldiers and fortress wars are superimposed over the real-world footage, giving further historical context.
After completing missions, you're also treated with a myriad of unlockables. My most favorite of which are mini-documentaries of sorts. These short clips span only a few minutes, but I sure wish they lasted much longer. They treat you with an abundance of historical facts comprising topics of all sorts: how castles were built, the life of knights on a campaign, Mongol horses, crossbows, medieval artwork, and more. These videos are incredibly high quality and feature actual experts on these various subjects. You see how weapons were made, how they worked, and more. These are legitimately so good, they put the History Channel to shame. It depends on how interested in history you really are, but for someone who can never know enough about medieval times, it's the perfect thing.
Age of Empires IV | Final Thoughts
One last thing I'd like to commend developer Relic Entertainment on is the mastery system. Between each civilization, they all have 15 masteries. Each one has unique objectives to accomplish that let players learn how to play a faction more efficiently while also posing an intriguing challenge. Upon completing a mastery, you're rewarded with cosmetic rewards like a new profile picture, or a banner you can show off to players you fight online. While we're on the topic of online, I didn't have much of a chance to play it due to the low player count. I can say it was stable, but this might change once a large influx of players swarms online. Facing off against one player or multiple in teams is available. My favorite option is co-op with friends, which is also possible in Age of Empires IV and a feature I intend to take advantage of after launch.
It's worth noting that Age of Empires IV seems to be optimized well. At times, there can be hundreds of units on-screen at once in addition to a myriad of buildings and terrain features. Running on the highest settings posed no issue for my specs (Ryzen 7 2700 CPU with a 2070 Super GPU and 12 GB of RAM) and I suspect most will even somewhat modern hardware will have no problem as well. One problem I did notice was the main menu could get slow at times, dropping to single-digit FPS. This seemed to happen after digging into the Masteries menu and looking at tech trees. It's nothing major and doesn't inhibit the gameplay significantly, but it is an annoying issue that should be fixed. Other than performance, there are times where trees quite literally change models when you zoom in or during in-game cutscenes. I don't always notice it, but it can be jarring. It is the only bug I experienced, which is saying something for a complex game such as this.
Age of Empires II was a classic, and while Age of Empires IV does only what it needs to in order to innovate the series, it makes for an astoundingly fun time. It's all due to the detailed, amusing factions and stellar presentation made along with one of the most fun campaigns I've played in a long time. For years to come, new players and veterans alike will flock to play and find this to be incredibly accessible, very fun, and worthy of this series' legendary pedigree.
TechRaptor reviewed Age of Empires IV on PC using a copy provided by the publisher.
- Very Fun and Varied Campaign Missions
- Civilization Design is Deifferent and Creative
- Strong Sound Design
- Informative and Genuinely Entertaining Documentary Footage
- Four Campaigns Leads to Slight Disappointment
- Graphics Are Just Adequate