With Nothing to Prove, ‘Age of Empires IV’ Makes a Confident, Relaxed Return

Comfortable, not complacent.
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'Age of Empires IV' screenshots courtesy of Microsoft

My dad played Age of Empires. I'd come home from college and the jewel case would always be next to his armchair where he played on his laptop while half-watching a football game. These were RTS blockbusters but the fact that my dad would keep playing them years after my friends and I had abandoned them always made them a bit suspect. When Ensemble Studios' Age of Empires 2 came out, I was quick to leave its colorful villages and castles behind for the icy vacuum of Relic's Homeworld. I was done with the base-building past of the RTS, the future beckoned.

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Somehow that future has led us here, with a new Age of Empires IV resurrected for Microsoft by Relic itself. What's more, this is not some attempt to shake-up the franchise or redefine it in a new context. If anything, Age of Empires IV is Relic's Age of Empires II remake, which might seem like a depressingly modest ambition or even an unnecessary one after all the fine Age of Empires Definitive Editions Microsoft put out over the last couple years. Even a few years ago I might have reached that conclusion myself, and I'll concede that there is every chance I am just heeding my own call of the easy chair as I embrace Age of Empires IV as a skillful and humble reinterpretation of an enduring classic.

The foundations of this game are as familiar as ever: this is a real-time strategy game about managing tons of workers inside sprawling bases. From a single town center and a handful of villagers at the start you'll expand across the map to seize control of gold and stone mines and dense forests, defending your holdings with long chains of fortifications. As you expand, you'll also advance through the titular "ages," unlocking more powerful units, buildings, and upgrades. Large, slightly clumsy armies of melee and ranged infantry, cavalry, and siege weapons plod across the map to fight in battles largely determined by the exact ratio of rock to paper to scissors that each player has chosen. It's consistently pretty and colorful, like a diorama brought to life, which is the exact kind of spectacle that made this series so enduring and welcoming without trying to melt anyone's graphics card.

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There's more going on in Age of Empires IV than meets the eye, however. For starters, your eyes are a bit unreliable thanks to the addition of concealment via light forests and tall grass. Acting like the "brush" in a MOBA, these areas of the map severely restrict the line-of-sight of most units and buildings, leading to far more interesting maps and re-emphasizing the skill of scouting.

The different factions are also less interchangeable than they first appear. While the foundations of the game are the same for everyone, the Holy Roman Empire faction (for instance) gets significant bonuses to its workers' productivity if it can cluster its work force around a few dense job sites at a time, while the Delhi Sultanate needs to be thinking about how to concentrate buildings around Madrasas in order to get much-needed bonuses to dangerously slow upgrade speeds. The differences are further exaggerated by the choice of special buildings they must construct to advance ages, a very Relic-style approach to creating starker "build" choices as part of faction design, but also similar to some of the ideas Age of Empires III brought into the series.

So the frantic optimizations and counter-strategies of the serious RTS hobby are all alive and well here for skirmish and multiplayer but so is the low-stress historical sandbox that my dad loved for so many years. The difference between then-and-now, however, is even starker when it comes to Age of Empires IV's single-player experience. 

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The plodding narrative campaigns of Age of Empires II, with over-wrought narrations desperately trying to provide some kind of narrative tissue to simplistic "go here and kill everything" mission designs, are mercifully gone. In their place are slickly-produced documentary-style campaigns that capture the undeniable pleasure of a pre-reality-TV History Channel marathon. Between missions you'll be treated to charming cutscenes that place each chapter of a campaign in historical context, complete with modern-day footage of the key locations overlaid with augmented-reality animations of Age of Empires IV armies pouring across car parks and sightseeing trails. Over the course of the game you'll also unlock mini-documentaries covering different topics of interest like, "How did they make all that chainmail?" and "What's the difference between hunting with hawks versus falcons?" These asides are well-made and presented, like good extras on a top-shelf collector's edition DVD.

Mission design doesn't always keep pace. While I appreciate the fact that its campaigns are frequently loving paeans to medieval siege warfare, even my mighty appetite for defending or reducing ancient citadels was tested. Yet those battles were far, far more enjoyable than the "trail of breadcrumbs" missions that the campaigns love to throw at you. There were a lot of missions I overcame purely through repetition, learning both the map layouts and the exact timing of different threats. This is a less welcome throwback experience, even if the missions themselves are still much better designed and scripted than much of what you'll find in the earlier games.

Age of Empires IV is content being a familiar and affable RTS companion, but it's not a complacent one. It's not making the kind of flashy, noisy challenge to convention that Relic made with the Homeworld, Dawn of War, and Company of Heroes games. It very consciously returns to an old genre formula, but finds enough places to add new touches and twists that it feels less conservative than its forerunners did. Perhaps more importantly, this kind of RTS went from being the default to being a rarity, and in that context it's become easier to appreciate its craft and to concede that our parents and normie nemeses may have been onto something.