The Age of Empires franchise appeared to reach its end when Microsoft shut down Age of Empires Online three years ago, which seemed to mark a terminus both for the series and for the idea of a mainstream blockbuster real-time strategy game.
So it was quite a surprise to see Microsoft announcing Age of Empires IV at Gamescom this week, and an even bigger surprise to see that it's going to Relic Entertainment making it, who are usually exclusive with Sega and are best known for the Company of Heroes and Dawn of War series.
The trailer doesn't give us much to go on, as it mostly just walks us through the different eras and settings that Age of Empires has covered over the years. While it seems likely that the "new era" promised in the trailer is just going to be some other period (Victorian Era through the World Wars perhaps?), I am holding out hope that we might be getting some kind of Rise of Nations-inspired journey through history.
The only thing that would be better is Age of Empires IV: Screw It, Age of Empires Is Kohan Now.
It's going to be interesting to see which direction Relic take Age of Empires IV. When the series was at its zenith, it was a very pretty and very traditional base-building RTS of the sort you rarely see anymore. Somehow it managed to appeal to people—like my father, for one—who otherwise found the entire genre too fast-paced and overwhelming. When Gas Powered Games tried to recapture that magic for Microsoft in a free-to-play online format, complete with cutesy graphics that aped the dominant aesthetic of most contemporary mobile games, the experiment seemed to fall flat.
If you're going traditional, however, Relic is a curious studio to choose. From Homeworld through Company of Heroes 2, Relic have generally stayed away from the traditional base-builder. Dawn of War III itself was a hugely risky attempt to make an RTS that could break out of its genre niche entirely and capture some of what makes MOBAs so popular. If Microsoft was announcing a new Age of Mythology then I might know where Relic would be taking things, but Age of Empires IV leaves me stumped.
That's not the only Age of Empires announcement Microsoft made. They're also releasing "Definitive Editions" for the earlier games, complete with 4K graphics, expanded fields of view, and increased population caps. The first game is slated for October 19.
It's an odd move for Microsoft to be putting this much muscle behind an RTS franchise in an era when so many seem to be hedging their bets on the entire genre, but I'm very curious to see whether they can reignite the love people had for the first two Age of Empires games.