Sticks and stones may break my bones but a horse can do it faster.
Much like when analysing the great battles of history, context is important when devoting ten minutes of the precious little time you will spend on this mortal coil to reading a video game review. You don’t want to spend years of your life praising Genghis Khan without the context of, you know, all the genocide, and you should know where I’m coming from before taking my opinion here as if it were preached from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey.
If you are looking for a deep analysis of Age of Empires 4’s chops as a competitive real time strategy (RTS) game or a comparison to its impressive lineage, you are in the wrong place my friend. My experience with the Age of Empires series begins and ends with the faint scent of Nutra-Grain on a promotional disc and wasting at least 40 cents in local calls for modem play with a friend who decided humiliating me was more fun that teaching me how to play the game, and the last RTS I played competitively had a –craft suffix with no number following. What I bring to the table is fresh eyes, a love of history and a couple thousand hours devoted to the Total War series and its real time historic military battles without the burden of also building peons, or villagers, or SCVs.
Age of Empires 4 doesn’t work quite to that Total War scale, but it does a marvellous job at recreating the tactics and trade-offs of historic military conflict under the restrictions (and balance) of a tight population cap. Taking place over six centuries of the middle ages and featuring eight factions across Europe and Asia, you will build a base, an economy and an army then out-maneuver your opponent to achieve one of several victory conditions (though out-and-out annihilation remains the most straightforward and common method).
In my brief time I didn’t find any win buttons or sure-fire tactics, and the population limit makes victory through overwhelming force unachievable. That means you’ll need to scout the enemy, construct balanced forces to counter them and work with the environment to take every advantage you can get. Dynamic terrain provides high ground, forests present opportunities for ambushes and natural choke points such as river crossings abound. Siege weaponry can make short work of castle walls but the best of it is as fragile as you would expect of a wooden trebuchet and an especially juicy target for a defender.
Units and factions offer as much variety as the limitations of humanity and history allow. It is spears, swords and arrows, on foot or on horse, with some factional bonuses for individual units directing them towards particular strategies. There is a paper and a scissors for every rock, and battle rewards good army balance and a healthy dose of micromanagement to keep horses away from spears and crossbows trained on knights. Heroes on the battlefield produce area of effect boosts, while formations can be adjusted to protect from projectile fire or better pierce a defensive position. It could be overwhelming at times, especially juggled with base and economy management, but you aren’t getting into real time strategy for thinking time and considered strategy. This is about instinctive actions and a healthy dose of clicks per minute, but only those with a deep interest in high level competitive play should feel threatened by the ceiling reflexes put on performance.
Being limited to boringly human abilities and unable to, say, breed dragons or produce especially ferocious tanks, factional choices are about which unique bonuses and builds suit your style than giving you access to the beefiest, toughest, best kitted out warriors. Standard strategy fare is all here, you’ll be able to research better armour and weapons for units, boost the production of your resource gathering villagers, and of course, progress through the titular Ages of your Empire. These ages act as a gate on the tech tree, focusing you toward reaching economic production that allows you to defend yourself while building landmarks to progress to the next age and unlock a swathe of new abilities. Lagging behind your technologically advanced neighbours for too long has consequences just as dire in game as it did for so many civilisations throughout history. Age of Empires is often about the long game, and buying yourself the time to play it with smart defensive positioning.
For the solo player there are four historic campaigns to work through alongside standalone scenarios and skirmishes. Daily quests and the Art of War challenge mode round out the single-player package, though there is definite scope to offer more in terms of said challenges. A prominent placement of mods in the main menu suggesting user generated content will be a big part of ongoing support, though user campaigns without the level of cinematic production and scripting that Relic has provided will feel somewhat hollow.
I can’t say that campaign mode will in any way prepare you for the threat of live opponents or even the skirmish modes, but it does present interesting challenges and as much variety as a single-player RTS can deliver without reverting to set piece battles and ignoring the economic, base building and “persuading your enemies that your god is the one true god and they should join your side or die” parts. Each campaign focuses on conflicts that in some cases stretch over centuries, fencing off much of the tech tree and progression mechanics of the game in each scenario to focus on a smaller challenge such as forming a suitable army to take the walls of an impenetrable castle, or defending a once thought impenetrable castle from overwhelming forces. Medieval history, full of castles if you didn’t know.
When they hit their notes, these scenarios sing a ballad worthy of carrying through the middle ages to present day, glorifying heroes and chivalrous deeds. Scratching through a level with a ragged handful of survivors is an exhilarating feeling, though how much of that is relief at not needing to spend another hour to re-do the level I cannot say for sure. Levels often double as history lessons, which extend to the unlockable rewards which are high quality documentary shorts focusing on the life, times and tools of war of the selected faction. These were highlights for me, though I appreciate I could get most of the same experience from searching for trebuchet or chain mail on YouTube. Sometimes you need to be guided to interesting things, and I for one did not realise I would care that people have been building a medieval castle in France for 25 years using only methods and materials of the time. It has now shot into the top five of my dream travel destinations.
Unfortunately the campaign’s singing voice is more than capable of catching a bug in its throat. After failing one scenario a couple of times I put up a half-dozen wooden walls to buy time to defend myself, but the act bought me an eternity as confused enemy soldiers burned a hole in one wall then looked through it in amazement rather than charging onward. One level became such a war of attrition that scripting errors started popping, and in another my last three archers saved Paris from attack by hitting a kill count, while a literal army still stood at the rubble that was once city gates, merely set-dressing for a scripted challenge I barely passed. It looked ridiculous. Another time I caught the AI cheating red handed as a camp spat out knights to join an ongoing battle at a rate suggesting these medieval mercenaries had uncovered the mystery of time compression. Maybe I have a foolish sense of fairness, but my opponents starting with tall castle walls, a fully kitted out army and an intimidating defensive position feels like more than enough advantage, did they also need to deviate from the game rules I must adhere to as well?
These moments didn’t ruin the campaign for me, but they did leave me in a huff several times and made me feel like significant gameplay time had been wasted. A few will undoubtedly be fixed post release, but a few more are design decisions that won’t be satisfied by throwing the difficulty down a notch and trying again, even if that does result in victory. I enjoyed the single player campaign, but would hesitate to recommend it to those without an inclination to strategy games or history.
The meat of the game will be in multiplayer, where Relic will undoubtedly spend years tweaking and tuning the balance as meta shifts and English archer rushes become French knight charges or Mongol horse archer swarms as the cheap tactic of choice. There is no point in judging Age of Empires 4 as a multiplayer game at this time; in the first day of release more multiplayer matches will be contested than in every open beta or playtesting session combined, and favoured strategies will quickly emerge. I trust that Relic will offer the support that a multiplayer title like this lives or dies upon, and the availability of Age of Empires 4 on Xbox Game Pass offers an easy way for interested parties to dip their toe and decide if they are ready to jump in or wish to wait until the water is a little less stained with the blood of newbies.
The strategic polish of two decades is on display in Age of Empires 4, both in the history of this series and the pedigree of the developer. Relic has wrapped an interesting if slightly flawed single player experience around what is a superb strategy game. You’ll probably know if you want to play this one, but if you just think medieval warfare is pretty cool and you really like the centuries where England and France just kept invading each other, I recommend you put aside any fears of fast clicking and micromanagement and just jumping in, just avoid that multiplayer menu until you are absolutely ready.
Age of Empires 4 is available 28 October on Windows PC, also available through Xbox Game Pass.
Age of Empires 4 was reviewed using a promotional code on Windows PC, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
29 October 2021
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