Age of Empires 4 may be the first new game in the popular real-time strategy franchise for over 16 years, but you wouldn't be alone in mistaking this instalment for any others in the series. At face value, there's little to honestly distinguish Age of Empires 4 from any of its remastered siblings.
While Age of Empires 4 certainly isn't some kind of shameless clone of AoE II, it also doesn't hide that it aims to be a successor to the hugely popular title. The lines become blurred at times and I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking that they are the same game when assessing them at a base level.
For all the comparisons that can be made, there's a lot to like for players of all skill and experience levels, whether you're brand new to the series or an RTS expert.
Learning the ropes
A crucial element of any real-time strategy game is to make sure the players are well equipped with everything they need before letting go of their hands to face the rest of the game alone. While cooperative play is an option, you don't want to use friends as a crutch to learn the game.
So, how does Age of Empires handle teaching you how to play the game? I would say it leaves a lot of that down to you. A basic tutorial is available and the story mode will also run you through some basic aspects of gameplay, but if you want to learn any more than just the basics, you have to want to learn more.
This is accomplished through studying and learning the individual tech trees for each civilization before just dropping into a game and figuring things out as you go. There are also direct links to in-depth guides on each civilization on the Age of Empires website.
Finally, the Art of War section contains some basic challenges to test how well you've picked up these teachings and all of these materials make for a fairly comprehensive tutorial. The only issue I have is that you aren't guided towards this content and can instead throw yourself into the heat of battle knowing very little.
This may lead to inexperienced players having a rough introduction to the game and not understanding the various layers to gameplay and it shouldn't be our responsibility to seek out more knowledge about the game. A gentle prompt to suggest checking out the various entry-level/tutorial content is all I would suggest, ensuring every player is suitably prepared for battle!
A Bright Light in the Dark Ages
One of the first parts of Age of Empires 4 that truly grabbed my attention was the story mode. Rather than just taking the player through some real-life encounters and explaining their effects on history, you're instead treated to a lovingly crafted historical recap before each mission.
During the gameplay, a narrator informs you of your next objectives through very clever storytelling. The cutscenes are also a joy, using real-life images and videos mixed with digital recreations of battlefields. For any history buffs playing the game, this feels like a love letter directly to them.
Better yet, for someone like me who can't recall my age at times, it's a wonderfully structured educational tool that fools me into learning. Across the four campaigns which see you playing as various civilizations, there are 35 total missions. Each campaign is unique, exploring various parts of history under different civilizations. Once a mission is completed, you also unlock all of the video footage shown in the cutscenes to view at your discretion.
The Normans, The Hundred Years War, The Mongol Empire and The Rise of Moscow are the four included campaigns. I would love to see some more added in the future to learn more about the remaining civilizations in the game.
Pick Your Poison
One thing I came to adore about Age of Empires 4, after initially being quite sour, was how rewarding testing all its A.I. difficulties was. Having played previous games not only in this series but a ton of RTS games in general, I felt suitably prepared to start playing at a high level.
I was rather swiftly brought down to earth, as even on intermediate the A.I. was outclassing me leaving me as the first player eliminated in a 2v2 Skirmish. I decided to play nice and started on the easy difficulty for my next game and, while little challenge was offered, I began to understand more about how to better plan and strategize from the moment the game begins.
While it was admittedly a timesink to have to play multiple games at each difficulty, it just became a testament to how fun Age of Empires is in the long run. Each game was never played under the same rules and I made sure to keep things interesting by also reducing the number of win conditions in some cases.
Just playing around with the multiple game, map and enemy settings became so intriguing as I was left to wonder what effect it would have on the game I'm about to play. If you're not willing to be quite as adventurous as me, then you can always use one of the presets for Skirmish mode and still have a huge amount of fun with the scenarios created by the developers.
No Risk, No Reward
Overall, despite the incredible story mode and countless hours of fun that can be had in skirmish mode, there are just very few risks taken with the game overall, which leads to very little reward in the long run.
It leaves me feeling like the best is yet to come from Age of Empires 4, which could turn what is a fantastic experience into an absolute must-play. Once the modding community have their fun with the game and more content is released over the coming months (and years), Age of Empires 4 will only go from strength to strength.
Age of Empires 4 is an incredible experience, despite taking few risks to change the formula. Over time, the package will evolve and so will gameplay; these games are never made with the short term in mind and AoE 4 is no different.
I'm left with no doubts that I'll still be playing AoE 4 well into 2022 and beyond and look forward to new content that will further develop and evolve the current base game. Whether you're a hardened RTS veteran looking for a new challenge or a newcomer to the genre looking for a gentle inviting game to get you started, Age of Empires 4 can do both.
RealSport Score: 4.5 out of 5
Our Age of Empires 4 Review Code was provided by Microsoft.