If you love Age of Empires, then I have some excellent news. You are going to love Age of Empires IV. The game runs like a refined and streamlined combination of Age of Empires II and III. Taking the core gameplay and feel of Age of Empires II and the continual progression of Age of Empires III, overall, Age of Empires IV makes it feel like they have just revamped the game and brought it into the modern age, which quite honestly is enough to make it a masterpiece.
Now, this is, of course, not a review of the full game as it has not yet been released but rather the ‘technical stress test’ version, which they released for free to play on the 17th of September. This version is only the multiplayer where you can only play as four civilisations (of the planned eight for launch), and there are also limited maps, game modes and so on. So, with that all in mind, we’ll be looking at the multiplayer that’s available, which is still enough to get a good feel of the game overall.
It Plays Like an Improved Age of Empires Game
If you showed me this game two months ago and told me this was a modded version of Age of Empires II, I would have believed you. This may seem like a disparaging comment, but that’s not really the case because Age of Empires II is an all time classic, and for many people getting a new, shiny version of that game is all they want.
Gameplay-wise, it’s incredibly reminiscent of previous games. You gather resources, you make military units, you go through the different ages, you get more buildings, along with better upgrades, and in less than an hour, you’ve won some battles, lost some battles, you’ve laughed and cried, you’ve felt your heart pound from the constant intensity, and you’re already in another lobby keen to do it all over again.
Just because the colonisation aspect of Age of Empires III is gone doesn’t mean they’ve discarded the game altogether. The depth of the research, which was the greatest improvement that game had, has been brought into this game, along with a couple other smaller positives from III, such as its improved trading system and online matchmaking.
There’s almost nothing really to say about the gameplay because if you are a fan of the series, then this is going to be the better version you’ve been wanting. And for everyone else, this game is likely going to become the go-to real-time strategy game. So, if you want this type of experience, then playing AOE4 is the easy, safe option that you know will deliver.
An Advancement in Civilisations
Much like everything else in the game, the civilizations themselves are slightly more in-depth and idiosyncratic than games previous. This is great because it increases the amount of unique perks and units each civilisation recieves. Resulting in the style of game where playing with one civilisation will legitimately be different from a game you play as a different civilisation.
For example, the English have special longbowmen and man-at-arms units, which they can have ready early on in the Feudal Age (Age 2 of 4). This means that an England game is suited more to early raids and rushes, and when playing as them, you are aiming to win the game before it advances too far while also having strong defensive upgrades, which makes them hard to rush and take down.
Meanwhile, a civilisation like the Abbasid Dynasty gets their ability to age up not through the regular route of putting down a big building that costs you a lot of resources, rather they level up through a single building you create in the Dark Age (Age 1), the House of Wisdom, which unlocks wings. In turns, wings are unlocked by creating new buildings that connect to buildings that either touch the grid of the House of Wisdom or another building on the grid. This means you want to build everything fairly close together, which actually discourages forward settling.
Now, the idea that each civilisation has a distinctive playstyle isn’t a fresh new introduction with this game, but it certainly feels more pronounced and relevant than ever before. This is great from the perspective of giving players more options, allowing them to find a civilisation that fits their playstyle while also providing diverse gameplay experiences for players in a game that is inherently very repetitive. However, the more variance there is, the more chance there is for one civilisation to be clearly dominant and overpowered, but we’ll see how they manage to balance this in the future.
Online Play Is Fast and Smooth
I played almost all of my games online with friends. Sometimes we’d verse the AI, sometimes we’d verse each other, and sometimes we’d just go into an open lobby and play other technical stress test testers. Even during this aforementioned stress test, online play seems to work a treat, with the lag never getting worse than a little slow or having a two-three second pause before catching back up.
This is amazing and indicates that the dream of being able to properly and easily play online will be realised. This is something we had already seen with AOE3, so it’s not surprising. Although knowing that it runs smoothly and effectively is really promising for the future of the game’s online community, which will likely be an enormous portion of the player base and a necessity if the game intends to have people come back to the series for many years to come.
It’s not 100% clear what sort of matchmaking system there will be as ranked play is sort of a necessity. At the moment there are only open lobbies, which means basically every game has one absolute demon who just carries the day and wins. Great if they’re on your team, very lame if they’re not. Although this isn’t a concern, and I have faith there will be something good here come launch day.
The AI Has Good Brain
For the portion of players who are more interested in going up against the AI, then we have good news here too as the AI, for the most part, seem to have a good idea of the game and was constantly pulling out smart strategies that took actual effort to defeat.
The AI would send well constructed armies to weaken or end you, it knew how to build civilisations up and it was even effective at personalising its tactics to fit with the abilities of its civilisations. Age of Empires has had pretty solid AI previously, so once again, this isn’t a surprise or something to be heralded, but it’s good to know that it’s working favorably.
One area where the AI was a lot jankier was with island maps, which is no shocker. When playing on an island map, I found that I was constantly being attacked by the AI, which might seem bad, but most of the time, it would send around five to eight troops at a time, sometimes outright sending only one or two, which were incredibly easier to take down. It was annoying, but I never felt threatened like I did when playing on land maps.
By the end of the game, the AI had failed to launch even one single effective and dedicated attack against me, despite landing on my shores maybe 30 or 40 times. Almost all games struggle with programming naval combat and AI that can deal with water and land, so it’s not too concerning that AOE4 is struggling too. We’ll see if it improves, but it’s likely it’ll just remain subpar, and that’s not the biggest issue.
From the preview we’ve gotten to play so far, this game is going to be incredible. Each aspect of the game has been slightly reworked and improved, from the gameplay to the online connectivity, to the graphics, and the game manages to effectively juggle embracing the feeling of past games while playing like a much needed and desired update.
I’d score it a 9 out of 10. Why, you ask? Well, the game just does a great job at being an Age of Empires game, which by default, kind of makes it a 9. There’s nothing to point at that’s bad, or a letdown, or disappointing, it’s just excellent across the board. But there are no new features or mechanics that take it to that next level. Did they need to add these? Absolutely not. All they needed to do was effectively make a new game that is everything people like, and they did that perfectly. But to me, some splashes of innovation would be needed to make this a stone cold 10.
Maybe there will be some of this inventive flourish in the full game. Maybe the single-player is going to blow our socks off. Maybe they still have a few mechanics or game modes in the back pocket that are going to flip the genre upside down. Maybe. But we don’t know about those yet, so until then, this game is on the trajectory for a 9 out of 10. Altogether amazing and something that should make all fans of the game very excited about the full release.