Age of Empires IV review

A new coat of paint for age-old gameplay

Few franchises have stood the test of time quite as well as Age of Empires. A veritable titan of the strategy genre, the name alone commands a level of respect only afforded to the likes of the legendary Sid Meier’s Civilization or XCOM. Sure, there have been a couple lacklustre spinoff entries, not to mention the odd mobile cash-in here and there, but the three main series titles have endured like few others. With the release of last year’s Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition concluding the remastering of the original trilogy for modern systems, there has never been a better time for a new entry.

With the last numbered entry originally releasing back in 2005, IV has been a long time coming and so my expectations were understandably high. For those unfamiliar, each game in the series follows a fundamentally similar formula. Playing in real-time, your goal is to construct a successful town by accumulating four different resource types and using them to build an army of various unit types to defend it from rival players or AI. By completing certain criteria, you can advance through four visually distinct ages, each with their own unique buildings to construct and units to discover.

When launching Age of Empires IV, first impressions were very good. The four new single-player campaigns, which each explore famous battles throughout different periods of medieval history, are immediately elevated by excellent cutscenes. Whilst previous games have often relied a little too heavily upon overwhelming walls of text to provide background information, here a mix of informative documentary style narration, full-motion footage and computer animation accompanies every level. They were consistently a joy to watch, and although the highly linear gameplay segments that followed weren’t too exciting, I was always eager to push forward to see the next one.

Presentation on the  whole is one of this entry’s strongest suits, with smooth main menus, a sleek modern UI and an excellent orchestral score that appropriately reflects the grandeur of the kingdom building theme. It’s a shame that the overall effect is let down a little by middling graphics which look suitably crisp and do the job well enough but lack any sense of distinctive style. I enjoyed the slightly cartoon-like, brightly coloured unit models, but this look is sadly nowhere to be seen on the more realistic buildings.

Where Age of Empires IV falters the most however, is in its core gameplay. Whilst III set itself apart from its predecessors by introducing a number of new features inspired by the colonial era, importing resources from home cities and developing trade routes for example, IV’s return to the middle ages necessitates the removal of the vast majority of them. Instead, it draws heavily upon Age of Empires II, with the return of many older mechanics. Monks can convert the allegiance of units, farms have to be manned by a single villager and resources must once again be brought to drop sites for collection.

Single-player campaign aside, I can’t think of anything that IV does differently to what we’ve already seen before. This may sound appealing for long-time fans, but much of the long-lasting appeal comes from playing online and custom games, so I was disappointed to find that these just felt like more of the same. Given that the remasters are available fairly cheaply and come with a wealth of mods to download and try through the Steam workshop, a feature which is currently absent from IV, the need for a completely new entry becomes hard to justify.

Still, there are some upsides to sticking closely to the formula. Players know exactly what to expect here and, despite its similarities, the basic loop of construction and destruction is still a lot of fun. It was also nice to see some much-needed representation for the previously overlooked Islamic civilisations in the eight playable empires but it’s hard to imagine that one new civilisation is a huge draw.

The overall effect is that Age of Empires IV feels unnecessary. There is still fun to be had thanks to the solid gameplay loop and a well presented campaign, but it does little to innovate on the existing series formula. If you have been keeping up with the various re-releases and remasters over the years, there is little here that is likely to catch your eye. For new or returning players though, it’s a solid real-time strategy experience and one that should provide a good few hours of entertainment.

  • Developer

    Relic Entertainment

  • Platform

    PC

  • Release Date

    28th October, 2021

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