Age of Empires IV is an long awaited instalment to the highly successful Microsoft RTS franchise originating from 1997. This time the game doesn't offer players a new timeline but instead goes back to the tested mechanisms and gameplay from the AOE II and tries to make it all a bit better. However, in the remasters and remake era there was a risk that AOE IV will become a remake of its older sibling. Fortunately, it's not the case.
The game was developed by World's Edge, a part of Xbox Game Studios family and Relic Entertainment, which is well known for delivering another successful franchise - Company of Heroes. The spirit of this series is actually present here and adds additional sound value.
The game brings players back to High and Late Middle Ages and offers a chance to play as one of eight civilizations: English, French, Mongols, Rus, Holy Roman Empire, Delhi Sultanate, Abbasid Dynasty and Chinese. The number feels scanty, especially compared to initial AOE II release (13). It's the same number that was present in AOE III and it gives plenty of opportunities for the DLCs. First four of those nations offer narrative campaign.
Campaign and gameplay
The campaign, crucial part of most successful RTS games, consists of several missions based on historic events, from Battle of Hastings, Kalka River, Patay but also less known stories like Combat of the Thirty. Each mission has a full narrative story which informs players why the event occurred and sets the scenery for the mission. The animations in cutscenes, combined with modern view of cities (for example York) give a completely different view of the battle and let players visualise it, sometimes in locations well known to them. The campaign itself is very easy and increasing difficulty levels doesn't provide an expected challenge like it did in previous titles. It should be treated as a highly interactive history class, a role that excels in how the campaign was delivered.
This works well with additional cutscenes and short movies placed between campaign missions. Various people, from history professors to enthusiasts show how war machines operated, smithes did their duty, messages were sent across gigantic Mongol Empire and how falconry became a leisure loved by aristocracy. Those clips are really well executed and further establish the campaign role not only as a set of tasks in a strategy game but also as a mission - to bring history closer to the users. It's a great improvement over previous games in the series.
The gameplay is relatively simple, based on sets of units and civilization counters, but offers a lot of depth and is challenging to master. Skirmishes are dynamic just as they were in AOE II and attacks are imminent. Competitive players have to rely on build orders so they can progress quickly but small fights occur everywhere. Scouts race each other to deliver sheep to the base, kill deers and lock opponents from accessing valuable resources, units fight off villagers or apply pressure on opponents. The game is lively and doesn't give a breathing space. This is why the game was well received by competitive online community and offered them a battlefield where they can test their skills against opponents. Some of the biggest names from AOE II also decided to move exclusively to AOE IV which helped build the e-sport section of this game.
Apart from campaign, the game offers couple of predefined scenarios, like king of the hill, 2vs1 or nation based alliances but a player can fully customize each scenario to their needs. The mastery system is another point which adds tons of replayability to the game. It covers the tutorial in form of Art of War - quick missions that are meant to help players set up their bases and use units in combat. Each nation has additional 15 masteries which fit their style, starting from easy tasks like harvest X food from berry bushes, ending on using specific units to kill enemies or build some structures. Every 3 missions there is also a challenge which asks players to beat AI on various difficulties, the final challenge requires victory against the hardest, most aggressive AI opponent.
Graphics and sound quality
The Company of Heroes spirit is clearly visible here and brought amazing sound quality. Battlefield sounds intense, artillery wham can be heard from afar and Mongols cavalry sounds terrifying. But it's not only a battlefield that is well executed. Cities feel alive although, due to the nature of the game, they're missing most of the typical professions, like blacksmiths or bakers. You can clearly hear farmers harvesting wheat, lumberjacks cutting through forests or miners doing their duty. Scouts scream when they find enemies but any units hidden in forest and waiting for an opportunity for ambush start to whisper to each other so they don't spook the target. All of this help players sink into the world and truly feel the game. However, the voice lines are quite limited and you'll be forced to hear the same comments over and over again, you'll probably be fed up with the next "buildende" by the time you finish your fourth English campaign mission.
Music is well fit to the selected nation. From a sacral music for HRE to light Asian style, the music sets the tone for each game. It's not very intense so it doesn't draw the focus away from what is important - cities development and unit manoeuvres.
Graphics is a bit underwhelming. The game definitely looks good but even ultra settings don't make it look great. Although it's not the most important part of a strategy game it definitely doesn't look like a significant improvement over AOE III. There is quite a huge disconnection between previously mentioned cutscenes which are gorgeous and the actual game. However, this ensured that series’ veterans could enjoy it without breaking a bank on the newest devices.
The list is well balanced although it may look a bit intimidating. It covers all campaigns, including some mission specific challenges, asks players to master the challenges in Art of War, which is only going to make it easier in the actual game. The biggest grind is definitely the masteries system that was mentioned earlier, with each nation having 15 masteries the game is asking to complete 120 challenges and you can only do one per match.
Finally there are some nation specific achievements. Some of them are relatively easy (like English), the others are on the grindy side. The game even offers its very own Seriously by asking players to defeat 10,000 enemies using HRE special infantry unit: Landsknechte. Most of those can be easily grinded though, it shouldn't take more than couple of hours when playing with a fellow booster to get them out of the way.
Age of Empires IV is a great game which doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. It took the best parts from the most successful game in the franchise, added modern graphics and greatly improved sound. The campaign is much more interactive and informative and I wouldn't mind if more history based games follow the same approach. The limited nations offered by the developers is definitely a problem that hasn't been addressed within 9 months of the product lifecycle. However, even with this each match feels unique and the game doesn't feel boring, especially online or on higher difficulty against AI.