Age of Empires IV, review: a history lesson

Microsoft’s historic strategic saga returns to PC, re-tying a thread that broke sixteen years ago: here’s how it aims to do it

Paolo Sirio

25 October 2021

16 years after the last release, one of the most loved series by gamers on PC is back with Age of Empires IV. The saga has granted itself a long period of pause, following the closure of the team that had created it (Ensemble Studios), but has begun to gradually appear on the videogame market thanks to Microsoft’s newfound interest in this world and for the audience. pcista.

He did it with the work of historical recovery of each chapter, the remasters called Definitive Editions of recent times, and above all by pressing the reset button with a fourth iteration that tastes like a reboot. The lighthouse of the operation is the successful return of Microsoft Flight Simulator, intended as a platform that will evolve over time and in response to the indications of the players, while the base is the beloved one of Age of Empires II. Goodbye, therefore, to head shots like the decks of cards from the third episode, and welcome back to the “normality” so dear to real-time strategy fans.

A history lesson with Age of Empires IV –

In many ways, Age of Empires IV is a history lesson. Primarily, it is because its single player mode really has the ambition to teach. Spread over four campaigns starring Normans, Hundred Years War, Mongols and Russians, this mode involves playing through scenarios made famous by the most important battles that took place over 500 years. This is how we find ourselves recapturing Lincoln or defending ourselves from a ruthless siege on the cliffs of Dover, just to name two of the most excited moments of the “plot” unfolded by the game. But history is not only in passing and, if the accurate reconstructions of the places are surprising, each level has as its premise a short video documentary shot live.

The choice is unusual and perhaps sparing in the economy of a video game, in which users are accustomed to expensive sequences in computer graphics or with the game engine. However, the documentary cut is liked and all the inserts are pleasant to follow: the quality of the videos, embellished with golden inlays in augmented reality on the battle sites, is of a high standard. Furthermore, their short duration makes them suitable for the TikTok generation and there is no shortage of the most curious digressions. Among the unlockable videos as you progress through the mode, players will find excerpts from the culture of the time not related to war: how the colors were made at the time, how it is not true that the castles were bare differently from the way they appear today and how a trebuchet works (complete with live demonstration) are some of the best examples. Albeit for a few words, then, the Italian dubbing is a pleasant surprise, given Microsoft’s recent choices on series such as Forza Horizon.

Age of Empires II x 2 —

Age of Empires IV is a history lesson for the actual game as well. It is a title very traditionalist and eager to follow the work done on the second chapter (the most loved by the community). Relic Entertainment, which oversaw the development together with World’s Edge, was keen to propose a modernization of the interface and systems such as the Masteries: in terms of progression, these wink at the battle passes inaugurated by very popular productions such as Fortnite and serve to unlock cosmetic elements for multiplayer. Overall, it is a “reboot” operation similar to that of Gears of War 4, with which the foundations are laid for a modern and lasting Age of Empires platform that can update and grow over time: the goal is to become the reference point for RTS fans who had orphaned the series and / or had returned with Definitive Edition, however, children of their time.

On the battlefield, the micromanagement of the units is generally good: with a double click on a unit it is possible to select all those of the same type and to assemble macro-groups which can be recalled with the numeric keys. However, Age of Empires II Definitive Edition tweaks such as the multiple selection that never involves civilians when going into battle, seem to have been lost for some reason. In battle, some units have special abilities that can really turn the tide of a fight: archers gain time by defending with fences, others have an edge in the race or extend an additional defense to their group. Special attention was paid to them strategic positioning on the field and placing the archers on the top of a hill gives a pleasant tactical advantage to be studied. However, the outcome of a confrontation is often a numerical issue due to the somewhat disordered “physical struggle” of the units, one of the less positive aspects of the legacy of Age of Empires II.

The campaign scenarios highlight what the fourth AoE could be a good video game for Massimiliano Allegri: first the defense must be fixed, always. The game requires you to be good at launching a siege but also at defending yourself: the enemy reacts in real time and is able to attack on multiple fronts simultaneously, sometimes even simulating aggression just to flush out the opponent. This translates into asking for some patience when campaign missions have their roots in Skirmish mode, proceeding step by step with a painstaking definition of one’s position on the field (creating, for example, defense points and outposts gradually more near the enemy base). At higher game levels, there are no macros with which to establish recurring actions, probably in order not to detach the player from micromanagement as the third chapter had done. Age of Empires IV dictates that you watch out for each facility’s build queue, but in the highlight of a fight how convenient would be a setting to tell the computer to create totals of soldiers for when they drop below a certain threshold?

The difficulty –

Artificial intelligence it is well made and quite reactive in the presence of the enemy. However, it is not uncommon for the units to become stunned due to obstacles such as gates, or when, with larger groups, portions of these stand still for no specific reason while the others fight. It is also necessary to pay attention to the paths in which they walk, because they do not identify paths without dangers, enemies or even bases, and if not followed carefully they end up being decimated before even reaching the goal.

Entry into the game is much softer than in the past, with tutorials practically everywhere and a mode called The Art of War, which serves as a mix of training and timed challenges. In any case, the average time required to complete a game is now as then quite extensive: despite a punctual self-rescue system, it is therefore difficult to consider it a good hit and run title. A difficulty in the middle seems to be missing between Easy and Intermediate. The first is too simple, with more sparse computer attacks on one front at a time, as well as low defenses. With the second (which precedes Difficult and, in the Skirmish, Very Difficult) the last two-three missions of the campaign are almost impossible and, in the Skirmish, the slightly too aggressive AI makes the exciting management aspect last only a handful of minutes.

The contents of Age of Empires IV –

Age of Empires IV is intended as a platform that will evolve over the years and this “service game” dimension penalizes it on the starting content compared to more established competitors. There are 16 different maps on which to play in the Skirmish both solo and multiplayer (with a maximum of 8 players spread over different playlists), but apart from this and the campaign, single-player modes are missing like the historical battles of the previous chapters and there is no map editor.

Mod support will be integrated in the future and civilizations in this phase are just 8, a detail that will turn up their noses to fans used very well in the past. However, between the daily missions and experience points, the endless replayable skirmishes and the four campaigns, the amount of hours that players will predictably invest in them will certainly not be of little consequence. And a good choice is to have given the possibility to switch from one campaign to another in real time, so as not to get stuck in the presence of a too complicated level.

The technical side –

On the aesthetic side, Age of Empires IV is exactly how players envisioned Age of Empires II in their fantasy, filling the technological gaps of the time. Starting the first game, there is an immediate feeling of home, which gives a good idea of ​​the inspiration to that classic and of how, perhaps, this fourth chapter is an even more remastering of the Definitive Edition. The game isn’t very light: with a laptop equipped with an Intel i5 processor, 12GB of RAM and an integrated graphics card, the results are minimal details and a 720p resolution.

Almost no problem, net of some slight drop in frame rates, on a higher-end configuration: neither in 4K, nor in 21: 9 are reported difficulties worthy of note on an Intel i9, 32GB of RAM and Nvidia RTX 3080, and some details such as the destruction of buildings, especially if in stone, are particularly spectacular. Instead, loads are likely slower than expected, both when re-entering the game and when performing automatic saves (with a click that can be long during gameplay).

Conclusions –

Age of Empires IV rappresenta a good base for (re) starting for Microsoft’s acclaimed franchise, which is not exempt from the series’ historical flaws. As happened with Microsoft Flight Simulator, this new chapter plays it safe by relying on the fundamentals of AoE II and is intended as an expanding platform: as such, it will have to grow over time, especially as regards the content aspect. For now, however, after the conversation was abruptly interrupted with the third episode, the good news is that the fans of this long-running series have a new home.

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Age of Empires IV, review: a history lesson

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