Long before MOBAs hit their stride with titles like DotA and League of Legends, one of the most popular genres on PC was real-time strategy. We may no longer be in the heyday of RTS, but there are still many series from this period that remain an important part of video game history. One of the standouts alongside classics such as Starcraft, Warcraft and the Command & Conquer series is Microsoft’s Age of Empires.
It started out in 1997 and got even better when Ensemble Studios released Age of Empires II in 1999. The third game landed in 2005 - arguably taking the series to new heights yet again, and followed on from the first 3D entry, Age of Mythology in 2002. Of course, there’s a much more extensive history but what we’re getting at here is that we’re now up to Age of Empires IV – the fourth major entry in the series. You’ve probably played at least one entry at some point during the above-mentioned timeline, but for those who haven’t, it’s best described as a historical RTS series – requiring you to lead one of eight civilisations through the ages (from the Dark Ages up to the Imperial Age) while managing your units, resources and economy to build an empire, conquer the lands and defeat any enemy that stands in your way.
The fourth entry is, for the most part, more of the same. In its launch state, the game delivers a familiar list of options. For starters, there’s a campaign with four distinctive stories set across 35 missions over 500 years. It begins with The Battle of Hastings and you'll unlock more chapters and campaigns (for other civilisations) as you progress. In addition to this, there's a skirmish mode – allowing you to let your imagination run wild with different maps, scenarios and opponent matchups. Then you’ve got an online matchmaking mode featuring co-op, regular PvP battles and even a spectator option. Last but not least is Art of War – showing you how to build an empire across a series of lessons. Again, any Age of Empires veteran will likely be right at home with the range of options available. If you are a newcomer though, this game makes it easy to learn the ropes – with detailed tutorials of the basics and more advanced stages of play, and there’s even an entire tab in the menu teaching you the finer details of each army (including the difficulty levels of each one, and their progression trees). You can drop the difficulty level to 'Story Mode' as well and progress without having to worry as much about combat.
Although it might not be a huge leap from previous releases, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall experience. It feels more polished than ever before and really does provide what feels like a historically accurate depiction of each civilisation. If you are a returning player, you might notice how similar it feels to Age of Empires II (with a modern touch) and that’s because the team at Relic (Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, Homeworld) and World’s Edge took inspiration from this particular entry.
What is somewhat different this time around is the game’s approach to storytelling. It incorporates scenes from modern times and inserts battle animations and narration over the top of them to provide a rundown of pivotal moments in an army’s history or a battle that may have defined a civilisation. This attention to detail when it comes to the legacy of each army can be found in-game as well. Civilisations have perks others don’t, and there are other factors the player must consider when dealing with each army that may impact the outcome of the game. The English, for example, excel in defense, economy and longbows while other armies may rely on trading, religion or more aggressive tactics but are vulnerable in other areas. The narration also carries across to the campaign, helping set the scene and providing some subtle guidance from time to time. Sure, you could say it's all been done before, but the fourth game has got detailed layers to it that we haven’t seen previously, which makes each history much more captivating. Even the languages of each civilization adapt to the time periods.
In combat, Age of Empires IV is just as satisfying – you can line up your army in multiple formations, separate different types of units and execute all sorts of strategies on the battlefield. The terrain has the ability to play a greater role in how you approach battles as well, and there are new siege tactics to breach an enemy fortress. Navel warfare also returns, and the early and late game remains just as important as past entries. As always, the selection of units you use against certain enemies matters – if you choose to ignore the basic teachings, you'll likely be eliminated before you even reach the enemy’s gates. Upgrading key units can help and quick commands give you the ability to control large groups of units in unique ways.
Being an RTS, Age of Empires IV offers up potentially years' worth of entertainment. Battles can take hours on end if you’ve got select settings in play or an opponent who just won't back down. Admittedly, it takes a number of hours just to scratch the surface of the game but you'll likely be hooked once you get your hands on it. The hours fly by every time you jump on for a session, which only reinforces how much fun it is to have a truly modern Age of Empires game to play, not counting the remasters. The system requirements are also quite accepting of any half-decent PC – and it still looks reasonable enough on lower settings. In saying this, you might not be quite as impressed if you are running a high-end card.
Obviously, the elephant in the room here is ongoing requests for an Xbox version. Perhaps it’s time for Microsoft to consider bringing this long-running series to its home console devices. While we will admit a controller probably wouldn’t be sufficient for a game like this when having to micro-manage so many units and tasks in the heat of battle, the Xbox Series X|S obviously supports keyboard and mouse – so why not give it a chance?
Whether it eventually comes to Xbox consoles or not, Age of Empires IV is still well worth a look if you’ve got access to Game Pass on PC, as it’s a "Day One" title. If you’re a long-time fan of the series, this is like the return of an old friend, and what's available at launch are the foundations to make this particular entry even better in years to come – with new content and updates (including mod support, arriving in 2022). This is easily one of the best Microsoft game releases of the year, and one that reminds us why we fell in love with the RTS genre in the first place.