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Real-time strategy is back, baby. OK, it never really went away. But it is back for mainstream gamers, who haven’t seen a major release like Age of Empires IV for a while.
Microsoft will be launching the new installment in the Age of Empires franchise on Thursday on the PC. I’ve gotten a good look at the campaign part of the game. I’ll do a full review with multiplayer later, but these are my impressions from playing the introductory Norman single-player campaign. In a nutshell, it’s designed for mainstream gamers.
I played it on Steam, and it will also be out on Windows 10 and Windows 11 on the PC, and on Xbox Game Pass for PC. I can’t remember the last time I played an Age of Empires game. I dabbled with the remakes of classic titles — Definitive Edition of Age of Empires II and III. I think the main purpose of those games was to get people familiar with the Age of Empires gameplay again before the launch of the fourth game.
Sega’s Relic Entertainment division has been making the game since 2017, along with Microsoft’s Worlds Edge studio, which manages the Age of Empires franchise. I’m glad it’s finally here because I feel like the RTS genre should be a mass market, not a niche. This title is actually a director successor to Age of Empires II.
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RTS games are best played with a mouse-and-keyboard combo, and they’re far harder to play with a game controller. That has meant that the games can’t reach as many fans and they haven’t been as popular, even though they’re hard to develop. We’ve seen big lapses in Blizzard Entertainment’s RTS efforts in brand-new installments in franchises such as StarCraft and Warcraft.
While Microsoft’s Age of Empires franchise has been stalled since 2005 (with the exception of some retro remakes), other key players have been carrying the RTS flag. Sega’s The Creative Assembly has a thriving Total War series, with Total War: Warhammer III coming, Total War: Rome Remastered out, and Total War Saga: Troy, also in the market. Meanwhile, Eugen Systems has been doing a great job with World War II titles with its Steel Division series. Other startups working on RTS titles are Frost Giant Studios and SunSpear games.
But Age of Empires IV could exploit a much bigger opportunity in RTS for the mainstream. Microsoft’s success with Age of Empires started in 1997, and the marriage of history and RTS generated so much revenue that, in addition to Microsoft Flight Simulator, it enabled a vast expansion in the company’s game investments and ultimately led to the debut of the Xbox game console in 2001.
Age of Empires and its sequels sold more than 20 million copies, but Microsoft shut down Ensemble Studios in 2009 during the Great Recession after attempts to branch out (think Halo Wars) met with limited success. Other games had higher priorities at Microsoft.
A beautiful new game
It’s easy for Age of Empires IV to look pretty compared to its predecessors. This new game takes advantage of the last 15 years of graphics improvements that allow for much more detail to be used in the individual characters and buildings that make up the scenes in 4K HDR battlefields.
There are eight civilizations for Age of Empires IV. The single-player campaign starts out with the Norman conquest of England by William the Conquerer in 1066. The first mission after the tutorial is the Battle of Hastings, which turns out to be great choice for learning the game. The armies of King Harold, the defending king of Anglo-Saxon England, squared off against William, who came from the Norman province of France. While there is no real way to compare the number of soldiers on the battlefield to the actual numbers in the real armies, the game does a good job of representing the right scale of the forces and the look of the battlefield in a way that will leave you marveling at the graphics.
I didn’t mind that I never had more than 200 soldiers on the battlefield because the game did such a good job of making me feel like I was in a battle as the commanding general.
Harold’s army had to first go north to defeat a Viking invasion, and then rush south to meet William at a place called Senlac Hill. The tutorial teaches you that a head-on charge against a shield wall of Harold’s soldiers was a bad idea. But William feigned retreat and got Harold’s army to run down the hill and open gaps in the line. Then William picked off the smaller groups with his reinforcements. And he brought up archers to take out the stragglers. Then he brought up cavalry to attack Harold’s archers and finally kill Harold.
It turns out this is a great way to teach the rock-paper-scissors nature of medieval combat, where the spear soldiers did well against cavalry, which could easily take out archers, which could take out rows of infantry when properly shielded behind a line of sword infantry. Each stage of the battle is narrated, and you even get a sense of a “you are there” feeling because the devs included videos from the battle location. It gives players a proper appreciation for the importance of a battle that changed England forever.
The history was told in an interesting way, and that kind of storytelling kept me engaged with each mission. After that first mission, I marched north as William into the rebel stronghold of York. This battle was different and tougher. I had to take over some villages and start building a big army. And when I did so, I marched straight into the stronghold of York, which had walls defending it.
My army wasn’t the strongest, but it did have a lot cavalry. So I moved straight at the enemy stronghold. And I got slaughtered. I retreated back to my base and rebuilt the army. Then I did some scouting and discovered that the enemy had a big town surrounding the stronghold and this was generating a lot of gold, wood, and food for the replenishment of the enemy’s army. That’s why they were so strong and hard to defeat.
So once I rebuilt, I attacked the surrounding town buildings and burned everything to the ground. I also built some infantry-generating buildings near the front so they did have to walk as far to battle. And eventually I stormed the stronghold and wiped out the enemy.
I had to keep busy farming, defending my civilians, creating buildings, generating troops, and relocating them to the front. Then I had to watch the emerging battles across the whole map and respond with the right amount of force and rock-paper-scissors tactics. It was a lot more intense than I expected.
The campaign has multiple battles like this that are laid out in a way that you have to use strategy to overcome the enemy’s superiority in defensive castles or heavily armored knights. In each battle, the developers narrate the conditions that led to the armies meeting in the field or before the castle walls, and it held my attention to the Norman conquest much more than a history book would have.
A big game
Overall, the game has four campaigns. It has narrated campaigns for the Mongols and the Chinese, as well as support for naval gameplay. The four campaigns have 35 missions spanning 500 years of history.
Players can stage ambushes by placing units inside stealth forests. That allows players to hide their units from the enemy unless scouts spot them first. Soldiers can also fend off attackers by shooting down from castle walls while attackers can use siege weapons.
As Worlds Edge studio head Shannon Loftis said in a post, the aim of the developers was to represent history, people, and cultures authentically and respectfully. That’s the idea behind the campaigns as well as the details in the armies from the different cultures. Microsoft got input from longtime Age of Empires fans through its Community Council.
I think the effect is that whether you’re a history buff or are looking to play a Civ-style game with a lot of combat, Age of Empires IV is made in a very accessible way. The tutorial and the Norman conquest campaign are an example of a good FTUE, or first-time user experience.
If you want to skip the mass tactics and micro play, the devs created a difficulty mode called Story Mode that lets you command armies and win battles without stress, instead allowing the player to embark on an interactive march through history. But it’s not all easy, as I found out in battles like York, which I played more than once.
I haven’t engaged in multiplayer combat yet, but you can cooperate or spectate with up to seven of your friends in player-vs-player (PvP) and player-vs-environment (PvE) multiplayer modes. There are a series of “hands-on history” docu-videos. The game has multiple upgrades that you can go through as you develop new technology like better armor or catapults and trebuchets.
The characters speak a kind of gibberish that is cute. And there is a lot of ambient life, such as deer that you can hunt. The maps are pretty sizable so that you can contemplate multiple routes to success. After all, this is a strategy game where you need to figure out ways to outwit a thinking enemy.
I played it on a Falcon Northwest machine with Nvidia GeForce GTX 3080 graphics. That was well above what I needed. The game requires a 64-bit processor and Windows 10 version 18362.0 or higher. You need an Intel i5 running at 3.6GHz or AMD Ryzen 5 1600 for the processor. It needs 16 GB RAM-Graphics, with a minimum of a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon RX 570 GPU with 4GB of VRAM. It uses DirectX 12 and 50 gigabytes of hard drive space.
Like I said. It’s been so long since I’ve played an Age of Empires game that I needed the extra tutorial help, the engaging historical videos, and the narration that kept me playing through the single-player campaign. I think this game is accessible and easy to learn, but it’s also got a lot of depth for real-time strategy veterans. I hope it does well because I want to see more RTS games hit the market. But this one could keep fans busy for a long time, as far as I can tell right now.
I’m not giving it a score yet until I get to play more of the game.
Microsoft provided me with a review code to play the game on Steam.