Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Age of Empires IV

The venerable real-time strategy series is back. A year ago, after a sixteen-year gap, Microsoft released Age of Empires IV, the latest in one of the most beloved strategy series of all time. It has a very strong heritage to live up to, so the question is if it has succeeded, especially with new franchise developers Relic coming on board. Relic have a solid pedigree, but their last game was the very underwhelming Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III, so a lot was riding on this game for them as well.

The answer to whether this game is a success is, "kind of." The first surprise is that, despite the name, Age of Empires IV is not a sequel. Up to this point the series has always proceeded linearly forwards in time: the original game covered the empires of antiquity, so Rome, Egypt etc, and the second covered the medieval period, whilst the third game took us into the Age of Sail and colonisation. You might be forgiven for thinking Age of Empires IV would take us forwards into the Napoleonic era. Instead, Age of Empires IV is a remake of Age of Empires II. Once again we're in the Middle Ages, and once again we're fighting the Battle of Hastings, guiding the Mongols across Eurasia and fighting the Hundred Years' War between England and France.

Age of Empires IV is perfectly adequate at doing that. As with prior games in the series, you usually start with a town centre and a bunch of villagers whom you can set to work on building up resources: food, wood, stone and gold. You then expand your settlement by adding blacksmiths, universities, markets, barrackers, archery ranges and so on, as well as watchtowers and walls. Age of Empires IV tweaks the formula, mainly by adding a secondary research facility known as the Arsenal and moving some upgrades around between buildings, but it does not significantly rework it. There are some features like now being able to station your units atop walls rather than just behind them, but mostly it's low key changes.

The 3D engine is nice but not a huge advancement on the 3D engines of Age of Empires III and the now-twenty-year-old spin-off, Age of Mythology. The graphics are in fact a tad disappointing for a 2021 release, especially since they are so inexplicably resource-hungry. My PC (16 GB RAM, 12 GB graphics card) which can handle Cyberpunk 2077 and Spider-Man with everything turned up to max (albeit only in HD), chugged regularly with the considerably more visually underwhelming Age of Empires IV. Also, not much is done with the 3D engine. You can zoom in and out a bit and spin the camera a bit and that's it. This isn't Total War or even the much more versatile 3D camera of Relic's own Company of Heroes series.

More baffling, given the modern graphics and physics at work, is a lack of features from older games. In earlier games in the series you got a damage bonus from being on higher ground, but that disappears in this game and both attack and defence bonuses are missing, meaning units on walls with cover are just as vulnerable as if they are standing exposed in a field, which is a bold choice for both a modern game and also for the developers who made RTS cover such a huge feature of their Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series. There's also no ballistic or physic tracking of arrows: arrows will automatically hit their target (even blatantly swerving in mid-air to hit them like a smart missile) even if the target is moving at speed, which is baffling. In earlier games keeping your army active and smartly moving was a key tactical skill, here it is entirely absent.

Balancing against that is somewhat greater factional differences. Earlier games were notorious for having very samey sides, with maybe one or two unique units and maybe a single unique building or upgrade. Age of Empires IV does go a bit more into making the sides different, with French cavalry being much more hard-hitting than anybody else's, whilst the English have superior longbows. Most interesting are the Mongols, who can pack up their entire base and move it around the map in a matter of seconds which can give rise to unorthodox strategies (a Mongol wonder that can heal all the units around it becomes a mobile field hospital). I do feel this is has been a tad exaggerated. The factions are still mostly very similar, certainly a long way from the balanced-but-asymmetric design of, say, the StarCraft games or even Relic's own Company of Heroes series.

Age of Empires IV does impress with its amount of content: the game ships with four complete campaigns (Normandy, Muscovy, France and the Mongols), eight civilisations, a robust single-player challenge mode, skirmish maps and of course multiplayer. Focusing on just the single-player content, I got about 40 hours out of the game, which is reasonable and a long way from those RTS games which ship with one campaign lasting maybe a quarter of that. Presentation is also excellent, especially the FMV movies which accompany the campaigns with lots of video footage of the actual locations, with CG imposed on top of the real topography to depict the battles. There's also bonus videos on things like how to make a bow and how different tactics developed. There's a nice history documentary feel to the game which is unique and intriguing.

Less appealing are the bugs: as well as the choppy performance, the game's autosaves are disruptive to gameplay. Units will often go into idle mode for no apparent reason: villagers in particular may need to be manually told to do something two or three times before they actually do it. You can't tell a villager to build a wall halfway across the map and expect them to do it, you have to manually watch over them to make sure they don't do 25% of the task and then just doze off (literally, as idle villagers now go to sleep standing up), which is infuriating. Individual missions also have a plethora of bugs, with triggers often not triggering, enemy units not showing up when they're supposed to, or taking some weird path that leaves 50 men wedged behind a bush. It's also concerning that many of these bugs remain extant in the game almost a year after release. There's also the lack of basic QOL features, like being able to easily assign WASD to camera controls.

Taken on its own merits, Age of Empires IV is perfectly fine (bugs excepted). It's safe, but the gameplay loop remains compelling and there's some interesting strategies to tease out. However, the game has to deal with a 500-ton elephant in the room called Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. This ultra-HD remake of Age of Empires II only came out three years ago and has seen three expansions released since then, the most recent only in April. Age of Empires II has less bugs, more responsive and easily customisable controls, a stronger interface, more focused gameplay and, although only being in isometric 2D, has sharper, more vivid and far better-performing graphics. It is also a more interesting tactic experience, with ranged weapons performing better from hills and tougher stone buildings (those in IV tend to collapse far too easily to just guys with swords and torches, even massive fortresses).

Age of Empires IV (***½) is solid, and will no doubt be expanded with interesting future content. But it's also a game that arrives being almost pre-redundant, since Age of Empires II Definitive Edition does almost everything that IV does in the same time period, but better, with less bugs and a far vaster amount of content, and will take you a lot longer to play through. The game is available now on PC.

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