With the October 28th release of Age Of Empires IV looming, last week’s Gamescom event saw a clutch of new reveals for the medieval strategy extravaganza, including a new trailer, a couple of live interviews, and - my personal favourite - an unexpected short documentary about trebuchets. In just three minutes, it told us a surprisingly large amount about history’s finest rock-chuckers, including the fact that they were sometimes armed with such strange ammunition as diseased livestock, dead bodies, and bee hives.
Naturally, then, when I spoke with AoE franchise creative director Adam Isgreen and game director Quinn Duffy following the show, there was one question I needed to ask more than any other. Indeed, so urgent was I to know, that I entirely forgot to say hello or introduce myself, instead opening the interview by blurting, “so, we’ll be able to shoot bees, then?”
I certainly know how to make an entrance.
“I’ll be quite upset if there aren’t bees,” I add, just in case this was mistaken for a cheery nod to the trebuchet film, rather than a brutally serious question. Duffy grimaces amiably. “About that,” he replies. “Maybe we should have pulled some punches on the dialogue there, as it also talked about firing dead bodies, and I’m not sure that’ll work for a teen-rated game.”
So, no bees, then?
“In the future,” Duffy offers, in an attempt to placate me, “we'll, ah, we could add a cosmetic mod which makes the trebuchet firing animation show a nest of bees being fired…” It’s a spirited offer from the Relic Entertainment director, but it’s not enough. I don’t want animations of bees; I want bees. I want to put my enemies through Sting’s greatest hits, on the hour every hour, from a range of three hundred metres.
“I want bees,” I demand.
“I mean, those trebuchets launched some nasty stuff,” interjects Isgreen, coming to his colleague’s rescue. “They threw rotten, diseased pig, corpses, the heads of enemies… there was some really awful stuff that could get thrown over the walls…” He pauses then, looking quizzical, and circles around to a new thought. “I mean, beehives wouldn't necessarily break our T for teen rating. So, um, we'll see about that one.”
Unwilling to take the bit any further, in case these two men think I am genuinely attempting to bully them into last-minute feature creep, I decide to drop the bee demands, but it turns out it’s got Isgreen going.
“It is funny though,” he says. “Some of those hands-on history videos we’ve done - I gotta be honest - we put together the scripts, and then we're like, ‘Wait, why can't we do this in the game? We should put this in.’” He brings up the example of pavises: portable wicker barriers which were used to shield advancing crossbowmen from defensive fire, and which were included in AoE4 after coming up during production of the game’s embedded documentary material.
Pavises remind me of the Hussite wagons recently introduced to AoE4’s older brother AoE2, in its Dawn Of The Dukes expansion. The wagons act a bit like pavises, soaking up incoming arrow fire so weaker units can advance behind them, and I wonder if they were perhaps an outcome of the pavise-mania which presumably swept through the Age franchise teams earlier in the summer.
“Not in that case, I don’t think,” replies Isgreen, “but ideas do travel. The Forgotten Empires guys are coming up with these new civs and units for AoE2, and then they’re also helping us with the balancing on AoE4, so they can do a lot to up our game.” Likewise, he explains, the more experimental, innovative unit designs in the last couple of AoE2 expansions - like the Hussite wagon - are partially a result of AoE4’s design mentality rubbing off on designers from Forgotten Empires. “I think that that's partially our mentality rubbing off and giving the message that it’s OK to get a little crazier now.”
If Dawn Of The Dukes was an indicator of the consequent level of craziness to expect from AoE4, then I’m all for it, ‘cos it was brilliant. Needless to say, talking about DOTD got me thinking about AoE2’s venerable scenario editor, which I wrote about last week, and wondering if AoE4 will offer players an equivalent.
“We’ve got our own world-building suite that attaches to Essence [AoE4’s game engine],” Duffy explains. “Obviously that tool has undergone huge revisions over the years, and now has a lot of stuff specifically for Age Of Empires. So, our objective is indeed to launch that tool to players, probably just post-launch, and it’s going through its own beta test right now.”
Now that things have warmed up again after the initial grilling over insects, I decide to stick with the subject of scenarios, and ask Isgreen and Duffy their favourite moments from AoE4’s campaigns. Isgreen answers immediately. “There's a mission in the Hundred Years' War campaign that is… completely unique. When I read the mission layouts and found out what we were doing with it, I genuinely had to check it was based on a real event. It feels like something that happened in a video game.”
"Moscow is kind of like the John Wick of medieval cities. It just kept getting beat up, and kept coming back."
I try to bamboozle Isgreen into revealing what historical event he is talking about, and while he is tight-lipped on the whole, he does end up expressing his disbelief that “they just completely stopped fighting to do this.” Was this a medieval version of the infamous World War I Christmas football match? Who knows! Answers on a comments section postcard, please.
“For me, it’s the Rise Of Moscow campaign,” Duffy decides. As we’ve already learned, AoE4’s campaigns will follow broader sweeps of history than AoE2 and AoE3’s biographical tales of famous individuals. But in Duffy’s view, the Russian campaign almost returns to the old format, since the city of Moscow is such a compelling character in itself.
“It's kind of like, I dunno, the John Wick of medieval cities,” he says, in the single best quote I’ve been given this year. “It just kept getting beat up and kept coming back and, you know, giving as good as it got. It had the European powers against it in the West, and the Mongols and the Golden Horde in the East, and… it's definitely got that John Wick vibe to it.”
Much like the John Wick films, the Rise Of Moscow campaign shows the current Russian capital’s development from an isolated river fort into a superpower - presumably catalysed by the murder of its dog. I’m well up for it.
We discuss multiplayer briefly, including the fact that AoE4 will - as expected - have defined seasons for ranked play. They won't be available at launch sadly, but they'll be following at a later date. “We're going to try to time major balance updates with new seasons starting,” says Isgreen, “since we want to encourage people to kind of have a reset and get ready for a new meta, when the seasons switch.”
As we stray onto the topic of the much-demanded global queue feature for ranked multiplayer, Isgreen takes a moment to (mildly) lament the high level of expectation on AoE4’s launch feature set driven by the runaway success of AoE2’s definitive edition. “It’s something that we absolutely want to add - but it’s worth remembering it wasn’t in AoE2 at launch, and it wasn't even in Definitive Edition until later. So we're... we're trying.” Given this level of expectation, AoE4’s developers have made the smart decision to launch with a roadmap of what’s being added to the game, across the campaigns, the multiplayer modes, and the scenario editor.
“Oh!” Isgreen adds, as we’re wrapping up. “Cheats! Cheats are coming post-launch as well, since that's kind of a classic Age thing. And we haven't talked about that before, so there you go.” Cheats - often involving ridiculous, overpowered units - have indeed a beloved feature of the Age Of Empires series, and it’s pleasing to hear AoE4’s designers already have a shortlist of candidate units based on running gags from concept art. “Maybe the beehives can make it in, then?” I suggest, a bit plaintively. “Instead of the Cobra Car?”
“Maybe they’re driving the Cobra Car,” suggests Duffy, thereby ending the conversation with a statement as powerful as the one it began on. Get in the car, losers: we’ve got a shitload of stripy lads, and we’re going to avenge Moscow’s dog.