Despite being the fifth main game in its series, the only way of looking at Age Of Empires 4 is as a sequel to Age Of Empires 2. The first and third Age titles were both fine games, of course, as was their stoner cousin Age Of Mythology. But it was AoE2 that would be enshrined as one of the all-time RTS greats, and it’s the inevitable benchmark against which AoE4 will be measured, when it launches later this year. Just the twenty-year fug of strategy dad nostalgia surrounding the series would have been a significant enough headwind for AoE4 developers Relic Entertainment to release into. But thanks to a belting remaster of AoE2 in 2019, the old bruiser is somehow once again the RTS of the day, complete with brand new expansions, lashings of fresh esports, and the largest player base it has ever had.
Launching a new Age game now has the air of a prince giving a nervous funeral speech, where he promises to exceed the glories of his father’s reign, even as the king’s body casually bench-presses a horse from the coffin next to him. How do you supplant a game whose star still seems to be rising? Change too much, and you’ll be beasted for fixing what wasn’t broken. Change too little, on the other hand, and you’ll be castigated for not fixing the broken bits. It’s a hell of a balancing act, for sure. And yet, after watching the footage from today’s Fan Preview event, and speaking with the folks at Relic, they look well in reach of pulling it off.
As odd as it sounds, given that I’m an obsessive AoE2 player, perhaps the biggest boost for my confidence in AoE4, is that it’s not being made by the same team as its predecessors. Both Age Of Empires 3 and Age Of Mythology, for all their independent merits, suffered a little from a development team who clearly wanted to do something new, and changed perhaps a few too many of their central ingredients at once.
Relic, by contrast, have the benefit of outside perspective on the AoE formula, as well as a wealth of hindsight and player data, given that they’re working on AoE4 with Microsoft franchising studio World’s Edge. They’re also a studio with a lot of practical experience when it comes to winning formulas for RTS games. They’ve made some of their own, famously with Homeworld, Company Of Heroes and Dawn Of War. But they also know what happens when you drop the test tube, and get a Dawn Of War 3.
The end result is a team with a very deliberate, circumspect approach to their work. They’re approaching Age Of Empires with the caution of hazmat-clad 1950s air force engineers, dismantling a crashed UFO under a tarp in New Mexico. Which is exactly as it should be.
“We’ve had a tremendous number of discussions over the years,” says Adam Isgreen, creative director at World’s Edge, “looking to define exactly what makes Age Of Empires… Age Of Empires.” It’s a study that’s gone beyond studio discussion, too. Ever since development on AoE4 kicked off in 2017, the studios have enlisted a group of long-time players - not just of AoE2, but of all four Age games - to feed back on design decisions as they’re made, and help identify where to innovate, and where to leave the familiar intact. As Michael Mann, also of World’s Edge, puts it: “We were experimenting, to see how far we could push Age Of Empires before it stopped feeling like Age Of Empires”
The end result of all this, as shown in today’s footage, is what Isgreen happily calls a “spiritual successor” to AoE2. It’s a remake on the broadest possible level - a game designed to the same brief, but from brand new components. The same central mechanics and resources are there, the same medieval setting, and the same “Crusader Kings, but for jocks” approach to historical accuracy. Even the new game’s aesthetic, despite being removed from its older sibling’s by twenty years of ever-fancier computers, manages to evoke Age Of Empires 2 more convincingly than any number of bleak, copyright-infringing mobile games advertised on YouTube, thanks to the art direction of Relic’s Zach Schläppi.
But for all that’s familiar, Age Of Empires 4 is much more than a visual reimagining of a popular old game, which is welcome news, given that AoE2’s definitive edition is right there in front of us already. Within every familiar system, something has been changed, from minor features to reflect two decades of evolution in strategy games, such as units moving undetected in forests, to complete overhauls. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the siege system. While AoE2’s siege units essentially acted like giant wooden blokes, hitting static walls and towers until they burst, AoE4 looks to have moved in the direction of the Stronghold series, with rams and trebuchets tackling composite fortifications made of interlocking gatehouses, towers, curtain walls and keeps.
One pleasing knock-on effect of the studios working with community testers from all four previous Age games, is the way it has allowed some of the often-overlooked innovations from AoE2’s successors to make it back into the series. For example, while AoE4’s play model still revolves around “aging up” through four successive tiers of units and technologies, these transition moments are now a fulcrum for major strategic decisions, as they were with Age Of Empires 3, and its brilliant but flawed “home cities” concept. “There are some really tough choices to make now,” says Isgreen, “it really changes the way you play [from age to age], and your whole approach to how you play a given civ.”
This idea, of being able to take fundamentally different approaches to playing a faction, is one that extends far beyond the aging up mechanic, into what’s probably the biggest defining change to AoE4 - asymmetric faction design.
This is, in my opinion, the most exciting thing about the game, and also its biggest inherent risk. With all its expansions, Age Of Empires 2 now has something like twelve million civilisations on offer to play as. But they’re all quite similar; beyond building designs, each has only a couple of unique units, bonuses and technologies, to separate it from the rest of the pack. This isn’t all bad, mind. Because competitive play in AoE2 is all about the accumulation and leverage of tiny advantages, those small differences start to feel completely transformative, once you’re familiar with the game.
AoE4 isn’t going Full Starcraft, admittedly. There will still be a core pool of generic units, and the rock, paper, scissors triangle between spearman, archers and cavalry will remain unchanged from previous games. Unique units, too will return, obviously. We’ve not seen a lot so far, but it’s a giant relief to see elephants in play with the Delhi Sultanate (one of four civs shown so far, along with the English, the Chinese and the Mongols). This is one decision, apparently, that was not in any way deliberated on or focus-tested. According to Isgreen, he’d been determined to include ‘phants in AoE4 before the time period had even been settled. “That one’s on me,” he confesses, unable to conceal his respect for the large grey men. “I just love ‘em, what can I say”.
“I just love ‘em, what can I say” - Adam Isgreen, of World's Edge, on elephants.
But civ specialisation will extend far beyond the mere inclusion of the Knights Of The Long Nose. The Mongols, for example, can build sheep pens which act as handy perpetual mutton reactors, and can pack up all their buildings to scamper round the map on a murder holiday. It looks ace, in practice. The Mongols also differ in “the way they use stone to wage war”, adds Isgreen cryptically, all but confirming the presence of mountain trolls in the game. Other civs, apparently, will push the boat out even further, with some even circumventing, or subverting the core aging up mechanic altogether. It’s exciting stuff, and offers more variety from oppressive, one-size-fits-all build orders, even if it does mean a reduction from AoE2’s launch selection of 13 civs, to just eight before DLC in AoE4.
I suppose that, for me at least, the worry is what asymmetry will do to the game’s multiplayer play, compared with AoE2’s ludicrously tight balance. It’s interesting to note that Definitive Edition’s latest civilisations, the Burgundians and Sicilians introduced in Lords Of The West, had a fairly radical set of unique units and special abilities, at least by AoE2’s standards. The result? About a week of looking ridiculously overpowered, before dropping out of the competitive meta almost immediately, as high-level players found workarounds to exploit their weaknesses. The Definitive Edition team are great with balance changes, mind, to the extent where this observation might already be out of date. But it did give me pause for thought.(On the subject of Age Of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, the Fan Preview event also saw the reveal of an upcoming new expansion for my beloved, focusing on Eastern Europe, and the introduction of co-op campaigns to the game. Stay tuned for something separate on all that, when I know more.)
In fairness, though, not everyone treats AoE2 as a PVP bloodsport. Indeed, for my first 19 years with the game, I played it entirely for relaxing campaigns and single player comp stomps. And at least by the estimation of AoE2 stats demigod Spirit Of The Law on YouTube, this is the case for a surprising majority of players, despite the booming competitive scene over the last year or so.
Of course, Relic and World’s Edge know this too. And perhaps more than anything else about AoE4, they are keen to stress that they’re looking to make the game appeal as broadly as possible to different types of players, from pettily spiteful murder goblins like me, to gentle souls, in Mann’s words, “who just want to watch their villagers bring the harvest in.”
There’s a whole other post to be written on the art and narrative direction being thrown behind the game, which is to say: there’s a lot more of it than you would generally expect from an RTS title. The four launch campaigns for AoE4, of which only the Norman conquest of England has been announced, look like they’re going to be much grander affairs than the already excellent single player offerings of AoE2, with stories spanning generations, buckets of voice acting, and - in an unexpected twist - more than three hours of exquisitely produced documentary footage linking the scenarios.
I’m reserving any solid judgement on AoE4 until I’ve had a try for myself. But I will say this: if a studio is willing to make what amounts to an entire documentary series to support the single player mode of an RTS game, they’re taking it seriously. There’s been a lot said on the decline and potential resurgence of real-time strategy, but it’s broadly true that most of what’s been good in recent years has been relatively small and scrappy.
It’s certainly been a long time since a big studio threw its full weight behind a properly lavish production like this. Passion and budget alone can’t guarantee a return to the golden age of the RTS, as Blizzard learned with Starcraft 2. But they’re a bloody good place to start. And if I had to describe what my ideal Age Of Empires sequel would look like, at least from a preview months before its launch, I have to say it would look a lot like this.