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The RPS Advent Calendar 2021, December 5th

Time Team directed by Michael Bay

Time to open the fifth door on the Calendar. I reckon we might need to batter this one down with a solid attack from our infantry, backed up with archers.

That's right, it's Age Of Empires 4

Nate: To speak in the broadest possible terms, Age Of Empires 4 was an all-singing, all-lancing, megabudget remake of legendary medieval batterfest Age Of Empires 2. Franchise newcomers Relic Entertainment lifted the core right out of the 1999 RTS, hooked it up to a brand new game with an aesthetic best described as Time Team directed by Michael Bay, and slapped it onto our digital plates with a blast of heraldry-draped trumpets.

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So, you’re thinking, it’s a remake, right? Seems par for the course in strategy game development, after all. Just as in the movie business, it’s a rare studio these days that risks an adventure into fresh IP, when some beloved but mouldering carcass can be reanimated instead. Indeed, many saw AoE4 as just such a feat of necromancy, praising it as a solid old-school RTS, but sighing a bit at Relic’s reluctance to innovate on the classic Age feature set.

But as far as I’m concerned, Age Of Empires 4 ain’t a remake. It’s not even a sequel, really. It’s a bloody exorcism, is what it is.

To back up this bizarre take somewhat, let me remind you that I spent most of 2020 in a state you could reasonably call enslaved to Age Of Empires 2, following the launch of its Definitive Edition. I wasn’t alone, either. Last year saw hundreds of thousands of people collapse in thrall to this twenty-year old game, and while many of its devotees were newcomers - some younger than AoE2 itself - the first wave of pilgrims were those, like me, who had been lured in by nostalgia.

Cannons fire at a farm in Age Of Empires 4

It was the best time I have ever had with a video game. It was the worst time I have ever had with a video game. I spent far longer with AoE2 than I ever did in the totality of its original lifespan. Why was it such an intense experience? Well, I suppose I was stuck in my house during a plague, and slowly losing my mind. But beyond that, there was just something really potently weird about applying a brain attuned to modern strategy games, to a game from the 1990s.

There’s just so much constant, needless activity involved in playing AoE2 to any kind of standard. Even with the concessions to reason added by the Definitive Edition, the game is a glowering, obdurate brute, requiring four clicks where one might suffice in a modern RTS, and punishing anything short of mentat-calibre focus with a swift and merciless Ghengising of the economy. Victory in such a condition made me feel like an extremely limited god, and defeat, a simpleton.

An army of horses surround a trebuchet in Age Of Empires 4

And so to AoE4, which managed to drive all the demon idiosyncracies from AoE2, like Christ forcing pigs to run into a lake, and still - somehow - leave a perfectly solid RTS for the swineherds to play afterwards. That is, genuinely, no mean feat. Relic could so, so easily have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, since AoE2’s baby was its bathwater. The same things which made it maddening made it magical, and one only has to look at Age Of Empires 3 and Age Of Mythology, the two sequels it has already had, to see just how easily lost that magic was.

AoE4 is not, at least in its launch incarnation, “as good” as Age Of Empires 2. But if I’m being honest, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable. It’s got built-in documentaries about paint and falcons, for Grond’s sake. It’s got a bloody narrator. And I’ve not once found myself snarling curses at my own reflection in the monitor, after some sweating teenage bastard managed to nail their build order eight seconds before mine, thereby gaining god’s permit to drown me in horses.

Age Of Empires 4 is, when all is said and done, a solid old-school RTS. And from where I’m standing, that’s a fucking miracle. Bravo.

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