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I'm met with a strangely familiar sight. On my screen is an army of knights, pikemen, and archers marching in tight formation. Moving in slightly awkward jagged lines, their path-finding AI copes with directing a hundred soldiers across the battlefield, but not quite gracefully. Right at the back of their long train is a line of old men in robes carrying curved staves. Every time the army stops they wander among the soldiers waving their sticks, green sparkles showing off the healing they're performing on the medieval troops. It's a routine I've seen playing out since the original Age of Empires released way back in 1997 and it's charming to see it again now, in full 3D and high definition.
Developer Relic Entertainment is walking a difficult line with Age Of Empires IV. Since the release of Age of Empires III, some 16 years ago, there was a time when publishers Microsoft appeared to abandon the series and it fell to fans to look after it. Though extensive modding, teams created unofficial expansions to their beloved games, adding new armies and campaigns. Some of these mods were just as good, if not better, than the work in the original games. Though, the community didn't rally around Age Of Empires III, but Age of Empires II, the pinnacle of the series. While Relic hasn't ignored Age of Empires III, it's clear that Age of Empires II is the blueprint for this new game.
Much like Age of Empires II, IV covers the medieval wars of the 11th through 13th centuries. The English campaign, which serves as an introduction to a lot of the fundamental concepts of the game, kicks off with the Norman invasion in 1066 and leads you through two centuries of European history. You're then able to switch perspectives in later campaigns, playing as the French, Russians, and Mongol armies in their own campaigns.
The campaigns are excellent and lavishly produced. Each mission is introduced with a cinematic that steeps you in the history of the battle you're about to fight, establishing the context and stakes of the battle. And the mission design has learned a lot from the strategy games that have been released in the years since Age Of Empires III. It's rare that you're dropped into a map and simply asked to build up an army to destroy an enemy. You're tasked with withstanding sieges, seeking out roaming armies, bringing together disparate allies, each mission different from the last, keeping play fresh.
Secondary objectives are used in most missions to challenge you, too. For instance, a band of local bandits may start harassing you, sending small raiding parties at your base and wearing down your defenders, until you either pay them off or wipe them out. It's not a huge challenge but it does force you to adapt your strategy before focusing on your main objective.
The maps, too, are often dotted with secrets and reward exploring. I began one mission with a large French army and my objective was to find and destroy the English defenders, but the challenge was that I had no means of recruiting more troops. What I began the mission with would need to last through all the skirmishes until the final battle. As I searched for my target I found, hidden in the dark fog of war of the map, an allied monastery and a cluster of priests who healed up my troops, meaning many more survived into the late-game battle than if I'd stumbled past it.
One touch I love in Age of Empires IV is that when you complete a mission you're rewarded with a mini documentary that covers a nugget of medieval warfare. For example, there's one that focuses on the craft that went into making each individual arrow. The tip, shaft, and fletching all required great care to make an arrow that would fly true. Then the narrator tells us that more than a million of the things would be made for an army before it went on campaign. These short videos hint at the sheer scale of the industry of medieval warmongery.
While in many ways it feels like Relic has aimed for the simpler design philosophy of Age of Empires II, cutting out the deck-building meta game of Age Of Empires III and returning to the more straightforward four-resource economy - food, wood, stone, and gold - there are small flourishes of complication, such as the special abilities of the English Longbowman. With a tap of 'Q' these elite archers will place long wooden stakes into the ground, protecting themselves from cavalry charges. Meanwhile, a tap of 'R' and they'll set up healing campfires. They're two skills that add flavour to the unit and add a little tactical choice to your play. Because they're both skills that require the unit to be stationary, they encourage you to use them in a way that forces the enemy to come to you - either using them as a part of a solid defence or as the sting at the end of a trap.
Very few units have special abilities, so, for the most part, your tactical choices on the battlefield come from trying to micromanage which of your troops faces off against which of your enemies'. You want to hit their archers with your cavalry, their cavalry with your pikemen, their pikemen with your archers, and so on. I'd love to have seen more units have those extra details, because it could have made battles more unexpected, if more troops could pull out a special power at the right moment. Though, it would have added an extra level of micromanagement to an already demanding game.
That rock-paper-scissors approach to combat may be divisive among players. If you're an old fan of the series, then it will be familiar and you're likely still going to enjoy it here, but it does feel a little out of date when compared to modern strategy games. It can make battles particularly demanding and at times frustrating as you're constantly hopping between your different units, trying to make sure the right soldier is facing the right enemy and isn't being drawn into the wrong fight by the auto-attack AI. For instance, left to their own devices, I often found my archers weren't shooting the soldiers attacking my cavalry, like I would have hoped, but instead were firing at a nearby non-threatening mill.
If that sounds like a little too much hands-on commanding, on the lower difficulties you can get away with building up a big army and sending it en-masse into an enemy encampment, and then calling for reinforcements as they're trained up. It's only on the higher difficulties where you have to take great care in directing your army.
Another returning staple of the series that may frustrate new players is the importance of managing your economy. In Age Of Empires, if you don't recruit enough villagers at the start of the game and balance the income of different resources then it's a mistake you will pay for dearly in the late game. This is rightly the fault of the player and simply something they need to learn for themselves, but it can be frustrating when an hour into a mission you find yourself in a spot that no amount of strategy or tactical play will get you out of - you simply don't have the cash to recruit an army large enough to defend against the enemy. At that point, all you can do is restart the mission.
While these are just the facts of the older Age Of Empires, and it's a style of play Relic is evoking, I mention it because for two reasons. I found it frustrating 20 years ago and it's still frustrating now, and because Relic solved these problems in its own series - Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. So it's interesting seeing them actively put aside their own design learnings to better recreate what Age of Empires fans will be familiar with.
Age of Empires IV is an excellent return for the series and it feels like a base from which the series can grow again. I really hope future expansions follow the same model, coming packaged with well-produced documentaries, and with a similar focus of following the history of the period. Though, hopefully we'll see the team lean more into the special abilities and faction bonuses that are teased at in this base game.
Pros: A back-to-basics Age Of Empires that captures what the series did at its best
Cons: There's a heavy focus on micromanagement
For fans of: Age Of Empires II
Age Of Empires IV is available October 28 for PC. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios
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