The first word that comes to mind having played around a dozen hours of Age of Empires 4‘s stress test is “familiar.” In almost every way that matters, it’s more like a ground-up remake of Age of Empires 2 with modern graphics and a much better user experience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some small tweaks, like being able to hide units in forests. And the design of the four factions I played, at least on a macro level, reflect more modern sensibilities than Age 4’s august forebears. But, for better or for worse, Relic is clearly not taking a lot of chances to disrupt the basic formula here.
To be fair, the four playable factions in this build were among the most conventional in Age of Empires 4. The English, specifically, have been designed to feel the most familiar to legacy players. We haven’t yet been able to get our hands on the nomadic Mongols or the versatile Rus, which may mix things up a bit more like I was hoping.
Same Age, Different Empires
Age of Empires IV Documentary — Xbox Gamescom 2021
Out of the factions available, the Chinese were probably the most distinct and my overall favorite. Their support unit, the Imperial Official, can be used to passively increase your gold income by collecting taxes that slowly build up in all of your base structures, or by directly supervising specific buildings to increase their output. You’re limited to four at any given time, meaning it never became a micromanagement nightmare, and I really liked how I could take a very direct hand in how I used them, or just let them wander off and do their own thing. It’s a mechanic that rewards investing your attention, but doesn’t harshly punish you for forgetting it exists.
The Abbasids and the Holy Roman Empire both encourage making very dense urban cores. For the former, each building connected in an unbroken chain to your main tech center, the House of Wisdom, contributes to unlocking Golden Ages which boost your economy significantly. In the case of the latter, landmarks can be built that increase the durability of all structures in their radius and their town centers even have an Emergency Repair ability that will restore some health to nearby buildings without having to use villagers.
Stiff Upper Lip
In contrast, the English seem best suited to playing wide. Their longbowmen have increased range over other archers, their keeps act as a combination barracks, archery range, and stable, and units close to any of their defensive structures will get a temporary attack bonus any time an enemy comes within a certain radius of the structure. They definitely feel the most like a classic Age of Empires 2 faction, with a strong ability to project map control but nothing especially unique in terms of economic gameplay.
The army list for each faction is fairly small and straightforward, with a few types of melee infantry, a few different ranged troops (including gunpowder units in the capstone Imperial Age), cavalry, and a nice assortment of siege weapons. Each also has at least one unique unit, like the Chinese Zhuge Nu which trades the armor piercing of a regular crossbowman for higher rate of fire. There are some other minor differences, too. The English and Holy Roman Empire get access to heavy infantry earlier than the other factions, to model their Germanic style of shock warfare. But in exchange, the Abbasids can research the phalanx, making their spearmen more competitive against other types of infantry.
Not So Total War
When these units meet on the battlefield, it’s time to party like it’s 1999. You’re still limited to 200 population, split as you like between civilians and soldiers. Units are trained one at a time, with the exception of one late-game building for the HRE that can build five. This scale felt epic and compelling when I was a kid playing on a Pentium, but after decades of Total War, these battles often feel more like skirmishes. I found myself wishing that maybe they would have at least made the base military unit a squad of a few fighters rather than an individual, to give the illusion of greater grandeur. The graphics are definitely nice, but they’re not going to drop any jaws in this day and age – especially the unit models, which are just plainly underwhelming.
From what I’ve seen so far, how you feel about Age of Empires 4 is going to depend heavily on how interested you are in a very polished, faithful re-imagining of a 22-year-old RTS. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself. I definitely smiled as I pulled off an ambush using high ground or defended the Great Wall of China with fire and steel. And I don’t miss how bloated Age of Empires 3 seems in comparison, as it tried to cram in way too many ideas at once. But there’s very little that feels truly new here. Maybe when I get my hands on the Mongol hordes, all of that will change.