Age of Empires 4 review: A sleek, sophisticated RTS with a compelling historical campaign

Pros

  • A well-polished experience with few flaws or issues
  • Live docu-style video portions have some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard.
  • A long and engrossing campaign makes history come alive.
  • At launch, there are 17 skirmish maps and eight distinct civilizations.

Cons

  • During automatic and manual saves, stuttering occurs.
  • Several minor animation flaws
  • At the time of launch, ranked play and UGC features were not available.

Since the announcement of Age of Empires 4 on August 21, 2017, real-time strategy (RTS) fans have been waiting to see where Microsoft, Xbox, and a creative team of developers would take the acclaimed series. I was one of the fortunate few who received early access to Age 4, and I’ve been playing almost nonstop for more than a week as I sit down to write this review.

If I said it wasn’t a challenging task, I’d be lying. The game has been a joy to play from the minute I sat down to play through the four-part historical campaign with 35 missions, to checking out skirmishes and multiplayer matches.

Despite the fact that Age of Empires 2 is one of my all-time favorite games, I’ve done my best to leave my Age love at the door. This is unquestionably a fan’s review, with all of the game’s features and mechanics thoroughly studied. Aside from nostalgia, Age 4 is a new title built by a new team, with 16 years after the release of Age of Empires 3. Has the wait been worthwhile? The answer is a resounding yes.

Visuals and sound in Age of Empires 4

Because there was a lot of buzz around Age 4’s visual presentation building up to its release, I’d want to start with that. I wrote an editorial reminding players that Age of Empires 4 will be judged mostly on its gameplay, but it doesn’t mean the game won’t be visually impressive. In the early versions of the game that we were able to test, some of the most common issues I heard were with unit and building scale.

I’m sure I haven’t seen every unit and structure in the game, but these concerns appear to have been addressed. Keeps and fortifications rise over villages, peasants appear little in comparison to armored military formations, and weapons are of a magnitude that is obvious but not oppressive. The game isn’t aiming for a hyper-realistic aesthetic, which is understandable given that it’s attempting to operate on such a diverse set of hardware. Almost everything is easily recognized at a glance, and even in the midst of battle, troops are nicely defined.

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The map settings, which serve as the backdrop for your matches and campaign missions, are breathtaking. Forests of various colors and types wave gently in the breeze, sea water color naturally grades toward the beach, and invisible clouds passing in front of the sun cast shadows across the plains. There are also a plethora of accessories that appear as you construct certain structures.

A little garden and fence will appear next to a house built in an open location, adding to the feeling that your city is a living organism. Roads occur between heavily visited locations as well, albeit they do not provide a movement boost. These accessories have no bearing on the game and can be constructed over if space is limited. When you wish to create, an illuminated grid displays to assist you figure out what space is available, so you never have to guess where to put your next structure.

TitleAge of Empires 4
DevelopersWorld’s Edge
Relic Entertainment
PublisherXbox Game Studios
GenreReal-time strategy
Minimum RequirementsWindows 10
Core i5-6300U or Ryzen 5 2400G
8GB RAM
Intel HD 520 or AMD Vega 11
Game SizeApprox. 50GB
Play TimeCampaign: 20 to 30 hours
PlayersUp to 8 in multiplayer
Launch Price$60

There are 17 different skirmish maps in the game, each with eight different biomes that modify the map’s appearance. You want to play only Dry Arabia, but you don’t want to see the pale palette? For a few matches, switch to a new biome.

A strong point is architectural art design. I like how common structures look in different civilizations; they’re easy to spot but blend in with the rest of the civ. The construction of unique monuments is entertaining to see, with scaffolding and virtual employees rising from the ground. This is when the architecture becomes truly distinctive. One thing that struck me was how similar the keep appears in many civilizations. A little more variation there could help a lot.

While the vast majority of the animations I’ve seen have been fluid, there are still some instances where they may be improved. Infantry units erecting a siege were one of the first things that caught my attention. Instead of switching to hammers, units would swarm around a battering ram foundation and point their weapons at it until it was built. If I assigned more units than could fit along the foundation’s edge, the rest would spin uncontrollably until the structure was built. It appears weird and betrays the game’s attention to detail in other places.

Many folks who viewed an early build of the game complained about the arrow motions (and sizing). The animation is still a little odd when zoomed in, even though the size has been adjusted – arrows and bolts are more identifiable from one another and don’t appear like spears being thrown. It’s difficult to see in the midst of combat, yet a single archer’s timing can be incorrect. At the very least, the arrows are now released from the bow rather than the soldier’s feet.

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With hotkeys shown discretely next to the buttons they represent, the HUD is informative, concise, and accessible. You don’t have to pause the game every five minutes to double-check your key bindings until you’ve memorized them. I’d like to be able to raise the size of the minimap, since I often found myself peering up close to the screen to see if I’d located any stone deposits elsewhere on the map. The ability to change the map size would be a welcome addition.

Nonetheless, red circles that indicate a conflict are visible on the minimap, which aids in directing your focus appropriately. The ability to press Spacebar to jump to the most recent alert is also a useful feature that prevents players from being confused about where they need to be.

The HUD might be a little overpowering at times, especially if you’re playing with tutorial popups enabled. Bubbles will appear over units on the map, blocking whatever is behind them. And occasionally during the campaign, I noticed a giant opaque pop up, usually above a mission objective. The popups did get in the way of targeting certain units on occasion. This problem could be solved by making these transparent when centered on the screen. The mission objectives are also displayed in the top-left corner of the screen all of the time, with no apparent method to hide them. Let me recapture that screen space because I know what I need to accomplish.

I wasn’t far into Age 4 when I discovered the sound design was exceptional. I was following my army as it through the English countryside, over stone bridges, passing through farms and woodlands, and eventually arriving in a city. Horses, soldiers, siege engines, and all the attendant weaponry and armor combined into a beautiful harmony that I had to stop and appreciate. Instead of quickly pursuing my campaign goal, I took the time to march the army back and forth across the terrain just to hear everything.

EVEN WITH MANY REPEATED SOUNDS, I’M STILL ENJOYING THE AUDIO BLEND AFTER MORE THAN 20 HOURS OF PLAYTIME SO FAR.

Throughout the game, the same level of attention to aural detail is evident. The thump of a builder’s hammer striking a foundation, or the crash of a stone gate falling, only to be besieged by a shouting mob of warriors; it’s all so realistic, I can’t imagine how much work went into real-world audio capture.

Over the course of a campaign objective or a skirmish match in the Age of Empires games, there are a number of recurrent sounds. An audio cue plays every time you select a unit or a building. This helps a fast-moving player recognize that they’ve selected the Town Center while pressing the Q button to create extra people, for example. For instance, each time you select a villager or soldier, they will say something. This can become oppressive over the course of a play session if not done correctly.

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Unlike earlier Age games, in which unit sound cues remained relatively constant throughout the game, Age 4 takes things a step further by changing language to match the approximate historical period. I noticed that as you progress through the ages, units speak increasingly current forms of English and French (two languages I am familiar with). It’s a small detail, but it adds a lot to the historic atmosphere.

The sound varies when the camera zooms, pans, and rotates, and whether you’re listening through external speakers or headphones, you’ll enjoy what you hear. I found myself getting close to battles only to hear swords crashing against armor and shields, shouts of pain from fallen troops, and the rumbling of siege engines as they raze stone walls. It’s possible that I’m a monster.

Despite certain issues with the HUD and some unpolished or missing animations, Age of Empires 4 presents itself visually and acoustically as a high-quality game. You may not agree with all of the graphical choices — some may find the game a little too cartoonish — but I’m confident that it could look a lot worse and still be a hit because to its strong gameplay.

General gameplay in Age of Empires 4

The goal of Age of Empires 4 is to guide your civilisation through the Dark Ages, Feudal Ages, Castle Ages, and Imperial Ages while balancing economy and military to overcome your opponent. While the campaign features mission objectives and landscapes that have been painstakingly constructed, entering a skirmish — whether against AI or human opponents — provides you with a procedurally created blank slate with which to work.

You start with a few villagers, a Town Center, and a scout, with some differences depending on whatever civ you’re playing. You must assign your units to gather resources, construct new structures, attack the enemy, and protect your realm. Scouts can now herd domesticated animals to your Town Center (with some additional upgrades for wild animals), while your people can now build, farm, hunt, fish, cut trees, and dig gold or stone.

Players are naturally motivated to construct districts thanks to a new feature involving zones of influence. An English mill, for example, boosts food output at any farm within its sphere of impact. This includes military troops and structures. Another example is the Rus’ wooden defense keeps, which speed up lumber output for any nearby camps. This also applies in the opposite direction, with certain structures gaining advantages if they’re located adjacent to the right resources. Each culture will have its own unique take on this, each with its own tremendous boost.

STEALTH FORESTS ARE IDENTIFIABLE PATCHES OF TREES THAT PROVIDE COVER FOR YOUR UNITS WHILE YOU PREPARE FOR AN AMBUSH OR SECRET ATTACK ON THE ENEMY.

To advance to the next age, you must entrust the construction of a landmark to the villagers. Each age has two options, each with its own set of benefits that will carry over throughout the rest of the game. These one-of-a-kind landmarks aren’t simply there to look at for the remainder of the game; they may also be used to create special troops or boost nearby units and buildings.

For ordinary skirmish matches, there are three potential ways to win. You have the option of destroying all of an opponent’s landmarks (the buildings used to Age up and the Town Center), capturing and holding all of the map’s Sacred Sites, or building and defending a Wonder. When setting up a game, you can customize the victory criteria as well as the single-player skirmish preset scenarios.

Holding sacred locations, as well as any relics you manage to capture and preserve at your base, generates a steady stream of wealth. To earn gold, trade locations are strewn across the map and combined with the trading caravans you’ve built. The combination of sacred places and trading sites results in some tense battles between opponents striving for map domination.

The high-end sound design helps the combat feel fluid and intense. All units have strong and weak counters, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be penalized. Sending archers against cavalry, or cavalry against spearmen, or spearmen against archers, will rapidly result in disaster. The Age series revolves around this fighting triangle. This time, it goes a little deeper, with special skills granted to particular troops. Cavalry have the power to charge, spearmen have the ability to brace against cavalry, and so on. Veteran players excel at this extra micromanagement, and I hope there’s enough to keep the best professionals interested.

COMBAT FEELS FLUID AND VISCERAL, HELPED BY THE HIGH-END SOUND DESIGN WITHOUT A QUESTION.

Infantry can now mount stone walls, which is a first for the series, and most buildings can no longer be used as temporary barricades like they could in Age 2. You’ll have to mine stone to build a formidable defense, sorry house-wallers. Stone towers must be joined to stone walls (with few limitations depending on the civilisation), and they can be upgraded to aid combat hostile units. Keeps and isolated outposts can both be upgraded in the same way. Any units against a wall take less damage, while ranged units can shoot further, giving a defensive approach more depth.

In Age 4, a new fire mechanic plays a significant role. Buildings that have been damaged less than 25% but have been left standing by units will receive an emblem depicting a fire, which must be restored by villagers to prevent them from entirely burning down. Setting structures on fire can provide additional resources to some civilizations, thus expect this to be a common practice.

In an RTS game, poor pathfinding is unforgivable. For Age of Empires 4, this appears to be a non-issue. Despite the fact that enormous armies were marching through congested areas, every unit seemed to be able to find its way to where I’d clicked. The only issues I noticed were units attempting to get access to a congested wall. They can only reach the top of the wall through a gate, a tower, or a destroyed section, causing bottlenecks.

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Armies of various unit kinds are grouped together and wisely lined up, with archers at the back and swift horsemen in front, flanked by spearmen. While “micro” — precisely directing individual troops in battle — is still an important aspect of being successful at higher levels of play, units given a basic attack-move command can usually figure out where they need to be.

In Age of Empires 4, pathfinding is clever. Your units will move exactly where you want them to, which is essential in any RTS.

You may now click and drag your units in the direction you want them to line up, which is useful for changing formations on the fly. You can now divide units into numerous control groups at the same time, allowing you to command divisions made up of various types of units while also selecting all archers on the battlefield with a single button. You can also utilize smart selection tools to control your computer with simply a mouse.

When allocating units with several move points, one thing that irritates me is the lack of positional flags. If you issue a number of move commands to a scout with shift-click, for example, he’ll build a ring around your Town Center, but there’s no visible representation. Another minor annoyance is dragging a mouse to pick units. When you move your cursor to the edge of the screen, the camera moves and brings the box you’ve made with it. As a result, some units are left out of the selection process.

Naval warfare appears to be a game that players either enjoy or despise. To get a feel for it, I played a couple of skirmish battles with a concentration on water. With fishing ships and a variety of war ships to play with, it’s somewhat similar to Age of Empires 2. The potential for fishing ships to repair military ships, as well as broadside strikes from larger ships, are two interesting innovations. Deep-sea fishing sites also seem to repopulate after a while, so you don’t end up in a late-Imperial situation where you’re scrambling to build farms or replenish fishing traps.

After engaging some naval engagements with the Delhi Sultanate, one complaint is that the ships all look the same. I understand that different cultures have different shipbuilding methods, but a little more flare to assist distinguish between them at a look would be appreciated, especially when fishing ships and warships are joined together for repairs. The naval combat in Age of Empires 4 isn’t likely to revolutionize RTS naval warfare, but it appears to be working fine.

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Because pre-release access to the multiplayer element of the game is limited, I can’t comment on large-scale network capabilities or any concerns that may surface at launch. The multiplayer options are straightforward and easy to browse, in my opinion. You can either search for a game against other humans by clicking once, or you can go in and create your own game for others to join. You can customize the win criteria, map, teams, and total number of players in this section. Games can have up to eight participants and any mix of teams.

You have the option of making your online match visible. In the multiplayer menu, you can choose from a list of what you want to watch. You receive a lovely HUD with player resources and buttons for changing playback speed and changing the player’s view. You have the option of speeding things up to reach live footage or letting it play out at its normal speed. I was able to put it to the test once and it worked well.

At launch, ranked matches and scenario editing facilities are not available. Before delivering these new features, I’m guessing the team wants to make sure the game is functioning smoothly on both the basic and network levels. It’s a bad we won’t be able to jump right in, but the team has mentioned multiple times that the game will be meticulously maintained for a long time. Let’s hope this isn’t just a hollow promise.

Civilizations is the fourth installment in the Age of Empires series.

Age of Empires 4 includes eight civilizations (with more on the way), which may not seem like a lot for a game of this genre. However, once you start playing them, the individual complexity that emerges more than makes up for any concerns about the number. Civilizations range from simple to complex, with a noticeable increase in complexity as you progress through the game. From the age of two, the English, for example, play very much like the Britons. Then there are games like Delhi Sultanate or Mongols, which are unlike anything else on the market.

EVEN AFTER MANY HOURS OF PLAYING, THE STRATEGIC DEPTH AND VARIANCE BETWEEN AGE OF EMPIRES 4’S UNIQUE CIVILIZATIONS IS STILL HARD TO GRASP. I’M GOING TO BE LEARNING THIS GAME FOR A LONG TIME.

I’m still learning the complexities of each civilization, and as I have a better understanding of how the different benefits and playstyles operate, I’m becoming a better player. It’s gratifying to come up with a fresh approach, put it into action, and see it work. In Age 4, it appears that recognizing a civ’s strengths and weaknesses plays a far larger importance than simply being the fastest with a mouse (which still makes a huge impact).

Each culture has its own set of benefits that influence how they play. A few of them are map-dependent, which adds to the complexity. The ability of the Delhi Sultanate’s infantry units to build walls reminds me of the Norse from Age of Mythology, while the Mongols’ ability to pack up and relocate everything at any time reminds me of the Terran lift off ability in StarCraft. Every time I play a skirmish battle with a civ, I feel like I’m uncovering something new; this will fade with time, but the metagame possibilities appear to be endless.

Age of Empires 4: Campaign is the fourth installment in the Age of Empires series.

Age of Empires 4 has four unique campaigns with a total of 35 missions divided throughout them. Before moving on to the majority of missions in the Hundred Years War, The Mongol Empire, and The Rise of Moscow campaigns, I completed The Normans campaign, which spans around 150 years and covers William the Conqueror and his heirs.

Depending on the difficulty level you choose, these campaigns might last anywhere from 25 to 35 hours. There’s a story option that effectively reduces down gameplay to an interactive adventure through history, as well as a hard mode that will test expert RTS players. You have complete control over the difficulty level.

Throughout the missions, the pacing is perfect. You’re always busy, and you don’t have to toil for long before jumping back into a fight. I completed the game on the intermediate difficulty setting, and it seems like the game was well-suited to this environment. As you get closer to the end of each campaign, the difficulty level increases, and there were several missions where I recognized I’d made a mistake. Autosave saved the day by allowing me to rewind a few minutes and change a critical decision.

AGE OF EMPIRES 4 WILL TEACH YOU A LOT ABOUT THE CIVILIZATIONS INVOLVED.

The campaign’s various tasks, seamless voiceover work, and magnificent map presentation are impressive enough on their own, but the “Hands on History” and “Path of History” video parts take things to a whole new level. These animations, created by Lion TV studio and Relic Entertainment, combine real-world modern footage with CGI to depict what landscapes would have looked like in, say, 1066.

Castles that are still standing today are depicted with troops guarding the ramparts, rivers that are still flowing today are depicted with cavalry fighting on the banks, and stone walls that have fallen into disrepair are digitally restored. All of this is combined with excellent narrative to provide a very pleasant experience. The transition from live footage combined with CGI to conventional gameplay feels natural and immerses you in the action.

After completing most missions, you’ll be able to access the Hands on History sections. These are more in-depth discussions about a specific topic relating to the mission you just completed, and they’re presented in a documentary format with experts and hosts. The first objective of The Mongol Empire campaign, for example, has massive, fast-moving forces. The video clip you unlock in Hands on History is about Mongol drums and signal arrows, which were used to communicate with Mongol forces.

Each of these films is only a few minutes long and is well worth your time. It’s evident that this is an important aspect of the game, with the same level of refinement as the rest of it. I’m not aware of any other game that has placed such a strong emphasis on historical accuracy, and I’ll surely complete the remaining campaign missions if only to unlock the fantastic mini films. I’m too lazy to go over these with a fine-tooth comb in search of historical mistakes, but it’s evident that the team was intent on portraying these civilizations in a positive light.

On top of all this, your user profile gets experience as you play the game. Civilization masteries are a series of objectives that can be fulfilled in any order, and there are also daily tasks to keep things interesting. Completing them earns you XP, which you may use to unlock new content for your profile, such as coats of arms and town monuments.

Should you play Age of Empires 4?

The RTS genre has not been reinvented by Age of Empires 4. You could be disappointed if that’s what you were hoping for. It’s reminiscent to Age of Empires 2, but with improved visuals, music, technology, perks, and strategy. The developers stated clearly that their goal was to build a true sequel to Age of Empires 2, and they have succeeded in that aspect.

In a time when so many high-profile games are rushed out with missing features or a slew of flaws, Age of Empires 4 strikes me as a finished product. And this is despite the fact that ranked play and user-generated content (UGC) tools have been postponed until a major upgrade in Spring 2022. Even with the settings pushed up, Age of Empires 4 plays smoothly on a mid-range gaming laptop. The game is well-polished, to the point where I’ve only encountered two or three minor issues in over 25 hours of gaming. On an Intel/NVIDIA machine, I saw one crash, but no crashes on a full AMD system. If you’re in the market for a new laptop, have a look at our list of the best gaming laptops.

AGE OF EMPIRES 4 DESERVES TO BE CALLED BY THAT NAME. IT’S A VALUE-ADDED ADDITION TO THE SERIES AND THE RTS GENRE IN GENERAL.

Color filters, remappable key bindings, strong contrast for menus, font scaling, and other accessibility features make it easier for users to get into the game. The devs have also said that a roadmap would be posted shortly after launch to keep us updated on what’s coming up in the near future. It appears that the game will be supported for a long time, which I sincerely hope will be the case.

For me, the campaign is the best aspect of Age 4. Both the content provided and the production quality of the Hands on History and Path of History segments are incredible. These aren’t an afterthought; they’re an essential element of the overall experience. This area alone will provide you a lot of your money’s worth, with about 30 hours of high-quality campaign content. And the eight distinct launch civilizations, together with 17 skirmish maps, are making my mind spin with potential multiplayer strategies.

If you didn’t enjoy the way Age 2 was played, you’re not likely to enjoy Age 4. However, if you liked the earlier games in the series, you should enjoy this one as well. Although Age of Empires 4 isn’t the revolution that some of you were expecting for, I’ve had a great time playing it. I’m looking forward to seeing you on the multiplayer battlefield. To ensure you don’t miss out on the Age of Empires 4 release, read our guide to the Age of Empires 4 release date.

Bottom line: Age of Empires 4 expands on the series’ illustrious history, which began in 1997. This should be an easy recommendation whether you enjoy RTS games, world history, or both. There’s no shortage of polished content to enjoy with dozens of hours of campaign play, eight separate civilizations, hours of live docu-style video segments, and a ton of skirmish maps. It’s available on its own or as part of an Xbox Game Pass subscription for PC.


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