With nothing to prove, ‘Age of Empires IV’ makes a confident and relaxed comeback

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Screenshots of “Age of Empires IV” courtesy of Microsoft

My dad played Age of empires. I was coming home from college and the box was still next to his chair where he played on his laptop while half watching a football game. They were RTS blockbusters but the fact that my dad continued to play them years after my friends and I had given up on them still made them a bit suspicious. When Ensemble Studios’ Age of Empires 2 came out, I quickly left its colorful villages and castles for the frozen void of Relic’s Home world. I was done with the basic building past of the RTS, the future was beckoning me.

In a way, this future has brought us here, with a new Age of Empires IV resurrected for Microsoft by Relic himself. Also, this is not an attempt to shake up the franchise or redefine it in a new context. If anything, Age of Empires IV is from Relic Age of Empires II remake, which may seem like a depressingly modest or even unnecessary ambition after all of the beautiful, definitive Age of Empires editions Microsoft has released in the past couple of years. Even a few years ago, I might have drawn that conclusion myself, and I concede that there is every chance that I am just responding to my own call from the chair by kissing. Age of Empires IV as a skillful and humble reinterpretation of an enduring classic.

The basics of this game are more familiar than ever – it’s a real-time strategy game about dealing with tons of workers inside sprawling bases. From a single town center and a handful of villagers at first, you’ll expand across the map to take control of gold and stone mines and dense forests, defending your possessions with long chains of fortifications. As you develop, you will also progress through the titular “ages”, unlocking more powerful units, buildings and upgrades. Large, slightly clumsy armies of melee and ranged infantry, cavalry, and siege weapons crisscross the map to fight in battles largely determined by the exact rock / paper / scissors ratio each player chooses. It’s always pretty and colorful, like a diorama coming to life, which is exactly the kind of spectacle that made this series so enduring and welcoming without trying to melt anyone’s graphics card.

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There is more going on in Age of Empires IV than it seems, however. For starters, your eyes are a bit unreliable thanks to the addition of concealment via clear forests and tall grass. Acting like the “brush” of a MOBA, these areas of the map severely restrict the line of sight of most units and buildings, leading to much more interesting maps and a new emphasis on skills. scouting.

The different factions are also less interchangeable than they first appear. While the fundamentals of the game are the same for everyone, the Holy Roman Empire faction (for example) gets big bonuses to the productivity of their workers if they can regroup their workforce around a few dense construction sites. both, while the Delhi Sultanate must think about how to concentrate buildings around Madrasas in order to get much-needed bonuses at dangerously slow leveling speeds. The differences are further exaggerated by the choice of special buildings they must construct to advance the ages, a very Relic-style approach to create clearer “build” choices as part of the faction design, but also similar to some of the ideas. Age of Empires III introduced in the series.

So the frenzied optimizations and counter-strategies of the serious RTS hobby are all alive and well here for skirmishes and multiplayer, but so is the historic low-stress sandbox that my dad loved for so long. ‘years. However, the difference between yesterday and today is even more striking when it comes to Age of Empires IV solo experience.

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The laborious narrative campaigns of Age of Empires II, with overworked storytelling desperately trying to provide some sort of narrative fabric for simplistic “go here and kill it all” mission designs, have thankfully faded away. In their place are expertly produced documentary-style campaigns that capture the undeniable fun of a History Channel marathon before reality TV. Between missions, you’ll be treated to charming cutscenes that put each chapter of a campaign in historical context, with modern footage of key locations overlaid with augmented reality animations from Age of Empires IV armies flock to parking lots and tourist trails. Over the course of the game you will also unlock mini-documentaries covering different topics of interest such as “How did they make all this chain mail?” and “What is the difference between hunting with hawks and hawks?” These asides are well done and presented, like nice extras on a premium collector’s edition DVD.

Mission design does not always keep pace. While I appreciate that his campaigns are often love hymns to medieval siege warfare, even my strong appetite for defending or shrinking ancient citadels has been tested. Still, those battles were much, much more enjoyable than the “breadcrumb trail” missions the campaigns love to throw at you. There were a lot of missions that I overcame just through repetition, learning both the map layout and the exact timing of the different threats. It’s a less welcome return experience, although the missions themselves are still far better designed and scripted than most you’ll find in previous games.

Age of Empires IV is content to be a familiar and affable RTS companion, but not an accomplice. It’s not about throwing the sort of rowdy, boisterous convention challenge that Relic created with the Homeworld, Dawn of War, and Company of Heroes games. It very consciously returns to an old genre formula, but finds enough places to add new touches and twists that it feels less conservative than its predecessors. Perhaps more importantly, this type of RTS has gone from being the default to being a rarity, and in this context, it has become easier to appreciate its artistry and admit that our Norman parents and enemies may have. -be been on something.


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