Medieval warfare makes a glorious return in Age of Empires IV

Articles: Gaming
Nov 17, 2021 Written by:Eric Born

No offense to League of Legends, Fortnite, or any other competitive MOBA or shooter, but my favorite esports titles are real-time strategy (RTS) games. The micro-management of vast armies, the rich strategic planning, and the fast-paced multitasking make for an experience that’s just as engaging for me to watch as it is to play. I’m always on the lookout for the next great RTS game, so when Microsoft announced Age of Empires IV, I was immediately interested.

After a couple weeks of online skirmishes and single-player historical campaigns, I’m ready to report that this game is a worthy addition to the long-running series. The gameplay and art design show that this development team took the time to recreate the elements that made earlier Age of Empires games so successful while moving the series forward with new concepts.

Moments after loading my first battle, I saw that this game offers a true Age of Empires experience. It retains the pastel color palette of the earlier entries, making every moment look like a richly detailed watercolor painting rather than a 3D rendering. Individual units, like the basic villagers I need to build up a bustling economy, also have a classic look. Their minimalist design and simple colors are bursting with personality and make them easy to distinguish from enemy units.


Image source: Gamesplanet

But AoE IV’s artwork stands out from its predecessors in the way the landscape changes dynamically as I build up my territory. Roads, small pastures, and other details develop automatically around my buildings after I construct them, making my cities look more like the vibrant, lived-in locations that I always imagined. The building UI is intuitive and makes it easy to get my defensive fortifications ready for an enemy assault. Walls automatically snap to nearby structures and landforms, so I never lost a match due to an accidental gap in my defenses.

As in other Age of Empires games, I gain access to more powerful units, structures, and upgrades by advancing my civilization through a series of new eras. I do this by constructing landmarks. These structures are expensive, so I can’t rush to build them without exposing myself to attack from opponents who have chosen to prioritize their armies over their technology tree, but they’re crucial for success in any match that lasts more than a few minutes.


Image source: Gamesplanet

Of course, Age of Empires IV isn’t just a city-builder. I had fun planning and building up my cities, but I had even more fun assaulting enemy civilizations and razing them to the ground. The wide range of units opens up rich possibilities for tactical gameplay. Fast-moving cavalry easily flank enemies and cut off reinforcements. Ranged units provide potent defense when I station them on walls or in towers, and they’re highly effective when I’m on the offensive, too—as long as I can keep enemy infantry from closing to melee range. A variety of massive siege weapons bring the pain to enemy walls and structures, and expensive end-game units equipped with guns make light work of opponents who are still stuck in previous ages.


Image source: Gamesplanet

Age of Empires IV differs from some other games in the series in its asymmetrical civilizations. Players can try their luck as eight different civilizations, each with unique units. The English unlock the Longbowman at the Feudal Age, for example, while players who opt for the Abassid Dynasty can counter cavalry with Camel Archers. Aside from a couple key units, the various civilizations do have a broadly similar selection to pick from, a decision that should lead to competitive online play no matter which one you pick.

I couldn’t resist diving right into online skirmishes when I first loaded the game, but I was a much more effective opponent after I spent some time in the single-player campaigns. These campaigns offer compelling stories culled straight from the pages of history, and reward me with excellently produced videos as I progress through each civilization’s story. Most importantly, they’re also invaluable tutorials for taking advantage of each civilization’s unique strengths. Mongols, for example, don’t build stone walls or Keeps, but earn resources as they raid enemy structures and can effectively kite enemy units with mounted archers that can move and shoot simultaneously.


Image source: Gamesplanet

It’s still early days for the game’s competitive online mode, so I’ve encountered a wide range of strategies as I queued up against human opponents. Sometimes, other players rush me early on with an army of Dark Age units, and I have to scramble to establish a defensive perimeter—or counterattack with an army of my own. Other times, matches build slowly in intensity as my opponent and I carefully probe each other’s weaknesses and advance our civilizations to the final era for the most powerful units. 4v4 matches are hectic, chaotic fun as upwards of 1600 player-controlled units take to the battlefield at once, while 1v1 matches challenge me to live or die without the aid of allies.

In one game, I massed ranged units and pushed out with a small group of siege weapons, intending to punish an opponent who was clearly prioritizing his tech and economy over a large standing army. Unfortunately, I found that the other player had protected his civilization with not just one wall, but a whole series of barricades. By the time my siege units made it to his central base, he had developed artillery that my Longbowmen just couldn’t deal with. My once fast-moving assault ground to a halt, and I was forced to concede as I had fallen behind in both technology and economy.


Image source: Gamesplanet

Like many other players, I’m having a blast learning each civilization and adapting my tactics to a rapidly evolving meta game. If its combination of historical units, strategic multiplayer combat, and globe-spanning civilizations has caught your interest, don’t hesitate to pick up your own copy. Also, you could consider a subscription to the Xbox Game Pass. For a low monthly price, you can have access to not just Age of Empires IV but a large gaming library.