We finally got our first look at actual Age of Empires 4 (AOE 4) gameplay over the weekend. A lot of questions still remain, but we did at least get a sense of how Relic is modernising one of the greatest RTS franchises of all time.
First off: the release date. Age of Empires 4 is hitting Xbox Game Pass and Steam concurrently later this spring, and as you’d expect it’s shipping with four campaigns steeped in historic lore. One of them, shown off briefly in the official announcement, will focus on the Normans. There wasn’t just Age of Empires 4 news though, with Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition getting co-op campaign battles and Age of Empires 3 getting the United States as a new civilisation.
But before we get into all of the official announcements from an embargoed press conference and the official reveal, here’s the snippet of just AOE 4 gameplay.
OK, so with that out of the way, here’s the concrete bits and pieces about Relic’s take on Age of Empires.
Age of Empires 4 is introducing a new stealth mechanic.
One of the new mechanics is stealth, which could be an interesting way for players to mount comebacks. It basically forces you to keep scout units around the map so you can keep track of an enemy’s army. The snippet of stealth shown during the official trailer, however, made it pretty obvious as to what areas of the map favoured stealth:
It’s basically a half-shelled out forest that screams HIDDEN UNITS MIGHT BE HERE. I can see players countering this pretty quickly, so I’ll be keen to see what Relic does to keep stealth relevant when the AOE 4 meta starts to solidify.
The Mongols, Chinese, Delhi and English are the first 4 playable factions.
World’s Edge and Relic have promised 8 playable civilisations at launch, and most of the first 4 are franchise classics: English (which you’ll play in the Normandy campaign), Mongols (returning from AOE 2), Chinese (returning from AOE 2 and the AOE 3 expansion), and Delhi Sultanate (a new name for a region/civilisation that’s appeared in different forms, like the Sumerians in AOE 1 or the Persians in AOE 2/AOE 3).
You’ll play Henry I and the Battle of Hastings in the Norman campaign.
An interesting part about the Normandy campaign, revealed during an embargoed Q&A session just before Easter, is the changes in perspective. Philippe Boulle, narrative lead on Age of Empires 4, revealed the campaign would begin with the Battle of Hastings early on, with William the Conqueror and “some of the aftermath after that” playable. You’ll then switch into playable missions featuring Henry I’s daughter Empress Matilda, before switching into missions with her grandchild King John.
Every Mongol building is completely mobile.
A fun little detail revealed by Adam Isgreen, long-time franchise creative director for Age of Empires, is that the Mongols can pack up their buildings and move around. “Your entire base is mobile; you can just pack up and move everything. You actually have to as the Mongols, as some of the ways they go after stone for the ovoos that you saw … that’s a key point to playing the Mongols, you’re immediately interested in where all the stone deposits are on the map,” Isgreen said.
In the official gameplay reveal, you can see a notification where the Mongols ‘ Ovoo is depleted, and their town centre actually self-destructs. The Mongols then have to find a new stone pile to re-establish their base.
Other tweaks won’t necessarily be as game-defining as the Mongols’ mobility, but it’s an indication of some of the changes that AOE 4 is toying with.
Age of Empires 4 will have four ages and four resource types.
Like the previous AOE games, players will advance through multiple ages throughout the course of the game as they research and unlock new technologies. AOE 4 will have 4 of these: dark age, feudal age, castle and imperial. Microsoft had spoken officially about four ages before, but this was the first time anyone outside of the studio and private testing that fans have been able to see those ages in practice. The classic four resources are back — food, wood, silver and gold — and as you advance to the later ages, you’ll need more gold and silver than wood and food.
In other words, Relic aren’t messing with the AOE fundamentals. The chances of them doing so were basically nil, but it’s nice to have that confirmed regardless.
Age of Empires 4 will still have a population cap of 200.
Or, put another way: you can have 1600 maximum units (or max population, since some units require more than one population) in a full multiplayer game of 8 people.
English villagers can defend themselves with bows.
Here’s a neat thing from the official gameplay: English villagers can be tough as nuts to crack. Early game harassment is key to any RTS gameplay, and the English have a neat defence up their sleeve. The bows, seen here, might have some interesting implications in multiplayer.
Age of Empires 4 will be designed so parents who grew up with AOE can enjoy AOE 4 with their kids.
I asked Quinn Duffy, Age of Empires 4‘s game director and a long-time Relic veteran going back to the Homeworld, Company of Heroes and original Dawn of War days, how AOE 4 would appeal to new audiences in a way that RTS games have struggled to do so over the last decade.
Duffy said the RTS genre was due for a massive revival — not just because of Age of Empires 4, although he didn’t clarify what other releases or news was due to drop that would feed into that.
“We had some goals initially around delivering on accessibility. When we met with Microsoft the first time, we got some really great stories about how people who were a part of the original development team on the original Age of Empires were playing the game with their kids who have now kind of grown up. And I found I was really motivated to make a game that I could play with my kids as well. So that was a big target: finding a game that would be accessible to those audiences, delivering history in a unique way, a modern way,” Duffy said.
AOE 4 Zach Schlappi added that the UI had been refined to be more visually identifiable, particularly around buildings and their function. Michael Mann, an AOE 4 senior executive producer, also clarified that the Game Pass distribution would ensure more newer players would come into the AOE franchise for the first time via AOE 4. I followed up on what specific mechanics or gameplay elements had been tweaked to make the game more accessible, but no details were provided. The campaigns will still be structured as a tutorial — like the initial Age of Empires campaigns always were — but, again, the AOE 4 team weren’t talking about specifics just yet.
There’s naval battles once more, but we don’t know anything about them.
The naval battles were the final teaser from the official gameplay reveal, but absolutely nothing was shown off other than the fact that you can build ships. Quite literally. I imagine naval combat will operate on a lot of the same principles as previous AOE games.
Competitive play will obviously be supported for Age of Empires 4, but it’s not intended to replace the existing AOE 2 support.
The ongoing competitive leagues for Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition (and Age of Empires 2 HD before that) obviously wasn’t going to be ignored by Relic. Emma Bridle, AOE 4‘s director of customer voice, mentioned that Relic has already held some private in-house tournaments for AOE 4. A select group of members from the AOE community was actually invited to Relic a few years ago, and Relic has been regularly consulting privately with what they call the Community Council, which includes players of various skill levels from competitive AOE fans to newcomers.
“We’ve actually hosted a couple of tournaments secretly amongst our council,” Bridle said. “With Age 4 we’ll see that same [competitive] scene spring up, and we’ll be happy to support it,” she added. Duffy stressed that the most important element was to nail AOE 4‘s gameplay first, and there’s no expectation that Age of Empires 4 would or will replace the current competitive scene for AOE 2. And that makes sense: Age of Empires 2 still has tournaments with nearly $US100,000 prize pools and tens of thousands of viewers, which isn’t half bad for a game that shipped two decades ago.
World’s Edge effectively acts as a creative check for Age of Empires 4, while Relic is responsible for day to day development.
An interesting thing with AOE 4 is the development relationship. World’s Edge is officially Microsoft’s first-party studio working on the Age of Empires franchise, but Relic Entertainment (Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, Homeworld) is the studio that’s actually leading development. I wanted to know how that relationship worked, and the World’s Edge/Relic developers explained that the Microsoft studio effectively played the role of custodians, providing feedback and suggestions that Relic would implement or factor in.
“Microsoft is full of gamers and developers just like us,” AOE 4 art director Zach Schlappi said. “Especially on the art side, my counterpart in Microsoft is a mentor, he’s a gamer, he’s also a developer. It really helped to work with people who know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and have a very practical and realistic view of what they want for the franchise. It was great fate that we all had a common passion for this, and it worked out really well, and it’s been one of the best relationships we’ve had.”
Earlier in development, World’s Edge and Relic would discuss more higher level changes and twists for AOE 4, and Relic would also try and implement systems of features that would push AOE 4 while still trying to retain the spirit of an Age of Empires game. “There’s some things we were really trying to push early,” Duffy said. “We wanted it to feel modern and fresh, but we also wanted it to feel like an Age of Empires game, and it was really important to get that validation from the community team and that feedback from World’s Edge as the stewards of the franchise that we were heading in the right direction, and where they felt that maybe we should change track a little bit.”
“The thing I love about working with Relic is that we hit the ground running in having the same ability to talk about real time strategy games,” Isgreen added. “They’ve been doing them for years, myself and others in World’s Edge have done them for years and years before we were at Microsoft, so we have a lot to draw on which was great. It’s a very day to day relationship, back and forth discussing — now that the game is shipping later this year, so it’s all about balance and squashing bugs and making sure we can get everything perfect for everyone when it launches.”
As we learn more about Age of Empires 4, including its official release date, the other 4 civilisations, campaigns, multiplayer modes and new features, we’ll keep you posted.