Age Of Empires 4 Is Fantastic, And RTS Is Back

Age Of Empires 4 Is Fantastic, And RTS Is Back

Age of Empires 4 is just about everything I want it to be. It’s the right time period. It focuses on the right things. It maintains the spirit of the franchise and respect of history. It retains the magic of AoE2‘s gameplay in a way that I felt AoE3 didn’t quite capture.

I’m leaving wiggle room there because surely nothing’s perfect (right?) but every flaw I’ve found is either extremely minor or in the “will be fixed later” bucket. It’s not as polished as StarCraft 2 was on release, but damned if it doesn’t have that X-factor.

It’s the real deal, RTS fans. Not a drill. After AoE Online, I wouldn’t blame you for being skeptical. But AoE4 is freakin’ great.

AoE2 was unquestionably the most popular game in the series, and AoE4 focuses on the same time period, mostly medieval, before gunpowder came along and ruined that tried and true rock/paper/scissors relationship between spears, cavalry, and archers.

The difference here is that factions are the most asymmetrical they’ve ever been, to the point of feeling like a different RTS. Veterans will also find that rock/paper/scissors structure works a little differently now, and it’s more about armour values. Men-at-arms can get a lot of good work done if the archers don’t have their critical mass.

Almost everyone who took part in the beta or technical stress test has been feeling the same pain for the last few weeks, absolutely jonesing for another game, and relying on Youtubers like Aussie_Drongo to get their fix and stay sane.

We’re just days away from release and after the beta, stress test, and preview code, I’ve had more than enough time to come up with impressions for how all these changes will play out.

Age of Empires 4 Is Asymmetrical

aoe 4
Image: World’s Edge / Relic

The biggest talking point here is how gawrsh-darn different every faction is. In AoE2, you’d have minor factional facts in your head like “the Vikings don’t get siege onagers, so they can’t cut through the trees on Black Forest”. (Shoutout to FatSlob)

In AoE4, the thought process is more like the different matchups in Starcraft 2 – you’d play PvZ differently to how you’d play PvT. The Rus expanding throughout the map to monopolise on hunting is a very different opponent to the Delhi Sultanate booming for an elephant army.

It combines the best of all ages – you’ve got the time period and gameplay foundations of AoE2, with the divergent factions of AoM and AoE3. There are even direct parallels. Whereas the Norse in AoM experimented with moving drop-off points, now the Mongols in AoE4 can pack up and move every building.

I believe in addition to just being fun, this will have a healthy effect on AoE4‘s metagame.

Within a year or two of AoE2‘s release, the community had settled on a “main” build order which was largely universal. You knew exactly when to lure the boar, when to put villagers on gold, etc. There were different build orders for Flushing, Crushing, Smushing, and water maps, but for most of the last 16 years, AoE2 players would follow ol’ faithful.

This can’t happen in AoE4. The Chinese fast-castle doesn’t port over to the Abbasid Dynasty. These starting eight civilisations are like eight different games, and build orders will emerge for each as be tested against the other meta strategies of the day.

When a serious gamer of any genre is contemplating whether to get good at a particular game, they want to know it’s a system worth the time investment. I think AoE4 will be giving us interesting metas and counter-metas for years to come, long after Relic cannibalises its own playerbase with the equally-sure-to-be-excellent Company of Heroes 3.

Age of Empires 4 Factions

age of empires
Image: Microsoft / World’s Edge

So let’s go through them all. In addition to small resource and combat bonuses, factions in AoE4 have an “influence” system that affects how you build your base. You can’t wall with houses anymore, but you can create tight laneways for spears to confound cavalry. Instead, you’ll be playing an optimisation game in your head about how to min/max with buildings while also considering defence.

We’ll talk about each of these influence systems below.

  • Chinese – Masters of gunpowder and siege. Their men-at-arms are faster but with less armour. Their Nest of Bees unit replaces the Mangonel, devastating tight unit formations with rockets. The Chinese have a Dynasty system that allows them to build both landmarks for each age, which changes their dynasty and civilisation-wide bonuses. They build fast, and have strong late-game siege units. A tax collector can go from building to building collecting gold, and buildings within the right area of influence will generate more gold.
  • Rus – Prolific hunters in the early game, the Rus generate gold through hunting as well. They lack the stone fortifications of other civs but have stronger wooden ones. The Rus are a mix of Mongol, Chinese and European influences. They have strong horse archers, late-game gunpowder units, and more capable outposts to help them cope with being vulnerable to raiding.
  • Mongols – Able to pack up every building and move it across the map. The Mongols typically build around stone deposits which allow buildings within its influence to double their production. Just as in AoE2, the Mangudai is a feared horse archer, and now it can fire while moving.
  • French – A science and cavalry civ, the French get early knights and cavalry bonuses. In the late game, their “royal” brand of gunpowder siege units are superior to others.
  • English – Owners of the nastiest and easiest to pull off rush in the stress test, the English will pump out the longbows fast, and their Network of Castles effect will causes archers to fire faster if you enter their territory protected by fortifications. They also get farming benefits, and you can expect them to use their longbows offensively as well as stationing them on walls.
  • Holy Roman Empire – The HRE can build prelates from the first age, which bless villagers to increase their output, and later can bless military units.
  • Delhi Sultanate – Both the Delhi Sultanate and Abbasid Dynasty get a bonus to berry foraging but can’t hunt boar, due to religious restrictions. The Delhi Sultanate gets all technologies for free, but research is extremely slow until several scholars are garrisoned. Later on, elephant units can be build and they are a million times more tanky than in AoE2.
  • Abbasid Dynasty – The House of Wisdom is the only landmark the Abbasid Dynasty has to build, and it can add wings to itself to advance to the next age, without the need for villagers building. The Abbasid Dynasty has a strong boom, just like the Delhi Sultanate, and its camels are a natural counter to horse cavalry.

Relic and Xbox Game Studios have already talked about expanding the factions in the future, so definitely expect some DLC or expansions before long. There are entire continents not included so far, so I’d probably bet on those getting a look in before, say, a Vikings faction. The devs have talked about wanting to include Africa as quickly as possible, but in the end it’s up to them.

All The Lovely Extras

age of empires 4
Image: Relic / World’s Edge

I’ll post more about the campaign later, but you can expect the same kind of story-based campaigns that you grew up loving ever since you opened that cereal box and found the AoE2 disc.

There are also the Art of War missions that help you learn the finer points of the game, and AoE4 has invested in some documentary-style videos for you to learn more about technologies and cultures of the time, such as one that focuses on how a trebuchet works. I see this as the continuation of the articles that came included with older Age of games.

We’re also sure to see some interesting things come out of the mapmaking community. Lord help us when someone makes another Forest Nothing.

Is Relic Saving RTS?

I think AoE4 will be my main game for the next year at least. I know enough about it to know I want to dive in head first and get familiar with all the new metas, and try to at least get to a competent (maybe even decent!) level online.

There’s a thriving competitive community around AoE2: DE, and I don’t expect that to go anywhere. But I do expect those players to try, and love, AoE4. I expect AoE4 to at the very least have its day in the sun in terms of esports.

After that, we have Company of Heroes 3 expected one year later. There isn’t a game with the Company of Heroes name that hasn’t been amazing. They’re all (all two of them, plus expansions) fantastic. So RTS, much like John Wick, is kinda feeling like it’s back.

We really have one developer to thank for that. Some credit should definitely go to Xbox Game Studios here too, because you can tell from the interviews that this has been a great collaboration between the two and both sides have the right ideas. But provided everything goes well from here on out – and I’d be surprised if it didn’t – Relic would deserve the title of Saviour of RTS.

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