It took a long time: Since the release of Age of Empires 3 in 2005, there have been various expansions, remasters, remakes and smaller online and free-to-play spin-offs from the series, but a proper successor was missing. This is now changing with Age of Empires 4: The game, developed by Relic Entertainment, is supposed to offer new fodder for fans of real-time strategy games for 60 Euros. We have already taken a look at the latest offshoot of the tradition-rich series in advance and want to clarify how well the implementation has succeeded.
Get into the game!
If you start Age of Empires 4 for the first time, you are thrown directly into a tutorial after a few settings, in which the basics of the game are explained. Players who are already familiar with the series will probably only be surprised by the details. Much of the gameplay is the same as in the other series. In the tutorial, for example, you have to collect resources with villagers, train units and attack enemy armies with the respective counter units – so far so familiar. As in part 2, there are four resources: wood, stone, gold and food, which can be invested in technologies, buildings and units in order to play campaigns, random computer matches or compete against other players in multiplayer.
After passing or skipping the tutorial, you enter the main menu. We then jumped straight into the Norman campaign to get to know the game mechanics better. The basic format is also familiar from the predecessors: The story to be told is explained by a narrator and in-game cutscenes. New are also the optional players: High-quality video clips, which are supposed to bring you closer to the events. You can also unlock more clip content by completing some missions, which makes Age of Empires 4 much more appealing to an existing target group than before: history fans.
We liked the little glimpses, they almost seem like a history channel turned game in places. The narrative structure, on the other hand, is a slight step backwards in our eyes: While in the particularly successful part 2 of the series there were separate narrators for each campaign, and they reported from their (then) point of view, Age of Empires 4 always uses the same narrator, who explains the situation at the time well, but always speaks in the past. Both of these are minor details, but they take away some immersion compared to the old campaigns. It’s not too distracting, though: we enjoyed the numerous, short individual campaigns.
Old and new in gameplay
As already mentioned, the gameplay of Age of Empires 4 has remained the same in its basic principle, but the new spin-off combines some elements of past games and adds its own innovations to them in places. For example, the visibility of units is now additionally limited by objects such as trees, and advancing to a new age does not require development time in the village center, but the construction of a building. This in turn gives some player-selectable advantages, making the eight included civilizations a bit more flexible.
In essence, the civilizations in Age of Empires 4 still rely on a basic framework of identical buildings and units, but compared to older Age of Empires games, the differences due to the bonuses are somewhat greater, resulting in slightly more divergent play styles. For example, a civilization gets all technologies for free, but they are developed extremely slowly. An acceleration is only possible by training scholars, which makes the gameplay very gold-heavy.
There are also some adjustments to the general gameplay that change a lot of the gameplay. Stone walls, for example, are much more important, as they house archers and can now only be destroyed by siege weapons. These, in turn, can now be partially assembled by infantry units in the field. The special abilities of some units, which you have to activate manually, also provide further variety. For example, you can have archers who are actually unprotected ram stakes into the ground to weaken onrushing cavalry. In contrast to previous games, the gameplay focus is thus much more on strategic features and less on quick reactions such as manual dodging, which professional players in particular have perfected so far. In Age of Empires 4, however, such techniques are obsolete: projectiles always have a 100% hit rate – goodbye, beloved split formation.
Despite or perhaps because of such changes, Age of Empires 4 was a lot of fun to test: the game plays differently in detail than older parts, and that’s a good thing. Overall, the gameplay concept seems coherent and we always wanted to add another round. On the other hand, if you don’t want any changes, the Definitive Editions of all three main games, which have been released in the meantime, already provide a modern technical basis for your desired game. Therefore, we would only wish for two things in terms of gameplay: The already announced map editor and an oldschool alternative to the new hotkey system, which is a bit cumbersome in our eyes.
Graphics & Performance of Age of Empires 4
Age of Empires 4’s system requirements are quite moderate: Microsoft requires Windows 10 and at least an i5-6300U or a Ryzen 5 2400G with the appropriate IGP and 8 GB of RAM for the game. The recommended requirements are not dramatic either: Current six-cores, 16 GB of RAM and either a GTX 970 or an RX 570 are recommended here.
In practice, we can confirm Age of Empires 4’s moderate performance requirements. Coincidentally, a Thinkpad X260 was within reach at the time of testing anyway, which exactly meets the minimum requirements specified by Microsoft: A Core i5-6300U, no external GPU and 8 GB of RAM. In this configuration, we tested a 1v1 battle at lowest details and half 1080p resolution, and had playable frame rates in the range of 35 to 40 fps. However, the game no longer looks good in this configuration: A bit more performance than the minimum would be desirable then.
With our main system, consisting of a Ryzen 7 3700X, 32 GB of RAM and an RX 6700 XT, the game runs smoothly even at the highest details and in UHD: We never got below 30 fps in UHD resolution. However, it should be mentioned that Microsoft explicitly warned testers with a Navi-21 GPU in advance that the performance will still be improved here. Although the RX 6700 XT relies on Navi 22, this should also apply to our graphics card due to the same architecture. The performance rates should therefore not be overestimated, because Age of Empires 4 ran at the graphics limit in our test. The CPU, on the other hand, was bored even in a match with seven AI opponents.
So what does Age of Empires 4 do with the computing power it demands? Like part 3, the game has true 3D graphics, where the player can rotate the world and view it up close. The graphics are, in our eyes, visually appealing: units and buildings are detailed enough, and subtle visual extras, such as the build and destroy animations and the detailed game map, appealed to us. When it comes to building and moving, Age of Empires 4 is quite merciful despite the many details: units and buildings don’t care about the decoration, so it doesn’t interfere with the flow of the game. For most buildings, the game uses the grid known from part 2, but some elements like walls can also be placed freely.
However, the overview is somewhat lost due to the many details, which might make Age of Empires 4 less interesting for competitive players than the clearly structured part 2 – only time will tell. In addition, the 3D graphics are unfortunately not always consistent: trees are rarely visible, for example, where the high-resolution model only loads afterwards – this disturbs the immersion. In addition, saving and starting the game currently involves a loading time of a few seconds. This may be technically necessary, but at least in the campaigns it would have been workable: There, after all, you first watch a video and are only confronted with the loading time afterwards. This could have been solved more nicely, after all, the computer is likely to get bored extensively during video playback, and parallel running save processes exist in some other titles as well.
Age of Empires 4 review conclusion
With Age of Empires 4, Microsoft has succeeded in creating a worthy successor to the previous spin-offs in the series. The real-time strategy game doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it offers a varied and fun implementation of familiar and new elements. Building your own empire is just as fun as slaughtering enemy armies or slowly tearing down an enemy base that has long been a thorn in your side. There are still a few small things here and there that we would like to see a patch for – keyword hotkeys – but compared to the state of other launch titles, Age of Empires 4 is definitely something to be proud of.
On the technical side, too, most things are right, even if we could at best guess at the performance due to pre-launch problems with RDNA graphics cards and could not reasonably assess it. But regardless, Age of Empires 4 brings a stable and visually appealing experience to the screen.
Overall, we had a lot of fun with the new Age of Empires. Moreover, most of the aforementioned minor criticisms probably wouldn’t have been noticed at all if we hadn’t already had our eyes on the review. Therefore, in our opinion: Whether series veteran or newcomer, Age of Empires 4 deserves a recommendation.
|+ Varied campaigns/missions.
+ Great one liners that explain the story.
+ Plenty of game time (Estimated: 20-35h)
|– No accompanying, only a “historical” narrator|
|+ Still an Age of Empires at its core.
+ Meaningful innovations that adapt and complement the gameplay
|(- At launch: only eight civilizations)|
|+ Different AI levels with significant differences.
+ Free team combinations possible
|– (Still) No good cooperation with the AI (missing taunts)|
|+ For beginners: completely playable with the mouse.
+ For advanced players: Many hotkeys
+ Generous customization options
|– Hotkey system partly takes some getting used to|
Graphics & Sound
|+ Coherent 3D graphics.
+ Memorable sound design
|– Occasionally a bit cluttered|
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