Microsoft’s return to beloved PC gaming titles includes Age of Empires 4, a revival of one of the best real-time strategy (RTS) series ever produced. While the first three Age of Empires games have been remade and re-released as Definitive Editions, Age of Empires 4 promises a new look at the RTS formula while still holding true to its roots. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Age of Empires 4?
If you ask just about any long-time RTS fan what games rank at the top of the list, the Age of Empires series is likely what comes to mind. The first entry, released 1997, focused on human history from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, while the second entry focused more heavily on the Middle Ages. Age of Empires 3, released nearly 15 years ago, moved ahead in time to the colonization of the Americas.
Playing the games involves micro- and macro-management of workers and military units belonging to historic civilizations. You must grow a small starting population, collect resources, advance through the ages, and defend against invaders while also planning your attacks. You can enjoy lengthy campaigns, skirmishes against AI, or multiplayer battles while alone or teamed up with friends. The games are relatively easy to pick up, but the best players employ in-depth strategies to get a slight edge on the competition.
Age of Empires 4 is a revival of the series that hopes to capture the old magic while offering something new to veterans and newcomers alike. It appears to be a return to medieval times instead of another step forward in human history. Until its release, many RTS fans are returning to Age of Empires thanks to celebrated Definitive Edition remasters that bring updated graphics, reworked mechanics, and overhauled campaigns.
An RTS for the ages
A lot of game for the asking price
Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition manages to make the classic RTS feel new while not straying away from what made the game great in the first place.
Who is developing Age of Empires 4?
The first three Age of Empires games (as well as other titles, like Halo Wars) were developed by Ensemble Studios, a team based out of Dallas, Texas. After Ensemble was closed down in 2009 following the release of Age of Empires 3, it didn’t look good for a fourth title. The Age of Empires series was kind of left to the community, which did its best to keep the games enjoyable and populated.
Thankfully, an internal development studio at Microsoft called “World’s Edge” — lead by Shannon Loftis — has been overseeing new Age content, including remasters of the first three games with help from third-party developers like Tantalus, Wicked Witch, and Forgotten Empires. In an interview with Windows Central’s Matt Brown, Loftis clarified that Age of Empires no longer belongs to one studio:
Age isn’t ours anymore. We’re stewards, it belongs to the community, and it belongs to the globe,” said Loftis. “There’s no world in which a Redmond-centric game development studio is going to get the right global set of voices in. […] We have contracts; you know about three of our partners, Relic, Tantalus, and Forgotten Empires. We have others that we’re not talking about yet. But it is genuinely a global development team. All the teams are working together to share assets, to share ideas, and the legacy teams are working with Relic.
Age of Empires 4 has been in development alongside the Definitive Edition remasters, with Relic Entertainment taking the lead on the latest entry in the series. According to World’s Edge Creative Director Adam Isgreen, this has helped with efforts to keep Age of Empires 4 feeling true to its roots while also standing out:
[W]e’ve learned so much with all of the launches. It’s been a real growing experience, but it’s unfair to say that it’s one way. There are things that we’ve learned in the development of Age of Empires IV that we can even put into Age II. For example, the network technology behind the scenes is actually from Relic. All of the Definitive Edition games are now going to have Relic’s modern networking backend. […] It’s this great two-way conversation between the old games and the new one, about what we’re going to share and how we’re going to grow the games.
What is gameplay like in Age of Empires 4?
We were finally treated to an Age of Empires 4 gameplay reveal trailer at X019. While it includes Pre-Alpha gameplay, there are a lot of small details to take in, primarily because of comments made by Isgreen:
Everything in that trailer is real; everything we show will be in the final game. We have wall combat working. That falcon is real, that’s gameplay, it’s a scout unit. But all that’s real, genuine gameplay, and nothing we will show won’t be in the game. […] That is why we waited so long, and what we’ll continue doing with Age going forward.
The trailer involves an English city besieged by Mongols. We’re first shown quite a bit of the city, which includes some familiar buildings and units. We see villagers hurrying to work or carrying resources, mills surrounded by farms, pikemen marching in formation, and castles on a hill. We also see some new features, like walls and towers that allow troops to walk along with them and fire on enemies (unlike other Age of Empires games), distinct roads, bridges, fountains, and quite a bit of dressing up with greenery and idle pieces. This is no doubt a set piece with much time put into the layout, and it’s unclear whether roads and other improvements to the city will play a role, say, in population happiness.
Moving on to the countryside, a falcon flies high, revealing the invading Mongols. We know it will work as a scout, an integral part of all Age of Empires games that feature a fog-of-war mechanic to keep enemies hidden. We can see cavalry, infantry, and siege on the field of battle, and there are some interesting tidbits to note. Infantry is seemingly rallied by a lone figure, which might suggest some sort of leader or captain system. Archers seem to be able to set up temporary defensive structures, and elevation will no doubt still play a significant role in combat mechanics.
Siege engines like trebuchets don’t appear to be manned, which is a holdover from previous Age games. Buildings that take enough damage will crumble to the ground, offering up a pleasing reward for your attacks. The unit scale also seems significantly more realistic compared to the older games.
Graphics, unit movement, and upgrades
Graphics are a bit of a departure, and at first, they seemed a bit cartoonish. However, if you consider how much saturation is usually applied to Age of Empires pre-release content, this should prove to be a beautiful game, and saturation level will be an in-game setting. It seems like it will be a good balance between visibility and realism, and there’s plenty of detail for buildings and units alike. Just like in some previous Age games, there will be plenty of destruction to be wrought at the hands of your units.
Pathfinding, an RTS game’s chief concern, has been overhauled. Instead of the traditional move from point A to point B in the shortest way possible, Age of Empires 4 should introduce far more realistic movement. Adam Isgreen explains:
[I]f [you] know real-time strategy games, behind the scenes it’s been run by a find path solution called A* for a billion years, pretty much since its invention, with a few exceptions here and there. One of our big changes is moving to a more organic, more modern solution for find-path, which is called flow-field.
Isgreen also mentions how passive upgrades will be visually represented in-game. All armor or weapon upgrades will be visual, easing accessibility. And instead of having the repeated chatter each time you click a unit — which is endearing but can get annoying — there will be much more natural dialogue between units based on the surrounding circumstances.
Resources, ages, and population
In an official Behind the Scenes teaser video, we caught a glimpse of some gameplay at the hands of Quinn Duffy, Age of Empires 4 Game Director at Relic. Age fans will recognize in the bottom-left corner of Duffy’s monitor the four primary resources — food, wood, gold, and stone — as well as what appears to be a population cap counter and unit commands. You’ll still need to gather resources with villagers, advance through four ages to gain access to more powerful units and upgrades, and ultimately trounce your foes in any way possible.
In an interview with German magazine GameStar, it’s revealed that there’s still no definite population cap, though there will be a familiar eight-player limit for multiplayer matches. There will still be four ages to progress through, though each civilization will not treat them the same way. It’s also mentioned by Adam Isgreen in an interview with PCGamesN that there will be fewer than 13 civilizations, the number that shipped with the original version of Age of Empires 2.
The faithful minimap also makes a return in the bottom-right corner, and there are some unit grouping icons along the left side of the monitor. Overall the UI seems reasonably straightforward, though this could all change during development.
Does Age of Empires 4 have a campaign?
Yes, Age of Empires 4 will feature a campaign with a focus on improved historical accuracy. Whereas a lot of civilization meta in previous Age games played somewhat similarly, there’s now a more significant emphasis on separating cultures. This is helped along by a new method of ensuring historical accuracy. Adam Isgreen explains:
[W]e went to Mongolia, learned about Mongols. We didn’t go to a professor here in London or someone back in the States. We went to the source to learn how those cultures operated because respecting them and doing them justice is so important.
We don’t know the scope of the campaign in Age of Empires 4 yet, but if it lives up to the previous games’ precedent, we should be in for a treat.
Who is composing the Age of Empires 4 soundtrack?
Music in Age of Empires games has traditionally been epic, and many long-time fans of the series can hum the different tracks without any thought. Age of Empires looks to continue this tradition, bringing on composer Mikolai Stroinski to handle the music. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Stroinski composed the music for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
What about community modding?
Mods are a huge part of the Age of Empires world, and many people still play modded versions of the old games instead of moving to the new Definitive Editions. Speaking with PCGamesN, Adam Isgreen agrees:
I will tell you that one of the pillars of all of the Age of Empires games is mods and allowing people access to tools that allow them to build great content. We all believe that’s one of the reasons Age has lasted as long as it has – because the community has been able to support the game. We have no intention of stopping now with Age IV. It is an integral, huge part of Age IV, and is showcased more heavily in some ways than any previous Age game.
Will you need a powerful PC to run Age of Empires 4?
There are not yet definitive specs for PC requirements, but Age of Empires 4 is being developed with inclusivity in mind. A new engine that doesn’t rely heavily on a single processor core will immediately make an enormous difference. Even those with beefy PC hardware can sometimes see Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition chug along because of the old engine. The ultimate goal is to create a game that can be played the same on a relatively low-end laptop or a high-end gaming rig. If you’re interested in upgrading, be sure to have a look at our collection of the best graphics cards for some great options.
Will Age of Empires IV include microtransactions?
No, Age of Empires 4 will not include microtransactions. In an interview with PCGamesN, Adam Isgreen explained that expansions and DLC “will be explored” while microtransactions are left off the table.
When is the Age of Empires 4 release date?
There’s no set date for an Age of Empires IV release. Some rumors from Twitter users were circulating involving a codename “Indus,” which is currently targeting a Q1 2022 launch.
We haven’t confirmed “Indus” is indeed Age of Empire 4, as Microsoft also has several other titles targeting 2022, including Avowed, Senua’s Sage: Hellblade II, and State of Decay 3. Those of you itching for a medieval-based RTS can, in the meantime, check out Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition. We awarded it a near-perfect score, and we’ve been enjoying it ever since its release in late 2019. There’s also the more recently released Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition, which we also gave a Windows Central Recommended Award.
Completing The Trilogy
More Age of Empires is always a good thing
With new 4K graphics, rebalanced gameplay, and new content like additional civilizations, historical battles, and more culturally-accurate depictions, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition should make older fans happy and draw in curious newcomers with ease.
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