Almost 25 years ago, the first Age of Empires was released on PC. It’s a game that completely stayed off my radar at the time because I was a Playstation gamer and did not have a PC I could play it on. The same goes for Age of Empires II in 1999. I was very much aware of the series by the time the third game rolled around in 2005. I was into PC gaming by then and it seemed logical to give it a try, right?
The bottom line is that Age of Empires IV is my first foray into the series. Throughout the years, I scratched my itch with the Civilization series. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but it’s close. I’m here to tell you that I wish I had given Age of Empires a chance a long time ago because, even though I’m not good at it, it’s still very fun.
Beautiful, challenging and educational?
That’s right, I’m dropping the dreaded “E” word that gamers don’t want to hear. Education in games is a taboo word that tends to kill interest, but there’s no other way to slice it up. Age of Empires, subtly, does a great job teaching some vital moments in history in the campaign while also providing tutorial information for new players such as myself. I started off with the Norman Conquest of England and the very complicated skirmishes that followed from 1066 to 1217. Each module is designed to teach you some of the basics of the game and how you build up your empire. The comparison to the Civilization games comes from having to build out your central hub with commoners and gather four vital materials: Food, wood, gold and stone.
Food is needed for obvious reasons: People can’t live without it. Food will allow players to create new commoners as well as various military units. Wood is needed to create buildings and repair damaged ones. Gold is needed to pay military units and purchase special buildings such as universities and monasteries. Finally, stone is needed to build walls to protect yourself from invasion. The major difference for me is that once a commoner is created, it doesn’t need to be supported like in Civilization. Once you have them up and running, they’re like the Energizer bunny until they meet their untimely end at the hands of enemy soldiers or aggressive wildlife like wolves.
Going through the Norman Conquest was fun, but the remaining three campaigns provide stiffer challenges in the form of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, the Mongol Empire expansion, and the Rise of Moscow. All of these campaigns provide the basis for the eight civilizations a player can choose in other game modes. Each empire has its own focus and specialty. For instance, the Chinese have the ability to create more income by having tax collectors as well as specific military units called Fire Raiders that are soldiers on horseback which throw powerful fire bombs. The Mongols are essentially a mobile battalion who are not bogged down by permanent homes and can pack up to move wherever they feel like. Learning how every empire plays is vital in each mode so you can anticipate what to expect.
Speaking of other modes, multiplayer is a blast and will push you to get better.
The bulk of my time in this game has been spent playing co-op with a friend of mine against primarily AI controlled empires. We more or less got smashed the few times we jumped into online play (further solidifying my belief that I’m not good at this game) so testing ourselves against varying difficulties of AI has scratched the itch for us. The beauty is that the AI is not a pushover unless you stick to beginner or intermediate. You’re also not limited to 2v2: Age of Empires can allow you to jump into the deep end and take on six AI controlled empires on the same team if you feel like it, or you can split them up into teams in any way you like.
The game wouldn’t be complete without customization of the game world itself. There are seventeen different maps that all provide various styles and environmental challenges. Some maps are completely on land, eliminating the need for naval units. Others will be on multiple islands and create a whole new level of chaos with those vessels wreaking havoc on each other. Of course, the challenge to all of this is to make sure your empire is generating enough resources to keep up. Every empire is limited to a population of 200 people no matter their profession, though I wish there was an option to increase this without the use of third-party mods.
The biggest advantage one can gain is to figure out the flow chart of what units are the strongest and which opposing unit to pit them against. While it’s cool to see an entire battalion in formation, sometimes that’s not the best way to face combat. Unless you have sheer numbers, running an entire group of just horse-mounted fighters is only going to get you so far. There needs to be a happy balance, and that will change based upon what enemy you’re facing. Of course, if you don’t feel like outright conquering your opponent, there are other ways to win if resource gathering is your forte. A player can win two other ways: Capture all holy sites on the map or build and defend a Wonder of the World.
That’s right, each empire will have their own massive building that requires 3,000 of each resource AND the player must be in the fourth and final age of their empire. Advancing through the ages requires having the money and resources to build it, plus committing manpower to build it. Every age and empire has two buildings for each step, but to gain the full benefits, every building needs to be built. Those Fire Raiders I mentioned earlier for the Chinese? They’re not available until the final age as well, so you can’t just spam them and run roughshod over inferior opponents. The game is designed to stretch out as long as possible unless a player is just woefully unprepared for an onslaught. While it sounds far-fetched, it can happen very easily. Putting up walls still requires resources, but that means burning through them and perhaps holding off on building military units, leaving your empire vulnerable. Decisions have to be made and making the wrong one can and will cost you a match.
Replayability is very high if you love the genre.
I think the thing I like the most of Age of Empires IV in comparison to the Civilization series is that games don’t take days. We’ve all heard the meme about Civilization: Just one…more…turn…
Age of Empires IV doesn’t have time for that and wants you to get multiple matches in a single day. I’d say an average match against a good AI will take you roughly 45-90 minutes. There are plenty of factors that will determine that length, but you’re not going to be stuck going back to the same game for days on end trying to wipe out a bunch of other empires you haven’t even met because the world is a big place and fog of war is a thing.
Because of this, the replay value of Age of Empires IV is exceptionally high. Granted, you need to adapt and improve or you hit a wall with skill. I strongly recommend avoiding online play if you’re a beginner because people are ruthless and don’t care about the title of your game being “newbies only.” They’re going to join and they’re going to destroy you, and that’s why I’m pleased that the game’s AI is, overall, very good. It does seem to have some problems with burning itself out early and not replenishing military units if you survive those first couple of waves. The campaign has the basic and intermediate tactics available, while the player has to fill in the gaps on the advanced. There are also plenty of hotkeys and macros that make your life easier, such as using Ctrl+1 to select all buildings of a certain type and creating the same unit quickly instead of individually clicking on each one and spamming a create button. Seconds count in this game, so don’t make it harder.
Is there anything particularly bad about the game, though?
Honestly? I’m not sure there’s anything I dislike about the game other than thinking the AI somehow moves faster than the game should allow, but I know that’s not the case. Perhaps it’s the lack of options with separating certain players online though there is a ranking system. However, if you’re looking for casual online play, I’d recommend finding some friends that have it and playing them to start. I’ve gotten far more mileage out of this game because of that because it can be soul-crushing to go to online play.
Wrap-up time! So how much is it and should you buy it?
Age of Empires is available on both Steam ($59.99) and Xbox PC App ($59.99 but included in Game Pass) right now. If you have the PC Game Pass, you can download it right now and play it with no limitations and it’s easily worth it. Veterans of the game should have no problem justifying the cost as it’s a fantastic game and should provide hours upon hours of competition. For beginners, I highly recommend picking up Game Pass and playing it that way to see if you enjoy it. If you’re not keeping Game Pass but still love it, you can pick it up after and still play it with actual ownership.
I really enjoyed Age of Empires IV. Is it the best game ever? No, but it’s extremely fun and gives me a new look at the turn-based strategy genre where I only had experience with the Civilization series. Games are smooth, the graphics are gorgeous, and every game will provide a new challenge especially if you face new empires and mix up the difficulty and matchups. Customization is your best friend and while the campaigns themselves are fun, the custom matches are where I truly hit my stride. Pick this one up if you’re even remotely familiar with and enjoy strategy games.
A solid campaign and endless customization for single-player, co-op and online play, Age of Empires IV deserves a ton of credit for making turn-based strategy a treat to play.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Sean is a 15 year veteran of gaming and technology writing with an unhealthy obsession for Final Fantasy, soccer, and chocolate.View Profile