My favourite way to play Age of Empires 3 was from behind a wall. Besieged and outnumbered by an expert-level AI far more capable than me, I'd try and hold out until the enemy broke against my defenses, their best men dashed by gauntlets filled with cannonfire and musket-shot until I could build a large enough force to muster a counter attack. Imagine my delight then, when Age of Empires 4 not only validated my defensive mindset, but expanded upon it.
For those as defensively minded as myself, the long-awaited sequel is like a toy box overflowing with possibilities. The varied ways in which I can keep my foes at bay while helping my civilization thrive seem almost too many to count. Take, for example, the imposing city walls. In previous games they were largely inert, a huge but simple suit of stone armour around your vulnerable city. In Age of Empires 4, they're a vantage point upon which you can position your infantry, thinning out approaching foot soldiers in the event of a siege.
If the enemy does make it inside your walls, then you can flee back to your keep (likely leaving your archers to be cut down by rampaging infantry). Years ago, Age of Empires 2 established castles as a major threat to anyone fighting beneath, but Age of Empires 4 lets you turn them into defensive juggernauts. Cannon emplacements are one thing, but I'd rather drop a pot of boiling oil on my unfortunate enemy. And that's only after they've made their way past my network of outpost towers, kitted out to not only take potshots at the approaching foe but also raise the alarm throughout the city, bolstering defensive efforts throughout my kingdom.
My defensive efforts don't just help me out while I'm hiding behind my walls. If I do decide to engage my enemy upon the field of battle, I can adapt certain units to help look after themselves. Playing as the English, taking my longbowmen down from their dutiful patrol atop my city walls might have put them under threat of being routed by a cavalry charge. This time, however, each of them can build Palings – a wall of sharpened stakes – in front of them. Posted up behind these Palings, they're safe from any incoming horsemen, who'll be damaged and stunned if they come into contact with my pointy new defenses.
War Always Changes
This (arguably cowardly) approach suits me perfectly, but what really impresses me about Age of Empires 4 isn't the way that it caters to my playstyle, but to a whole bunch of different ones. More interested in fighting than building up a city? The Mongols can pack up their caravans and move on whenever they like, gaining resources by sacking enemy buildings rather than farming or foraging. Want to harass and hurry your foes, rather than engage them in open battle? Stealth forests let entire armies sneak by unseen before springing a trap on unsuspecting foes. Fancy trying to snatch a victory without loosing a single arrow? The Delhi Consulate can build scholars from Age 1, letting you make a rush for the game-winning sacred sites before your enemies can react.
Much of Age of Empires 4 is a charming modern recreation of Age of Empires 2. Its medieval setting does a lot of the heavy lifting on that front, but around the edges of those established ideas are a number of new ones. Many of the most interesting concepts are tied to specific civilisations, like the Imperial might of the Chinese, or the Rus' affinity with the wilderness. Others, however, are hidden in upgrade paths or attached to specific units, or are simply nestled quietly around the map, letting those who go looking for them find unique ways to build their own empires.
Heading back in time? Check out our Age of Empires 4 review.