History will not judge my military tactics kindly, but it will mark Age of Empires 4 as a benchmark for real-time strategy games in 2021. The highly-anticipated PC game will remind you just why you loved the series so much, and then overwhelm you with a generous amount of missions, scenarios, and multiplayer options like your rich grandma handing out gifts at Christmas.
Release Date: October 28
Developer: Relic Entertainment
If you're new to the series, think of it as a management sim, but one where the aim is to save your people from invaders or to crush whole nations beneath your mighty fist. Control freaks, step right up because you are about to live your best life. You'll have worker townspeople at your disposal to build up settlements and collect resources, and an army - complete with specialized units and siege weaponry - to command. You need food, gold, wood, and stone to purchase everything you need, collect or trade enough and you can advance your civilization through different historical ages, offering more advanced technology. Winning is about using all of the above as efficiently as possible depending on the enemy, the map, and its resources and landscape. Maybe you'll terrorize the local populace with endless legions of archers and swordsmen, or maybe you'll work on your defenses and focus on building a "Wonder" to prove your people's dominance.
There are eight different civilizations to play with, either in campaigns or in Skirmish mode against other players, and each has been meticulously designed to offer different gameplay experiences. My personal favorite is the Mongols, who can earn resources by burning down enemy buildings - rather than focusing on just building out a base with numerous farms and mines and mills - and travel with their own sheep. The Mongols are also impressively mobile, able to pack up the settlement's buildings to move to a more strategic location. The Rus, or Russians, have Warrior Monks, the Abbasid Dynasty have camels and a House of Wisdom that can be expanded with extra wings to grant new research options, and the Dehli Sultanate has elephants. Elephants! Each civilization has beautifully detailed differences in their clothes and armor and architecture, so even if you're playing as the boring old English there are tiny visual treats to savor.
The single-player missions work as both a gentle onboarding process for the modern military tactician and are satisfying in their own right. An overall goal, like breaching the Great Wall of China, is broken down into smaller objectives. There's advice but minimal hand-holding, and even in the early levels it's easy to make a bad call - wasting resources building things you really don't need, a mistake which can leave you with nothing to bolster your army with when the enemy attacks, or taking too long to launch an attack and instead, having to face the enemy unprepared as they turn up and start bashing down your walls. It can be frustrating to see your army massacred because you ignored the suggestions, but it's also a hard lesson in military common sense.
If you want to just go wild you can choose from a bunch of scenarios in the Skirmish mode, playing against the surprisingly canny AI or other players. You can also create your own scenarios, tweaking everything from resources to map size to difficulty. After a few punishing defeats, I spent many a happy hour on a resource-rich map I designed for myself - with no enemies at all on it - so I could enjoy building a perfect settlement and maxing out all the tech trees. Watch your back The Sims 4, I have a new stress reliever.
History in the making
Age of Empires 4 takes its history seriously, but that never gets in the way of satisfying gameplay. When you're playing through the campaign missions you'll get a mix of videos, some that look like tourist board b-roll overlaid with line drawings, but that really highlight the mark that battle left on the world. As you're playing, there's an almost ASMRish narrator giving historical context to your victory. While you can skip through any of the introductory videos, and ignore the extra ones you unlock by playing, they are a beautiful feature that makes you feel smarter just by existing. As a onetime British schoolkid, I already knew plenty of the stuff about King Henry and the Normans but genuinely wanted to know more about the Russian battles and Genghis Khan.
Everything is a delight to look at too, whether you're zoomed out as your huge army marches across the map, or focus in on a single worker casting their fishing net from the shore of a lake. It's like having an incredible selection of toy soldiers - the kind you might get for your birthday if you were the heir to the throne of a large nation - and watching them come alive. The only time it looked even slightly awkward in all my adventures was watching a huge battalion of knights trying to make their way across a small stone bridge, as their AI brains struggled with the logistics of keeping the formation I'd asked them to march in. Honestly, though, I imagine it would be a struggle for even entirely sentient soldiers.
Age of Empires 4 is a game that I know I'm still going to be playing months and even years from now, and not just because developer Relic has said it wants to expand the number of civilizations in the future. There's so much depth in the gameplay, so many tactics to experiment with, so many weird scenarios I can build for myself in Skirmish mode, that it's hard to imagine ever getting bored of it. History, carnage, and teeny weeny elephants, Age of Empires 4 has it all.
Age of Empires 4 was played on PC with a code provided by the publisher.