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Age of Empires 4’s biggest challenge will be its own legacy

The new Age of Empires wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but it will need to be bold to win over the unforgiving RTS masses

A column of mounted units approach a walled town

What do you do when your biggest threat is your past self? Recently we were treated to our first proper overview of Age of Empires 4, the long-awaited new entry in one of strategy gaming’s most enduring series. We got a taste of the campaign, new civilisations, and insights into the design. It was a lot to take in.

One thing that became apparent quite quickly is how similar Age of Empires 4 seems to its most influential predecessor. Age of Empires 2 is easily the most popular RTS game on the market right now, let alone the most popular in the series. It was the first Age of Empires Microsoft decided to uplift into HD back in 2013, and the only game in the series that has seen consistent support since then, which has only continued through its definitive edition. We also know it’s set to get even more support across 2021.

In other words, it’s a behemoth, and Microsoft’s decision to set Age of Empires 4 in the same time period and act as a spiritual successor (of sorts) to Age of Empires 2 is bold. And risky.

Let’s be clear: to say that Age of Empires 4 is an Age of Empires 2 remake is aggressively reductive, but even World’s Edge has admitted it wants to start somewhere familiar with the new game. The period covered by AoE 2 is seminal and rich, and there’s plenty about AoE 4 that’s been deliberately designed to be recognisable to the current fanbase.

units from the new chinese civ in age of empires 4 attacking a landmark

These include the resource mechanics and the names of the four ‘ages’ – the devs have even retained the term ‘Dark Age’ which has in recent years been argued to be ‘bad’ history and not wholly representative of the era.

“[Age of Empires 2 DE] is not a modern game,” senior producer Michael Mann tells us. “We did a lot of improvements to it… However when we met with Relic five years ago, it was to modernise the game. Relic came to the table with some really cool, innovative, ideas. Some worked out well, some the community didn’t really like that much. We had to restart them over again. But as we looked at [AoE 4], yes, it is inspired by AoE 2.”

Quinn Duffy, the game’s director at Relic, also points out that the similarities end when you start looking at things like the civilisation design and the remade environments which allow for new tactics like ambushing.

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Even the campaign design and the effort that’s been made to create a documentary-style delivery for the narrative.

“We really wanted a modern take on history, and to incorporate a few more modern approaches to storytelling,” Duffy says. “[We used] some great partners in the UK to help us film on location and build a few hours of film to accompany the campaign.”

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What really strikes me about Age of Empires 4 are the environments. It’s not until I get a good look at the new gameplay footage that I realise how flat the older Age of Empires games were. Now we have hills. Like, legit gradients. It’s wonderful.

a lone rider in age of empires 4 treks though the countryside along the side of a hill

The mention of ambush tactics, while touted as one of the ‘hit’ new features, also speaks to how the tactical meta of Age of Empires is going to change. I also have a non-trivial appreciation for the history behind the events of the new campaigns. I first encountered the word ‘Burgundy’ in Age of Empires 2’s Joan of Arc campaign, which later inspired me to read about the 15 or so political entities that have used the term ‘Burgundy’ across history.

The fact that Relic has really gone all in to try and make the history interesting to its audience speaks to Age of Empires’ important role of not only being a seminal RTS game, but a legitimate window into learning history. But the campaigns only serve one section of the fan base, and it’s not the most relevant section right now.

It’s easy to make an argument for the importance of the multiplayer scene, especially competitive multiplayer. While Age of Empires 2 has received new solo content, much of what gets changed goes into balancing and gameplay tweaks aimed at casual and competitive skirmish players. What else have the fans had to do for the past 20 years, but go online?

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The challenge Age of Empires 4 faces can be seen in Duffy’s response to a question about the importance of multiplayer balance.

“Pretty critical,” he says. “RTS audiences are really interesting because they do fall into areas of the game that they’re comfortable with. We have people who will play the campaign, and they get the narrative experience, and then that’s enough for them. They can potentially move on. We have people who engage with the skirmish and they can play for years and years and years just you know, doing comp stomps with their friends or solo multiplayer. That’s the thing with a lot of modern RTS – they’re big. You have to deliver different content for different audiences. And it’s definitely not without its challenges, you can’t ignore any of them. They’re all valuable to the ecosystem and to their contribution to the community.”

I genuinely liked what I saw from the preview. Age of Empires 4 is looking like a smart, modern interpretation of an RTS legend. So far this desire to create a link between past and future visions of Age of Empires only seems to extend to visual design as it’s important to not get too obsessed with clinging to the trappings of past games. Hopefully the mechanical details are where this new version will ultimately shine.

Age of Empires 4 will never be Age of Empires 2, and RTS fans have proven from the past decade or so of repeated attempts at claiming the crown that they are hard to please. Can even a new Age of Empires appease their (often unrealistic) expectations? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was ‘no’, but Relic and World’s Edge are giving this game the best chance it could possibly have.

Related: Age of Empires 4 release date and pre-order information

Age of Empires 4 is due for release on PC via Steam, the Windows Store and Game Pass for PC sometime in the Fall of 2021.