Back in 2003, BBC2 show Time Commanders somewhat sneakily used the strategy game Rome: Total War as the basis for its entire high concept: to give normal people the chance to take on military leaders in famous historical battles. In Age of Empires 4, each campaign mission is driven by documentary narration and bookended by featurettes on everything from the supremacy of the English longbow to the tactical application of Mongolian whistling arrows. Total War’s Time Commanders appearance was never the plan, but AOE 4 feels like it could have been designed deliberately for a BBC edutainment slot.
Always well presented, and often fascinating, Age of Empire 4 is also a touch sterile and bloodless, making the single player offerings feel less like juicy, escapist campaigns and more teaching tools. For history, and for the competitive multiplayer that is, understandably, the main focus here. This is a polished real-time strategy (RTS) game that strikes a skilful balance between accessibility and complexity, with sharp presentation and sound design. But unless you plan to invest heavily in the competitive game (or have Game Pass) the package comes at a steep asking price. Especially as advancements aren’t a million miles away from AOE 2’s definitive edition.
There are still some smart additions and changes. While the eight civilisations included at launch all have access to roughly analogous units, their economic games set them apart. The English can eventually produce gold from their farms, ensuring a steady flow right through the late game and reducing the need to capture additional mines. Mongolians can’t trade for stone, but automatically mine quarries with a structure called an Ovoo, which also confers bonuses to nearby buildings. Being nomadic, they can also pack up their buildings into vehicles and relocate their entire settlement.
This focus on the macro is not to say the micro is overlooked, either. While a population cap of 200 means even the biggest battles are noticeably abstracted, messy unit clusters are discouraged in favour of rank and file positioning and balanced forces. Braced spearmen repel cavalry charges. Elevations bolster range for archers. Wooden palisades can be torched by infantry, who can construct siege weapons in the field to deal with stone fortifications. Crossbows tear through heavy armour. It makes for a kinetic clash of plays and counters that rewards flexibility and variety.
Sound design and bright presentation are highlights throughout. Sparking steel and thudding trebuchets. Trampling hooves and warhorns. Operatic scores and Mongolian throat singing. Stone walls under siege bombardment chip, then crumble, then collapse. Buildings under construction thrum with the flickering silhouettes of workers and wireframe plans. It often feels like a slick, futuristic museum exhibit. While this sharp presentation can feel too clinical to capture the bloody chaos and muddy romance of medieval combat, its readability lends itself well to the competitive game.
Both longtime RTS fans and Age of Empires vets will find things to love here, a comfy if well-worn tactician’s armchair to slip into, spiffed up, and with a few shining surprises stuffed down the sides. But it all comes at such a premium, and with campaigns geared so heavily as tutorials for the multiplayer, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone not already invested.