Age of Empires IV is incredibly safe in its execution, channeling the spirit of Age of Empires II for many of its systems, mechanics, and features. While the divisive Age of Empires III hit 16 years ago, it’s a bit of a dulling anesthetic seeing IV play things so close to Age of Empires II.
There’s a meaty campaign in which the first segment functions as an extensive tutorial that can teach even an RTS neophyte to harvest resources, form control groups, and learn how to break down walled fortifications. These campaign offerings are heavily rooted in classical RTS and mostly involve building up forces and resources and taking out your opponents, but there are some nice surprises here too. Much of the good stuff here outside of the ordinary involves historical figures that lead troops that have been given special abilities for the campaign, adding a bit of zest and flair to the rote.
However, the most enjoyable aspect of the campaigns wasn’t the gameplay. Instead, I had a blast nerding out during History-channel-style videos and segments between missions. I haven’t had a Magna Carta refresher like this since high school. Some of the video segments occur in an offbeat fashion where ancient battles and history are superimposed onto modern environments. Whatever the case, it works, and I found myself motivated to complete each fierce war involving William the Conqueror, King John, and others to unravel the next layer of edutainment. The video vignettes and bonus history content keep things interesting among many traditional “resource up and go” missions.
Within the eight different civilizations, there is a ton of gameplay diversity, even inside each culture. Feel like playing incredibly aggressive? Pick the Mongols and begin expanding immediately and putting pressure on your opponent. Want to annihilate the enemy at long range? Get some English longbowmen in the ranks! And when nothing else but giant elephant wrath will do, pick the Delhi Sultanate and rip through opposing fortifications. Exploring other unique elements like one culture not requiring any resources to execute research provides plenty of depth. There’s a lot to learn and experiment with each faction’s unique buildings, units, and game mechanics, and it’s fun to try out different build orders and routes to victory.
Even if you don’t want to play against other players in multiplayer, you can team up with them and take on co-op vs. AI encounters. Pretty much every game you play grants experience points that go towards unlocking new cosmetics you can show off with, including portraits, coats-of-arms, and town monuments. These don’t force you to play any way you don’t want to but offer those that choose to master a faction some visual flair to take into their matches.
The real-time strategy genre remains relevant, fueled by a few big titles once in a while. While Age of Empires IV lacks any ambition to even gently jostle the standards set by Age of Empires II decades earlier, it’s a good way to play a classic-feeling RTS today with some slick polish and panache.