Age of Empires IV

The RTS is a victim of evolutionary biology. The not-so-humble dinosaur was too big to maintain its size both nutritionally and structurally, so it evolved smaller and smaller until all we have left are the crocodiles, sharks and cassowaries. And so too the RTS went the way of the diplodocus, too intricate and fast and grand to support its own weight, leaving us instead with Real Time Tactics games like Company of Heroes, or MOBA games like DOTA 2.

Large stone walls block off entrance from an armada of ships

And now it’s back.

Hold onto your butts

Well, maybe not back. The clock hasn’t rewound, we haven’t returned to prehistory. But Age of Empires IV, like a plucky theme park built on Isla Nublar, lets us peer into the distant past while enjoying many of the creature comforts we’ve come to expect from the 21st Century.

And as it is with any great vacation location, Age of Empires IV is a fantastic place to visit — but I don’t think I want to live there.

Age of Empires IV is a Real-Time Strategy game from Relic Entertainment, a team with a long and storied history in the RTS genre. Placing the player in charge of one of a handful of civilisations, it challenges them to build up an army strong enough to wipe anyone else off the map. It’s a game of resource management, knowledge acquisition, micro-managed units and building as many villagers as you can possibly create.

What makes Age of Empires interesting is that the game remains firmly in a pre-Industrial state — even once you’ve fully aged up your kingdom, it never advances beyond Castles, Knights and rudimentary gunpowder weapons. Age of Empires is a game for those who suis Napoleon!

It’s this limitation that keeps Age of Empires in check. That forces players out of the evolutionary tidepool and onto the land. That turns turtle into crocodile. Because if it were up to me, I’d spend all my time turtling it up inside my base, focused on resource generation and technological advancement — but Age of Empires, by drawing its line at the Castle Age, forces me to war, lest the war come to me.

What I’ve learned, thanks to Age of Empires IV, is that I’m not ready to leave the water.

Up front I think Age of Empires IV is wonderful. I love playing skirmish games, love setting up eight-way matches between the eight very different empires of the game and marvelling at the asymmetric faction design. I love learning the intricacies of each civilisation, and I love how learning them teaches me more about Age of Empires IV in general.

Clever Girl

There’s a brilliant design philosophy at the core of Age of Empires IV that makes each and every different faction feel exciting to play. The Mongols can literally pack all their shit up and leave, changing how you think about base layout as you learn it. The Abbasid Dynasty evolves that understanding again, as you play with building layout to link as many structures to your House of Wisdom as possible.

An English base focuses on a church building

The Rus change how you look at hunting by automatically unlocking the ability for scouts to carry hunted animals — deeply de-emphasising early-game farms, allowing you to quickly get better military online. And their Warrior Monks let you snake relics from all over the map quickly.

It’s so interesting how they change your perspective, and I think it speaks to how cleverly divergent the design of each civ is. I love playing and learning them, and it feels like each time you start a game with a faction you haven’t used in a while, you’re bringing a brand new perspective to them. I can’t speak to the balance — I’ll admit up-front that I’m not a good enough player to feel confident in making that call — but from a turtler’s perspective I think it’s a phenomenal experience.

It’s that moment when you leave the base that falls apart for me — but I don’t think that’s entirely Age of Empires IV’s fault. A large part of it is on me — I just don’t have a deep desire to engage with the combat in AOE4.

During the review period I found myself quitting skirmishes at around the 85% point consistently. I just had no desire to see them through to the end. Don’t get me wrong, when playing in multiplayer I stick games out, but when it was just me and AI civs, I didn’t care to continue. I find no joy in the fighting.

And part of that is on me. Part of it comes down to my own personal likes and dislikes, and knowledge of my limitations, and maybe on some level my ever-persistent fear of failure. But part of it is on Age of Empires IV, because while a large amount of AOE4 feels like it has advanced to 2021 in terms of design, chunks of it are stuck in the turn of the Century. 

The Campaign, for example, is one of the worst teaching tools I’ve ever seen in a game. As an educational experience about the history of the civilisations it details it’s spectacularly engaging, but it’s one of the worst for teaching you how to play the game itself. Using tooltip breadcrumbs, it leads you to the wrong information at the wrong time. It features massive difficulty spikes without telling you how to avoid or overcome them, and it introduces gameplay elements you’ll never experience in Skirmish — like the idea of hero units. It’s almost like it was built for a completely different game, that’s how divorced it feels from what I consider to be AOE4 proper.

They Do Move In Herds

And the combat in AOE4 proper — which is the multiplayer skirmish mode, to be clear — isn’t fantastic. I say this having already admitted that I am not great at it — but I feel like the AI pathfinding should be smarter than it is. Units get stuck on geometry more than they should, and it rarely seems to happen to my benefit. Navigating siege units past the rest of an army in the heat of battle requires what feels like StarLeague level micro as they collide with imaginary hitboxes all over the shop.

A chinese civilisation base sprawls across the map

I get that this is all supposed to be a skill differentiator — and that I simply lack the skill required — but I wonder if this isn’t part of what left the genre behind. If this is part of the evolutionary adaptation that has seen the gradual relegation of the RTS from premiere esport to occasional niche. From ruling the world to embryos in shaving cream cans.

But at the same time, I admit again that I am perhaps not qualified to make a call on it. That I am not skilled enough or accomplished enough to say with any certainty whether micro-heavy combat is the failure point of the RTS genre. Because I know there are those who are great at that aspect of RTS games, and I love watching them play — and I’d never want to take what they love away.

But something must have happened, right? And doesn’t it make sense, in a way, that the meteor that wiped out the RTS was the jarring aspect of needing to manage individual navigation for dozens (or hundreds) of units or else witness poor pathfinding on an epic scale?

What has the genre been replaced by? MOBAs, where players exhibit spectacular micro, but for just one unit. Or Tower Defense, where pathfinding is deliberately simplified to its most basic form.

Yet I keep coming back to Age of Empires IV. Because there’s something deeply compelling about the early gameplay loop. There’s something not just interesting but exciting about learning the ins-and-outs of a civilisation while managing your build orders, all while fending off the probing attacks of your enemies and harassing them in turn. About building a gorgeous, perfect base that maximises efficiency and resource generation while also keeping your villagers safe.

I can feel myself wanting to be better at it even as I know I’m improving. And then, invariably, I reach the 85% mark of a match, when I’ve built everything there is to build and all that’s left is war, and I lose interest. I surrender. I check the timeline, see that I was winning, and I call it a day.

I dunno, maybe RTS games weren’t out-evolved — maybe I’ve grown stupider. Maybe I was never built for RTSes in the first place, outpaced by a genre that asks too much of me. And maybe Age of Empires IV’s genius is in recognising this and letting me take victories where it will.

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