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Age of Empires 4 revives the series’ brilliance

If it’s possible to play it safe with a real-time strategy game in 2021, then Age of Empires 4 is playing it safe. The new game from Relic Studios, taking over from previous franchise developer Ensemble, is more like a modernized remake of Age of Empires 2 than a sequel to the series’ third game. But it turns out that updating a 20-year old classic is actually a pretty great idea.

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In AoE 4, players select a civilization to play from the eight in the game. Age of Empires 3 transitioned the series into the Colonial age, but AoE 4 returns to medieval times — just like the second game. Each civilization comes with its own special bonuses and a few unique buildings and units for players to construct. They all start off with a town center and six villagers (up from the three in Age of Empires 2), with the goal of building a thriving city, complete with its own economy, and of course, its own army. The game’s main attraction is its competitive mode, which includes duels, team games, or free-for-all warfare with other civilizations, all of which can be played offline against AI or online with other players.

To build their cities and armies, players have to gather resources, construct buildings, and create each individual fighting unit, all while trying to counter their enemies’ soldiers. Players can also advance the technology of their cities and armies by constructing special landmarks that move them into a new historical age, with four total to advance through. Building up your cities and their technology is important, but the bread and butter of Age of Empires has always been the armies and combat.

Image: Relic Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

Every civilization has access to basic units that form a nice trinity of counters: Spearmen counter cavalry, cavalry counter archers, and archers counter spearmen. This basic premise is ripped right out of Age of Empires 2 (and real life, technically), but the combat, like most things, is a little simpler in AoE 4. For instance, archers in Age of Empires 4 always hit their targets. While this was an upgrade archers could eventually get in AoE 2, most small skirmishes in the older game involved moving units to dodge arrows, something that AoE 4 totally eliminates.

This simplification extends to more than just the combat. Many of the little issues that used to be part of the chaotic city-management of AoE 2 are gone from the newer game. Players no longer have to reseed their farms as villagers tend them, and villagers rarely get in each other’s way, often just walking right through one another, which makes them far less of a chore to manage. While Age of Empires 4 is still a complicated game, its complications come more from decision-making and strategy than from the minute details of mechanical plays.

Civilizations are more different from one another here than they were in Age of Empires 2 — although the latest game doesn’t go as far as AoE 3, which gave each civ radically different units and different economic playstyles, mostly through choices of which landmarks you construct at each age.

Image: Relic Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

AoE 4 also introduces a few great twists to the base-building formula that allow for more creativity. AoE 2 implicitly encouraged players toward specific city designs because buildings could form makeshift walls around a base. In AoE 4, units can walk around buildings no matter how close together they are, allowing for more freedom of design. The game also introduces production buffs for structures depending on which other buildings are nearby; these bonuses tend to vary from faction to faction, helping the city designs of each one feel unique. This lets players fine-tune their bases and identify with the place they’ve built in a way that AoE 2 just scratched the surface of and Age of Empires 3 mostly abandoned.

Adding to the permanence of your city in each match is the fact that defenses in this game are far stronger than they’ve ever been in the series. While walls have always existed in Age of Empires, AoE 4’s stone walls are a cut above their predecessors. The new stone walls can only be destroyed by siege weapons, rather than by regular soldiers. Infantry units can craft rudimentary battering rams on their own — once you’ve researched the upgrade for it — but it still means that sieges require a lot more planning and resource investment than they used to. On top of that, archers can now stand on top of stone walls to gain a small buff.

Outside of the game’s staple multiplayer mode, Age of Empires 4 also has an excellent single player mode that features four different historical campaigns. These put players in the shoes of historical generals and armies from four different civilizations at four specific periods in history: The English around the time of the The Anarchy, the Mongols as they invade Russia and China, the Russians with Moscow on the rise, and the French as they face off against the English in The Hundred Years War.

Image: Relic Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

Each campaign has several missions, and each mission starts off with a gorgeously filmed and occasionally reenacted historical narration that sets the political and tactical stage for the battle you’re about to play. These scenes are catnip for history buffs, and while they won’t make you an expert on English Civil Wars, they still help each new mission feel like an important part of a larger narrative.

The missions themselves are fairly diverse, putting you in situations that standard Age of Empires matches against humans or the AI never would. You’ll face specific challenges, like a requirement to use a specific set of units to take out the enemy, or to lead a tiny force in defending a massive castle from the enemy’s advancing army. Each scenario eventually ends with you killing all the remaining enemies, which can lead to a few of the missions feeling a little same-y by the end, but everything leading up to that is exciting and distinct from the standard multiplayer matches.

In the 16 years since the last “new” Age of Empires game, video games have changed a lot, and in Age of Empires 4, Relic manages to cater to modern players without losing the soul of the series. The game revives and renovates Age of Empires’ fantastic multiplayer not through fundamental changes, but through clever adjustments to old systems. These minor updates may bristle longtime Age of Empires 2 fans, but they’re a welcome and important addition to the series, making AoE 4 feel like the first big-budget modern RTS since Starcraft 2.

Age of Empires 4 will be released on Oct. 28 on Steam and Xbox Game Pass for PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Microsoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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