I am a lifelong fan of the Age of Empires series, and I do mean “lifelong.” The original Age of Empires was a foundational game for me, and I distinctly remember anticipating the Rise of Rome expansion before having my mind blown with the Age of Kings. I still regularly play the first three entries in the series, developed by long-since-defunct studio Ensemble, and it instilled within me a love of the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre. Really, the Age series has waxed and waned alongside the mainstream popularity of the RTS as a whole.
I say mainstream popularity, because while the industry has changed radically and we're unlikely to see a big-budget, major studio RTS ever again, neither have the Age games gone away completely — maintaining a dedicated fanbase. This is what saw Age of Empires, Age of Kings, and Age of Empires III get re-released as massively overhauled “Definitive” editions (but NOT my favorite game in the series, Age of Mythology). The “Definitive” remakes were changed extensively, almost enough to be entirely new games, and launched as buggy, glitch-ridden disasters. Despite all of that, the project has had enough traction to deliver something I never thought would happen: Age of Empires IV, long rumored and even longer awaited, which recently saw the light of day to much fanfare.
But what does it mean to get a sequel long, long after the franchise was considered dead? What are the motives of the people bringing it back? And what can fans expect from a sequel coming out after so long that involves none of the original developers?
Age of Gameplay Trailers
Let's talk about the trailer first. The first Age game came out in 1997, and each subsequent game was a re-tooled departure from the last one. We haven't had anything new in this series since The Asian Dynasties expansion in 2007. After such a long period of time, what does this brand-new Age of Empires game have for us?
Well, it's just Age of Kings again.
From the look of the game, to the basic mechanics, to resources, to how the ages are named, to the time period in which it's set, to civilizations available, it seems to be made from the ground up in imitation of Age of Kings.
That's disappointing, but even more so ... unsurprising. AoK, which has always been the most popular game in the series by a considerable margin, is undoubtedly the one most likely to make a new game a success. It's a known quantity, which makes it highly attractive for a very risk-averse industry. Honestly, a new Age game almost certainly couldn't get off the ground without that certainty.
I'm also not a big fan of the visual style, with a muted color palette and, quite frankly, a pretty uninspiring and rather indistinct look to the units and structures. This probably ties into the development team's desire for a much more historically informed game, but also is a result of the first two Age games being bound by the technical constraints of the era in attempting to make a realistic representation of past cultures. Myth and III, by contrast, were full of color, light, and endearing visual flourishes that makes them stand out even after over a decade of advancement in graphics.
The gameplay also appears to utilize WarCraft III-style hero units — a thing I hate in every single game that implemented it since, well, WarCraft III. Which isn't to say the Age games don't have hero units, sometimes campaign-exclusive and sometimes integrated into multiplayer, and this seems much more hero-focused WarCraft III-style than any of the previous games.
And the new touch where gold phantom villagers dance around a constructing building like you got an afterimage from looking at the sun is very not good. This seems to address the “criticism” which has dogged every Age game since 1997, which is that your villagers (infantry if you're playing Norse in Age of Mythology) pounding on a building's foundation with a hammer isn't “realistic.” This completely ignores the actual historical fact that pounding the foundation of a building with a hammer until it's built is an iconic Age of Empires feature, one which Age fans look upon fondly.
Age of New Mechanics
There were a few parts of the trailer that weren't a crushing disappointment however. For one, the early game in an RTS is typically focused on scouting and economic management. Developers, for years, considered the early game in RTS to be boring and saw it as their duty to add on systems as well as get you into combat as soon as possible. Age of Empires IV, at least from the trailer, seems to keep the idea of a less combat-oriented but still strategically very important early game intact.
Terrain height and line of sight seem to play a much, much larger role than in any previous game. We see the Mongols set up an ambush for the Chinese by hiding in a forest, where in previous games forest was an impassable obstacle. I think this is a really fun idea, although it remains to be seen if this is one of those things the developers think is cool but turns out to be impractical to incorporate into your actual games.
Fortifications, another core Age mechanic, also appears completely reimagined with huge walls patrolled by infantry and siege towers that players can get their troops on top of. The need to fortify your city against attack, as well as the conscious decision not to, hasn't really been changed at all in the games. I hope gates work like they do in Myth and III instead of AoK, although having all of the buildings you need in a nice, clean, well-thought-out city with procedurally generated roads within your fortifications might be an artefact of the developers crafting a showmatch to show off the new game rather than you fretting, “Oh crap, where do I put my market?”
Naval combat, never anyone's favorite aspect of Age games, also looks like it might be getting an overhaul. That's interesting, but they also tried that once before during the development of Myth, and couldn't find a way to make troop transport and ship-to-ship battles more fun than fiddly. This feature was subsequently axed very early in development.
And despite all my complaining, the trailer really does show what you fundamentally want from a mid-to-late game Age match: huge pitched battles with dozens and dozens of units, balancing infantry, cavalry, ranged and siege, and trying to out-micro your opponent. Although, and this is by no means a unique observation or even unique to this game, the developers showing two armies forming perfect ranks and politely attacking each other's formations is adorable. Real Age games are more along the lines of, “Crap, I guess I'll have to take a fight here. Wait why are my archers out of position? Fuck. Fuck! Fuck!!!”
If nothing else, based both on the trailer and the express intent of the developers, this is an Age game that will be much more historically informed (not accurate) than its predecessors. The civilizations seem very asymmetrical and unique, and watching the Mongols pack all their buildings up and move from the starting location made my fingers itch to start playing.
Incorporating any level of historicity is a tall order for any game. The developers supposedly want to have a level of historicity that can be genuinely educational. It's a goal which is commendable for a series with such a fractious relationship to historicity as the Age games.
Age of Historicity
Part of the reason Age, as a series, has failed to properly capture history is that it sets itself the nigh-impossible task of doing so — of encapsulating centuries of cause-and-effect into a digestible video game experience. Arguably, it shouldn't even try. And nobody should really expect it, as a piece of entertainment, to provide the level of insight as a textbook or academic paper. That also doesn’t mean it’s absolved from doing active damage however. The main game mechanic and indeed what the entire series is named for is a highly discredited academic theory popularized by a guy who was born in 1788. The first game, in particular, sets about recreating human civilization from Homo Sapiens emerging as a genetically distinct species 300,000 years ago all the way up until a scant 2,000 or so years ago. Systemizing history almost always treats it as a straight line and almost always technological — from a lesser state to a grander, more “advanced” one. This can make for a fun game but a terrible way of understanding the past and, to the uneducated, even make it feel like you're learning rather than mashing dollies together with a historical theme. Though I would be remiss to say many people with a genuine love of actual dry history also love these games, many of whom parlayed their interest in the game into a broader interest in learning.
Age has always had a Eurocentric (and later, United States of America-centric) view of the historic, lavishing attention on European and near-east civilizations. By and large, the games treat European skin color, styles of dress, social structure, and technology as default. This is without even getting into the explicitly colonialism-themed Age of Empires III, which is a whole other thorny snarl. Ironically, the explicitly fantastical Age of Mythology succeeds the most not only at systemizing radically different and asymmetrical cultures but also in capturing their imagined glorious mythological past which informed their present.
Given this focus on European and colonial culture, it's no surprise that there is a non-zero amount of white supremacist fans of the series even when Age has tried to backpedal and expand to many non-European civilizations over the years. Though, releasing expansions with titles such as Lords of the West makes it hard to tell if they're actually leaning into it.
It would be genuinely exciting to see Age IV commit to embracing unique cultures from across history and the globe. Whether Age IV is truly going to commit to that, or if they're just saying it here with a single preview up, remains to be seen. But if I had to guess, I would probably say the answer will be whatever they feel will make the game the most broadly popular.
Age of E-Sports Bubbles
So why do any of this? Why wade into controversy, why resurrect a long-dead franchise? Why re-make and polish old games? Why barely change a game from 1999 and call it new?
Well in case it's not clear, the idea of playing video games professionally, for money, is going through a bit of a boom at the moment with major tournaments catering to plenty of different games (even ones that don't seem entirely suited to being spectated). Renewed interest after the release of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition brought a number of new tournaments and a wave of money to a competitive scene that, beforehand, was almost always limited to people playing for a couple of hundred bucks on their weekends.
And if I am being completely honest, that's what this feels like to me. My concerns about game mechanics and visual styles and racist colonial narratives, whether I think the game looks fun or not, seems to pale in comparison to some Microsoft executive’s pupils turning into dollar signs. Entertaining the notion that a game is better when it's not sickeningly racist would only ever happen because the popular opinion has shifted and not out of the sheer generosity of a huge conglomerate.
And speaking as a fan of professional StarCraft, I have to say resurrecting a long-dead IP after a long period of time with the hope of turning it into the world's premiere e-sport to make bank from major tournaments is ... optimistic. It’s something of a cliché in e-sports circles to refer to the current climate as a bubble, although to my mind, it isn’t without merit. And perhaps concerns of its instability are overstated. But it’s equally as true that not every game can be the one that does numbers and rakes in cash.
I really, truly do not think your game has to be a world-conquering smash in the mold of [insert teenybopper game of your choice in these parentheticals]. Fans of Gaelic football or cricket or chinlone can love the sport for what it is and not feel jealousy that it isn’t soccer (although I'm sure some do). Although it's enough on a personal level to like and enjoy something, company executives and the conglomerates who own the vast majority of entertainment these days who are looking to pad their bottom line never see it that way. And I, having bought each of these games (hard copy and digitally) more times than I can even remember for different platforms and different times in my life, can't even say I'm not complicit.