Age of Empires IV (AoE IV) has been one of the most highly anticipated RTS games since the release of Age of Empires III (AoE III) in 2005. While uncertainty as to whether or not there would even be a fourth installment in the franchise clouded fans for over a decade, Age of Empires IV has been a coveted addition nonetheless.
As of Gamescom 2017, however, Microsoft ignited hope’s impassioned flame with the official announcement that AoE IV was in development. Then, for two years, more stark silence, Microsoft going dark on the game’s progress until X019, when Xbox Game Studios revealed a gameplay trailer—the first peep fans have heard about the game since its initial unveiling.
While the gameplay trailer did a lot of good for rekindling followers’ spirits, one concern looms in this author’s ever-roiling mind: Hopefully, Age of Empires IV will not be a repackaging of Age of Empires III.
Age of Empires III was well-received by critics, with enhanced graphics compared to its predecessors and slight overhauls to the game’s mechanics. However, it didn’t feel like an Age of Empires game. When compared to the nostalgia-inducing feel of Age of Empires II (AoE II), AoE III gave the impression that it was a little off-kilter. The battles didn’t seem as immersive or, frankly, massive. While Colonial warfare wasn’t fought on as grand a scale as that of the Medieval era, it still seemed like AoE III was missing something.
The tertiary title’s new mechanics, such as specializing as a certain empire and applying different ‘cards’ to implement specific bonuses during gameplay, were an intriguing prospect that—in and of themselves—added an abundance of value to the franchise. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make up for the overall step back from the immersion of AoE II.
Despite AoE II’s retro look and feel, it still outclasses its successor. Population limits were more generous (especially in AoE II HD and the newly released Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition), allowing for larger battles and more opportunities to put one’s tactical mind to work.
Age of Empires III’s mechanics felt watered down compared to those of AoE II. Resource gathering was unnecessarily simplified and became hamstringed with the limit put on how many villagers one could produce in order to increase supplies and build structures. From a historical standpoint, this limit on villagers made sense considering the time period (colonies began small), but from a gameplay perspective, it made building one’s structures and military inefficient and, often, lackluster.
Moreover, due to the attempt by Ensemble Studios to enhance the third game’s graphics in accordance with the way technology had advanced by the time it was released, AoE III suffered from a cartoony ambiance. That isn’t to say the game wasn’t impressive from a graphical standpoint at the time, but its visuals didn’t fit the franchise.
The concern is that, while AoE IV takes fans back to Medieval times, World’s Edge (the new Xbox Game Studios company dedicated to the AoE franchise) will neglect to keep the graphics sharp by modern standards without watering down the mechanics from the original two games.
Age of Empires IV needs to return the franchise to the glory on which it has been coasting since Age of Empires II rather than feeling more akin to Company of Heroes (not to say the CoH franchise is subpar by any means—it simply has a different atmosphere regardless of the time period) like its immediate forebear.
World’s Edge has already alleviated one disquietude: Age of Empires is returning to the Medieval era, as stated above. Even though AoE III lives up to the “Empires” portion of the franchise’s namesake with its different factions, nothing gives one a sense of conquest like massive iron-clad armies that collide with swords and shields and spears, all while arrows rain down from above and cavalry charges forth. These are the wars that forge empires. These are the battles one expects from Age of Empires.
Thus, the hope is that AoE IV capitalizes on that epic return. Continue giving the series a makeover, continue implementing new mechanics and factions, but don’t shift it away from what makes it so great. Draw from the positive aspects of Age of Empires III—the card decks that gave players’ empire buffs while playing, and the neutral factions with which one could trade and welcome as allies to recruit their unique units.
However, World’s Edge should take most of its influence from Age of Empires II: High Definition and Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. One of the most important matters when it comes to this marvelous franchise is population limit. Keep population limits high, something Age of Empires III failed to do.
Technology has advanced further than Ensemble Studios could have hoped back when they made the masterpiece that was AoE II. Computers can handle more units on the screen. Hence, higher population limits are more than possible. AoE II: HD and DE allow for a maximum population cap of 500, which is generous when compared to the game’s past iterations.
500 would still be a generous population limit, however, there’s no reason AoE IV can’t push beyond that cap. World’s Edge can make several population limits available and allow players to choose which one they wish to use when setting up their skirmishes.
Another hope is that each faction will boast more than one or two unique units. Age of Empires II was lacking in that regard, with each empire offering one unique unit recruited from their castle. Age of Empires III was more versatile in that manner, but still fell short of each faction exulting individuality outside of the aesthetics surrounding their architecture. If World’s Edge wants Age of Empires IV to stand out from its predecessors, it needs to make each faction able to stand on its own.
Only time will tell if World’s Edge is up to the onerous challenge of appeasing the gaming community. The company has a leg up in that they’re reviving a beloved RTS franchise—one into which innumerable fans have sunk incalculable hours. However, expectations are high, and gamers are among the most vocal when something displeases them. Thus, World’s Edge has their work cut out for them when it comes to Age of Empires IV’s development and delivery.
The gameplay trailer revealed at X019 was a phenomenal start, for it portrayed a gorgeous world filled with diverse units and improved physics compared to previous installments. The trailer notwithstanding, the developer still has their work cut out for them, because if AoE IV is a repackaged AoE III, the franchise’s revival won’t be enough to save it from the cruel verbosity that results from gamer dissatisfaction.’
Regardless of AoE IV’s current state, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of the series. When the game releases, hordes of the franchise’s veterans will flock to it, ready to see how it compares to its predecessors and, indeed, other titles in the RTS genre. One way or another, the game will be a coveted piece of history that revitalizes a franchise spanning more than two decades, if it sports some of its own idiosyncrasies.
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