Last month, Age of Empires IV released for PC and it marks the first full installment of the franchise since Age of Empires III back in 2005. I spent a good chunk of time on it and had a fairly good time but before I first booted it up, a couple questions kept entering my mind: does Age of Empires have a place in gaming anymore and is the franchise on the whole still worth playing?
For those who may not be aware, Age of Empires is a series of real-time strategy games that were very popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. The first game was released back in 1997 and it spanned from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire period. The following game, Age of Empires II, enjoyed a lot more mainstream success and was a must-have PC game at the time. A spin-off called Age of Mythology would release 2 years later and it remains one of my all-time favorite games and it represented the peak of the franchise. v1d30chumz 54-211-101-93
The gameplay in every installment is virtually the same as you gather food, gold, wood, and another resource to build up your towns, erect defenses, field an army, upgrade that army, advance through the ages, and defeat the opposing factions. Combat is essentially a giant rock-paper-scissors match with infantry usually being strong against cavalry, cavalry strong against archers, archers strong against infantry, and there are a number of other counter units and siege weapons thrown in to shake things up. Other games like StarCraft and Warcraft featured similar styles and for a time, the mechanics were the definition of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" but as it turned out, the Age of Empires games had a rival that would eventually come to dominate the RTS genre.
While the Age of Empires games continued to impress, another development team known as Creative Assembly was taking its own shot at the RTS genre. In 2000, the team made its first big franchise debut with Shogun: Total War then followed it up with Medieval: Total War. The series wouldn't achieve mainstream recognition for another 2 years until the release of Rome: Total War which effectively redefined the genre by asking a very simple question: what if we implemented realistic kingdom management and military tactics?
The main gameplay mechanics of the Total War franchise is a bit complicated but unlike Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, it was at least accessible. You start as a faction that is usually on the smaller side. You then use currency not just to build an army but to build infrastructure in your cities and provinces. For every coin you spend on your military, you're going to want to spend just as much building roads, sewers, and other things to bring in money via trading posts, mines, and farms. In addition, you need to consider the well-being of your citizens who will riot and kick you out of your own cities if they are not satisfied with your rule. This added an entirely new angle to the genre that usually boils the civilian population down to workers with no purpose other than to fuel your faction's war machine.
The big show stealer was of course, the use of actual military tactics in combat. It's not just about overwhelming with sheer numbers as you can strategize with troop types, terrain, and flanking maneuvers which may turn the tide of battle. Every victory makes you feel like a general and every loss can be a crushing tragedy which is more satisfying overall than anything the Age of Empires games ever did.
One year after Rome: Total War debuted, the Age of Empires franchise released its third installment which we thought would be the last. The time period jumped ahead once again; stretching from the colonial era to the industrial revolution. While Age of Empires III wasn't bad by any means, it definitely lacked the same magic that its predecessors had and felt flat-out archaic when compared to Rome: Total War. The mechanics simply weren't as innovative or as satisfying when there was a far more sophisticated option that had been released a year prior. As it turned out, the companies behind these games seemed to agree with this as the genre soon started to dwindle.
After the release of Age of Empires III, this style of real-time strategy game had roughly 5 more mainstream releases in the next 16 years. These were of course, the couple of Company of Heroes games, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, and the 2 Halo Wars games. The first Company of Heroes and StarCraft II were both well-received by gamers and critics but this type of RTS refused to catch on again.
Following their work on the first Halo Wars game, Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios closed in 2009 while seemingly taking the Age of Empires franchise with it. The Company of Heroes games failed to achieve the same level of recognition as Age of Empires II and faded away for some time. The apparent swan song of the entire genre seems to come in the form of Halo Wars 2 back in 2017 which likewise failed to wow fans or critics. That was until last month when Age of Empires IV was finally released.
For me, Age of Empires IV is a game that falls squarely into the category of good but not great and in many ways, feels like a remake of Age of Empires II. Its graphics have been modernized and the gameplay engine speeds things up so the experience is a bit faster-paced. However, the core gameplay is virtually unchanged with the only notable difference being the enhanced effectiveness of archers which makes it feel more like a throwback title than a modern installment. Even some of the campaigns like The Hundred Years' War and The Mongol Horde are remakes of campaigns from the second game. In fact, it almost feels like an indie game that was originally made as some kind of tribute or spiritual successor then was somehow turned into a full sequel. While I certainly had my fun playing it, it's difficult for me to fully recommend Age of Empires IV to gamers who didn't play the first few games at the turn of the millennium.
This brings us back to our original questions: is Age of Empires worth playing and does the franchise still have a place when games like the Total War franchise exists? My answer to both questions would be "yes" but in a somewhat limited capacity. At the time of its release, Age of Empires IV quickly became a top seller on Steam and has received mostly positive reviews on the platform while critical reviews are likewise mostly positive. At the same time, I have difficulty seeing any new Age of Empires gain traction with audiences outside of those who grew up with it. This is especially true when you have games like the Total War franchise out there which offers a far more sophisticated experience but for now, at least Age of Empires still has a place; even if their seat at the table may not be there forever.