Today sees the release of Age of Empires 4, an anticipated return to Microsoft's classic real-time strategy franchise, and the first entry into the series for over 15 years.
Age of Empires 4, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by Xbox Game studios, follows the traditional RTS formula; players move through several historical campaigns and engage in turn-based combat with rival forces, collect resources and brawl with leaders in order to build their empire.
The critical reception has been positive so far; the game currently has a score 82 on Metacritic for PC as of writing. For comparison, 2005's Age of Empires 3 has a score of 81, while 1997's much-revered Age of Empires 2 has a score of 91.
"Age of Empires 4 is a base-building, sword-clashing, village-pillaging RTS of the classic style, inside and out," wrote Leana Hafer in her 8/10 review for IGN. "Jumping into a match as the tenacious English squaring off against the chivalrous French feels like being transported back -- not only to its setting of the High and Late Middle Ages, but to a different era of strategy games entirely."
This was echoed in a 5/5 review from Cale Hunt at Windows Central, who wrote: "Age of Empires 4 builds greatly on the series' reputation that began in 1997. If you're a fan of RTS games, world history, or both, this should be an easy recommendation."
Age of Empires 4 features four different single player campaigns made up of 35 different missions. Each campaign is presented akin to a TV documentary, as noted by Sin Vega in their review for Rock Paper Shotgun.
"It's a very weird vibe, if I'm honest. It's a style of documentary that I personally never quite got on with," Vega wrote. "By no means bombastic, obnoxious, or patronising, it's still just a little too dramatised for my liking, while also not going full costume drama with it.
"It wouldn't be fair to slam the game for any of this, though," they add. "And I will say in its favour that it's both a novel approach and done with very impressive production values."
These documentary-style scenes were praised by Daniel Tack in an 8/10 review for GameInformer, in particular instances of ancient battles superimposed onto modern environments.
"I had a blast nerding out during History-channel-style videos and segments between missions," he wrote. "The video vignettes and bonus history content keep things interesting among many traditional 'resource up and go' missions."
"Age 4's old-school sensibilities brought me nothing but delight"Leana Hafer, IGN
IGN's Hafer said that "Age 4's old-school sensibilities brought [her] nothing but delight," and added that "the expansive campaigns and offbeat factions like the Mongols and the Rus are major highlights."
Hunt also dubbed the campaign as an "incredible historical campaign that's hard to put down," and drew attention to the evolution of each civilisation, and how they differ from one another in terms of gameplay.
"While the core mechanics and loops will be familiar, the carefully designed civs and age-advancement choices offer an intricate new web of strategies and approaches to each match," he added. "It's Relic's bravest evolution of that precious AoE formula, and it really diversifies the game even though wide-scale online play will probably reveal tons of balancing issues over the coming months."
As well as standalone campaigns, Age of Empires 4 also offers 17 different skirmish maps at launch, with eight playable civilisations ranging from the Mongols to the Holy Roman Empire.
"These sleek campaigns are just a foreword to the stories you'll be crafting on the Skirmish maps with the eight eclectic civs on offer," wrote Robert Zak in an 8/10 review for PC Gamer. "It's not a huge number, but the visual and strategic variety between these factions is one of the most significant evolutions in the series."
Hunt added: "Each time I play a skirmish match with a civ I feel like I'm discovering something I didn't see the last time; this will abate over time, but the metagame possibilities seem to be plentiful."
While critics seemed to find Age of Empires 4 impressive enough, they did also note how the title has already been left in the dust by the growth of other titles in the RTS genre -- and in some cases -- by itself, given the lasting resonance of Age of Empires 2 thanks to a 20th anniversary remaster, released in 2019.
"On the evidence of its timeless tyranny over the RTS genre, there's a case to be made that there's no surpassing Age of Empires 2 -- now in its 'Definitive' form," wrote PC Gamer's Zak. "So on the one hand, it makes sense that new series developer Relic has decided to loosely model Age of Empires 4 on the beloved second entry.
"Reverence to the past can be restricting, and I can't help but feel that Age of Empires 4 could have been something more"Robert Zak, PC Gamer
"On the other hand, reverence to the past can be restricting, and I can't help but feel that Age of Empires 4 could have been something more."
The safety of nodding to past entries was echoed by GameInformer's Tack: "Age of Empires 4 is incredibly safe in its execution, channeling the spirit of Age of Empires 2 for many of its systems, mechanics, and features. It's a bit of a dulling anesthetic seeing 4 play things so close to Age of Empires 2."
Hafer also mentioned this, and said: "I've been enjoying it a lot as a whole, but it also sometimes makes me question how much room I have in my life for this age-old formula these days, when real-time strategy has come such a long way thanks to the innovations of other franchises."
Overall, Age of Empires 4 seems to be a step in the right direction for the series as a modernised revamp with just enough juice to incentivise new and returning fans, but it seems to be struggling slightly in the shadow of its previous success.
"It might not be a huge step forward, but it's a sure step in a genre whose comeback is long overdue, and it doesn't appear to have ambitions beyond that," concluded RPS' Vega. "Fundamentally, the best I can say is that I enjoyed it more the better I got, I got steadily better the more I played, and I don't see myself stopping any time soon."
GameInformer's Tack added that the RTS genre remains relevant, thanks to a few big releases once in a while.
He added: "While Age of Empires 4 lacks any ambition to even gently jostle the standards set by Age of Empires 2 decades earlier, it's a good way to play a classic-feeling RTS today with some slick polish and panache."
PC Gamer's Zak concluded: "In a series where a single game can manifest into its best form years, even decades later, the only thing really standing in the way of Age of Empires 4's growth is the ongoing success of its predecessors. It offers enough new ideas amidst the sturdy old foundations to rank among them -- even if it's not yet ready to rule."