We've known for some time now that the Age of Empires series is getting an entirely new installment. The older games have been reworked into Definitive Editions recently, but this will be the first new Age of Empires game since Age of Empires III was released back in 2005. Ahead of the Age of Empires fan preview event today, Microsoft invited me to attend a preview session to learn more about the upcoming Age of Empires game currently being developed by Relic entertainment.
The reveal trailer already showed that Age of Empires IV (AoE IV) will take players back to the Middle Ages. Philippe Boule, Narrative Lead at Relic Entertainment, explained that they chose the Middle Ages, because it offers "a wealth of civilizations" to pick from that people today aren't very familiar with. Game Director Quinn Duffy later added: "Age of Empires IV is the spiritual successor to Age of Empires II". But it won't just be a remake, as "it will be familiar but also unexpected." More on that later.
Firstly, it felt clear that the Age of Empires IV team is putting a lot of emphasis on teaching players bits of history while they're playing. I learned there will be eight civilizations in the game and four campaigns upon release, each of which will focus on the rise of a specific civilization. One of those will be about the Norman conquest of England, which started with William the Conqueror's invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The campaign will follow not just William, but his offspring all the way down to when the Magna Carta was signed in 1215.
Adam Isgreen, Franchise Creative Director, said this allows the creators to use the game to tell a sort of "humanized history". He also said that "during the campaign, a narrator will provide context about the history you're about to play". Moreover, in between missions, you'll see short videos of present-day locations with medieval structures and figures added into them. I saw bits of an in-game video featuring a historical English town and castle augmented with medieval soldiers walking around. The developers added there will be "around three hours worth of documentary and historical footage" in the game.
With all of Medieval History at the developer's disposal, there are a lot of possible civilizations to choose from. From the preview event, four Age of Empires IV civilizations became clear: the English, the Mongols, the Chinese and the Delhi Sultanate. The latter wasn't showcased before and features some stunning South Asian architecture and powerful-looking elephant units. Regarding the choices for civilizations, Quin Duffy said: "We've tried to find civilizations that have left a mark on history, and which stood the test of time from then until now."
This brings us to the "familiar but unexpected" part that I mentioned earlier. The civilizations will be "much more asymmetric". Adam Isgreen explained: "the English faction will be very much like the Britons from Age of Empires II, but with the Mongols we're pushing the boundaries of what Age of Empires has done before". The latter are capable of packing up and moving their buildings for example, and will have access to a sheep pen building, meaning they aren't dependent on berries early on. Each civilization will therefore also need to prioritize differently between the four types of resources.
What will remain familiar though, is the mixture between generic units and a number of unique units and technologies. It appears the generic units do have a civilization-specific skin this time. Mongol spearmen wear their characteristic lamellar armor, while spearmen from the Delhi Sultanate wear turbans, for example. The classic "triangle" between pikemen, cavalry and archers countering each other will also remain the same.
The ages to advance into from the previous games are also there, starting in the Dark Age up to the Imperial Age. They will work like in Age of Empires III. Each advance in age forces you to choose a path of specialisation called 'landmarks'. I'm not sure what that will look like in Age of Empires IV, but I imagine you pick certain economical advantages or a path of military specialisation that could give you an advantage over your opponents.
A new gameplay element that was presented is a new ambushing mechanic. Aside from the mention that it exists, not much was disclosed about it at this point. Siege warfare has also been reworked. In Age of Empires IV, walls and gates can be garrisoned to fire arrows. Moreover, walls are mountable by units, meaning archers can stand on them and shoot down for the first time. Enemies can also scale the walls using siege equipment.
A novelty for the series are hero units that have "limited special abilities" according to Quinn Duffy. There's going to be Mongol Khan unit, which can shoot an arrow with fireworks, boosting other units. They will not be "terminator units", but ones that provide a small buff during combat. In the campaigns, hero units will feature more prominently. The new gameplay footage also shows some powers being used, such as a mass conversion power coming from a Mongol structure. Whether that's a campaign power or also something for multiplayer remains unclear.
Looking at the units, the game's visual style is a lot more cartoony than the older games. Art Director Zach Schläppi explained that the less realistic art style is a choice they made: "The game needs to be easy to see and comprehend for the player. It's a balance between history, gameplay and the franchise DNA." I'm personally hoping they don't push the cartoony elements too far as it could detract from the feeling of historical realism in the series. Other than that, the game looks smooth, running on an updated engine which Relic has already used for some of its previous games.
Lastly, something that excited me personally because of the historical immersion it provides, is that each of the civilizations will (again) have its own historically correct unit taunts. This time, these will even change when advancing between the different ages. The developers said they "had teams travelling from Turkey to Mongolia" to record the authentic voices. Each civilization will also feature its own unique soundtrack and architecture.
Concluding, there's a lot of history going to be packed into Age of Empires IV, with eight civilizations upon release and four detailed campaigns including video documentaries. Familiar but unexpected seems to be very promising from a gameplay perspective. My only worry so far is that the cartoony visual style might not appeal to history buffs (such as myself) as much as the realistic one from Age of Empires II.
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