I rode with Saladino, I swept China and Persia with Genghis Khan, I defended Valencia with the dead Cid on Babieca and I saw Hernán Cortés burn his ships off the coast of Mexico. Under the banner of Age of Empires II and its magnificent expansion, The Conquerors, The Middle Ages surrendered at my feet since the calm afternoons of adolescence and History fell into my hands as it had never done before: having a great time. However, those glory days are past and what came after never lived up to his legacy, so I am not ashamed to admit that I hung up my sword and devoted my leisure to other pursuits.
Now, long after that, the horns of war are again thundering and a new heir comes to claim the abandoned throne. And I, as a veteran of the saga, have approached full of curiosity and distrust, wanting to recover sensations but chastising old disappointments. And I have to admit that the first approximation has been very positive.
The main virtue that I find in Age of Empires IV is that stays true to the essence of Age of Empires II without losing the ability to surprise. It is a game that manages to recover the virtues that made the champion of the saga to the fore while having many additions that complete them. Thus, for example, to advance in age you have to build a distinctive building, instead of pressing the button as a simple improvement, and to make the farmland yield more you have to build them near a mill. Small differences that improve the player’s experience with greater doses of realism.
And that is precisely one of the traits that most differentiate this Age of Empires from its grandfather: the intention of its creators to make it more realistic. In this installment the stone walls can only be demolished with siege weapons, the elevations of the terrain give an advantage to the archers and the constructions and transports have a capacity closer to the real one. Yes, I know what you are thinking, you will no longer be able to use the mythical “10 elephants in a boat, 11 archers no” meme. But don’t worry, I think you can still convert a catapult to Christianity.
Another element that gives it greater doses of realism is that of the differences between civilizations. In Age of Empires IV we only have eight at the moment -English, French, Holy Roman Empire, Rus, Mongols, Chinese, Sultanate of Delhi and Abbasid Dynasty-, and their variations have been deepened much more than what is known. did in the past. Consequently, the changes between campaigns are more pronounced, which makes the challenge greater and more fun.
However, the differences between one civilization and another are not abysmal, with only one exception: the Mongols. This town was traditionally nomadic, and the developers wanted to reflect it in the way we play with them. Thus, we will be able to move their cities completely, since the buildings are transformed in a few seconds into wagons ready to leave. This gives the camp more versatility, but also more fragility, since if the enemy attacks us in the middle of a transfer we run the risk of losing everything much faster than with other civilizations. Furthermore, you cannot build walls or palisades with the Mongols.
An element that undermines this pretended intention of realism is the immortal condition of the heroes. One of the biggest challenges in some of the Age of Empires II campaigns was keeping historical figures alive, as deadly as any spearman. In this new installment, however, they lose their vitality but do not die, and the player can regain them by approaching them with any unit.
What remains almost the same
After talking about the differences, let’s move on to what follows almost the same as in Age of Empires II. The first thing that hits you hard in the memory is the music, which, without being the same, has very similar tones that achieve the intended effect, taking us to another time in our lives. And shortly after, without time to recover, the sound effects: the noise of the construction, the creation of a unit, the alarm for attack, the response of a peasant when ordering something. Many of these are the same, although there are some new ones and others are missing, like the classic “Wololo”. Although it is possible that they have included it and that, simply, I have not crossed paths with it yet.
On the visual plane, Age of Empires IV maintains a recognizable aesthetic compared to its grandfather, but the graphical improvements are notable. Something normal if we take into account that between this installment and that of II, a whopping 22 years have passed. The camera options have changed slightly, now the aerial view can be zoomed in a little more, although without reaching ground level.
The game mechanics are practically the same, as well as the action windows of buildings and units. And the main constructions remain the same -urban center, mill, sawmill, stables, barracks, etc.-, although now some new and exclusive ones have been added by civilization, such as a medieval Kremlin in the case of the Rus. These special buildings grant some particular advantage, such as obtaining more resources in certain actions or the possibility of creating some units, and they serve to advance age, as we have commented previously. The population limit is still marked at 200 units and the resources are food, wood, gold and stone.
All this makes any Age of Empiress II veteran can play almost from memory again without accusing the change in the least.
One of the things I particularly liked about Age of Empires II was its transitions between scenarios during campaigns, with videos in which a voiceover told you the historical events that had led to the battle you were about to take over. I saw them all, without exception, and with the perspective of the years it seems to me a first level didactic resource in what pedagogy experts call gamification, that is, learning by playing.
Age of Empires IV has not only kept that look, but has improved it with high definition videos of the scenarios where the battles took place, in which they superimpose animations created by orderr to act out some aspects of the fight. And all this while a voice, in this case female, narrates the events.
In addition, when overcoming campaign scenarios we unlock optional videos with small documentaries in which historical information is expanded with curiosities from the Middle Ages, such as those that explain how castles were built, the origin of the crossbow or the way Mongolian horses were raised.
The start menu
The start menu yes it is visually very different from Age of Empires II. So much so that if they didn’t tell us that it was from AOE IV, there would be nothing to remind us of the second installment of the saga.
The options, however, are quite similar. In the play tab we can choose between the multiplayer window and the single player window. By clicking on the latter we will go to a new interface in which we can choose between the campaigns -which are four: The Normans, The Hundred Years War, The Mongol Empire and The Rise of Moscow-, a quick game – here called Skirmish and with some interesting novelties, such as the ‘Defend the homeland’ mode – and the Art of War tab, a training space in which the game puts us different challenges, from economic management to strategy combat or siege.
There are three other tabs on the main menu. Community, where news and news of the game appear. Learn, where you can find all the information about the eight civilizations, the guide with the hotkeys, the basics of the game and do some tutorials. And finally, Mods, still inactive.
One of the aspects that I have not liked about this new installment of Age of Empires is the lack of originality with the campaigns. While it is true that fidelity to many of the aspects of II is positive, in the case of story mode I think they could have bet on other historical facts and figures, and not repeat the campaigns of Genghis Khan and the Hundred Years War.
However, I have to admit that this review only makes sense if you have played Age of Empires II, since if you have not done it, all the campaigns will be new for you. But since the issue at hand is precisely the comparison with that installment that was launched 21 years ago, I consider it appropriate to mention it.
These two campaigns, of course, are not the same as those of Age of Empires II, and the scenarios and battles that we face are different, but the historical facts are still the same, and I think that here the developers of the new installment have crossed the fine line between homage, very successful in everything else, and imitation.
Another aspect that could be improved is the few civilizations included in the game, only eight for the 13 that Age of Empires II had in its original version, expanded to 18 with The Conquerors, 23 with The Forgotten and so on until reaching a total of 37 with successive expansions. However, this section will surely improve with the mods that its developers are already preparing.
Age of Empires IV has been a joy for a veteran of the saga like me. Maintains the personality of the best installment of these games to date without giving up on introducing important new features that improve the user experience, giving it more realism and depth. Those who have already played II will discover with delight that a game can be played directly after installing it without having to do the tutorial, as it is practically the same in terms of interface and playability.
The new is perfectly integrated into the already known, and the essence of the game is maintained with remarkable success. Missing, yes, a greater number of civilizations and campaigns, something that will surely be solved with successive mods.
Thus, the new contender for the throne of the saga has arrived in force and presents a very well planted army, with old banners and shiny armor. He has just appeared on the battlefield and, for now, has only had to face a few skirmishes with scouts like the author of these lines. The real war begins tomorrow, when it will reach the general public, and there we will see what pasta it is actually made of. But, a priori, it seems that the kingdom of Age of Empires has finally found a worthy successor. We will see.