Age of Empires 4 developer interview: On unique new Hands on History feature, new strategy, and more

Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal
Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal (Image credit: Microsoft)

Age of Empires 4 is dropping into our eager hands this month, launching exclusively on PC Oct. 28. We most recently received new information at Gamescom 2021, where the game's massive "Hands on History" feature was revealed alongside the rest of the civilizations and campaigns included at launch.

I was lucky enough to speak with World's Edge Creative Director Adam Isgreen and Relic Entertainment Game Director Quinn Duffy to discuss this unconventional storytelling method, as well as early-game strategies, naval warfare, launch content, and what's coming after release.

Doing to history what Top Gear did to car culture

Hands on History is something unlike the Age of Empires series has ever seen, though it was certainly inspired by previous games and their heavy focus on our exciting past. In my previous Age of Empires 4 developer interview, I mentioned that Age of Empires 2 and its in-depth campaigns really got me caring about history all those years ago. And while we knew that Age 4 was going deep on history, this new live-action method was a surprise to many.

Hands on History includes 28 unlockable videos — assumedly unlocking as you play through the campaign — all meant to help players understand the historical significance of the game they're playing. We were shown one of these unlockables at Gamescom: a three-minute video explaining how trebuchets work and why they were used in battle. I was curious to know at what point in the game's production this idea of live-action footage came around. Isgreen had this to say:

This is going to sound crazy. In the very first deck I created when the team came and said, 'Adam, what would you do with a new version of Age of Empires?' This was six years ago at this point. One of my first slides showed a picture of Top Gear and it showed a picture of Neil deGrasse Tyson in Cosmos. It said, 'Can we Top Gear-ify history?'... I don't know about you, but every time I've had teachers that have been passionate and excited about the subject, it's infectious. I love what Top Gear did to car culture. Car culture was something that sat off to the side. There are tons of people who love cars, but it wasn't in the popular gestalt. It's that whole approach.

Hands on History isn't amateur fare. The whole idea really came together once Relic Entertainment and Lion TV, one of the U.K.'s premier television production companies, began working together to deliver these segments in context with the rest of the game. I was curious to know if, before that cohesion, there was any trepidation or hesitation from the rest of the team. Duffy explained:

I think there was some skepticism. People weren't sure how it would work internally. We treated the first Hands on History, the first campaign narrative as a bit of a pilot. We needed to test how it would look in context and what the motion graphics on top would look like. How we would take what we'd done and multiply it over the hours of campaign and how much that would cost. There are a lot of things to learn about doing it, but seeing those first couple of efforts... allayed a lot of concerns among people. It was very, very unique.

Isgreen gave kudos to the Relic Entertainment and Lion TV teams for putting the Hands on History segments together in such a way that fits the game as a whole. He explained that, despite seeing the scripts, it wasn't until the content started rolling in that everyone was truly floored.

That's the thing that scared us and why I was so nervous. We're doing something nobody has done before... How do we make a modern documentary merged with a game merged with storytelling techniques merged with all these cool historical facts?... I've been making games for almost 30 years now and there's nothing that could have done this.

Duffy and Isgreen agreed that they weren't shy about their love of history and that there's a ton of live content headed our way. Even despite some of it not making it past the rating board. Isgreen concluded:

The great thing is the range of subjects is so diverse. There's one we had to pull from the game. It got us a crude humor tag on our rating. I love this video but I don't want to sacrifice the rating by adding it.

Don't worry; Isgreen assured me that those pulled segments will see the light of day in some manner after launch.

Age of Empires 4 gives players myriad strategic options

With the official reveal of the final two launch civilizations — The Rus and Holy Roman Empire — some questions came to mind surrounding how the game will play out in the opening minutes. The Rus appear to be quite aggressive, expanding borders and receiving gold from unique buildings and units. I asked if there was any sort of trend toward aggression time, like how most Age 2 games see a clash around the 5-6-minute mark and how Starcraft games are much quicker. Duffy clarified:

The first several minutes were less about that time to fight and more about trying to figure out as many unique openings and options as possible in the early game. Whether it's access to different units, buildings, scouting opportunities, figuring out whether you want to forward hunt or get your berries or get your sheep, we wanted to provide more choice and options in those first 1-10 minutes. And also maybe to rebalance the ages just a little bit so you're not just inclined to burst through the first age or two.You can spend some time, develop some strategies early, and kind of think about the game as a whole that way. I think by and large a lot of that work has been successful. We'll watch how the balance works but... the focus was less about how soon do we want to fight and more about what kind of options do we have.

Isgreen continued:

Quinn is right; there are so many openings. I saw a quad-scout opening in one of the play sessions. It was super effective because of the other civ and the choices they made in the early game. That was like a 5-minute GG. Not something you see every day. In Age 4 we wanted to make sure there was more to do in that [Dark] age. Like Quinn said, there are some really meaningful decisions that can really change the way you focus your economy. The Mongols are all mobile. They can literally roll over to you if they want to.

It certainly seems like Age of Empires 4 will be more about providing players with plenty of different strategies, right from the beginning of the game, than it will be about having a set meta for the first 10 minutes of play. Fewer players rushing through Dark and Feudal ages to reach more powerful units should certainly shake things up and will make for some great Age gameplay. Isgreen stresses that this also depends heavily on map size and the random map generation you get for your game. With around 20 maps coming at launch, some new and some familiar, players will have plenty of opportunity to test out different strategic combinations.

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

One other major feature that should shake up the game is naval warfare. I asked how much of an impact it would have on the average game, and whether it would weigh heavier than in past Age games. Isgreen answered:

Shoreline fishing is really good in Age 4. One of the things we've done is that deepwater fishing regenerates over time to encourage more naval play... We really do want to encourage more naval. We tried to make changes to the way naval combat works. We had this whole idea of oars vs. sailing ships and can we make them feel different in ways that they're used. We're still exploring that; it's going to be an ongoing thing as we develop more of the game. It's powerful.

Isgreen was careful to clarify that there would still be maps like a dry Arabia equivalent for those who don't like building ships, but also mentioned that there will be new maps focused heavily on naval warfare. He concluded by saying he hopes that the percentage of players who enjoy naval gameplay will go up with what they've done in Age of Empires 4.

Age of Empires 4 is approaching the finish line

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Age of Empires 4 launches soon and the team is busy finalizing a lot of practical details. Certifications, bug backlogs, stability tests, and parsing continued feedback are all crucial right now, explained Duffy. It's also a time where the team has to balance adding new features and squashing any bugs that might arise from the addition. For example, the zoom level that was a hot topic during the beta playtest is still being worked on. "That's the big thing we're working on right now," said Isgreen. "I'm hoping we'll make a change for launch that will make a lot of people happy." Isgreen also mentioned that the global queue feature is being worked on, but likely won't be included at launch. The same goes for mod tools.

Ranked matchmaking will be disabled at first in order to give the game a bit of time to reveal any bugs and balance issues. "We want that to be a moment," said Isgreen. "We're going to be balancing this game forever." I asked about the inclusion of Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Regicide modes at launch, and it seems that the team will monitor numbers from previous Age games to see what to add first. "We will communicate that pre-launch," said Isgreen. "We'll be sharing a lot more information on our launch plans and what we're going to do after and in what order so that people know certain things are coming."

Age of Empires 4 is set to release on Oct. 28, 2021 on PC through Windows, Xbox Game Pass for PC, and Steam. Be sure to check out our collection of best laptops for playing Age of Empires 4 if your current system doesn't hit the recommended system specs.

Learn more about some of the hottest games of fall 2021.

Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt brings to Windows Central more than eight years of experience writing about laptops, PCs, accessories, games, and beyond.