Age of Empires 4's success depends on gameplay, not graphics

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

We got our first good glimpse of Age of Empires 4 at an April 10, 2021, Fan Preview event, and ever since then there has been fairly consistent debate about whether or not the game looks, well, bad. I've been paying some attention to both sides of the argument — there seems to be just as many people who like the game's look as who dislike the look — but I don't think it's ultimately going to play a role in whether or not the game is a success. Like the rest of the Age series, it's going to be the gameplay that matters most.

The argument about Age of Empires 4 graphics

Age of Empires 4 is getting hit from both sides of the art argument. Some are saying that the gameplay that we've so far seen is more "cartoonish" than previous Age of Empires entries, with some vivid colors and unit scaling appearing out of whack. But others are focusing more on the fine attention to detail and the gorgeous procedural environments that make up the backdrop for epic battles.

In an Age of Empires Fan Preview interview, Relic Entertainment Art Director Zach Schläppi had this to say about the accessibility factor and some of the art decisions we've seen so far from Age 4:

We whip the camera from a battlefield back to a village, you want to be able to quickly recognize your structures. We try to make that as clear as possible by having unique identification for the rooftops, the banners, logo of the buildings is the same as the logo on the UI HUD. All the units are very identifiable. We exaggerated the weapons, the helmets. The read is stylized for maximum readability from far camera and near camera for the players.

It's true that the game is going for wide accessibility (no doubt with competition in mind), and it's true that the game is meant to run on as many systems as possible. You can check out our collection of the best laptops for Age of Empires 4 to see the variety. Is that an excuse to not have a beautiful game? No. Is Age of Empires 4 ugly? Certainly not.

There's obviously a fine line between accessible and impractical. I'm mostly neutral when it comes to the graphics argument, but that's likely because I've been focusing my attention on the bits of information we've received surrounding gameplay. And especially since the team has already made changes to animations — the arrows no longer look like halberds being tossed around — and will continue to tweak the look following fan feedback.

Age of Empires 4's gameplay is what truly matters

The debate ultimately rages on. Just a few hours ago (at the time of writing) the top post on the Age of Empires 4 subreddit is someone saying how great they think the graphics look, with 50+ mixed responses. The debate is getting kind of old at this point, and many people are looking forward to the closed Beta which begins Aug. 5. It should give people a far better idea of what the game looks like, and though content is under an NDA, I'm sure there will be lively revival of arguments.

In the end, it doesn't matter what you think about Age of Empires 4's graphics. Not because no one cares; because it's the gameplay that really matters. Many of you already know this and are waiting patiently to get your hands on one of the eight playable civilizations to see what the game is really all about.

The original Age of Empires 2 looks like a grainy mess in 2021. Would I still play it if the remakes didn't exist? Absolutely.

My Age game of choice is Age of Empires 2, released in 1999. It was about 14 years before we got the HD remake, and another six before we got the gorgeous Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition. Did I stick with the game for the last 20+ years because it looked amazing? No. Would I still be playing it if the remakes didn't happen? Absolutely. It's one of the most structurally sound RTS games around. It's the same when playing the original Diablo 2 in 2021. It's not the graphics that make the game great; it's the gameplay loop. But I do certainly welcome the Diablo 2: Resurrected remaster.

Of course, a new argument will spring up once people actually start playing Age of Empires 4. This time it will center around unit and map balancing, civilization bonuses, and playstyles. And that's a good thing. An RTS looking pretty is just a bonus; if it doesn't have the right formula underneath its skin, it's bound to be a failure. Focus your constructive criticism on valid gameplay tweaks, and we'll hopefully see another classic RTS set up to last for decades. Just think of what this game is going to look like in 2041.

Cale Hunt
Senior Editor, Laptop Reviews

Cale Hunt is formerly a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full-time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

  • I know my PC could play this, but I wish this was on console. Halo Wars 1&2 are on console, and so are some of the Command and Conquer games. They could reach a larger audience that way.
  • I never got into Halo Wars, but I did play some C&C on PC. How does the RTS genre fare with a controller? Or would you connect a KB+M to your console? I know Age 4 isn't going to play the same as Age 2, but I can't imagine trying to compete in Age 2 with a controller.
  • I've played C&C 3 on Xbox with a controller and it seemed fine to me. Now that Xbox has mouse and keyboard support, it's easier than ever than ever to port Age of Empires.
  • Devs haven't completely ruled out a move to console. It could happen.
  • The graphics are super average. AOE II Definitive is twice as good.
  • Lol, did Relic pay you to write this or are you really that beholden to developers? The graphics largely look worse than Age III, which came out 16 years ago. 16 years. And the excuse that the graphics are for 'accessibility/readability' is nonsence. That wasn't a problem in Age III and certainly not Age II. And then there's the fact that they for a long time had omitted water gameplay from Age IV and then now are making a bit of a song and dance about it. It's almost like they've taken on the attitude of Microsoft (who have also recently shown their contempt for their users). Has it occurred to you that perhaps fans are speaking up about these issues because they are actual issues? Relic have lost my respect and are not fit to custodians of the Age of Empires franchise.
  • Thank you for proving my point!
  • Yes, and no. I agree the gameplay needs to meet or exceed prior titles in the franchise. But given AoE III came out over 15 years ago, AoE IV needs to look the part. Case in point: Halo Infinite. No one asked if the game played well. Everyone was criticizing the OXB-level graphics.