Microsoft's return to beloved PC gaming titles includes Age of Empires 4, a revival of one of the best real-time strategy (RTS) series ever produced. While the first three Age of Empires games have been remade and re-released as Definitive Editions, Age of Empires 4 promises a new look at the RTS formula while still holding true to its roots. Here's everything you need to know, including updates following the April 10 Age of Empires fan preview event.
What's new with Age of Empires 4?
The April 10 Age of Empires fan preview event gave us a whole lot of new information about Age of Empires 4. The event highlighted the four known civilizations, we got more details about the campaigns, there was a closer look at art direction and gameplay, and there was a reveal of naval warfare.
We now know about Age of Empires 4's expected release date Fall 2021. And we also know the answer to whether or not Age of Empires 4 is coming to Xbox and PlayStation — no for now, but don't rule anything out.
Six members from the dev team took time behind closed doors following an advance viewing of the fan preview for an extended Q&A period to answer our burning questions. We were able to wring out a lot of information about the game from this session, which is detailed below.
I also sat down with World's Edge Senior Executive Producer Michael Mann, Relic Entertainment Game Director Quinn Duffy, and Relic Entertainment Art Director Zach Schläppi for a more intimate Age of Empires 4 developer interview about how the game fits into the series and what we can expect at launch.
What is Age of Empires 4?
If you ask just about any long-time RTS fan what games rank at the top of the list, the Age of Empires series is likely what comes to mind. The first entry, released in 1997, focused on human history from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, while the second entry focused more heavily on the Middle Ages. Age of Empires 3, released nearly 15 years ago, moved ahead in time to the colonization of the Americas.
Playing the games involves micro- and macro-management of workers and military units belonging to historic civilizations. You must grow a small starting population, collect resources, advance through the ages, and defend against invaders while also planning your attacks. You can enjoy lengthy campaigns, skirmishes against AI, or multiplayer battles while alone or teamed up with friends. The games are relatively easy to pick up, but the best players employ in-depth strategies to get a slight edge on the competition.
Age of Empires 4 is a revival of the series that hopes to capture the old magic while offering something new to veterans and newcomers alike. As mentioned by Relic Entertainment Game Director Quinn Duffy, this is "a spiritual successor to Age of Empires 2." The game spans medieval generations just like the second game, only on a larger scale. Campaigns aim to humanize our history through storytelling; not just through gameplay, but also through live action documentary-style cutscenes and narration.
The team wanted to push the borders of the Age series without stepping out of its bounds. There has been much work done with community members to ensure the game feels like it was built for Age players when it launches. Regular play sessions with a community council made up of series veterans has helped steer the game in the right direction.
Until its release, many RTS fans are returning to Age of Empires thanks to celebrated Definitive Edition remasters that bring updated graphics, reworked mechanics, and overhauled campaigns.
Be sure to check out our Age of Empires: Definitive Edition review, our Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition review, and our Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition review for some extra hype as we await Age of Empires 4.
Who is developing Age of Empires 4?
The first three Age of Empires games (as well as other titles, like Halo Wars) were developed by Ensemble Studios, a team based in Dallas, Texas. After Ensemble was closed down in 2009 following the release of Age of Empires 3, it didn't look good for a fourth title. The Age of Empires series was left to the community, which did its best to keep the games enjoyable and populated.
Thankfully, an internal development studio at Microsoft called "World's Edge" — lead by Shannon Loftis — has been overseeing new Age content, including remasters of the first three games with help from third-party developers like Tantalus, Wicked Witch, and Forgotten Empires. In an interview with Windows Central's Matt Brown, Loftis clarified that Age of Empires no longer belongs to one studio:
Age isn't ours anymore. We're stewards, it belongs to the community, and it belongs to the globe," said Loftis. "There's no world in which a Redmond-centric game development studio is going to get the right global set of voices in. [...] We have contracts; you know about three of our partners, Relic, Tantalus, and Forgotten Empires. We have others that we're not talking about yet. But it is genuinely a global development team. All the teams work together to share assets, share ideas, and the legacy teams are working with Relic.
Age of Empires 4 has been in development alongside the Definitive Edition remasters, with Relic Entertainment taking the lead on the latest entry in the series. According to World's Edge Creative Director Adam Isgreen, this has helped with efforts to keep Age of Empires 4 feeling true to its roots while also standing out:
[W]e've learned so much with all of the launches. It's been a real growing experience, but it's unfair to say that it's one way. We've learned things in the development of Age of Empires IV that we can even put into Age II. For example, the network technology behind the scenes is actually from Relic. All of the Definitive Edition games are now going to have Relic's modern networking backend. [...] It's this great two-way conversation between the old games and the new one, about what we're going to share and how we're going to grow the games.
Age of Empires 4 is built with Relic's proprietary engine that has been used in previous games, now in its fourth version. It has undergone a substantial overhaul over the course of the game's development.
What is gameplay like in Age of Empires 4?
Our first glimpse of Age of Empires 4 gameplay was at X019. This quick glimpse included Pre-Alpha gameplay, but there were plenty of small details to take in. Adam Isgreen had this to say:
Everything in that trailer is real; everything we show will be in the final game. We have wall combat working. That falcon is real, that's gameplay; it's a scout unit. But all that's real, genuine gameplay, and nothing we will show won't be in the game. [...] That is why we waited so long, and what we'll continue doing with Age going forward.
We now have a whole lot more information to work with following the April 10 fan preview event. Age of Empires 4 is a modernized version of the RTS that still feels like an Age game. Your villagers must collect wood, food, gold, and stone. There is still the rock, paper, scissors setup between troops that provides counters for ranged, mounted, and foot units. You'll still need to research technology that benefits your civilization, and you'll still need to advance your civilization through Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age, and Imperial Age.
The Dark Age consists of herding animals, hunting deer (which looks like it can now be accomplished by a scout), building houses, collecting berries next to a mill, planting farms, and building palisade walls to defend against early aggression. Scouts look out for resources, relics, and the enemy. Villagers can still defend themselves, apparently with ranged or close-quarters attacks. And it looks as though monasteries will be a Dark Age building.
The Feudal Age sees stone and gold mining, further domestication of herdable animals (potentially akin to the renewable feature in Age 3), holy site capturing (on part of the Mongols), tower defense, razing of building with a new fire feature, trading, tax collection (on part of the Chinese), and further confrontations with the enemy.
Castle Age moves the game into heavy stone walls, siege equipment, massive armies, and thoughtful city defense. Castles are back and seem to be just as powerful as in previous games. And finally, Imperial Age sees the most powerful units of the game go head to head. Roads between buildings are paved, gunpowder units are present, and enormous armies lay siege to cities. Wonders make a return, allowing for a different sort of victory. Trebuchets take time to set up but do massive damage, and monks can still convert enemy units.
Despite a lot of familiar elements, Age of Empires 4 isn't attempting to rest on the success of Age 2. It has plenty of new features to behold. Military units can now be assigned atop stone walls, and enemies can capture ramparts to rain fire down on a defending city. Pikemen can brace against cavalry charges, archers can create temporary fortifications, monks can convert entire areas of the battlefield, and units can hide in heavily forested areas to ambush enemies, whispering to each other while hidden. There won't be hero units, but there will be support units that can bolster troops in battle. We saw this in the trailer with the Mongol Khan.
Battles will still consist of up to 1,600 units on a multiplayer map, with eight players each having a population cap of 200. Siege will play an important role in the game, allowing slower or defensive players a chance to hold out while they boom an economy. Aggression will almost always be beneficial, however, and the addition of a fire mechanic should get turtled players moving. This is, after all, a game about warfare. Like in Age 2, elevation will play a role in combat. Units with higher ground will have an advantage.
Naval combat is making a return in Age of Empires 4. Not much is known yet, but the end of the preview event video had a number of ships approaching a castle on a hill. For Team Islands players, this is great news.
Pathfinding, an RTS game's chief concern, has been overhauled. Instead of the traditional move from point A to point B in the shortest way possible, Age of Empires 4 should introduce a far more realistic movement. Adam Isgreen explains:
[I]f [you] know real-time strategy games, behind the scenes, it's been run by a find path solution called A* for a billion years, pretty much since its invention, with a few exceptions here and there. One of our big changes is moving to a more organic, more modern solution for find-path, which is called flow-field.
Age-up mechanics — which apply each time you want to move onto the next age — have been tweaked and resemble more Age of Empires 3 than 2. Each civilization has a landmark choice to make when aging up, which will influence the playstyle through the rest of the game. For example, if you're being rushed by an enemy early, you might want to choose a military upgrade on your move to the Feudal Age in order to defend your city.
Age of Empires 4 is looking to take a far more asymmetrical approach to its civilizations, which is going to significantly change up gameplay.
What civilizations are in Age of Empires 4?
We now have confirmation of four playable civilizations, including English, Chinese, Delhi Sultanate, and Mongols. At launch, there will be eight total playable civs, with more on the way post-launch. It's expected that civs will be pulled not just from Europe and Asia, but from other continents around the world. There is mention of "Viking invaders" during the English campaign, so it's likely we will also see Vikings return as a civ.
There is more of a focus on diversity and asymmetrical balancing in Age of Empires 4. There are still generic units and there's still the triangle between pikemen, cavalry, and archers. But civs will differ far more than in previous games. For example, Mongols can pack up their entire city and move on to the next spot. They employ the stone resource differently owing to their nomadic nature. And while some civs will push the boundaries of the Age feel, others — like the English — will play a lot like Britons in Age of Empires 2. This is intentional and will give returning players a sense of familiarity.
Civilizations all have a sense of union between present and past, and it's the civs that left a lasting impression on our world that have made it into the game. Not only will gameplay mechanics change between civs, but so will the graphics and artistic decisions. There is far more detail in Age 4 than in any other Age game, and it's all historically influenced.
What are graphics like in Age of Empires 4?
Age of Empires 4 graphics are a bit of a departure from previous Age games, leaning more on playability than ever before. Art Director Zach Schläppi explained that the cognitive load had to be balanced carefully. There was a need to give players a "what they see is what they get" experience from the game. Passive upgrades are all visually represented in-game, and armor and weapon upgrades are visual in order to ease accessibility. Weapons are larger, colors are distinct, and buildings are easily identifiable thanks to a similar footprint across civs.
Individual units don't need a ton of detail and so appear a bit more cartoonish, especially set against the incredibly detailed landscape with photo-realistic lighting. This game is beautiful, and it's expected that it won't falter on low-end machines.
As for individual civilization art, the throughline of history first is still present. Textures change through the ages. Rooflines of buildings are altered, and as you progress through the ages you begin to see more intricate and ornate architecture. Even the lighting changes as you age up; the Dark Age is dank and gloomy and grim, with more light and saturation appearing as you approach the Renaissance.
Does Age of Empires 4 have a campaign?
Yes, Age of Empires 4 will feature a campaign with a focus on improved and humanized historical accuracy. Whereas a lot of civilization meta in previous Age games played somewhat similarly, there's now a more significant emphasis on separating cultures. This is helped along by a new method of ensuring historical accuracy. Adam Isgreen explains:
[W]e went to Mongolia, learned about Mongols. We didn't go to a professor here in London or someone back in the States. We went to the source to learn how those cultures operated because respecting them and doing them justice is so important.
At launch there will be four playable campaigns set in the Middle Ages. The Age 4 team took Age 2's history and blew it up to a much larger scale. Campaigns are now divided into chapters spanning multiple generations, with hours upon hours of playtime.
We caught a glimpse of the Norman campaign at the April 10 preview event, which involves the rivalry between King Harald, Duke William, and their heirs. It begins with the Battle of Hastings and tells the entire story rather than just focusing on one character.
In order to bridge the gap between game campaign missions and real-life history, Age of Empires 4 attempts to create sort of an interactive documentary. Film crews and documentarians collected footage on location in the places the campaigns visit.
This footage is mixed with narration and a golden overlay that shows how these areas looked in the past and where your units would be standing if they were transported to the present. It's an intriguing way to blend past and present, and with more than three hours worth of historical documentary footage through the game, it's sure to teach a whole new generation of kids.
Who is composing the Age of Empires 4 soundtrack?
Music in the Age of Empires games has traditionally been epic, and many long-time fans of the series can hum the different tracks without any thought. Age of Empires looks to continue this tradition, bringing on composer Mikolai Stroinski to handle the music. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Stroinski composed the music for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Each civilization will have its own theme that expands as the player ages up. Units on the field speak appropriate languages that also evolve as you progress. For example, you won't understand the English units in the Dark Age, but by Imperial Age the words spoken will be much closer to the modern tongue.
What about community modding?
Mods are a huge part of the Age of Empires world, and many people still play modded versions of the old games instead of moving to the new Definitive Editions. Speaking with PCGamesN, Adam Isgreen agrees:
I will tell you that one of the pillars of all of the Age of Empires games is mods and allowing people access to tools that allow them to build great content. We all believe that's one of the reasons Age has lasted as long as it has – because the community has been able to support the game. We have no intention of stopping now with Age IV. It is an integral, huge part of Age IV and is showcased more heavily in some ways than any previous Age game.
Will you need a powerful PC to run Age of Empires 4?
There are not yet definitive specs for PC requirements, but Age of Empires 4 is being developed with inclusivity in mind. It should be able to be enjoyed on integrated graphics, but it will also look spectacular on a high-end system. So far there are no plans set for a console release.
If you're interested in upgrading, be sure to have a look at our collection of the best graphics cards for some great options.
Will Age of Empires IV include microtransactions?
No, Age of Empires 4 will not include microtransactions. In an interview with PCGamesN, Adam Isgreen explained that expansions and DLC "will be explored" while microtransactions are left off the table.
When is the Age of Empires 4 release date?
We now know that Age of Empires 4 is expected to release Fall 2021. A Beta test was mentioned but details are short; we will keep you in the know on that front.
World's Edge lead Shannon Loftis, in an "Age of Empires 2020 in review" article posted on the official Age website late December, had this to say about the game's development:
We are making great progress on Age of Empires IV. I don't want to make you jealous, but we are literally playing this game every day—both in Washington and Vancouver.
RTS development is funny: it takes a while to build the separate systems (AI, economy, sim, rendering, etc.), and then it takes a while for them to come together. But when they do, you suddenly have a game—a game that needs debugging and balance and polish— but the core of the game that you know you're going to ship. And the best part is that it feels like an Age of Empires game.
Our partners at Relic have been incredible stalwarts as we all migrated development from office to home and modified (through trial and error) our processes to help facilitate productivity to keep the game on track. So much passion, such great developers, artists, designers, narrators, audio experts, and community—not to mention the backbone functions that keep the company going.
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