Should Age of Empires IV reinvent the series?

Age of Empires 4 has been announced at Gamescom 2017 and  veteran RTS developer Relic Entertainment is making it. It's a pleasant surprise because we love Age of Empires, of course, but also because the series is an interesting fit for a studio famous for Company of Heroes, Dawn of War and Homeworld—all challenging strategy games featuring contemporary or far-future warfare. Do we want classic Age of Empires, spruced up in a modern engine, or is this an opportunity to try something new with AoE's core ideas.

Samuel Roberts: I'm so glad Microsoft has revived the series. They've been talking up their plans for PC gaming for a long time, but this, to me, is the strongest evidence yet that they mean it—a PC-only strategy game, with no Xbox ties. I'll probably have to download Age of Empires IV from the dreaded Windows Store, but I'll do it for this series. Employing an RTS expert like Relic to bring the series back from the dead (new AoE2 HD expansions aside) is a sign to me that they want credibility with PC players, even if I consider Relic's games to be on the other end of the RTS scale to AoE as I've traditionally seen it. What do you think, Tom?

Tom Senior: Relic has made my favourite RTS games ever, including Homeworld and Company of Heroes. Their games are quite technical with a focus on positioning and tactics, tenets that I wouldn’t associate with Age of Empires. I have fond memories of the AoE, but they were always games about chopping down trees until you have enough chariots to run over your under-teched AI opponent. I’m excited because there’s a chance Relic will throw that old format in the bin and design a modern historical RTS from scratch. I want to see the idea of evolving eras in an RTS match interpreted in a new way and Relic has the experience and the design clout to do it.

In terms of where they could take Age of Empires, the Rise of Nation series already did a good job of evolving the idea in the early 2000s. RoN grew the scale and encouraged you to build multiple cities on a map. It was real time strategy with the decentralised power of a grand strategy game where you have lots of production hubs. Relic has stayed away from large-scale RTS design for the most part, though, and that’s where I struggle to anticipate what they will make. Would Age of Empires work on a smaller tactical scale?

Samuel: My memory of Age of Empires is similar, as well—I played the HD edition of AoEII a lot. I recall it as a series about sending many cannons to destroy William Wallace's castle, as well as mad shit like getting your fully-upgraded monks to convert enemy buildings to your side. I roughly place it in the same category as the C&C games, where it still ultimately comes down to who has the biggest army and most farms/quarries in who'll squash the other sides, rather than moment-to-moment tactics, using the environment and so on. 

It's hard to tell what Microsoft will want: play it safe, and create a shiny version of the games that people loved in the late '90s and early '00s, with a different set of historical armies and figures? Or like you say, throw the old format in the bin? I think they'll do something between: something that has the scale and look of Age of Empires with some of the tactics/positioning stuff Relic is renowned for. I mean, why get them involved if you're not going to play to their strengths?

One thing I always loved about AoE is how intricate a turtling strategy could be: building immense walls to protect your borders, barricading units in castles to sling arrows at invaders, upgrading your towers. It was terrific for base customisation, and I hope there's a strong focus on that in this return. What do you think they should focus on in terms of historical theme, Tom? 

Tom: The announcement video features a range of technology, from spears to muskets, which is about the same historical reach of the first two games. That suggests AoE4 won’t go full Rise of Nations, pushed all the way through to the information age. I want them to keep the satisfying sense of progression you get watching your buildings tech up through each era, but I also want historical units with distinct behaviour. I want peltasts to have very distinct utility to hoplites. It’s fun to make a huge blob of units and right click on the enemy fortress, but this reboot is an opportunity to give Age of Empires extra tactical depth. 

I also think it should be accessible. Dawn of War 3 ran into difficulties scaling up the game without stripping out some of its systems, the result was more fiddly than it needed to be to deliver tense, competitive games. If you overcomplicate things you risk muddying Age of Empires’ appeal, which is simple: build a town and field big armies made up of the coolest units in history. On this point I’m confident. Relic designs units that look great and feel good to order around. 

I’m mostly happy that big studios are still making real time strategy games in 2017, though this sounds like it’s a while away.

Samuel: I think differentiation between unit types is something Dawn of War 3 does really well, even though, like you say, it was too overwhelming on that scale to take off as it could've done. Perhaps there's scope to expand Age of Empires IV into the information age with expansions. Or indeed, the age of mythology? 

When Microsoft brought back Ensemble's Halo Wars using one of Sega's studios, Creative Assembly, they stuck pretty closely to what those games were good at. 12 years have passed between installments of Age of Empires, though, so I think this needs to feel contemporary. Like you say, there's less and less big studios making RTS games now, so either way, this will be the genre's most important moment in years.

All that aside, though, I'm delighted Age of Empires is back. It's one of the series I played the most as a younger man, and what a treat that Microsoft is bringing it back with Relic, rather than as a bad F2P mobile game with cartoon graphics. 

Fingers crossed for a rad-as-hell scenario editor. Age of Empires has a fine history of those.

Tom: The scenario editors did a good job of tapping into the fantasy sandbox feel of Age of Empires. It's quite silly to power through various epochs of human development in 40 minutes, especially when it ends with knights charging dudes with clubs. I don't want a new AoE to be limited by painstaking attention to historical accuracy. I want to command brash, exciting versions of iconic warriors of the past and stress test them against forces they would never have fought. If the game ends up being a straightforward retreading of the first games, I'd still be excited if Age of Empires IV manages to deliver exciting spectacle—shining armies, big battles, and the occasional background noise of a bunch of old men going "wololoo."

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.