Age of Empires IV promises eight “semi-symmetrical” civilizations

age of empires iv
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Age of Empires IV is almost here — and it’s right on time. After Age of Empires: Definitive Edition in 2018, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition in 2019 and Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition in 2021, it’s only fitting that we’ll get a brand-new installment in the franchise this fall. Age of Empires IV will debut in late 2021 for Xbox Game Pass and Steam, with a closed beta coming even sooner.

Tom’s Guide attended an Age of Empires IV press briefing with Microsoft, where we learned what to expect from the latest entry in this fan-favorite real-time strategy series. If you’re ready to conquer the medieval world all over again, here’s what you need to know about the civilizations, campaigns and game design in Age of Empires IV.

age of empires iv

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Age of Empires IV civilizations

First and foremost: Age of Empires IV is an historical real-time strategy game, just like its three predecessors. Like Age of Empires II, Age of Empires IV hones in on the medieval era, from the fall of Rome up through the beginning of the Gunpowder Era. This marks the first time the series has moved backward in history, as Age of Empires began in the Stone Age, and Age of Empires III left off in the middle of the 19th century. However, the devs pointed out that anything more modern would technically have to be about nation-states rather than empires.

As in previous Age of Empires games, your goal in IV is to take control of a civilization, and lead it through hundreds of years of history. To do so, you’ll need to build up cities, research new technologies and wage war against neighboring civilizations with a variety of infantry, cavalry, archer and siege units. While a game like Age of Empires II has 37 civilizations (and counting), Age of Empires IV will start small with eight civilizations.

However, Age of Empires IV will play a little differently from previous entries in the series. In the first two games, civilizations generally shared buildings and units, differing mostly in which strategies they favored. In Age of Empires IV, the civilizations will be “semi-symmetrical.” This means that they’ll share certain units and gameplay mechanics in common, but for the most part, their methods of gathering resources, constructing buildings and waging war will be very different. This sounds somewhat similar to Age of Empires III, where every race had fairly different units, but the gameplay differences in IV seem more pronounced.

Before we dive into the mechanics, here are all the civilizations we know about so far:

  • English
  • Normans
  • Mongols
  • Chinese
  • Delhi Sultanate

That leaves three more. I asked the devs whether we could expect to see any New World civilizations, or whether Age of Empires IV would restrict itself to Europe and Asia. They didn’t confirm any New World civilizations specifically, but did mention that the core game would, indeed, go beyond Europe and Asia. Whether that means African civilizations, Mesoamerican civilizations or something else entirely, we’ll have to wait to find out.

age of empires iv

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Age of Empires IV gameplay

The devs showed us two extended sequences of empire-building and battle. The first match cast the Chinese against the Mongols; the second cast the English against the Delhi Sultanate. While we didn’t spend too long on any given match, it helped give a good idea of how an average Age of Empires IV session might go. It also introduced us to some of the stark gameplay differences between various civilizations.

The English/Delhi Sultanate match began in the Dark Age, where there wasn’t much to do except build farms, gather berries, construct houses and erect crude palisade walls. An English scout attacked a contingent of Delhi miners; Delhi pikemen fought back.

Things got more interesting in the Feudal Age, where we got to see the Mongols and the Chinese get their bases in gear. The Chinese built a fairly conventional city with a town center, farms, a barracks and so forth. But the Mongols gave us our first look at some of the unique features we can expect from each civilization. When the Mongols were ready to go on the offensive, they simply packed up their yurts and took their entire base with them to a new section of the map. (This makes sense, as the Mongols essentially did the same thing in real life.) Tactics like this could open up a whole world of strategic options — but I’m also curious what kind of unique features the Chinese might have to counteract the hit-and-run playstyle.

As the game moved into the Castle Age, we got to see the Delhi Sultanate’s unique feature: warriors mounted on elephants. These hardy, destructive units assaulted the sturdy stone walls of an English fortress, where individual archers rained arrows on enemy soldiers below.

The Imperial Age match between the Mongols and the Chinese was where we got to see Age of Empires IV in all its glory. The Chinese had a huge flourishing city, full of castles and siege workshops, protected by gunpowder weapons. The Mongols had a huge army of cavalry, horse archers and trebuchets. A huge battle raged — but we didn’t get to see who won. Players will have to try out similar matches for themselves.

age of empires iv

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Age of Empires IV campaigns

One unique feature of Age of Empires IV is its approach to campaigns. In Age of Empires and Age of Empires II, players took control of important historical figures, like Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan, and played out some of their pivotal battles. Age of Empires III, on the other hand, cast players as fictional characters who butted up against some of the great moments in Early Modern history, like the American Revolution and the Sepoy Mutiny.

Age of Empires IV hews closer to the first two games, but with an added twist: documentary footage. As players relive historical sagas, they’ll watch interludes with commentary from historians and drone footage of real locations. The devs have promised more than three hours of documentary footage, which will also introduce players to medieval technology, science and manuscripts.

The game will have four campaigns in total, and the devs say that each one will last for “hours and hours and hours.” Unlike Age of Empires II, the campaigns in Age of Empires IV won’t focus on single historical figures, but rather whole dynasties of them.

At present, we know about only one campaign: William the Conqueror. In Age of Empires II, players had a short introduction to this Norman king, who crossed the Channel and conquered England. But in Age of Empires IV, William defeating the English king Harold is only the first chapter of his campaign. From there, players will learn about how William pacified the British Isles, and the war of succession among his sons. The story will even continue past that, to show what happened to England under William’s grandchildren.

age of empires iv

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Upgrades for Age of Empires II and Age of Empires III

We learned a few other tidbits about Age of Empires IV. The are no plans for an Xbox port at present; there will be a full suite of multiplayer options; the game’s visual design will give cues to help players learn its myriad systems; the devs wanted to keep the game as accessible as possible, knowing how many children learned to love history through the Age of Empires series.

But we also learned that the rest of the series is also due for a few new upgrades. Later this year, Age of Empires II will receive the Dawn of the Dukes expansion, which focuses on territorial wars in Eastern Europe. Players will also be able to tackle certain campaign missions in co-op for the first time ever. There won’t be any new civilizations, however.

Age of Empires III, on the other hand, has two big updates in the wings. One will come within the next few months — and if you play your cards right, you can get it for free. The United States will arrive as a full-fledged civilization, with a new explorer, a new home city and nine new units. By completing in-game challenges, you can get the United States civ for free, or you can just pay for it outright. Later this year, Age of Empires III will get a full expansion focusing on African civilizations.

We’ll have more info on the Age of Empires II and III expansions as they become available. And we’ll also have updates once the Age of Empires IV beta gets underway. In the meantime, if you want to spoil the campaign’s story in advance, you can crack open any high school history textbook.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.