Tom's Guide Verdict
Age of Empires IV may not redefine the real-time strategy genre like its predecessors, but it’s still a deep and challenging dive into the world of medieval warfare.
Gripping core gameplay
Inventive campaign mode
Varied civilizations and objectives
Not as innovative as past AoE games
Why you can trust Tom's Guide
Release Date: October 28, 2021
Age of Empires IV is a good game. In fact, it’s arguably a great game. It’s important to state that up front and unequivocally, because fans have been waiting 16 years to find out. A lot has happened in the gaming world since Age of Empires III debuted in 2005, including the dissolution of the series’ original developer. But Age of Empires IV proves that the “historical real-time strategy” formula still has a lot of life left in it, and that no other series does it quite as well as this one.
On the other hand, Age of Empires IV has a lot to live up to. The first game was bold; the third was innovative; the second is still one of the greatest RTS games of all time. (Age of Empires Online was also an interesting and worthwhile experiment, but I digress.) Compared to its predecessors, there’s no denying that AoE IV plays it pretty safe. It has the same setting as Age of Empires II, as well as many of the same civilizations, units, strategies and campaign arcs. At its best, AoE IV is polished, refined and a ton of fun to play. At its worst, it can feel like a “greatest hits” album.
Still, series fans and newcomers alike should find a lot to enjoy in AoE IV’s meticulously crafted civilizations, varied game modes and inventive campaign —one of the best I’ve ever encountered in an RTS. Read on for our full Age of Empires IV review.
Age of Empires IV review: Gameplay
If you’ve played the first three games in the series, then you know exactly what you’re in for with Age of Empires IV. In this medieval RTS, you’ll take control of a small group of villagers, eventually turning your small settlement into a thriving city. In most game modes, you’ll need to build up an army to wage war against enemy soldiers and besiege their towns. But even if you choose to build your empire through economic might, you’ll have to defend your borders, build up your resources and upgrade your technology as you advance from the Dark Age to the Imperial Age.
Age of Empires IV has essentially the same structure as the games that preceded it, and that structure works as well now as it did in 1997. It’s still incredibly satisfying to see your civilization grow from a handful of villagers and a town center into a bustling metropolis, with soldiers, horsemen and priests, as well as universities, monasteries and castles.
Likewise, it’s satisfying to field a diverse army, improve its weapons and armor over time, and then march it out into the field to do battle with opposing forces. AoE IV maintains the series’ “rock-paper-scissors” balance among infantry, cavalry, and archers. But since each civilization has somewhat different units to choose from, you’ll have to plan out your army strategically, and maneuver it tactically. You’ll also need siege weapons for later stages of the game, and it’s just as satisfying as ever to watch stone walls crumble under a barrage of trebuchet fire, or a battery of battering rams.
AoE IV offers eight different civilizations: the English, the French, the Mongols, the Rus, the Chinese, the Holy Roman Empire, the Delhi Sultanate and the Abbasid Dynasty. It’s a healthy mix that spans Europe, Asia and the Middle East, although the game feels like it could use some New World and African civilizations. Hopefully an expansion somewhere down the line will add in civilizations like the Aztecs and the Ethiopians, which added a lot to previous games.
The developers describe AoE IV’s eight playable civilizations as “semi-symmetrical.” This means that they’re not quite as distinct as the three different races in a game like StarCraft — but also not as similar as the 35 different civilizations in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Civilizations generally share units and buildings, but when they don’t, the differences can be profound.
For example: as the English, your town center creates villagers, who gather food, wood, stone and gold through dedicated resource-drop buildings. The Mongols need the same resources, from the same villagers. But they use an all-purpose mobile resource drop point called a “ger,” while they can’t mine stone directly, opting instead for an auto-mining structure called an “ovoo.”
Likewise, the English army favors longbowmen, while the Mongol army favors cavalry archers called mangudai. Since each civilization has different bonuses and drawbacks, which affect both their economies and their militaries, developing strategies for each civilization is a consistently challenging and delightful part of the experience.
The big question, of course, is whether any of this plays significantly better than in the previous Age of Empires games. AoE IV feels fairly straightforward and streamlined, with fewer types of units and technologies than AoE II. On the other hand, this also makes the game much more approachable, and makes the eight civilizations feel much more distinct from one another.
The game can still be quite challenging, particularly on higher difficulties — but it’s worth noting that the lower difficulties are more inviting than ever for new (or younger) players. I’m not convinced that AoE IV has the very best gameplay in the series, but I am convinced that it deftly balances challenge, accessibility, innovation and formula.
Age of Empires IV review: Multiplayer and game modes
During the Age of Empires IV review period, there weren’t a ton of players on hand for impromptu multiplayer matches. However, this will change on launch day, so it’s worth at least going over the game modes available.
You can play in Quick Match or Ranked games, with up to eight players in a single match. With 17 maps, eight civilizations and a variety of other gameplay options (win conditions, starting Age, resource scarcity and so forth), multiplayer could conceivably keep you busy for quite some time. I’ve only ever dabbled in the AoE competitive scene, so I couldn’t say whether longtime AoE II players will want to jump ship or stay where they are; I can say, however, that AoE IV seems deep enough that a “perfect” metagame may take some time to emerge.
If you prefer to play by yourself, AoE IV has you covered as well. There’s the standard skirmish mode, where you can pick any civilization you want, and square off against any other civilization you want, on any map, with any resource distribution, and on any difficulty level. You can also team up with other players or an AI against larger teams of foes, or play through a handful of other creative modes. For example, in The Three Crowns, you and two AI opponents might have to wind your way through a gigantic mazelike map. In the Pinnacle of Civilization, you play as the Delhi Sultanate, and must defend a Wonder throughout the Ages.
It’s in its campaign where Age of Empires IV positively shines, though. Instead of the “storybook about historical figures” approach in AoE II or the “adventure narrative that brushes up against history” approach in AoE III, AoE IV leans into what it’s always been: a fun way to learn about world history. The four campaigns — English, French, Mongol and Rus — play out like history documentaries, completed with a narrator, animated maps and 4K drone footage of real-world locations where famous battles took place. As you complete missions, you’ll even unlock optional videos all about medieval technology, culture and warfare, which feature expert interviews and real-life demonstrations of archery, construction and even siege warfare.
The highest praise I can give the campaign is that if Microsoft wanted to isolate the video footage and sell it as a standalone documentary, I honestly think it would get a whole slew of non-gamers interested in the Age of Empires series.
Age of Empires IV review: Visuals and sound
The one area where Age of Empires IV doesn’t fully deliver is in its in-game visuals. There’s nothing really wrong with the little men and women who populate your medieval town, but they don’t look all that different from the models we’ve seen in the Definitive Editions of the last three AoE games. The buildings are more impressive, particularly how they fall apart as you besiege them, as well as the little silhouettes of workers you’ll see as they’re under construction.
Musically speaking, AoE IV is up to series standards, with a variety of ambient medieval tunes that fade into the background as you’re building, and come roaring to the foreground as you wage war. This time around, each civilization has a slightly different set of music, from Chinese strings, to French brass, to Mongolian throat singing. There’s also a healthy variety of sound effects, from the clang of sword against sword, to the whoosh of stones flying from a trebuchet.
Age of Empires IV review: Bottom line
We’ve waited a long time for Age of Empires IV, and generally speaking, it was worth the wait. Like its predecessors, AoE IV is a polished RTS with deep core gameplay, a robust campaign and lots of potential for online multiplayer. It also might just teach you a thing or two about medieval history, particularly if you play its best-in-class campaign mode.
I don’t know if AoE IV will have the staying power of AoE II, particularly since there’s a “been there, done that” feel to both the medieval setting and a lot of the campaign missions. But excellent historical RTS games aren’t exactly commonplace lately, so getting one of this caliber is a treat. As for whether AoE IV continues to expand and grow, that will depend a lot on which civilizations, campaigns and gameplay features are coming next.
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.