Age of Empires 4 hasn’t even got an official release date yet, but it has already shown the potential to propel the strategy genre forward. A trailer and a few scraps of information might be all we have to go on, but it’s apparent the game has massive promise.
A fantastic cocktail of accessible gameplay, appealing IP and cross-platform gaming, means the next instalment of Age of Empires could drag strategy games back into the spotlight. Add to that a hugely excited fanbase who are practically frothing at the mouth for a new release – remember Age of Empires III came out way back in 2005 – and the stage is set.
Key to the game being both critically and financially successful will be how well it walks the fine line between accessibility and appealing yet complex gameplay mechanics.
The series swung too far towards accessibility, in the eyes of many fans, when it released the mobile game, Age of Empires Online. The 2011 free-to-play game was an over-simplification, masterminded by developers who previously had nothing to do with the series.
Instead, Robot Entertainment was best known for tower defence game, Orcs Must Die! And Gas Powered Games for the Dungeon Siege series and Supreme Commander 2. The change of regime showed in the game’s cartoon-y visuals and its lack of a meaningful challenge for gamers.
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Relic Entertainment – creators of the well-respected Company of Heroes series – seem like a much safer pair of hands. One glance at the Age of Empires 4 gameplay trailer and we can already see that the developers are doing a good job of balancing bright, eye-catching visuals, with more realistic detailing.
Why is accessibility so important to the success of Age of Empires 4 then?
Primarily, that’s because strategy gaming is a genre that can produce some pretty opaque titles. One of the most successful strategy gaming series of all time, the Total War series, has consistently produced amazing games, but they’re titles that many gamers – those who want pick-up-and-play fun – wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
The legendary turn-based strategy series is a deserved favourite, but it’s not likely to attract the mainstream console gamer. Age of Empires can – and all the early signs point to its appearing on both console and PC, although cross-platform availability is unconfirmed at this stage.
Several recent releases, including a couple of instalments of the Tropico series, have reminded gamers that strategy games can work on consoles. There are plenty of strategy gamers who will scoff, both at the suggestion of RTS gaming on a console, and the idea that a simpler format could be just as enjoyable as more expansive games. But I defy any of them to pick up a classic Age of Empires title and not enjoy it.
The addition of console play could see this game cross audiences, appealing to the devoted PC strategists, and capturing some of the crowd who love pick-up-and-play console thrills. That’s because Age of Empires is simple. The nature of real-time strategy is inherently simpler than turn-based, or board-game-style strategy games because there are no rules to learn. The RTS sub-genre is arguably ailing at the moment, but Age of Empires is a game that can bring it back and make waves in the wider strategy genre.
The series has a devoted following and it’s an IP with proven appeal. That’s been evidenced by recent remastered ‘Definitive Editions’ of AoE and AoE 2. Both brought gamers running back to the series and whet appetites for a new instalment.
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While the RTS sub-genre is widely regarded as an ailing gaming niche, there have been plenty of interesting recent RTS’s: games like last year’s compelling fantasy, Driftland: The Magic Revival. However, as a whole, it seems fair to say that RTS games have slipped an awful long way from the limelight (though some simplified mobile games with similar guiding principles remain popular). The wider strategy genre isn’t faring so badly but, I think, Age of Empires 4 could be the first household name RTS in quite a long time.
Of course, this is presuming a lot about a game we know very little about. But there are a couple of reasons that it’s not exactly a leap of faith. Firstly, Relic Entertainment has a great track record and seems like the perfect studio to take on the challenge of reviving the franchise. Secondly, the gameplay footage we’ve seen adds one or two appealing details to the evergreen AoE formula. Units can climb walls now, to defend your besieged town, there are new terrain types and the level of detail in buildings and unit behaviours has hit new levels too. We’re sure there are more great additions to come and can’t wait to see more of AoE 4.
The recent spate of HD remasters of classic RTS’s (Warhammer 3: Reforged, aforementioned AoE definitive editions, Commandos 2 remaster and Preatorian HD remaster,) shows there is an appetite for classic real-time strategy gaming. Would that appetite not be better served by a modern entry to the genre, with all the classic calling cards and some exciting additions? If so, who could possibly be better suited to serving that up than Relic and the Age of Empires series?
The simple fact is, people are still playing and loving the 1999 classic, Age of Empires 2. So, if Relic can produce a passable modernisation of the formula, they will capture series fans. Go a little further though, (we’re sure they will,) and the game’s accessible formula, well-known IP and potential cross-platform availability, could see it revitalise strategy gaming for the masses.
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