For context of my perspective, I am a long time Age of Empires fan that played AoE2 on CD back in The Zone days and have been with this franchise since the start, purchasing and playing every iteration, remaster, expansion, DLC, etc. I have over several hundreds of hours logged between AoE4 and all three definitive editions, which doesn’t even include the the CD, HDD or other versions of the game. So, anyway…here’s my take for anyone that cares to listen.
AoE4 is a solid entry in the franchise, but here’s the kicker…it was never going to make everyone happy. It’s very clear that the devs tried to make this game a culmination of the franchise and take pieces from each title to try and create a nice blend of mechanics. Frankly, this is exactly what I wanted from AoE4; a good blend of the AoE franchise. Every game in the series is vastly different from each other and I enjoy different aspects of every game. For me, I was hoping that AoE4 would be the crossroads that connects all three previous games…and that’s exactly what they did.
The problem with this design philosophy is that AoE4 was never (and is never) going to be AoE2 enough for the hardcore AoE2 fans…or AoE3 enough for the hardcore AoE3 fans. I see frequently on these forums several folks that will complain in one post that the game isn’t enough like AoE2 or AoE3, while immediately going to another post and complain that it’s not innovative or different enough. This is an oxymoron. My advice is to let AoE4 be AoE4 and stop overly comparing it to AoE2 or AoE3. We already have AoE2 and AoE3.
AoE4 is not, by any stretch of the imagination an “AoE2 clone”. When comparing AoE2 and AoE3 you have two very different games that are reaching two very different demographics.
AoE2 is very geared towards the competitive scene and big micro plays. It was made during the height of the RTS genre and it leaned heavily into that competitive appeal during the height of the genre’s popularity. AoE2 is fantastic and, personally, my introduction into the series. However, it does come with a very steep learning curve compared to the other titles, if you haven’t been playing it for the past two decades.
AoE3, on the other hand, was very much built for new players. Not just new AoE players, but players new to the RTS genre, as a whole. They stripped a lot of the micro out and attempted to make it more accessible to players that have never touched an RTS. Keep in mind that this game was made during a decline in popularity for RTS games, so the franchise was obviously looking at ways to be more broadly accessible and bring in some new players.
But what about AoE4? AoE4 is the fulcrum. AoE2 and AoE3 are two completely different games sitting at very opposite extremes of the RTS spectrum. AoE2 is highly competitive and complex, whole AoE3 is more user friendly and easier to pick up. AoE4 sits in the middle of those two extremes, which places it in a precarious position. As stated earlier, it’s not AoE2 enough for AoE2 fans and not AoE3 enough for AoE3 players.
This is not a discussion on which game is “better”, but rather what role each game fills. AoE4 clearly aimed to fill the gap between the extremes of AoE2 and AoE3. Frankly, I think they succeeded at this in several ways by taking bits and pieces from each game, while adding new things on top of it. Drop off points from AoE2, semi-asymmetrical civs from AoE3, sacred sites from AoE1, just to name a few. I can go into a deep dive on what concepts and philosophies it took from the other games (and I may do that in another post later on), but that’s not what this discussion is about. This is about letting AoE4 be its own game and stop the hard comparisons to AoE2 or AoE3. Yes…It is going to have elements from both games. No, it is not going to have EVERY element from both games. They have to strike a balance between satisfying to VERY different types of players and I feel that we, as players, need to be more realistic with our expectations by not expecting this game to have everything you loved from the other games in the franchise, but expect that it will take some thing from your beloved title, while being understanding that it will take some concepts and mechanics from the titles that you don’t like. Again…let AoE4 be its own game and stop looking at it through the lense of whatever your preferred game is. You already have that game.
That being said, yes. AoE4 DID play it safe with AoE4. No, they didn’t innovate. Because, frankly, the majority of the AoE community does not receive innovation well. I said it. Remember when AoE3 tried to innovate and push the series forward by introducing a lot of new concepts and ideas? I do. I remember the backlash that it got from the die-hard AoE fans and the criticism that it still gets today for being different, sixteen years later. It innovated and added new things, which resulted in it “not feeling like an Age of Empires game”. But, they did add new things. They innovated in small ways on the series, including: hunting with your scouts, sheep following your scouts, standing on walls, adding Masteries (which I can get into a whole discussion about how great these are as another layer of learning the game and making new players aware of the practical functionality of different civs and their unique mechanics, beyond basic mechanics in controlled scenarios).
That being said, no. It is not a perfect game and there are fundamental QoL things that need to be added to make the game more polished, such as a global queue, Shift-Queue markers and ranked games. Yes, there does need to be some balance changes and optimizations, but that is going to be true for this game’s entire life. Remember…they are STILL making balance changes and optimizations to AoE2, 22 years later. AoE3 and, yes, the “holy grail” AoE2 both suffered from poor optimizations and massive imbalances at launch that had to be ironed out over time. Many never played AoE2 (or were even alive) when it launched, but it had just a tumultuous launch with a bunch of game breaking bugs that needed fixed (anyone else remember the Teuton TC Rush?)…and the first patch for that game didn’t come until almost a year later.
TL;DR - AoE4 is a very valiant effort to try and appeal to two VERY different player demographics. It has and will take some ideas from AoE2, but not all of them. Same goes for AoE3. Love AoE2, but hate AoE3? You’re likely going to love some parts of AoE4 and hate others. Love AoE3, but hate AoE2? Same goes for you. For me, I loved both AoE2 and AoE3 for different reasons and AoE4 seems to be a very enjoyable balance between the design philosophies that each game offered. It’s a healthy middle ground between the extremes of both games and, for that reason, is likely going to become my new favorite in the franchise.