Gamestar Age of Empires 4 preview
Sometimes it surprises me how popular GameStar is around the world. Anyway, Chris Rubyor, design director at Xbox Game Studios and new real-time strategy developer World’s Edge, remembers Jörg Langer and Martin Deppe well.
both of them have visited the developer over the last 25 years, where Rubyor has been working on RTS pearls such as Command & Conquer, Star Wars: Empire at War and The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth.
Now, Rubyor is developing Age of Empires 4 together with Relic Entertainment, the creators of Company of Heroes, to the finishing touches - and he’s not the only developer involved in this mammoth project who made the genre big in the ‘90s and early’ 2000s.
AoE4, however, faces a much more difficult task than all the old classics: it should bring the real-time strategy out of the crisis, modernize the mix of base building and giant battles, kiss a genre that is in deep sleep and delight millions of potential RTS players.
And for that Age of Empires 4 returns to the most popular scenario of the series: the Middle Ages.
Age of Empires 4 will be like AoE2, but prettier.
Adam Isgreen cannot wait. He wants me to see the first AoE4 gameplay trailer before all the other journalists and viewers at the XO London event on November 14, 2019.
Isgreen, Creative Director for the entire franchise, sits in front of me in a restaurant on the eve of the show, with the appetizer plate between us. He pulls out his cell phone.
“Woe!” Threatens Shannon Loftis. The studio boss of World’s Edge, Microsoft’s new RTS division, cannot believe it: “It’s not okay to show the game to the very first person outside the studio on a cell phone!” Adam Isgreen grudges, "Yes, okay, you probably will not see this beautiful 4K trailer on my small smartphone display. " Then they showed me Age of Empires 4 on a laptop they brought along - and it looks like the best of Age of Empires 2 in modern 3D.
The buildings of the British shown are immediately recognizable for veterans of Age of Empires 2, AoE4 evokes nostalgia despite its new graphics engine. The buildings of the British are immediately recognizable for connoisseurs of Age of Empires 2, AoE4 evokes nostalgia despite new graphics engine.
I see a city surrounded by mighty walls. Organic-looking walls, much more intricate and rounder than ever possible in the strict, angular Age of Empires 2 construction system. For the first time archers are patrolling between the battlements, units can be sent up to the walls through doors at the base of the wall. Mighty stone towers (an upgrade to unstable wooden spy posts) sit like rocks in the river in the wall, wooden stems at their sides. Torches burn on the ramparts, a few meters further to the ornament placed weapon racks.
Outside the gates, which open automatically when allied units come close, the golden corn swirls in the wind, farms surround a typical AoE2 mill. At the sight of the city, veterans of the franchise who have already celebrated Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, will be brought to tears: All the buildings known from Part 2 are back with it and immediately recognizable, despite new 3D graphics. Barracks, University, Archery and the Market. The church where monks are trained. A blacksmith. And the town is crowned by a typical medieval castle.
Villagers roam among the buildings, military units move up and down in formation. There are tenements in one corner of the city, they look like developer Relic has rigorously transferred them from the 2D look of their favorite predecessor to the latest installment of the series and its gorgeous, colorful 3D look.
The familiarity is not by chance, it is a settlement of the British, which we see in the trailer. In Age of Empires 4, the English are one of the factions that reminds both visually and playfully most of the old serial parts. Their antagonists settled in the gameplay cutting and the completely different spectrum of civilizations of AoE4: the Mongols.
Major innovations outside the scenario
“Civilizations are playing very differently this time,” Adam Isgreen reveals. For now, Microsoft only shows British and Mongols, but of course there will be more to the release of Age of Empires 4. However, the developers would rather emphasize the differences than include a large number of factions in the game, which, like Age of Empires 2, only differ in certain special units. Therefore, according to Isgreen, Age of Empires 4 has fewer ethnic groups than Age of Empires 2 - at that time there were 13 playable races without addons.
"All civilizations use the four resources food, wood, stone and gold, but not all of them collect them in the same way, use them in the same way and need them in the same ratio.”
While the British play a classic game - from building a base with a village center to increasing the population limit by building new homes - the Mongolians are a very strong rush nation that can quickly launch attacks at the beginning of a game thanks to their cavalry. But also, their economy and unit recruitment could be extremely different from the other nations, as Isgreen suggests, without going into details.
“Will the Mongols not have a base building? I didn’t say that.”
I ask him: Are the Mongolians in AoE4 perhaps playing like the Huns in Total War: Atilla, as a wandering steppe tribe that only settles in tents from time to time to raise new troops? He grins. And he is silent.
I use the breathing space to watch the trailer again. There is a huge army of Mongols at the gates of this peaceful city. Trebuchets are set up, the walls are bombarded with boulders, a tower collapses thanks to an elaborate destruction simulation, the British army moves out and there is a huge battle outside the gates of the city.
Several hundred units collapse on each other - what is the unit limit of Age of Empires 4? You don’t want to give concrete details yet. “We don’t want to promise any features until we’re sure we can guarantee them with our technology,” explains Shannon Loftis. But your Creative Director Adam Isgreen assures us that they didn’t cheat for the gameplay video.
In multiplayer mode, Age of Empires 4 will support games for eight players and everyone should command a stately army. In single player mode and campaign mode, however, you can then distribute this common unit maximum between computer AI and the solo player to stage truly gigantic battles. Just like in the trailer.
Age of Empires 4: Crunch Point Campaign
The video of the XO is a teaser, even at dinner the staff of the new studio World’s Edge are very reserved, do not want to reveal too much. But Adam Isgreen tells me a few details. The topography of the presented map shows extremely high mountains modelled in 3D. And troops that are now allowed to stand on the walls for the first time have a height advantage over attackers placed on the ground.
“But the problem is always how we make it visible,” says the Creative Director. “Do we give projectiles fired from elevated positions a different color? That was an idea. Everything on the screen should have a connection to the gameplay, every unit upgrade must be visually recognizable.”
Formations will again play a major role in Age of Empires 4, but the developers will rethink the basics of the real-time strategy themselves: How can you change the attack move (a unit moves to the target and attacks enemies independently along the way), does the patrol function need an update? At the same time, you want to orientate yourself very strongly on the DNA of Age of Empires. “This will be a tightrope act,” says Adam Isgreen. He and his colleagues at World’s Edge, the 30-member internal Microsoft team, are therefore working closely with lead developer Relic.
When asked about the type of collaboration, everyone present is full of praise for the studio, which recently received critic from parts of the fan community for Warhammer. “Relic is making extreme efforts to ensure it feels like Age of Empires,” says Isgreen. “I’m the one who has to tell them from time to time to turn to new ideas.”
But what’s new in Age of Empires 4? Well, that’s still largely a secret, but Isgreen promises for the campaigns that “you’ve never played anything like it”. How does he tie that to? “Internally, we’re talking about humanizing history.” Our guess? Isgreen alludes to a special form of storytelling, probably Age of Empires 4 again puts historical personalities like Jeanne d’Arc in the foreground of the campaigns.
“We have tried hard to authentically represent the cultures present in the game.” And then Isgreen oracles before he gets a nasty look from his secretive colleagues: “That’s important for the campaigns. That’s all I can say.”
All right let’s talk about facts that are no longer a secret: Special and hero units are confirmed for Age of Empires 4, with the Mongols the Khane take over this function. One of the abilities of these leaders is prominently presented in the trailer, without the viewer noticing it at first glance: The falcon who uncovers the British settlement at the beginning of the video does the same in the game.
The winged scout can be sent out by special ability (probably with cooldown) to uncover the Fog of War on the selected location on the map, then circles for a while and provides the Mongols with such important information about the enemy forces. Say hello to the drone of the Middle Ages!
Ages and sieges
Speaking of the Middle Ages. What the scenario trailer doesn’t tell you: Age of Empires 4 will cover a larger time period than the original Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings (at that time about 1100 to 1431 AD), you will enter the campaigns earlier as well as stop later in the Middle Ages. The focus is again on Europe, “but we want to broaden it,” Adam Isgreen says. So, Asia or Africa as additional locations, we ask curiously? The creative director smiles and remains silent. No comment - of course.
Then let’s talk about the gameplay! That’ll again include four civilization levels or ages through which you’ll progress step by step, unlocking new buildings, technologies, and units. But also, here there are special features of the individual civilizations: The Mongols, for example, are only able to advance to the third age, a big disadvantage in the late game.
The new options for building walls (you can now also build walls on cliffs and rivers without getting fiddly) fit with the greater focus on siege battles in Age of Empires 4. It’s no coincidence that the developers have chosen a storm attack on a city for their first video: With catapults, trebuchets, rams and siege storms (important for bringing attackers to the walls where the defenders are already waiting), you’ll be dragging enemy fortresses.
Adam Isgreen even hints at other ways of overcoming the walls: Do you end up with miners digging tunnels like in Stronghold and collapsing the walls? Maybe. No matter what new ways and means come to defeat the enemy, it’s still supposed to feel like Age of Empires - that’s why in early ages, you place the familiar wooden palisades instead of immediately being able to build stone fortifications.
“We don’t want to scare away anyone who likes Age of Empires,” says Creative Director Isgreen, stressing the obvious. To achieve this, the community was brought on board early in development and listened to their feedback - even though Age of Empires 4 won’t fulfill every nostalgic fan wish. And maybe that’s better.
With the help of the community
“In Age of Empires 4, you won’t see a knight who hits a building with his sword,” Adam Isgreen tells me. “Some people from our community really wanted that, they were angry that it didn’t work the same way as in Age of Empires 2.” Most likely soldiers without projectile weapons throw torches to cause damage to buildings.
This is just one of many features for which the developers of AoE 4 have gathered feedback from the fans - for two years now a so-called “Community Council” has been in exchange with the creators. “This integration of the players into the development is unique for AAA games, as far as I know,” says Design Director Chris Rubyor.
For his boss Shannon Loftis, Amplitude Studios, the French developers of Endless Legend and Humankind, are a great role model in this respect. Age of Empires 4 will gradually be made available to more players, and a closed beta is planned. “It will grow over time,” says Executive Producer Michael Mann. “In Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition we let fans play until the last day of production,” Adam Isgreen adds.
“The feedback from the fans was sometimes blunt,” Mann remembers. Players know what they want. But you can’t follow their wishes blindly. “We had Age of Empires 3(The original article mentions Age of Empires Online but no such card system exists in that game) players who would have liked to have had the card system from that game in AoE 4,” Isgreen says in disbelief. With a technique called “bridging”, World’s Edge(the new age of empires studio) and Relic Entertainment are trying to serve the nostalgic feelings of the fans and at the same time modernize the RTS genre - “without Age of Empires 4 becoming a moba or anything,” Isgreen assures me.
In bridging, you try to hide an innovation in a kind of sandwich: You give the players something well known and popular (like the medieval scenario), then confront them with a more or less radical innovation (the strong differences between civilizations) and immediately calm them down again with another nostalgic function (basic building works as always). From this it can be concluded that Age of Empires 4 will eventually contain more familiar elements than completely new features.
“We’re trying to build bridges. The Age of Empires 2 community is undoubtedly the largest when you look at the entire Age series,” says studio boss Loftis. And Adam Isgreen, looking to the future of the series, adds: “[The Scenario] felt like the best place to start.” Because Age of Empires 4 is just the start of a whole new chapter in Age history - and that requires a strong technical foundation.
The engine of Age of Empires 4: Built for eternity (or at least a very long time)
When Age of Empires 4 was announced at gamescom 2017, it was already fully playable in the studio, albeit still far away from the desired functionality. “We had a playable version almost from the first day of development,” explains Adam Isgreen. Even though Relic Entertainment was able to adapt the technology of its previous real-time strategy games, it was still largely rewritten. The goal:
“Age of Empires 4 should be playable on as many PC configurations as possible.”
Despite large maps, many units and dynamic destruction of walls and buildings: Age of Empires 4 must reach a broad target group - both in terms of hardware equipment and player types. In return, the World’s Edge team promises a wealth of settings: Not only the graphic details can be adjusted down or up, but also many control options and comfort functions can be adjusted at will.
“Age of Empires has its own rhythm,” Adam Isgreen explains. “It’s not so much about performing as many actions per minute as possible. You can play it like the pros, but we want to make all types of players happy.” For this purpose, hardcore strategy players can also undo simplifications in control.
For Shannon Loftis, it was important that the technology was 100 percent up and running before gameplay concepts were finally approved. And Adam Isgreen talks about the “tech debt” you wanted to avoid - the dragging along of old bottlenecks in the engine that you have to program around. This is one reason why Age of Empires 4 has no release date yet - it’s not even known if it will be released in 2020. At the moment I’d rather guess 2021, but that’s just my gut feeling.
For server architecture and accounts all current Age of Empires parts use the same standards, Relic Link as the parent platform for all Definitive Editions. And World’s Edge will continue to use this framework for the future of Age of Empires: Successors, addons, DLCs - the possibilities seem endless. Not bad for a series that was long considered asleep, in a genre I’ve declared dead myself before.
“We’re primarily making a PC game here,” Isgreen assures me, before I put the dictaphone on the restaurant table for a plate of turkey schnitzel and mashed potatoes. And his Executive Producer Michael Mann raises his fist like during a political speech: "PC first! A console version of Age of Empires 4? Possible, but currently not on the roadmap. Will Jörg Langer and Martin Deppe also like to hear that?