The Baffling Mismanagement of Age of Empires IV

Original post: The Baffling Mismanagement of Age of Empires IV | Superior Realities

Few game releases have brought me as much joy as Age of Empires IV. Age of Empires was one of the defining franchises of my childhood, and seeing it resurrected as a modern triple-A title felt almost miraculous. Even more miraculous is that it managed to live up to the sky-high expectations I had.

Which is what makes it so heartbreaking that the game has slowly but steadily been going off the rails ever since launch.

I was extremely happy with the game at first. It felt like the perfect mix of all the past entries in the franchise combined with modern sensibilities. Whereas AoE1 and 2 civilizations feel a bit too similar by modern standards, and AoE3 civs tended to be overwhelming in their complexity, AoE4 civilizations hit exactly the right balance of unique units and mechanics to make them meaningfully distinct without feeling like you need to relearn the whole game any time you switch.

The pacing felt just right, too. It’s still a slower paced RTS, as you’d expect from Age of Empires, but things like time to kill are sped up just enough to feel more palatable to a modern gamer.

AoE4 also boasted a level of immersion and historical faithfulness greater than any previous entry in the franchise. Of course there will always be some compromises for the sake of gameplay, but things like the documentary-style campaigns and the evolving languages of units gave the impression that the developers truly cared about authenticity.

I long-held that Age of Empires II was the best game in the franchise, probably never to be equaled, but after I settled into AoE4, I realized it had become my favourite.

I had only one major complaint at launch: AoE4 lacked content, especially for people who don’t want to play competitively. There were only eight civilizations, and only four had campaigns, all of which were relatively short.

I assumed DLC with more campaigns would be fast in coming, especially given the quick rate AoE2 has been churning them out.

In the meantime, I tried to tide myself over with skirmishes versus AI, but the skirmish AI in AoE4 is among the worst I’ve ever seen in an RTS, and they’re usually bad, so that’s saying something. Most of the time it’s hyper-aggressive for the first fifteen minutes or so, then just gives up on life and stops attacking, aging up, or doing much of anything. Other times it never attacks the entire game.

But I figured it just needs polish, right? Patches will fix it.

So I settled in to wait for DLC and AI improvements. And waited. And waited. And waited.

The first major update came about a year after launch with the Ottoman and Malian civilizations, but this proved a disappointment. There was no single-player content included, and the Malians felt more like AoE3 civilization — too different to easily parse for a more casual player.

At this point I began to despair that anything would ever be done for versus AI fans. Meanwhile the devs’ resources were spent on bizarre events like an enchanted grove biome and an in-game hunt for cryptids. If this were Age of Mythology, those might be fun ideas, but this was supposed to be the most immersive and historical AoE game yet.

These events probably didn’t take up much developer resources, but the fact that any resources were put into them at all while versus AI fans continued to be neglected rubs salt in the wound.

Meanwhile gameplay design also continued to shift away from the casual player. Multiple civilizations were given additional unique units, adding significant complexity to the game. I barely tolerate this kind of chaotic design in MMORPGs, where it’s par for the course, and I definitely don’t want to see it in an RTS.

Despite the poor AI, I was still playing skirmishes occasionally, but this pretty much put an end to that. I don’t like having to relearn the game every time I come back from a break.

That brings us to the current day and the upcoming Sultans Ascend expansion. Its announcement provided a glimmer of hope, and there are still parts of it that seem promising, but increasingly it seems to be another series of unforced errors.

Given the history of the game to date, I had modest expectations for the campaign content, but even those were not met. I expected at least two campaigns — one for the Abbasid Dynasty, one for the Delhi Sultanate. I mean, it’s in the name, right? As a stampy-boi enjoyer, the idea of a Delhi campaign excited me.

But we’re only getting one campaign, focused on the Crusades. Presumably this will be played exclusively as the Abbasid Dynasty and/or their new variant, the Ayyubids (more on that in a moment).

I have nothing against the campaign itself. It looks fun, and I like playing the Abbasids, even if they’re not one of my absolute favourites. But it’s an underwhelmingly small amount of content after two years of waiting, even if it is slightly longer than the average AoE campaign (eight missions). By comparison, AoE2’s recent DLCs have generally offered three campaigns of 5-6 missions each, for a total of around fifteen.

I enjoy AoE4’s campaigns more than most, but they’re not really any better than AoE2’s in terms of depth or quality. There’s no obvious justification for the lesser amount of content.

The new civilizations, Byzantines and Japanese, were never really on my wishlist, so they don’t do a lot for me (I grant this is purely subjective, however), especially when they don’t come up with campaigns and skirmishes are still in such a sorry state.

That brings us to the variant civilizations, a banner feature for the Sultans Ascend and possibly the most bizarre choice ever made by an Age of Empires game.

Each provides a new twist on an existing civilization’s gameplay. The concept isn’t terrible, though I think we’d all prefer actual new civilizations, but the execution looks disastrous. Age of Empires has always been about playing as civilizations, as whole nations and cultures, but these variants are based subcultures, specific organizations, or even single individuals like Jeanne d’Arc.

Worse still, historical realism appears to have been thrown out the window. China’s variant was initially dubbed “Empire of Jade,” which is not a thing that ever existed.

Following some community pushback, it was renamed Zhu Xi’s Legacy, which references a Chinese philosopher to give a bit more historical justification. The “Sultan’s Army” variant was similarly renamed to Ayyubids. This seemed a step in the right direction, but a deep-dive on the Jeanne d’Arc faction showed that historical accuracy is still not at all a concern.

Focusing on a single individual where matches are meant to represent hundreds of years is already a bit dodgy, but their interpretation of Jeanne is pure fantasy. She has a “Divine Restoration” ability that can heal allies, and she eventually upgrades into wielding a massive hand cannon.

Look, it’s a video game. I get it. I’m not opposed to her being a combat unit like she was in the campaign (though for what it’s worth in reality she claimed never to have killed a man personally). But she can be a hero unit and have powerful abilities while still respecting historical accuracy. The idea of her slinging out healing spells while cutting a swath through the enemy with a medieval bazooka strains credibility beyond the breaking point.

(Because of course some sexist trolls have come out of the woodwork to complain about a woman existing, I need to point out that isn’t my objection. The contributions of women throughout history are often overlooked, and seeking to right that is a noble goal. This is just a bad way to do it.)

Yes, it’s a small thing, but small things add up. And they present an insight into the the mindset of the developers. They could have called her heal something like “Rally Cry” as opposed to the more obviously fantastical Divine Restoration. They chose not to, and that speaks volumes.

It’s especially frustrating because some of the gameplay concepts behind the variant civilizations do sound fun, and they’re being wasted on these weirdly niche variants. I like the idea of a faction that focuses on fewer, better units as the Order of the Dragon (Holy Roman Empire variant) is reported to, but it’s such a waste not to use that as the basis for a whole new civilization. Perhaps the Vietnamese or some other culture known for triumphing over seemingly more powerful opponents.

People offer the defence that you don’t have to play the variant civs if you don’t like them, but you still have to encounter them if you play multiplayer, they still factor into the price of the DLC, and most importantly, it again speaks to poor use of development resources. Less than half the game’s civilizations have campaigns, but they can spare the resources for enchanted groves and Magic Rambo Joan of Arc?

I’ll also add that while we don’t know much about the Japanese gameplay right now, what we’ve heard sends up some potential red flags as well. An apparent focus on ninjas, complete with smoke bombs, feels much more like a pop culture view of medieval Japan than anything rooted in reality.

Adding insult to injury, Sultans Ascend is quite expensive. In my country it’s selling for $19.99, whereas most AoE2 DLCs are $10.99. As a campaign player, I’m paying nearly twice the price for about half as much content. It contributes to a growing feeling that solo and casual players are viewed as second-class citizens by the developers, expected to subsidize the game while getting a fraction of the development resources.

This all feels weirdly reminiscent of World of Warcraft’s “raid or die” issues and the slow, steady decline they brought about. I don’t know how much this is really affecting AoE4’s fortunes, but I can say there’s at least one player who feels like he’s being pushed away from the game.

There’s still a decent chance I’ll buy Sultans Ascend, perhaps on sale. The new campaign is still appealing. But in light of how much I loved the game at launch, the fact that it’s even in question is a damning statement about the management of the game.


Hello, are you the creator of this review?

The devs will have to address the community’s concerns, eventually. Say what their plans are for the singleplayer and how much the original claim for historical accuracy is still relevant. There’s been plenty of controversy and arguing after what’s been revealed up to now, and more is coming.

There are still critical aspects left untouched (I’d like a campaign for every civ, about their individual history) and Variant Civilizations are a completely new and different subject. One may wonder why they worked on such a controversial introduction before addressing the weakspots of their offering.

They can innovate and reinforce at the same time, sure, but what’s the new direction leading to? That’s the question.


This is very well formulated opinion (I agree with most of the things) and showcases the overall problem with the AoE4. It was never bad game, it just lacked some QoL and content.

Variants are basically fine, biggest issue is that they really threw any attempt at keeping it historically correct and consistent away. Gameplay always takes over and that’s fine. But names and big picture should always be kept historically accurate. Let’s be honest naming convention for existing civ is terrible and this whole fiasco would be good opportunity to unify naming for all existing civs and future civs. The fact that proper naming convention would solve biggest issue with them speaks for itself.

DLC is also missed opportunity. We are in year 2023 and there is no sign of any co-op mode. Variants civs as proposed is something that would fit perfectly for co-op. Noone would have any issue with co-op civ based on Jean as hero unit, alternative history Chinese, etc…

My personal issue with variants is that certain civs like HRE would benefit from expanding their gameplay mechanics, which will they probably never get as variants will takeover this role.
(HRE deserves justice. Representing HRE as single culture prince-bishop is crime, instead of showing it as what it truly was multi-cultural, multi-state group with different militaries and internal conflicts)

At least you are not also engaged in modding. Otherwise you would feel like third-class citizen that is completely ignored…


AoE4 was light-year better managed than any RTS of the past 15 years. Did you see other RTS games, that all were turned into some kind of Starcraft-miscarriage-hybrids and Frankenmobas?

-the game does represent the actual source material

-the game did actually change stuff based on feedback.

-AI can actually beat a player.

-old school base build RTS gameplay people missed so much

-from scratch recreated gameplay elements, like shroud and water

-not too cartoony

-excellent overworked economy.

-not to mention the many game modes and modding

Just give example for a single RTS “not from Blizzard” which had a better management in past 15 years?

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strong disagree, on both ends there’s lack of options, the rest is mostly fine

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Yup. AoE 4 is sadly lacking game modes. To compare with AoE 2, that game had the following modes with the Conquerors expansion after being shipped with Random Map, Deathmatch and Regicide for the base game:

  • Random Map (default mode)
  • Turbo Random Map (everything’s faster + villagers carry more)
  • Deathmatch (high resources + start in Post Imperial Age)
  • Regicide (like the Royal Rumble mod for AoE 4)
  • King of the Hill (fighting for a non-destructable monument in the middle of the map)
  • Wonder Race (no fights, the first player who finishes their wonder wins)
  • Defend the Wonder (Player 1 owns a wonder in the middle of the map, players 2-8 have to destroy it)
  • Custom scenario

On top, The Conquerors featured Real World maps such as Italy, the British Isles, Central America.

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also modding was only limited by people’s ability to decrypt the files and what they do, opposed to artificially enforced restrictions in aoe4

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On DM I would rather the AOM approach, though (high resources, starts in Dark Age, but age up ultra fast and all techs - usual and from age up bonus - automatically insta-researched).
I still cant believe they released the game without it…

I will just say a big YESSS to all…

things have been adding up since day ONE… I can’t understand why they haven’t addressed single issues such as wildlife animals, treaty, modding, etc…

I didnt know ppl played campaigns that much, I thought it was mainly versus multiplayer, that’s the real objective of the game right?? But even if so many ppl asked for more campaigns and they come up with this poor DLC… for 20 dollars… back to aoe3 with the really unique civs and I could even see the city and customise it

At least in AOE2, campaigns is vastly played and modded. Not sure about AOE1 and 3.
But, SP is always very much, much more played than MP

Campaign/custom content is a big deal. You can see this in AOE2 where the online playerbase is around 50% more than AOE4, yet the amount of quick match and ranked games are about the same.

Lol Sultan’s ascend is absurdly good value. I think you may be the only one who has this opinion.

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For a campaign player it makes sense (though the latest AOE2 DLC had the same price as the current AOE4 DLC.) At the same time, AOE4 campaigns clearly have a lot more time/money invested into each campaign than the AOE2 campaigns which is why we get less campaign content. Whether that is good or bad is up to interpretation.

Idk about that price point, sounds like a local issue. This DLC is only 50% money more than old AOE2 DLCs and the same cost as the Return to Rome DLC.