There are two types of bastard in Age Of Empires 4. There’s the literal ones – offshoots of royalty who fancy a shot at your crown – and there are sieges. It’s the latter that I’m interested in. Across various campaigns and conquests, you’ll spend plenty of time pondering the existential nature of stone walls – specifically, how to preserve (or end) their existence.
No matter what side of the bulky wall you lie behind, rest assured that there’s usually a colossal task standing between you and victory.
For the defenders, that involves rushing the bulk of your forces from end to end of your fortification, desperately setting archers to fire from the walls while infantry sally out to burn siege equipment whenever you get the chance.
On the other side of these urban brawls, you’ll spend time crashing soldiers and war machines into walls in great waves, until eventually the battlements start to crumble and the tide floods in. Having one of your assaults repelled means it’s back to the drawing board – often a nearby settlement that you’re using as a staging point to recruit units and keep your supplies healthy.
In Age Of Empires 4, the AI is smart. Enemy forces will take careful, surgical punts at your land. Instead of committing all their forces and risking defeat, they will instead make every assault just dangerous enough to find a crack in your castle, until it’s confident that it can outmatch you. If your army has a weak spot and the AI sniffs it out, a drawn-out defeat is often on the cards.
As someone who has spent tens of hours fighting over hundreds of settlements in Total War and The Lord Of The Rings: Battle For Middle Earth 2 (which, by the way, was fantastic), I’m thrilled to say that Age Of Empires 4 has the best siege battles out of any strategy game I’ve played.
If you’re wondering why I’m being so chatty about sieges, it’s because they crop up a lot over the course of Age Of Empires 4‘s single-player campaigns.
There are four of these campaigns in total, all set across different points in human history. Between each level, you’re given some historical context to the battle you’re about to undertake, in the form of BBC-style documentary clips. It’s a nice break in the cycle of conflict and construction, bite-sized history lessons that helpfully explain why you’re about to thoroughly batter – or be battered by – another historical entity.
The stakes feel highest in the Moscow campaign, which starts you off in the small village of Moscow, wholly pinned under the horseshoe of the Mongol horde and their taxing demands for gold. The story of Moscow’s growth is packed with moments of jubilant victory and heartbreaking defeat – one moment you’re standing triumphantly against the Golden Horde’s furious assault, the next you’re holding on just long enough to buy your helpless citizens time escape from a doomed capital.
The French campaign was similarly gripping (the third bastard in this game is the bloody English), though the Norman campaign never quite reached the same levels of attachment for me. While it was interesting to learn more about my own country’s history, unlike the Moscow campaign, there were few characters I properly rooted for.
While the emotional stakes varied from campaign to campaign, each individual level had no problem with making sure you’re completely invested in the gameplay itself. You’re never just hurtled into an on-the-rails scenario – you’re almost always given an end-objective, and how you get that done is left largely up to you. This sandbox approach makes completing a level extremely gratifying – it’s the solution you come up with that secures a win, so seeing that victorious (though anti-climatic) fade-to-black feels deeply personal.
Whether you’re playing a campaign level or just dipping into a skirmish, Age Of Empires 4 knows exactly what strategy fans want from an RTS. No surprises await for any veteran players, but a quick recap for newcomers – you’ll start off with a small town centre and a couple of villagers, who’ll need to fetch wood, food and other resources to kickstart the game. From there, it’s a case of recruiting a solid fighting force and building up your lands – all while an opponent does the same.
As someone who has never played Age Of Empires, it took me all of five minutes to realise I was hooked. For an RTS to work, it needs to be engaging before the flashy battles and sprawling cities. Luckily, all’s well here – there’s something delightfully satisfying in watching your villagers scurry about, a productive anthill that makes you measurably stronger with every supply run completed.
These long minutes of preparation are spent in seconds of bloody, costly battles. There’s a deeply transactional nature to every single fight – if you want to smash open some sturdy gates, repel an enemy raid or seize a resource-laden village, you’ll pay for your gains in blood. Victory isn’t decided by the faction that does the most damage- it’s about who, through careful resource management and smart building, can afford to pay the crimson price and keep moving forward.
One of my favourite moments in the game came from a fairly standard siege, playing as one English faction against another. While I’d quickly seized the smaller towns surrounding the large walled city, I’d struggled to make any sort of headway into capturing the city itself, which was my end goal.
While the city seemed impenetrable, my own position was fairly safe and I had enough time to build up a sizeable army of my own. When it was finally time to attack, there was a literal breakthrough – with the help of some trebuchets, I managed to redecorate the city’s walls with a lovely army-sized hole. That’s about as far as the first wave got – they were slaughtered almost entirely as soon as they entered the city. No problem – I’d bought an entry to the city, and paid a fair price.
It took me an additional two waves to win the match – one to make headway into the city, another to mop up and capture the objective – but it left me feeling euphoric, as if my abysmally asthmatic self had plodded through the muddy streets and captured it myself.
It’s been a few years since a strategy game won me quite so succinctly, but moments like that – and the tense build-up behind every second of confrontation – are why I’m completely sold on Age Of Empires 4.
Age Of Empires 4 releases for PC on October 28.
An engrossing tapestry of warfare and scheming throughout the ages, Age Of Empires 4 firmly secures its position as a must-play for strategy fans. Full of sandbox-fuelled drama and interesting campaigns, the game captures the sweeping and costly scale of warfare in a way that few titles manage.
- Interacting with the environment at every level, from chopping down trees to razing buildings, is deeply satisfying
- Each faction manages to stand out with its own strengths and weaknesses
- High quality, documentary-style clips make for interesting (and educational!) campaigns
- Did I mention it has fantastic sieges?
- Some of the campaign storylines are more engaging than others
- Combat between units sometimes felt a little lacklustre