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One of the most popular real-time strategy franchises of all time is finally receiving a new instalment, with Microsoft confirming that the production of Age of Empires IV is moving forward. No release date and few details are known about the game at the moment, but Microsoft is expected to release more concrete information before the end of the year.
The Age of Empires series is referred to as a touchstone for the genre of computer strategy games, inspiring a wave of titles since the first Age of Empires game was launched in 1997. Age of Empires II followed shortly in 1999 before Age of Empires III’s release in 2005, but Ensemble Studios’ closure in 2009 plunged the series into dormancy. In early June, Microsoft stated that AoE IV is progressing well, with Relic Entertainment taking over from Ensemble as game developer.
The AoE series set the standard for historical real-time strategy games. It’s game mechanics encouraged repeat playthroughs, as did the vast selection of playable civilizations and units. These civilizations were largely rendered in a historically faithful manner, with specialized units and technological developments available for different civilizations. This historical detail enraptured players in the 1990s who were looking for a digital equivalent of a game like Risk.
AoE’s success influenced developers to take strategy gaming to new places. The growth of internet connectivity played a part in the progression of the genre. Subgenres like tower defense and MMORTS have become increasingly popular in recent years, with several online strategy browser games taking thematic cues from the historical style popularized by AoE. Many of these titles balance the real-time aspects of AoE with the turn-based gameplay of Civilization, another seminal historical strategy series.
With Civilization VI released in 2016 and AoE III released a staggering 14 years ago, the PC strategy games world is arguably ready for a new title from one of these leading franchises. Given how little information is known about AoE IV, it is expected that fans will have a wide range of questions running through the mind.
What era will the game cover?
AoE took players from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. AoE II travelled through the Middle Ages, and AoE III tackled developments between the 15th and 19th centuries. Logic would suggest that AoE IV will pick up the narrative thread in the 19th century, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Relic return to classic civilizations from previous games to release a title that spans several eras.
How will Relic handle the franchise?
Any addition to a franchise released more than fifteen years after the previous instalment will attract scrutiny, but the change of game developer adds some extra pressure. Microsoft was clearly impressed by Relic’s work in the Company of Heroes strategy series.
What features will be added?
Any talk of features at the moment can only be pure speculation, but it will be interesting to see how Relic takes technological and gameplay developments and apply them to the AoE series. Graphics from the AoE games have a timeless charm, but modern tech could add more detail to animations. Developments in AI could allow computer-controlled players to become more cunning and unpredictable.
Fans will be keenly awaiting a release date for AoE IV, hoping that it is sooner rather than later. Given that fans have already waited 14 years, it should be doable to contain excitement for another 12 or 18 months.