It’s halfway through the Norman campaign that I realize: I’ve never actually played Age of Empires with my father before. And the game I thought was Age of Empires, wasn’t. Empire was in the title, and it was soundly a strategy game about Europeans being bellicose at other Europeans over resources. And the battle happened in real time. But it wasn’t this.
I asked to review Age of Empires IV because I wanted to understand my father and the games he likes better. After any number of years as a games critic, you have to start making the job fun and invigorating by baking in challenges for yourself in reviewing games or you’ll get bored. So I thought, let’s take on a big challenge, because I’m really bored. What if I tried connecting with my father and bonding over a computer game? Turns out, I don’t even think he ever really played Age of Empires
I was exactly the right age to get on with the first real wave of RTS games. Dune II brought something special to the colossal MS-DOS PC that dominated a full wall of our living room that I hadn’t seen before, Command & Conquer expanded on it, then Warcraft arrived, and eventually I was in college still trying to find ways around my friend’s mathematically perfect arrangement of Photon Cannons to zerg the shit out of his base in Starcraft (the first one). And then one day, I just stopped. It’s been a full 20 years since I’ve really played a Real Time Strategy game. And I mean a real ass Real Time Strategy game. And, in talking with friends, and taking the temperature of the genre, it seems that’s been the case for most people. Even by the time of Age of Empires II, the RTS space had begun moving on; from there the franchise was left further and further in the past. MOBAs were games for younger kids; despite spending more hours than I’d rather recall attempting to get 56kbps networking stable enough to play Warcraft II, my patience for multiplayer battles dwindled as I got older. The grand strategy games like Europa Universalis were for your friends who were probably secret fascists or were at least definitely going to flirt hard with a particular Randian flavor of libertarian politics. These were where the kids who went so hard in Civilization and Caesar II that they became truly terrifying when Crusader Kings dropped. At least one of these kids that I’m directly referencing went to an Ivy and then immediately got a job at a conservative think tank (dude, we learned how to play AD&D together in the 4th grade, I trusted you, dude, what the fuck?).
For the longest time I thought Age of Empires was my father’s game, so I never picked it up. It was about history. And as I mentioned, history games were one of those things that your weird proto-fascist grade school friends were interested in. History was the shit your father spouted at you when he dragged you from battlefield to battlefield, or when you’d sit at the kitchen table and play Feudal (which honestly rips) with him during his weekends. How did I learn about European history? It sure as hell wasn’t from the American school system. It was 15 years of weekends with my dad. From the early Viking conquests right through to World War II, we covered the battles and the political intrigue. Who needed the History Channel? We’d build Revell B-24 Liberators and he’d lay out the major campaigns that defined the European theatre. I’d spend turn after turn mounding my little Twizzler nib-like armies on Russia while he explained the rise of the Grand Duchy when we played Risk. We watched Excalibur and he’d explain the Norman conquest. Dads love talking shit about History. Even now if you throw him a nugget, you’re in for a 15 minute aside about some fucking 16th century ordeal.
Age of Empires IV wants to tell me about History. It wants to do Dad Shit at me. Battles begin with slickly produced drone flyovers of historical battlefields, narrated descriptions of the battles are read out as illuminated ghost soldiers are drawn in as spectral regiments. Everything has the feel of a History Channel production, right down to the exact right timbre of the narrator. Beyond that there are even documentary shorts that make the entire affair feel like some sort of modern Encarta 95. But instead of having to waggle at a muddled UI to find just the multimedia entries, you have to build armies of dudes and wage war to unlock them.
It feels weird, because I don’t know who it’s for. The historical lessons the game offers up are far too rudimentary for Dads. These are miniature teasers of history. The production says History Channel, but it doesn’t really amount to much of interest or depth. The people who will play this game know how castle walls are designed. They know what a trebuchet can do. YouTube has hundreds of burly white guys who are all too happy to venture into the forests and out on the hillsides of Kentucky, Norway, and England to do just that. Right now, because I watched one guy go camping in -25°C, I’ve got five new videos about “Men who Live Like Vikings for A Full Week.” They’re every bit as slickly produced too. Some even have sequences where they animate out medieval villages and what their construction will be like. There’s achievements, and levels, and daily challenges. A series of instructive modes called Art of War where you can earn medals. There’s Coat of Arms designs to unlock through successive play and victories. The Age of Empires IV is wrapped up in an Ubisoft shell, and never stops feeling like it wants me to do mobile game microtransactions, except they’re literally free. Part of me wished I could just pay $20 and unlock all of it, honestly. And I can’t imagine any dad not being turned off by being unable to do exactly that.
While the framing of the actual gameplay may feel like a weird misfire, or more accurately, like it’s targeting some kind of unknowable Dad-like energy, the actual gameplay is exactly what I remember from my youth. Build bases, gather resources, pump out dudes, and lay waste to your enemies. It’s a perfect recipe for a chilly autumn afternoon (or staying up until 4 a.m. while you relearn how to devastatingly use scouts like you did in your teens). The campaigns are fun, well tutorialized, and provide ample opportunity to learn the game without being overly hand holding or ludically boring. And the update to the graphics is noteworthy, but nothing that will win awards. It looks nice, and the little dudes are well represented. The land takes shape around the bases as you build them in pleasing and congruous ways. Age of Empires IV is everything it needs to be and probably nothing more. Sure there’s a little bit extra, some mechanical depths to probe for advanced RTS fans. Multiplayer is as stable and smooth as it’s ever been. And if you don’t want human combatants, you can always try your luck with AI opponents and compatriots.
When I think about the games my Dad likes, the real ass dad games, it’s things like the new Flight Simulator. He went from the available war games of the mid-to-late ‘90s, into Battlefields; when they got too cartoonish, he jumped ship to ARMA, and when those got too Czech for even him, it was custom 4k texture packs for Flight Simulator. Despite my pressing him to try Crusader Kings or Civ, he never went into the 4X or Grand Strategy games. They simply weren’t pretty enough for him. He wanted to see his multi-thousand dollar investment play out on the screen, and no matter how majestic the maps of 12th century Europe can be in Crusader Kings, it’s not exactly demanding of a $4,000 “Battlestation.”
But I’m a lady of simpler impulses and lesser means. The product of multiple economic downturns, skyrocketed college tuition (and debt), runaway unemployment, the rise of multiple global alt-right movements, in the middle of a multi-year pandemic, while the literal health of the planet takes a dive in shit because of the generation my parents belong to. I’ve got a processor from 2014 and a graphics card that meets the mid-level requirements for this game at 1080. Boomer Dads get toys. Me? I get to make guys.
I like when I click on the Barracks and make a guy. And then another guy. I love watching my buildings with full queues just pumping out guy after guy until I’m lousy with guys. And then I march them on some unsuspecting motherfucker’s town and delight as they burn every fucking house, farm, and hex of palisade wall to the ground.
I love inventing guys to be angry with. And Age of Empires IV let’s me shout, “YOU TELL EDGAR, I’M FUCKING COMING FOR HIM!” as I highlight a hundred horsemen and press them ever more northward. And each time they bark affirmatively in Old Norman. It rules. When I build new buildings and upgrade my civilization, I can build new guys. Better guys. King William may not have much personality on the battlefield, and largely ceases to exist outside of it, but it’s not important. Ages of Empires IV isn’t a game about a king’s identity. When the Mongols need to differentiate themselves it’s through literally picking up their Town Center and moving it around the map—not because The Khan has a real personality to embody. This isn’t the game where I’m going to tell the story about the time I, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, raised an army to chase down one man at the far edge of the world and lay waste to the small township he took final refuge. Initially I thought that was a flaw. Where Total Wars let me become Agamemnon, or Liu Bei of the Perpetual Vibe Check, and Civ V bid me to become Theodora, Hottie Empress of Byzantium, and spread Sapphism across the globe to achieve my glorious Cultural Victory, here there’s none of that. I’m simply an amorphous hand guiding the imperial machinery. But honestly, that’s okay. There’s no distraction in Age of Empires IV. It’s a return to a purity of build base, make dudes, obliterate enemies. And I came to love it so much I want to force my dad to spend his weekend playing it with me while he shouts what bits he remembers of the St. Crispin’s Day speech over voice chat, as our massive blobs of 15th century dudes collide at our own virtual Agincourt.
Age of Empires IV was developed by Relic Entertainment and World’s Edge and published by Xbox Game Studios. It is available for PC.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.