So far I’ve built six kremlins, and I can’t promise that I won’t build more. You could call it an unhealthy obsession, I suppose, but is it my fault that Age of Empires IV offers some of the most addictive base-building since, well, Age of Empires II?
Age of Empires IV is deliberately and unashamedly old-school, not merely recalling the revered second installment in the franchise, but in many ways directly replicating it in a modern engine. Raise villagers and send them out to gather wood, food, gold, and stone to build an increasingly sophisticated base, then use the base to build increasingly sophisticated combat units, and finally accumulate enough of these to rush the enemy force. Sure, you can attempt fancy military tactics with split forces, siege engines, and support units, but anyone who grew up on the likes of Dune II, Command & Conquer, or Total Annihilation will remember the certainty of overwhelming unit numbers. Age of Empires IV hits like a truck of nostalgia, even as it presents a gameplay loop that most RTS games moved on from by the early ‘00s.
Age of Empires IV offers several campaigns, from the tried and tested 1066 English setting to the rise of Moscow from 1238 through to imperial Russia. The campaigns try their best to vary the core gameplay loop by giving different abilities and bonuses to different civilizations and by emphasizing different elements of base-building, scouting, and troop battles across different missions. The second mission of the Norman campaign, for example, is focused on capturing and maintaining multiple bases, while the second mission of the Moscow campaign prioritizes collecting taxes from neighboring settlements. The missions are bookended with lavish videos giving history lessons that tie together the overall story arc. But ultimately I’m just not that interested. Why wait to build and expand a single kremlin over the course of many missions and hours, or indeed limit yourself in any way at all, when there is a mode available from the outset that lets you do whatever you want?
That mode is Skirmish. A mainstay of RTS games, it’s effectively a sandbox that removes time and objective pressures and gives the player access to a civilization’s entire technology tree immediately (provided the prerequisite buildings are constructed over the course of a match).
The Skirmish options in Age of Empires IV are comprehensive. There are currently 17 basic map types that are used to randomly generate a token map for a given match. They include archipelagos, forests, rivers, hills and mountains, or vast plains. They can be small enough to feel cramped with just two players or large enough to hold eight. They offer immediate access to Age of Empires IV’s full range of civilizations: the English, Chinese, French, Romans, Mongols, Russians, the Delhi Sultanate, and the Abbasid Dynasty. Teams can be predetermined, victory conditions toggled, the abundance of resources adjusted, and the difficulty of each AI player dialed up or down. It would have been nice to see more civilizations and victory conditions included, but it’s a solid foundation.
The problem in my case is that, to borrow a phrase from Theodor Adorno that I suspect was never intended to apply to video games (let alone one about imperialism), freedom to choose is freedom to choose the same. Being presented with the option to do anything I want leads me inescapably back to building kremlins.
You might think at this point it’s time to break the cycle by diving back into the campaigns, but Skirmish mode has soured them for me. It’s not just about the kremlin mania, but about making your own fun more generally. Crusader Kings 3 is not the best comparison here, since it offers a vastly different and more complex strategy experience than most RTS games; nonetheless, it is instructive for its reliance on purely emergent gameplay. Crusader Kings 3 has no objectives besides the ones you choose yourself, no script, and potentially no time limit, so the interesting situations that occur in it do so entirely through the interaction of its many overlapping systems. Skirmish mode is the closest that Age of Empires IV comes to this style of play, and it can feel liberating in as much as a campaign might feel constraining.
The question of style of play is related to the purpose of the campaign missions. In part they are designed to gradually introduce the player to the game’s various mechanics. In something like Supreme Commander, which trades in the real-time micromanagement of hundreds of different units of different sizes across enormous maps, that gradual build-up might be necessary before having enough confidence to tackle its Skirmish mode. In an RTS like Age of Empires IV, particularly assuming familiarity with Age of Empires II, the pace might be too gradual.
There is also something to be said for trade-offs in scale and atmosphere. The campaigns in Age of Empires IV are not uninteresting, but the History Channel narration style and the reluctance to get into the finer details of the times and settings the game deals with make for a rather bland experience overall. Whatever might be lost in the sense of atmosphere by abandoning the campaign for a Skirmish match is more than made up for in scale.
Likewise, nostalgia is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes for a pleasant initial few hours in Age of Empires IV as the old compulsive gameplay loop sinks its claws back in. Watching my workforce gather resources in the opening few minutes of a match is never less than cathartic, transporting me back to a time when that workforce was more or less the extent of my responsibilities. On the other hand, after enough time, it’s difficult not to pine after Age of Empires II, especially given the graphical overhaul offered in 2019’s Definitive Edition.
Still, even as I write this, I am tabbing back to another map with the makings of another kremlin. I might put the farms outside the walls this time, mix things up a little…