While the RTS genre has been out of the esports limelight for the last decade, Relic Entertainment’s newest release in the form of Age of Empires IV (AOE IV) might give it a fighting chance against the current generation of AAA titles.
Due to the failure of AoE3, the Age of Empires series as a whole has been largely kept alive by AoE 2, a title that’s well past twenty years old at this moment. While the AoE 2’s HD and Definitive edition remasters managed to refresh the title, there was only so much that could have been done with the game’s almost prehistoric engine.
Even in its prime, AoE 2 was mostly seen as a niche title on the RTS competitive scene, playing second fiddle to the likes of Stacraft and Warcraft 3. A community-driven game at its core, AoE2’s competitive scene was mostly revolved around groups of players called clans. Despite a sizeable player base, the lack of tournaments and developer support seemingly marked the game’s end as Microsoft shut down the game’s official game servers.
Age of Empires 3 was subsequently released in 2005 as the direct successor as well as the next step for the series. Although the game did much to improve the graphics and tweak the core gameplay, the changes were overwhelmingly ill-received by the community. Lack of diversity between civilizations, scaling issues, and the changes to the rock-paper-scissors unit equilibrium were just some of the problems that AoE 3 faced. In a Counter-Strike: Source-esque turn of events, the gameplay changes ultimately saw the bulk of the competitive scene return to AoE 2.
Despite the setbacks it faced, AoE continued living on through the efforts of its community. For a time the franchise looked to be dead in the water, but the release of AoE2’s HD remaster in 2013 breathed new life into the competitive scene, bringing it into the modern streaming age. With minimal changes to the cherished core gameplay, new civilizations, and with updated graphics, the game managed to attract both veterans as well as a new generation of RTS players, while also laying the groundwork for the game’s competitive scene to emerge.
AoE 2 HD’s release was followed up by the game’s Definitive Edition in 2019, further improving the visuals, adding new game mods, even more civilizations, and an improved AI. Up until the release of Age of Empires IV, AoE 2’s HD and Definitive Editions were the gold standards for competitive play. But the question arises, can AOE4 unite all Age of Empire esports?
While Age of Empires 4 is still in its early infancy, the support from both the developers and the community has been a refreshing sight. The game itself is a much truer successor than the game’s third iteration, but the changes to some of the game’s mechanics could prove to be an eyesore for veteran players. In a way, AoE 4 feels much more streamlined to when compared to AoE 2. From a competitive standpoint that could prove to be an issue, as it could bring the skill floor up, while at the same time bringing the skill ceiling much lower than its predecessor.
As an RTS, AoE 4 seems to be lacking in the real-time segment in comparison to other titles from the genre. Adapting on the fly is one of the main aspects of RTS, something that both Starcraft 2 and AoE 2 do good almost to a fault. On the other hand, while AoE 4’s esthetic beauty is quite undeniable, unit recognition is borderline impossible and players will find it hard to tell what’s actually going on in a battle.
The beauty behind AoE 2’s competitive matches was that almost every matchup played out differently. For every player’s action, the number of reactions the opponent could take was seemingly limitless. AoE 4 gameplay changes put you on two different paths, the economic route, or military supremacy due to each faction’s distinctiveness.
While the core gameplay might take some getting used to, it could benefit the newer generation of players, seeing as AoE 2 was notoriously difficult to master.
And yet the gameplay changes are not the biggest obstacles AoE 4 has to tackle. It’s its own genre.
Starcraft 2 has been looked to as the gold standard for RTS games, but its esports scene has paled in comparison to FPS games, MOBA’s, and battle royale games. The RTS genre’s popularity has fallen off greatly since its peak during the turn of the millennium, and it doesn’t seem like it’s returning any time soon.
Compared to SC 2, Age of Empire’s competitive landscape has remained mostly the same for the past twenty years. Players like Darko “DauT” Dautovic and Ørjan “TheViper” Larsen have become royalty in the competitive scene, with DauT being a dominant force in the game for almost two decades. But the lack of young talent has stunted the game’s growth as a competitive esport. Due to its niche nature in comparison to AAA games, poorly supported tournament scene, and relatively low prize pools, AoE 4 has a long way to go before it grows from being a blimp on the esports radar. As an example, the biggest upcoming tournament, SteelSeries Prime Cup, boasts a measly prize pool of just $20,000.
While Age of Empires 4 probably will succeed in bringing new players to the RTS genre, its future as a big player in the competitive esport market is looking bleak. The shifting trends in the esports landscape have left RTS games in the dust, as AoE 4 seems more like a relic from the past then the future of competitive gaming.
Maybe with some love from the developers and a proper esports ecosystem in place, Age of Empires can the the series that brings RTS back into the limelight.
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