Age of Empires 4 is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, which is really saying something, given that it’s really a real-time strategy game. It’s a game that elegantly builds on the fluid base building and frenetic unit management of its predecessors to create a refined tactical experience that’s more accessible to modern audiences.
At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I wouldn’t know. I’ve spent more time looking at Age of Empires 4 cutscenes than thinking too much about its gameplay. Even now that I’m a good part of the way through its third single-player campaign, it’s not the battlefield that impressed me the most, it’s the pre-match cinematics.
These are not typical game scenes, but short documentaries. Head into a battle and you’ll gain insight into who the major players are, what political machinations sparked the conflict, and how it served as a pivotal moment in the history of that country or continent. They’re short history lessons that delve into the timeline and myths behind the skirmish you’re about to take part in.
They are also absolutely brilliant. Produced with all the hallmarks of TV documentaries you might have seen on the History Channel 15 years ago, and with significantly better production quality, the shorts give some modern TV documentaries a run for their money. Wide aerial camera shots show you historic locations as they exist today, while superimposed CGI armies clash in fields and castles. A narrator explains the causes of the conflict, as well as the ramifications of the battle you are about to fight.
And that’s just the required display. After completing each mission, you’ll unlock additional videos that explore the ins and outs of each historical period. These go into great detail, with expert presenters and academic historians guiding you through the basics of life and warfare in the Middle Ages.
I can confidently say that I now know a thing or two about how medieval painting was created using iron oxide, eggs, and tree sap. I can list a few ways the Mongol heavy cavalry came to dominate the battlefield. Ask me what I know about crossbows, armor, or the Château de Guédelon (an architectural history project currently under construction in France), and I’ll probably come up with something clever to say about them, too.
The quality of the videos is impressive, but so is their educational value. Like all English schoolchildren, I learned extensively about the Norman Conquest, but did I keep much of that information? Just a little bit about motte-and-bailey castles. However, ask me what I learned about The Anarchy from playing Age of Empires 4, and I could whip up an essay that would make any high school student cringe at the extent of my historical knowledge (admittedly, not a particularly impressive feat).
I can’t get enough of that. After just a few hours into Age of Empires 4, my love of documentaries has been rekindled. I caught the learning bug and have sunk my teeth into every history document I can get my hands on. The Roman Empire, the Russian Revolution, the seemingly endless mountain of World War II documentaries released year after year, no matter the time period; I have overcome them all.
And I am still in love with Age of Empires 4. The game gives you as many history lessons as you can. If you’re like me, you’ll watch all the bonus videos as soon as they’re unlocked and keep coming back for more. I’ve watched several shorts twice, waiting in excited anticipation for what deep historical dive I’ll unlock next. But if you’d rather skip the pedagogy, there’s nothing stopping you from dodging the optional shorts and heading straight into a skirmish.
That means you’re unlikely to suffer from history fatigue. The mini-documentaries, which usually last a couple of minutes, are presented to you drop by drop, punctuated by each main mission. They are less a display device than a reward for your military conquests: did you just defeat the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Mohi? Take a look at this explainer on the unrivaled firepower of the Multi-Bow Crossbow for your pleasure.
But they’re also a clever way to bring history into the game and keep it separate from the core design of Age of Empires 4. that dictates the fundamental mechanics and characteristics of a game. Age of Empires 4 is not a simulator and only recreates battles in an abstract sense. By giving you these videos to enjoy outside of the main game, the game conveys its reverence for history while letting you command colorful, cartoonish knights on highly stylized battlefields.
Leave unshakeable historical authenticity to the likes of Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis; Age of Empires takes a gameplay-first approach.
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This isn’t the first time a studio has tried to bridge the gap between documentaries and video games. The strategy genre is no stranger to implicitly and explicitly teaching players the history behind the games they are playing. Even Age of Empires 2, which was released in 1999, included a detailed timeline of each of its civilizations, giving you an encyclopedia of the factions and figures under your command.
It is an integral part of the genre’s mission to share its enthusiasm for the story that inspires its games, not only to recreate giant battles of yesteryear, but also to pique players’ interest in them.
And Age of Empires 4 does that to amazing effect. I could say that its well-balanced gameplay, varied quest types, or my desire for a sense of completion have kept me coming back for more. That would be missing the big picture. I keep coming back to see the game’s brilliant documentary-style cutscenes. That’s no small feat for a strategy game.