Age of Empires 4 is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time – it really does say something because it’s really a real time strategy game. It is a well-crafted game based on its ancestral fluid base-building and mania unit management to create a refined strategic experience that is more accessible to modern audiences.
At least, that’s me. I do not know. I spent more time watching the cut scenes than I did thinking too seriously about the gameplay of Age of Empires 4. Even now I’m a good part of its third single player campaign, it’s not the battlefield that makes a big impression on me, but the game’s pre – match cinematics.
These are not cut scenes from your average game, but bite size documentaries. Go to war and who the main players are, what political intrigues led to the conflict and how it served as a crucial moment in the history of that country or continent. They are short history lessons that explore the chronology and myths behind the conflict you are about to enter.
They are also completely intelligent. Created with all the hallmarks of the television documentaries you watched on the History Channel 15 years ago – and with significantly better production quality – the shorts run some modern television documentaries for their money. Aerial camera shots show you the historical sites that exist today, while the superposed CGI armies clash over farms and forts. A narrator explains the possible causes of the conflict, as well as the consequences of the war you are about to fight.
And that is only a mandatory view. After completing each mission, you will unlock bonus videos that explore the nuances of each historical period. These go into immense detail as expert presenters and academic historians guide you through the basics of life and war in the Middle Ages.
I can confidently say that now I know one or two things about how medieval paint was created using iron oxide, eggs and tree sap. I can list some of the ways in which the Mongol heavy cavalry came to dominate the battlefield. Ask me anything I know about a crossbow, armor, or Goodellon Castle (a construction history project currently under construction in France) and I may think I can say the least about them.
The quality of the videos is impressive, but so is their teaching value. Like every English school student, I learned at length about the Norman occupation, but did I have much information? Just a little about the Mott-and-Bailey castles. Ask me what I learned about anarchy from playing Age of Empires 4 and the fact that a secondary school student would tremble at the perfect scope of my historical knowledge (admittedly, not a particularly impressive feat.)
I can not get enough of it. A few hours after Age of Empires 4, my love for documentaries flared up again. I grabbed the learning bug and sank my teeth into every history dock I could get my hands on. The Roman Empire, the Russian Revolution, The Endless Mountain of World War 2 Documentaries are released annually – time does not matter; I overcame them all.
And I’m still choking on Age of Empires 4. The game gives you as many history lessons as you can. If you’re like me, you’ll see every bonus video as soon as it is unlocked and will be coming back for more. I’ve seen many shortcodes a couple of times and I’m looking forward to unlocking any next historical deep dive. But if you want to skip pedagogy, there is nothing to prevent you from skipping optional shortcuts and going straight into conflict.
That means you are not likely to suffer from history fatigue. Mini-documentaries – usually two minutes long – are provided to you by drip through each major mission. They are less than a reward for your military victories Expository device: Did you defeat the Hungarian forces in the Battle of Mohi? See this description on the incomparable firepower of Multibo Crossbow.
But they are also a brilliant way of baking history in the game, keeping it separate from the core design of Age of Empires 4. I would love to learn about the old battles as the next person, but I did not worry so much about the historical accuracy that dictates the basic mechanics and features of the game. Age of Empires 4 is not a simulator, and only recreates battles in an abstract perspective. By giving you these videos to enjoy outside of the main game, the game allows you to command colorful, cartoonish nights on a hugely stylized battlefield.
Leave the irrefutable historical authenticity to things like Hearts of Iron and Europe Universalis; Age of Empires takes the gameplay-first approach.
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This is not the first time the studio has tried to bridge the gap between documentaries and video games. The tactical style of teaching players the history behind the games they are playing indirectly and clearly is nothing new. Also Age of Empires 2, which came out in 1999 – contains an in-depth chronology of each of its civilizations, giving you an encyclopedia of the communities and individuals under your care.
It’s all part and parcel of the genre’s goal to not only recreate vintage wars but also arouse players’ interest in them – sharing its passion for the history that inspires its games.
And in Age of Empires 4 it makes an amazing impact. I can say that its balanced gameplay, its diverse mission types or my desire to complete it made me come back for more. It loses the big picture. I’m coming back to see the amazing documentary-style cut scenes of the game. This is no small feat for a strategic game.