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 actually a real-time strategy game. It’s a game that elegantly builds on its predecessors’ fluid base-building and frenzied unit management to create a refined tactical experience that’s more approachable to modern audiences.
At least, that’s what I’m told. I wouldn’t know. I’ve spent more time watching Age of Empires 4’s cutscenes than thinking too strenuously about its gameplay. Even now that I’m a good chunk of the way through its third single-player campaign, it’s not the battlefield that’s made the biggest impression on me, but the game’s pre-match cinematics.
These aren’t your average in-game cutscenes, but bite-sized documentaries. Head into a battle, and you’ll get the lowdown on who the main 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 enter.
They’re also absolutely brilliant. Produced with all the hallmarks of the television documentaries you might have watched on the History Channel 15 years ago – and at a significantly better production quality – the shorts give some modern television documentaries a run for their money. Sweeping aerial camera shots show you historical locations as they exist today, while superimposed CGI armies skirmish across fields and castles. A narrator explains the causes of the conflict, as well as the ramifications of the battle you’re about to fight.
And that’s only the mandatory viewing. After completing each mission, you’ll unlock bonus videos that explore the minutiae of each historical period. These go into immense detail, with expert presenters and academic historians walking you through the fundamentals of life and warfare in the Middle Ages.
I can confidently say I now know a thing or two about how medieval paint was created using iron oxide, eggs, and tree sap. I can list a few ways in which Mongol heavy cavalry came to dominate the battlefield. Ask me what I know about crossbows, armor, or Guédelon Castle (an architectural history project currently under construction in France), and I can probably think of something intelligent to say about them, as well.
The quality of the videos is impressive, but so is their teaching value. Like every English schoolchild, I learned about the Norman conquest at length, but did I retain much of that information? Only a little bit about motte-and-bailey castles. Ask me what I’ve learned about The Anarchy from playing Age of Empires 4, though, and I could whip up an essay that would have any secondary school student trembling at the sheer scope of my historical knowledge (admittedly, not a particularly impressive feat).
I can’t get enough of it. After only a handful of hours in Age of Empires 4, my love of documentaries has been reignited. I’ve caught the learning bug, and have sunk my teeth into every history doc I can get my hands on. The Roman Empire, the Russian Revolution, the seemingly endless mountain of World War 2 documentaries that are released year on year – the time period doesn’t matter; I’ve breezed through them all.
And I’m still smitten with Age of Empires 4. The game hands you just as many history lessons as you can take. If you’re like me, you’ll watch every bonus video as soon as they’re unlocked and keep returning for more. I’ve watched several shorts twice over, waiting in excited anticipation at what historical deep dive I’ll unlock next. But if you’d rather skip the pedagogy, there’s nothing to prevent you from side-stepping the optional shorts and heading straight into a skirmish.
That means you’re unlikely to suffer from history fatigue. The mini-documentaries – which are usually a couple of minutes long – are fed to you drip by drip, punctuated by each main mission. They’re less of an expository device than they are a reward for your military conquests: just defeated the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Mohi? Check out this explainer on the unmatched firepower of the multibow crossbow, as a treat.
But they’re also a clever way of baking history into the game while keeping it separate from Age of Empires 4’s core design. I love learning about the battles of old as much as the next person, but I’m not so fussed about historical accuracy that I want it to dictate a game’s fundamental mechanics and features. Age of Empires 4 is no simulator, and only recreates battles in an abstract sense. By handing you these videos to enjoy outside of the main game, the game conveys its reverence for history while letting you command colorful, cartoonish knights across heavily stylized battlefields.
Leave unwavering 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’re playing. Even Age of Empires 2 – which came out in 1999 – included an in-depth timeline of each of its civilizations, handing you an encyclopedia of the factions and figures under your command.
It’s all part and parcel of the genre’s mission to share its excitement for the history that inspires its games – to not only recreate giant battles of old but to spark players’ interest in them.
And Age of Empires 4 does that to incredible effect. I could say its well-balanced gameplay, its varied mission types, or my desire for a sense of completion have kept me coming back for more. That would be missing the bigger picture. I keep returning to watch the game’s brilliant documentary-style cutscenes. That’s no small feat for a strategy game.