Age of Empires 4 is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time – which really says something, as it’s actually a real-time strategy game. It’s a game that elegantly builds on its predecessors’ fluid base building and frantic unit management to create a refined tactical experience that’s more accessible to modern audiences.
At least, that’s what they tell me. I would not know. I spent more time watching Age of Empires 4 cutscenes than I did thinking a lot about its gameplay. Even now that I’m well into its third single-player campaign, it’s not the battleground that made the biggest impression on me, but the game’s pre-game cinematics.
These aren’t your regular in-game cutscenes, but small documentaries. Enter a battle and you’ll learn 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. These are short history lessons that delve into the timeline and myths behind the conflict you are about to enter.
They are also absolutely brilliant. Produced with all the hallmarks of television documentaries you might have watched on the History Channel 15 years ago — and with significantly better production quality — the shorts give some modern television documentaries a run for their money. Aerial camera captures show historic sites as they exist today, as overlapping CGI armies fight over 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 mandatory view. 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 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 in which Mongolian heavy cavalry came to dominate the battlefield. Ask me what I know about crossbows, armour, or the Castle of Guédelon (an architectural history project currently under construction in France), and I can probably think of something clever to say about them too.
The quality of the videos is impressive, but so is their teaching value. Like every English student, I learned a great deal about the Norman Conquest, but did I keep much of this information? Just a little bit about motte-and-bailey castles. Ask me what I learned about The Anarchy playing Age of Empires 4, however, and I could whip up an essay that would make any high school student shudder at the scope of my historical knowledge (admittedly, not a particularly impressive feat).
I can’t get enough. After just a few hours in Age of Empires 4, my love for documentaries was rekindled. I took the learning bug and sank my teeth into every history document I could get my hands on. The Roman Empire, the Russian Revolution, the seemingly endless mountain of WWII documentaries that are released year after year – the time frame doesn’t matter; I went through them all.
And I’m still in love with Age of Empires 4. The game offers as many history lessons as you can. If you’re anything like me, you’ll watch all the bonus videos once they’re unlocked and keep coming back for more. I’ve watched several shorts twice, looking forward to the historical dip I’ll unlock next. But if you’d rather skip the pedagogy, there’s nothing stopping you from bypassing the optional shorts and heading straight into a skirmish.
This means that you are unlikely to suffer from historical fatigue. The mini-documentaries – which usually last a few minutes – are fed drip, punctuated by each main quest. They are less an exhibition device than a reward for your military achievements: have you just defeated Hungarian forces at the Battle of Mohi? Check out this explainer on the unrivaled firepower of the multibow crossbow as a treat.
But they’re also a smart way to weave the story into the game, keeping it separate from the core design of Age of Empires 4. I love learning about old battles as much as the next person, but I’m not as concerned with historical accuracy as of wanting it to dictate the fundamental mechanics and features of a game. Age of Empires 4 is not a simulator and only recreates the battles in an abstract sense. By handing you these videos to enjoy outside of the main game, the game conveys its reverence for the story, allowing you to command colorful, cartoonish knights across heavily stylized battlegrounds.
Leave unshakable historical authenticity to the likes of Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis; Age of Empires takes a gameplay-first approach.
come back for more
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 story behind the games they are playing. Even Age of Empires 2 – released in 1999 – included a detailed timeline of each of your civilizations, handing you an encyclopedia of the factions and figures under your command.
It’s part of the genre’s mission to share its excitement for the story that inspires its games – not only to recreate gigantic battles of old, but also to pique players’ interest in them.
And Age of Empires 4 does it to incredible effect. I could say its well-balanced gameplay, its varied quest types, or my desire for a sense of completion kept me coming back for more. That would be missing the bigger picture. I keep coming back to watch the brilliant documentary-style cutscenes of the game. This is no small feat for a strategy game.