This is the best documentary you can watch.
Age of Empires 4 features one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, which is saying a lot considering it’s a real-time strategy game. It’s a game that builds on the fluid base-building and frantic unit control of its predecessors to produce a refined tactical experience that’s more approachable to modern audiences.
That’s what I’ve been told, at least. I have no idea. I’ve spent more time watching the cutscenes in Age of Empires 4 than I have thinking about the game’s gameplay. Even though I’m halfway through the game’s third single-player campaign, it’s the game’s pre-match cinematics that have left the most lasting impression on me.
These aren’t your typical in-game cutscenes; instead, they’re short documentaries. When you enter a fight, you’ll learn who the primary characters are, what political intrigues triggered the conflict, and how it served as a watershed moment in that country’s or continent’s history. They’re quick history lessons about the timeline and legends surrounding the skirmish you’re about to take part in.
They’re also completely fantastic. The shorts, which have all of the markings of television documentaries you could have seen on the History Channel 15 years ago – and at a substantially higher production level – give some recent television documentaries a run for their money. While superimposed CGI troops combat across fields and castles, sweeping aerial camera shots show you historical locales as they are today. The causes of the conflict, as well as the repercussions of the combat you’re about to engage, are explained by a narrator.
And that’s just the required viewing. You’ll unlock bonus films after finishing each assignment that delve further into the details of each historical period. These go into great depth, with skilled presenters and academic historians taking you through the basics of life and history.
I can confidently state that I now have a basic understanding of how mediaeval paint was made with iron oxide, eggs, and tree sap. I can think of a few instances where Mongol heavy cavalry dominated the fight. If you ask me about crossbows, armour, or Guédelon Castle (a historical architectural project currently under development in France), I’m sure I can come up with something intelligent to say.
The videos’ quality is astounding, but so is their educational worth. Like every English schoolchild, I was taught extensively about the Norman conquest, but did I retain much of it? Only a smidgeon of information regarding motte-and-bailey castles. Inquire about what I’ve learnt about The Anarchy by playing Age of Anarchy I could, however, write an essay that would make any secondary school student tremble at the depth of my historical knowledge in Age of Empires 4. (admittedly, not a particularly impressive feat).
It’s something I can’t get enough of. My love of documentaries has been renewed after only a few hours in Age of Empires 4. I’ve been bitten by the learning bug and have devoured any historical book I can lay my hands on. I’ve watched documentaries about the Roman Empire, the Russian Revolution, and the seemingly unending mountain of World War II documentaries that are released year after year.
And Age of Empires 4 continues to enchant me. You can take as many history lessons as you like from the game. If you’re anything like me, you’ll watch each additional video as soon as it’s available and keep coming back for more. I’ve watched numerous shorts twice, anticipating the next instalment with bated breath I’m looking forward to seeing what historical treasures I’ll unearth next. If you’d rather avoid the instruction, there’s nothing stopping you from skipping the optional shorts and jumping right into a skirmish.
As a result, you’re unlikely to get history weariness. The mini-documentaries, which are usually only a few minutes long, are delivered in drips, punctuated by each major mission. They’re more of a prize for your military achievements than an expository device: just defeated the Hungarian soldiers at the Battle of Mohi? As a bonus, check out this explainer on the multibow crossbow’s unrivalled firepower.
They’re also a creative method to include history into the game while keeping it independent from the fundamental design of Age of Empires 4. As much as I enjoy studying about real conflicts, I’m not so concerned with historical authenticity that I want it to define a game’s essential mechanics and features. Age of Empires 4 is not a simulator, but rather an abstract recreation of wars. The game shows its love for history while allowing you to lead colourful, cartoonish knights across heavily stylized battlefields by providing you with these videos to watch outside of the main game.
Leave unflinching historical accuracy to games like Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis; Age of Empires focuses on the gameplay.
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This isn’t the first time a company has attempted to bring documentaries and video games closer together. The strategy genre is no stranger to teaching players about the history of the games they’re playing, both implicitly and overtly. Even Age of Empires 2 (released in 1999) contained a detailed chronicle of each civilization, thus giving you an encyclopaedia of the groups and people under your command.
It’s all part of the genre’s objective to express its enthusiasm for the past that inspires its games — to not only reproduce but also pique gamers’ interest in historical fights.
And Age of Empires 4 does it spectacularly well. I may attribute my continued play to the game’s well-balanced gameplay, diverse mission types, or my yearning for a sense of accomplishment. That would be oblivious to the wider picture. I keep coming back to see the game’s fantastic documentary-style cutscenes. That’s a huge accomplishment for a strategy game.