Age of Empires 4 is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time – which is saying something, considering it’s actually 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 polished tactical experience more accessible to modern audiences.
At least, that’s what I’m told. I would not know. I spent more time watching Age of Empires 4 cutscenes than thinking too intently about its gameplay. Even now that I’ve gone through a good chunk of its third single-player campaign, it’s not the battlefield that has impressed me the most, but the game’s pre-game cutscenes.
These aren’t your average in-game cutscenes, but bite-sized documentaries. Engage in a battle and you’ll find out 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 dive into the timeline and myths behind the skirmish you’re about to enter.
They are also absolutely brilliant. Produced with all the hallmarks of the TV documentaries you might have watched on the History Channel 15 years ago – and with significantly better production quality – the shorts give some modern TV documentaries a hard time. Panoramic aerial shots show you historic locations as they exist today, as layered CGI armies clash across 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 viewing. After completing each mission, you’ll unlock bonus videos that explore the details of each historical period. These go into great detail, with expert presenters and academic historians guiding 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 paint 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 Chateau de Guédelon (an architectural history project currently under construction in France), and I can probably think of something intelligent to say about them, too.
The quality of the videos is impressive, but so is their educational value. Like any English schoolboy, I learned a lot about the Norman Conquest, but did I retain much of this information? Just a little about the motte and bailey castles. Ask me what I’ve learned about The Anarchy playing Age of Empires 4, and I might whip up an essay that would make any high school student cringe at the breadth of my historical knowledge (admittedly, not an achievement particularly impressive).
I can’t get enough. After only a few hours in Age of Empires 4, my love of documentaries was rekindled. I caught the learning bug and sunk my teeth into every historical document I can get my hands on. The Roman Empire, the Russian Revolution, the seemingly endless mountain of World War II documentaries that come out year after year – the time period doesn’t matter; I have gone through them all.
And I’m still in love with Age of Empires 4. The game gives you as many history lessons as you can take. 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, eagerly awaiting what historical deep dive I’ll unlock next. But if you’d rather skip the pedagogy, there’s nothing stopping you from bypassing the optional shorts and jumping straight into a skirmish.
That means you probably won’t suffer from story fatigue. The mini-documentaries – which are usually a few minutes long – are drip-fed to you, punctuated by each main mission. They are less a means of exposure than a reward for your military conquests: you have just defeated the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Mohi? Check out this explainer on the unparalleled firepower of the multibow crossbow, like a treat.
But they’re also a clever way to bring the story into the game while separating it from the core design of Age of Empires 4. I love learning about battles of old as much as the next person, but I I’m not so concerned with historical accuracy that I want it to dictate the core mechanics and functionality 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 the story while letting you command colorful, cartoonish knights on heavily stylized battlefields.
Leave unwavering historical authenticity to the likes of Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis; Age of Empires takes a gameplay-focused approach.
Come back for more
This isn’t the first time a studio has attempted 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 play. Even Age of Empires 2 – which released in 1999 – included a detailed timeline of each of its civilizations, handing you an encyclopedia of the factions and characters under your command.
It’s part and parcel of the genre’s mission to share its excitement for the story that inspires its games – not only to recreate giant battles of yore, but also to pique player interest.
And Age of Empires 4 does that to incredible effect. I could say that its well-balanced gameplay, varied mission types, or my desire for a sense of completion kept me coming back for more. That would be missing the big picture. I keep coming back to watch the game’s brilliant documentary-style cutscenes. That’s no small feat for a strategy game.