That is a good thing. “Age of Empires IV” has the same thin veneer of edutainment as a show about the famous battles of history, but extended through a real-time strategy game. Players can take the role of one of eight historical empires, like the Holy Roman Empire or the Mongols, and enter into battles where they control every part of that group’s resource production and warfare. Create workers, build farms, deforest areas, and turn those supplies into the infantry, cavalry, and siege engines that destroy all of the enemies in your wake; this is the imperial way. These games play out in campaign missions with specific objectives (take some towns; hold defenses for a certain amount of time) or more free-form multiplayer maps with a mix of warfare and building win conditions.
Each empire has a unique set of game mechanics. The English have their longbows, the Rus have warrior-priests on horseback, and the Mongols can move their production buildings after being placed, to name a few. These give each empire its own flavor and way of approaching challenges, though at the core they all operate in similar ways. You gather, you build, you deploy, and then you fight.
Getting better at “Age of Empires IV” means learning how those two things — the base building and the troop management — operate as interlocked systems. You learn through trial and error how to best command your troops and when you can take your eyes off them for a few seconds to order your blacksmith to make better swords or to make a new lumber facility. In the heat of battle, you begin to understand how to stutter-step your archers forward so they can hit the back row of enemy bowmen. The whole system begins to swing in tandem, but that swinging is based on inertia, and it takes a lot of time investment to get there.
If learning these ins and outs, and wielding them against other players in competitive modes, is what you come to games for, then “Age of Empires IV” probably has enough to keep you satisfied. Even playing a fairly limited number of multiplayer matches during the review period allowed me to get a sense of the “StarCraft II”-esque balance between the different empires. While I would never claim to be a pro player, my mid-level experience allowed me to get through all of the game campaigns on the intermediate difficulty without too many moments of frustration or anger.
I spent the bulk of my time with “Age of Empires IV” working through those campaigns — four distinct sets of missions that ask you to command four different empires through some critical moments in their history. They all have a distinct tone to them: the English conflict with the Normans is the story of pitched battles on opposite shores; the French campaign centers on national myth and heroism; the Mongol campaign is about one cunning maneuver after the other; and the Moscow campaign is the story of one city-state that grows to be a power. All of these are ways of warping history into incremental stories that have the feel of video game narratives. Early in the French campaign, for example, I was tasked with gathering troops with special abilities one-by-one to fight in a duel. Playing into the familiar trope of “getting the team together,” the mission pulled a real-world historical event into a framework that was recognizable, fitting right in between the TV documentary style narrative delivery and a video game mission pieced out into several stages.
Notably, “Age of Empires IV” also has micro versions of those documentaries inserted between each mission as a way of establishing chronology and the historical conditions of each mission. With production values as good as any TV or high budget YouTube doc, and with some really interesting historical imaginings overlaid on modern footage, they do an excellent job of tricking you into thinking about how your gameplay actions could have taken place on these real fields, or across these ancient stone walls. Even better, good performance in missions gives you even more documentary footage. At one point I found myself learning that English hunting with birds required a guy who carried a big wooden frame so the birds would not be “jostled” by riding on horseback. This is the kind of factoid I would normally absorb at 2 a.m. in the dead zone of cable television, and here I was getting it in the middle of a video game. Delightful.
Crucially, though, this connection between historical docs and this particular flavor of historical game leads us to a necessary conclusion: they’re both a little bit nonsensical. Trading on a veneer of historical information, both bring some entertainment. But history is not a set of narratives with rising and falling action with some heroes jammed into it. And yet, that is just what a game like “Age of Empires IV” must do to make a wild, difficult and chaotic event like The 100 Years War into something around which they can build a compelling narrative. It frames history as a golden thread of causal events, rather than a pile of garbage managed by structures and powers propelled by a thousand different wills and desires. And so here, “history” is a genre, not something these media objects really help us grasp in any way.
Much like the Civilization games or the recent “Humankind,” “Age of Empires IV” delivers some well-worn myths by way of its design: about human beings, the things we’ve done and so on. It reaffirms the stories we tell ourselves about the necessity of violence, or the back-and-forth aggression of longform warfare. It is historical fiction wearing the robes of documentary (and documentary is already a particular perspective, even when it is presented as objective fact). This is all to say that “Age of Empires IV” is a fun thing to tinker with, as long as you keep a healthy critical distance about how it presents the facts of human existence.
Taken with the mind-set one might watch a documentary about the Knights Templar and their connection to the treasure on Oak Island, though, “Age of Empires IV” is a virtuoso performance. It trickles out its tools and puts players in both defensive and offensive positions that seem impossible to win, but which definitely are with a little ingenuity. It tells you that proper upgrades, good strategies, and solid tactical follow-through will be enough to get you and your heroic troops through any sticky situation, just like what really happened. Every battle feels like it could tip any way at any moment, and there is a razor’s edge of combat and mission balance happening that I often reflected on after a mission was over. There’s a magic to this design, or at least a chemistry. In a later campaign mission when I freed Moscow from its vassalage to the Mongols, I had a real feeling of pride. These little guys running around with bows and spears overcame the odds, and I felt a way about it.
The ability to take a broad set of game systems that turn the world into little numbers going up and down and turn that into a compelling narrative is an impressive feat, and it is one that I have a hard time breaking down into understandable pieces. A later campaign mission for the Mongols tasks the player with attacking the fortress of Xiangyang. The defenders destroy the bridges that might allow the assault to succeed, so it becomes a siege. The next mission takes place on another map entirely. Then, in the final chapter of the Mongol Empire campaign, we return to that original fortress many years later. We see a thriving set of cities and towns that have grown up around the siege. Using the buildings and mechanical systems, like the trading system that allows a player to make gold from unaligned townships, the story of prosperity and growth as a siege tactic is made crystal clear. Then, of course, the assault is picked up again as a final challenge.
“Age of Empires IV” is a simple, pleasurable game that rewards developing high skill but does not require it to push and learn your way through. It gives you troops and their upgrades and some buildings and lets you decide what you want to do with them. It gave me a lot of freedom to make my own choices within a narrative that constantly told me how cool I was for playing in a historical playground with some of the coolest people who ever lived. These pleasures are few and far between in life, and I savored this one.