Age of Empires games have always taken place against a historical backdrop, but Microsoft and Relic Entertainment want to take things even further with Age of Empires IV. The game will feature narrated documentaries throughout the campaigns, time period-accurate language and music, as well as art and game design that looks to take inspiration from both world history and the history of the Age of Empires franchise. On release, Age IV will focus on the Middle Ages, having players start with small agrarian villages and build up to castles and kings.
While players can experience hundreds of years of history in a single match, the game will also feature campaigns that let players go through real-life stories that span generations. So far, the only one announced has been the Norman conquest starting with the Battle of Hastings.
The campaigns in Age of Empires have always added some historical context to the battles and missions you’ll be doing, but in Age of Empires IV, each will be accompanied by documentary footage shot on location. The team behind the game says this is in celebration of history but also works to give players context around what they’re doing. It’s easy to see how this could add to gameplay: skirmishes are fun, but knowing why you want to win a battle can really add to the drama of it all.
We got to see some of the documentary footage in the Fan Preview event, and it looked like the type of thing that would fit in on Netflix or The History Channel, complete with narration, props, and actors in costume. During an interview, Emma Bridle, the director of customer voice for Age of Empires, told The Verge that she had grown up in England but learned things about British history from the campaign documentaries. (That is great to hear because, as an American, it’ll be even more of a learning experience because I know almost absolutely nothing about British history.)
The team is also hoping to bring history to life through the audio: starting out, civilizations will be speaking in the ancient versions of their tongues. For example, if you’re playing as the English, you probably won’t be able to understand your units at the beginning of the game, as they’ll be speaking a version of English that’s unrecognizable to modern-day players. However, as you progress, you’ll start to understand more and more of what they say as the language evolves toward what we speak today. Similarly, the music starts as a stripped-down score with only a few instruments, evolving throughout the game to be a full orchestra as your civilization advances.
In between talking about real-life history, the team also talked about the history of Age of Empires as a franchise and how Age IV will continue and evolve its legacy. To anyone who’s played an AoE game, the art style will look instantly familiar but will have additional flourishes like the golden illuminated people that show the work being done on your buildings. The developers also talked about taking a look at the design of the old game to try to figure out what mechanics and behaviors were deliberate design decisions and which were due to technical limitations that could be tweaked and expanded upon.
As someone who is a fan of Age of Empires but is generally ignorant about history, I’m looking forward to being able to learn as I play. While previous games in the franchise did have historical dressing, I can’t say they taught me much. Perhaps that will change with Age IV. But it seems that the game wants to present plenty of historical context during every game mode, both about ancient civilizations and not-so-ancient games.