Age of Empires IV wants to teach you a lesson
The key to a great historical game is to ensure that the history doesn’t spoil the game. Relic Entertainment knew, from the very beginning, that Age of Empires 4 had to feature The Mongols. They were the clear lynchpin civilisation, both an iconic force in Age of Empires 2 and an iconic force in history, famed for their lightning-fast horse cavalry, with an empire stretching nine million square miles, from East to West, encompassing nearly all of Relic’s game world.
Or, to put it bluntly, “We were like, Okay, well, they fought everybody,” says Quinn Duffy, the game’s director. “So now we can start to figure out who else we can include.”
The task now was to reduce 500 years of history into “an essence” of a civilisation: an abstraction concocted to fit the rules of a game.
Some elements of history mapped perfectly. Odegai Khan, the third son of Ghengis, expanded a giant Yam network, an early pony express: postal stations where a horse or runner could rest as they transmitted a message across the empire. The team at Relic reimagined these into small stone circles: outposts that give units a speed bonus as they ping around a player’s base.
Other ideas were abandoned. The team motion-captured horses. Instead of the cartoonish turn-on-a-dime the animals pulled off in the previous games, in the new one, horses would be realistic, with a full suite of animations, slowing down and arcing in circles to their target. The game was unplayable. “Everyone hated it,” says Adam Isgreen, franchise creative director at World’s Edge, collaborating with Relic on the game.
Finally, there were the aspects that both Duffy and Isgreen acknowledge are simply ahistorical. The Mongols in Age of Empires 4 are nomadic: their towns can be packed up on wagons and relocated across the map. In reality, says Duffy, while this may feel ‘authentic’, it is inaccurate: as the Mongols spread from the Ghengis Khan era into his sons and grandsons, they settled, building cities and fortifications. “That’s always an interesting battle,” he says. “We’re always struggling with the impact of authenticity and the abstraction of that authenticity into gameplay.”
Next to the Civilisation and Total War games, Age of Empires is the most iconic series in the genre of historical games. The fourth in the series arrives 15 years after the last entry, but, in recent years, all three previous releases have had fresh makeovers, in the form of HD and so-called Definitive editions. Evidently, all three have their own followings, but the first (beginning in the stone age) and the third (set during the European colonisation of the Americas) are generally considered inferior to the second (set in medieval times.) The fourth returns to medieval times, and the team has admitted their game is directly inspired by the Age of Empires II.
When I was nine, my dad bought me a copy of Age of Empires 2 under the pretence that, since I refused to stop playing games, I might at least learn something about history. And I did, in a way: even if the history itself was shaky (even then I knew that the Chinese invented gunpowder: why so few gunpowder units?) the passion for this history, told through gameplay, was infectious. I was captivated. I was Joan of Arc, protecting the Orleans Cathedral from the hated English; I was Attila the Hun, letting Bleda, my murderous brother, die at the tusks of the iron boar. These historical figures were so much more absorbing than a typical sci-fi or fantasy setting; I studied the Middle Ages at school because of them. Age of Empires turned players towards the past and compelled them with its bloody, battle-strewn vision.
Published at Mon, 25 Oct 2021 07:01:00 +0000
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