This is a discussion stemming from a closed topic, but I think it’s worth a separate one:
Return of the Rome has been out for less than two weeks. You already have very detailed descriptions and instructions about most of the new campaigns on the fandom wiki. While for AOE4 released a year and a half ago, most of the scenarios do not even have a wiki page, and for those that have, there is minimum information:
There isn’t even anyone who has the interest of picking historical or gameplay trivia from them.
You rarely see good videos or writeups about AOE4’s sp contents either. Most of them were posted in a short time frame of one or two months after the game was released. You don’t see discussions about them in AOE4’s own community. Or maybe I’m looking at the wrong place but from my observation I think it’s safe to say remaining AOE4 players do not care about SP (which is an integral part of the series), or the game never tried to make people do so. Those who care couldn’t really be attracted by this game. In other words it’s not a very successful campaign. The documentary cutscenes are good though and that ironically is what most people have talked about.
Some people (either defending it or criticizing it) would attribute it to the “style” but it’s more than that. Almost every game has its own narrative and design style, and there are cases of success and failure in a lot of choices and combinations you can think of.
I’ve seen less character-centric narratives. For example, there are story modes without a central character but still dialogues between random characters/units etc. However AOE4’s deliberate choice of hard-removing anything “personal” or “characteristic” is actually a pretty “novel” one, and there aren’t successful examples AFAIK. AOE1 was somewhat like this but that was mostly due to technical limitations and the scenario designs are very outdated now. I do think they were thinking of making some innovations on this aspect, and there must be some ways to make good “documentary style campaigns”, but this one didn’t work out very well.
Okay you may consider it as a good introduction to MP. Well then it works as intended, but it’s not good as a campaign if you only judge it as a campaign on its own.
Why do I think the designs do not synergize with the documentary style very well?
- First and foremost I don’t relate documentaries with “huge time jumps” and “no character/dialogue at all”. That’s just one type of documentary. There are also good documentaries with VERY outstanding characters and good reenactments. For example:
Die Deutschen (TV Series 2008– ) - IMDb
Some episodes are exclusively centered on one character and they are epic.
- Okay you choose this one particular documentary style with one narrator telling everything and showing on screen either large maps with cities and armies and random re-enacted combat scenes. I guess a lot of players would expect to play the former (units and buildings in RTS are already very abstract), but you give them the latter. That’s like letting you play Gollum in LoTR. Not that it’s impossible to make it interesting, but you’ll need a genius to achieve it.
- Okay you choose very small and separate scenarios. Why not make them more compact and cohesive? No you have huge time jumps skipping decades and centuries. More events happen in the cutscenes than the scenarios. You play a very small linear 1v1 battle, then the cutscene tells you a lot of things happened after that (some making you efforts futile) and you just skipped them, and they throw you into another small 1v1 battle. That again is not very exciting.
- After all, this is a game. You either have small and linear scenarios with a very good story and memorable characters (a lot of successful stories), or grand scenarios with few player-character/world interactions but a lot of freedom (a lot of successful stories as well), either will give you something truly memorable, but NOT small and linear scenarios with few interactions.
There are some unlikely combinations of design decisions that most of the time do not work.
This video coincidentally has a lot of similar points as mine. Of course that’s very personal, but I think the points are valid.
I made a similar analysis on AOE3 in its sub-forum earlier that the choices of “deep contents and a lot of options” + “small, competitive maps and very fast paced matches” in vanilla AOE3 make a weird combination so I hold such opinion in general and it’s nothing personal against AOE4.
Some less relevant discussion about COH3's campaigns
COH3 “creatively” adds a large, interacive strategic map, which tbh made me very excited when announced but turned out to be less satisfactory. And again it’s not solely a problem with strategic maps, because there are a lot of success stories as well, with very different designs:
- Risk-style maps: The map has nothing more than a few tiles for you to choose from, like a little more diverse way to progress with your campaign scenarios, and that’s sometimes a good thing. You don’t need to suffer from repetitive skirmish battles that you cannot skip. Good examples include Rise of Nations, SC2, DoW1, even COH2 (in those games each battle is quite long relatively, and require build-ups from the very beginning, so you cannot let the player play 100 of them to complete one campaign).
- Then the opposite, very interactive maps with a lot of small encounters: That’s what the Total War series have been doing. You need to fight a lot of skirmishes, but they are enriched and made diverse by varying terrains, weathers and army compositions, etc. They are also relatively compact as you’re directly thrown into the battle. Also because the armies on the strategic map have the exact units you’ll use in the actual battles, you can confidently autoresolve most of the decisive ones (to prevent “but”: I didn’t say the autoresolve is perfect). Even without all these, at least the battles have a huge scale and are enjoyable to watch.
These design choices all synergize. If you simply combine some from 1 with some from 2, very likely it does not work.
Now COH3: it has a strategic map, which is good. BUT you have a lot of repetitive skirmishes that you cannot skip. The “armies” on the map are too abstract so you cannot control the loss with autoresolve. And most of them are still the classic RTS 1v1, so they take longer.
There are some well-designed ones but they are very scattered across the experience. That’s not a good idea. It is very tiring. For me it didn’t take advantage of the strategic map but took a lot of disadvantage of it on the other hand.
It’s never with the style alone. It’s how you actually make design decisions that synergize with it. Do I like smaller scenarios? Bigger scenarios? Weak characters? Strong characters? Fewer interactions? More interactions? None of them and all of them. I like designs that are cohesive.
If they are to add more campaigns (and actually make them good) they should learn from why the existing ones are not very memorable.
I feel that nowadays RTS studios in general, not just limited to one or two games, have significantly lower emphasis on the quality of SP contents, or they have lost the ability to design SP contents just as their own division not “now get to MP asap”, or both. The few good SP contents in recent years are from AOE2 which benefits from its long-lasting tradition of custom scenario communities. And that’s a huge loss.