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Ara: History Untold adds the rewarding hustle and bustle of city-builders to 4X

A fresh and innovative take on 4X turn-based strategy
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It’s going be a magnificent year for fans of 4X turn-based strategy games in 2024 for several reasons, but a big one is Ara: History Untold. After having played an Alpha build through Xbox Insider many months ago, I was excited to revisit the title at gamescom 2023 to experience the progress the team at Oxide Games has made in the meantime – and there was a lot of that.

Ara: History Untold is another new take on the genre most people will recognize as “games that are like Civilization” and brings its own spin on the formula. Microsoft is publishing the title under the Xbox Game Studios label as part of its renewed investment into classic PC genres, of which so far Microsoft Flight Simulator and Age of Empires fans have profited the most.

Ara: History Untold keyart.

Ara: History Untold is a cornerstone of Microsoft's renewed PC game investment.

Oxide won’t be a completely new name for strategy game fans as the studio developed Ashes of Singularity: Escalation, a RTS inspired by Supreme Commander. The team boasts experienced developers who worked on the Civilization series as well as newer entries into the genre like the fantastic Old World, so they bring a lot of knowhow to the table and know a thing or two about scale.

And that’s a good starting point for Ara: History Untold. You usually play a game of this genre from the same perspective all session long – from a bird’s eye view. However, Ara brings the hustle and bustle you usually know from city-builders into the mix and encourages you to get closer to your population – your cities and improvements will be swarming with your people going about their daily business. In the wilderness, lions chase after antilopes as your scouts stroll through the area. It’s nice to just lose yourself in the moment from time to time and get some payoff for all of your hard work aside from the mechanical progress through the game.

Ara: History Untold untouched wilderness.

Zoomed in or out, untouched or built over, Ara's world is beautiful to behold.

There is another reason to zoom in, though: As you get closer, additional information becomes available to you – icons above buildings showing their current production become visible and if there’s something awry in the city, there will be visual hints about it.

This city-building aspect goes further than visuals, because Ara does something very intriguing with the resources you find on the map. In Civilization, a field of wheat can be improved by a farm to get you more food per turn and building a granary in your city will add another bonus due to the resource being present. That’s nice, but not very involved. Ara goes a little deeper than that and actually allows you to do stuff with the resources you exploit – iron, for example, is used to produce weapons at a blacksmith you can build, and those weapons are required to build your military. You can also trade them. Other fabricated items, such as wine, can be actively used to grant your city temporary bonuses.

You get to build up actual economic supply chains and each of these buildings must be constructed on a new tile, giving you this feeling of meaningful and rewarding expansion and improvement that’s sometimes amiss in other games of the genre, where you just put your workers on automation at some point because all you do is build the same farms or mines anyway. Besides, Ara doesn’t have workers. You build improvements through the city menu, where you can see all the important information about your provinces, upgrade buildings, manage your population, and so on.

Ara: History Untold screenshot of an army in front of a castle.

Armies are represented on the map in all their glory instead of a handful of big models.

Instead of a general production resource, Ara actually features a resource-based economy with things like stone and wood, so that’s another thing you need to keep your eyes on. Some of the resources you find actually allow you some flexibility. In my playthrough at gamescom, I found some wild camels and built a pasture around them, which gave me the option to generate some different types of resources – mounts for cavalry units, leather for further production, or food for the nearby city. You can manually switch production around as needed.

Ara’s take on Civilization’s Great People system allows you to recruit famous people from history as generals for your armies or important ministers, steering the direction of your empire. There’s a different spin on research as well – instead of a fixed tech tree, the game presents you with a basket of options from your current age and you get to research a certain amount of technologies from that. Once you’ve reached the limit, you’ll age up and new options will be available, so you won’t actually get all the tech from every era – you’ll need to make some smart choices here depending on your play style and goal.

Probably the biggest difference between Ara and most other genre representatives is how turns work. Usually, one player gets to go and make all their moves, then the next, and so on. It’s not like this here. Ara uses a format of alternate turns. You basically give your orders as you’d usually do, but once you click the end turn button, these orders are resolved one by one – your first move, then player two’s first move, and so on, until it’s time for you second move, player two’s second move, and so on. This makes things a lot more intense when it comes to combat and forces you to think about the order of moves a lot more, at least in dicey situations.

Ara: History Untold screenshot of a modern city.

Lead your civilization from antiquity all the way to the modern age.

The developers told me that some of the mechanics aren’t finalized – things like the pace of expansion and land improvement are still being tested. There is also the confusing issue that only scouts can engage wild animals on the map while military units can’t – a small thing, but kind of irksome. Lots of little teething issues like that will hopefully be cured by the upcoming beta test that once again puts the game into the hands of Xbox Insiders. Another field that needs (and is getting) work is the UI, which is suboptimal in a few places.

There are a lot of features and aspects I didn’t get to during my hour with the game in Cologne (and that’s despite me trying really hard not to stare at the stunning landscapes and cities too much), but I already feel incredibly excited by what Ara: History Untold will have to offer once it launches on PC in 2024. In the meantime, you can put it on your Steam Wishlist or sign up to be an Xbox Insider.