Age Of Empires 2 is about to receive its sixth expansion pack, Lords Of The West, just a casual 22 years after the base game first wololoed its way onto our screens. From January 26th in the year of our lord 2021, players will be able to take the knight-happy Burgundians and the castle-dropping Sicilians for a spin, as well as play through three new campaigns - one each for the new civs, and a third for the Britons, featuring good old Edward Longshanks. Longshanks, of course, was the baddie off of Braveheart, and thus also the baddie off of AoE2's first ever campaign, where you played as William Wallace in a series of adventures that were totally based on history and not the film.
Lords will be the second set of content designed specifically for AoE2's Definitive Edition, and follows on from the excellent The Last Khans, which was included in the Def Ed at release. With its arrival, AoE2 will be able to boast a rowdy pool of 37 playable civs, thirty-odd single-player campaigns, most of which were redesigned for DE, and a renewed prominence in PC gaming that I don't think anybody saw coming. With a booming competitive scene, a growing audience on Twitch, and an ever-climbing place in the Steam charts, it's seemed for a while that AoE2 is back to stay, and the release of a good old fashioned expansion suggests there's plenty more to be embroidered on its tapestry yet.
I have played 500 hours of AoE2 this year, and there's no way it can be anything other than my Game o' the year, so this is like a lovely dream for me. It's like a beloved childhood pet has come back from the dead with a suite of unfathomable godlike powers, and it just keeps getting larger to boot. Mind you, although I'm nowhere near being a top-tier player, I know enough to have had my eyebrows raised a little at the bonuses and abilities of the two new civs.
The Sicilians seem the more reasonable of the two. From the looks of it, they're all about booming hard in Castle Age. Their town centres and castles build at double speed, while their farms get better as you build more of them, and they have two unique units - a hardy infantryman called the serjeant, and a beefy new tower called the donjon which can both build serjeants, and be built by serjeants. Their unique techs, meanwhile, seem designed as a lethal follow-up punch to the big boom, with the first spawning seven serjeants at every existing town centre for a flat cost, and the second providing them and any teammates fifteen gold for each military unit under their control. Yikes.
And remember, they're the reasonable ones. The Burgundians, named after the wine which flows in place of their blood, are an utter nightmare. They've got a beastly unique cavalry unit, a beastly unique anti-cavalry unit, economic upgrades available one whole age earlier than anyone else gets them, and knights that refund half their gold cost on death. Oh good, knight rushes have a new face, set already into the sneering scowl of a career bully. But wait, there's more! Their Burgundian Vineyards unique tech converts food into gold at a 2:1 ratio, while their Flemish Revolution tech upgrades all villagers instantly into fighting units. Ultrayikes.
Why ultrayikes? Because at the moment, any game of AoE2 that runs long enters a phase known as "The Trash Wars", where all the gold on the map has run out, and everyone's just spamming the cheapest units around in a ghastly, somme-like war of attrition. Some existing civs have bonuses that give 'em an edge in these grisly end times, but the Burgundians basically have a built-in Ragnarok, with the ability to abruptly give themselves a fortune in gold, and then turn all the peasants into warboys. Give them a Sicilian teammate, with their ability to also dump a vast quantity of units and gold onto the map in the late game, and I can't see how any counter could be possible.
That there looks like power creep, so it does, my liege *chomps a turnip*. Given the quality of the monthly balance patches over the first year of DE's life, I trust developers Forgotten Empires to get this right. But whatever gets tuned between now and release, this ain't civ design like it used to be, where bonuses and unique units tended to offer only a slight variance from the norm. Dare I say it even feels a bit Age Of Empires III? At the very least it'll turn the competitive meta on its head. It may break it altogether. Still, I think the secret to AoE2's successful resurrection so far has been a fearlessness about tinkering with its guts - so let the wine, and the blood, flow come January.
Age Of Empires 2: Lords Of The West will launch on January 26th, 2021. You can read the full details of the expansion, and preorder if thou wouldst, here.