The fact that Age Of Empires 2 has a fresh expansion pack, more than two decades after it first came out, is something I’m inevitably well happy with. The release of Lords Of The West is clear confirmation that AoE2’s experimental resurrection has been a success: the monster lives, and it’s going to get continued support from its creator and patron, Doctor Microsoft. This feels good. It feels deserved, even. AoE2’s Definitive Edition has dominated my gaming time over the last year, even more than the original dominated my teens, and I’m thrilled at this sign that it’s sticking around.
But however pleasing it is that the expansion exists at all, my feelings are a little more reserved about Lords Of The West itself. I’ve been rinsing it, both in ranked and single player modes, for nearly two weeks now, so I’ve had plenty of time to see how it’s affected the game as a whole. And while there’s a lot about it that’s just as good as I’d hoped for, there are some surprising disappointments too. So there’s a bit of tough love here.
First, and most bluntly, Definitive Edition has never been less stable as a piece of software than it is right now. I’ve crashed out of the game almost as many times as I’ve quit of my own volition, and while most of the borkages have happened when booting up or loading single player games, it’s knocked me out of a handful of 3v3 ranked games as well, which is not great at all. I’ve got friends who’ve had no issue with crashes, so the stability issues aren’t universal - but they seem widespread enough to merit a mention upfront.
Given how diligent devs Forgotten Empires have been with patching DE since launch, I’m confident that this stuff will be fixed. But it was a bit of a surprise to encounter such a basic obstacle at all. We’re at a point in the game’s rebirth where you’d hope it would be getting more stable, if anything. The same goes for a whole boatload of small quality of life issues, such as the weird framerate collapses when entering the civ select screen during online play, or the need to start fresh lobbies and send new invites when you want a quick rematch with friends. It’s hard to welcome fresh seasonal cosmetics, while these things remain unsorted.
I was really excited to play the three new single player campaigns included in LOTW. I’m still astonished at the value of the 136 scenarios included with the base game, and having played through them all since DE came out, I’ve been really impressed. AoE2’s popularity may be riding most on its success as a multiplayer game, but it’s still one of the most satisfying single player RTS experiences there is, and the campaigns have only gotten more sophisticated and creative over time.
"There’s a satisfying metanarrative behind all three campaigns, and taken together they’re a great introduction to some lesser-known corners of history"
Theme-wise, the new campaigns are ace. Much like AoE2’s last three expansions tackled clusters of civs from particular regions (Central Asia, southeast Asia, and Africa, working backwards), so too does this batch, but with a clever new angle. The titular Lords Of The West, you see, are the Normans: an astonishingly successful bunch of Norsemen who settled in northern France, and then managed to inject themselves into pretty much every messy situation that befell Europe over the next few centuries.
LOTW’s campaigns track three strains of this virulent bloodline - the Anglo-Normans under Edward “Longshanks” I, the Hauteville Normans who carved out their “Kingdom In The Sun” in Sicily, and the Burgundians, who managed to make 15th century France even more unpleasant than it was already, via a bloody civil war with the rival house of Armagnac.
There’s a satisfying metanarrative behind all three campaigns, and taken together they’re actually a pretty great introduction to some lesser-known corners of history. Honestly, if you’ve a passing interest in medieval gits, it’s worth picking up AoE2 just for the sheer volume of stuff you’ll subsequently become engrossed in reading about after playing the campaigns.
While we’re talking history, I also respect the lack of uncomfortable revisionism on show in these new campaigns. In all three, you’re stepping into the shoes of some seriously unhinged men, and at no point are their relentless, bloodthirsty conquests whitewashed as chivalry. Burgundian duke John “the fearless” is obsessed with civilian massacres, the Hautevilles come across like they’d all drop dead if they went 10 minutes without burning down a windmill, and Edward I is a full-on maniac who seems physically incapable of not persecuting Scotsmen.
Despite the rightful shame I felt to play as the latter, being an Englishman and all, Longshanks’ campaign is the best of the three. The scenarios are classic “build & destroy” jobs, but they’ve got just enough innovation in their structure to stop things getting repetitive, without going overboard on complexity.
The Burgundian campaign is pretty good. It throws in some fun point control missions, which are a great fit for the Game-Of-Thrones-meets-Tom-And-Jerry mood of the civil war backdrop, and which show just how flexible AoE2’s scenario design tools are. Still, there were some off moments for me, too, in the form of missions where multiple large army groups required simultaneous babysitting. Personally, I play campaigns as a break from the sweat-drenched APM frenzy of multiplayer, and so these types of scenarios always feel a bit messy and stressful, compelling endless manual saves, and loading crashes to go with them.
The Sicilian campaign, despite having a fascinating backdrop, was a bit of a dud for me. And to give credit to its designers, I think the problem was that it was a bit too clever in demonstrating the versatility of the scenario design systems. In the second mission of the campaign, I genuinely had no idea what was going on, such was the complexity of the situation I was dumped into, and there were way too many objectives and situational mechanics to keep track of. I always enjoy unique game conditions, but too many of them at once can be overwhelming.
This “sometimes less is more” tone brings me on to multiplayer, and the two new civs - the Burgundians and the Sicilians. I’ve thought long and hard about how to sum up the feel of them, and the best I can come up with is this: they are very well designed, but for inclusion in a slightly different game.
Some things about them are brilliant. The Burgundian unique unit, the coustillier, is a horse bloke who does megadamage with the first strike on an enemy, but must then wait for his megadamage to recharge. This is a masterstroke, as it encourages hit and run tactics, and is the kind of unit design I’d love to see more of. Likewise the Sicilian donjon, a sort of particularly muscular tower which can build infantry called serjeants, who can in turn build more donjons. A military unit that can build is a juicy novelty, and just like the coustillier, broadens the scope for tactical variety.
"The unique units are fun in the same way as firing a handgun into a knackered fridge from six feet away, and that’s different from “fun for everyone else” or “reasonable”."
The unique technologies attached to the new civs, however, I am less of a fan of. I will sound like such a nerd in saying this, I suspect, but they are too juicy. The Sicilians can spawn up to 50 serjeants with a one-off button click, for example, while the Burgermen can turn all of their villagers into decently-statted infantry units with similar suddenness. Please don’t get me wrong - these techs are really fun to use. But they’re fun in the same way as firing a handgun into a knackered fridge from six feet away, and that’s different from “fun for everyone else” or “reasonable”.
A cynic might say that the new civs had been given Big Man powers in order to entice people to pay eight quid to have access to them in multiplayer, but I’m inclined to think better of Forgotten Empires. Honestly, I think they’re trying to lift the game into having a more dynamic, modern feel, where everything feels decisive and exciting. To whit, the new unique techs feel more like chargeable ultimate abilities from a team shooter: big, game-changing megaplays, that make people shout at their tellies in outrage or rapture.
If you look at a lot of the legacy unique techs attached to civs in the game, by contrast, they seem a bit unsexy, offering “faster siege units” or “x unit created very quickly”. But these are sexier than they seem! The rhythm of a competitive AoE2 game comes from the accumulation of many small advantages by either side, and from the way the players time their acquisition in order to exert maximum pressure. These new swings feel too big - they’re as if halfway through an olympic fencing match, one bastard just pulled out a claw hammer and threw it at their opponent’s face.
This is subtly different to me complaining that they’re that overpowered in the meta, mind. A lot of high-skill games tend to be over by the time these techs are available, for a start. Much like Goth huskarl spam or Frankish paladin blocks, the Burgundian and Sicilian techs are things that look like superweapons, but only until you reach a level of skill where you can counter them.
The thing is, most AoE2 players - myself included - aren’t at that skill level. As such, they’re adding to a developing situation where the centre of the ELO bell curve is becoming a kind of knife-fight purgatory, where every player has mastered one Big Play, and matchups fall to whoever’s is least effective against the other.
Lords Of The West is good fun, and Age Of Empires 2 Definitive Edition remains the king of my PC castle. But as Jurassic Park showed us, bringing any great beast back to life is a risky business, and that applies just as well to electric knights as to velociraptors. A moderate approach is vital. To continue the metaphor, this all feels a bit like the situation in Jurassic World, where the money men get the science men to build a devil dinosaur, because normal dinosaurs weren’t exciting enough. It’s not too much like that situation, I confess, as I’m not particularly worried that Edward Longshanks will climb out of my telly and devour a helicopter. I’m just saying that, much like dinosaurs, AoE2 was impressive enough as nature, or Doctor Microsoft, made it.