A Worthy Heir To The Throne
Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the existence of Rise of the Rajas. That Microsoft would still be releasing official expansion packs for a 17-year-old game with a passionate but relatively small fanbase is astonishing. That the juggernaut company would trust Forgotten Empires, a tiny group of AoE2 modders, with this responsibility is incredible. And the fact that Forgotten Empires is managing to produce really good content every single year, without any of the new expansions feeling like tacked-on excuses to grab cash…well, that might just be the most welcome surprise of all.
Rise of the Rajas is the fourth official expansion for Age of Empires II and the third created for the HD Edition that was released in 2013 (you’ll need a Steam account to play, though that’s likely not an issue for most of our readers.) It adds four civilizations, each with a new campaign, along with a host of technical improvements, new environmental textures, new maps, and more.
Although it’s a relatively minor portion of the many additions the expansion comes with, I’d like to start by lauding those technical improvements. I like the HD Edition of the game and it remains my favorite way to play, but I can’t deny that, especially at launch, it’s had more than its fair share of bugs and technical issues. Patch 5.0, released in tandem with Rise of the Rajas and available to anyone who owns even the base game, finally fixes the vast majority of these issues. No longer is multiplayer a roulette game of “Will it desync?”, and in the week I’ve been playing the expansion I haven’t experienced any lag at all. Even more excitingly, it’s finally possible to save and restore multiplayer games, which is great if you’re playing with friends and find yourself called away. While there’s still no LAN (and the developers have made it clear there’s never going to be because of how difficult it is to decouple the multiplayer from Steam), I think it’s safe to say that the new multiplayer is improved to the point that you won’t miss it.
Also, this should go without saying at this point, but the game is gorgeous. The use of sprites rather than 3D models has given the art of AoE2 a timeless quality when compared to the bricky polygons of something like Dawn of War, or even Age of Empires III. The HD Edition made these sprites much more richly detailed than their original counterparts, and with Forgotten Empires’ track record with the last two expansions it’s no surprise that the new textures and building sprites added in Rise of the Rajas are an absolute feast for the eyes.
But enough about the presentation. RTS expansion packs are made or broken on one thing: the new civilizations. Rise of the Rajas adds four: the Khmer, the Malay, the Vietnamese, and the Burmese. At first glance, I thought all of these were going to be ridiculously overpowered, and certainly they’ve got some pretty incredible bonuses. The Malay, for example, age up twice as fast, and the Khmer don’t require any prerequisite buildings either to advance to the next age or to build other buildings. The Malay’s fish traps also never run out of food, giving AoE2 its first permanent food source and allowing them to save wood for their mighty navy. What’s more, all of the new civilizations get access to a unit called the Battle Elephant, a ridiculously good unit that’s half as expensive as the Persian War Elephant (whose high price always made it not very competitively viable), but more than half as good, especially with civilization-specific bonuses that make them faster or stronger. The Battle Elephant is a nigh-invincible cavalry unit in large numbers, and it’s definitely going to shake up the meta in a big way (that is, if competitive players weren’t all doing Hun mirrors on Arabia in Voobly).
But despite the apparent strengths of these new civs, they really are very competitively balanced. Certainly moreso than the Ethiopians, a civilization introduced in the last expansion that Patch 5.0 also gives a much-needed nerfing. The Malay have a lot of crazy-good bonuses but none of their units are particularly strong on their own, and they can be easily countered in the lategame. The Khmer can be built either into a rush or turtle up into a lategame powerhouse but will struggle with pressure during the midgame. The Burmese have a nice variety of useful options (including really good cavalry) but also have the worst archers in the entire game, making their armies easy to counter with spearmen. And conversely, the Vietnamese have incredible archers (including the Imperial Skirmisher, sure to be a popular upgrade to AoE2’s most popular unit) but not much else going for them. I truly don’t think I would call any of these civilizations “OP”, at least not to a catastrophic degree, although I could still see the Malay getting nerfed sometime in the future as players learn how to exploit their unique bonuses.
I really enjoy how different all of the new maps and civs make everything feel. Oh, don’t get me wrong – this is still the Age of Empires II you’ve come to know and love, but Forgotten Empires has really figured out how to inject life into what should be a fairly stagnant game. For example: one of my new favorite maps is Water Nomad, a variation on the classic map where you start with no buildings but have villagers and fishing boats. Water Nomad is covered almost entirely in the new mangrove shallows texture, a type of terrain that ground units, boats, and buildings can all exist on. This means that a viable (and endlessly entertaining) strategy on Water Nomad is simply to find a good place, turtle up, and send out waves demolition ships to destroy enemy towns and worker lines. This is especially fun with the Malay and their endlessly-replenishing fish traps.
Many of the new maps (and I’ve yet to play a new map I didn’t like) feature the mangrove shallows, and it’s surprising how much something so small can change the game so much. That said, I do have a nitpick: none of the new civilizations are allowed more powerful demolition ships in order to weaken the strategy I just described. That’s all well and good, except that Heavy Demolition Ships already exist in the game. Unless they take them away from everybody, it’s still not gonna be balanced, and all this does is cripple the new civs on these maps. A minor complaint, and one which may very well be patched out.
Speaking of minor complaints, I am now obligated to tell you about the campaigns. At this point, I’m honestly not sure who these are for – Age of Empires II has never had good or interesting campaigns. The game’s just not built for things like, say, the excellent campaign of StarCraft II. In AoE2, campaign levels are either gimmicky and annoying (like the beginning of the new Malay campaign, which limits your population and makes you capture enemy towers to get more instead of building houses), or just straight games of Age of Empires II. And with the base game only getting better and more interesting, why would I go to the campaign just to play the game with slightly more annoying settings? If I want gimmicks that are actually fun I could play on the new Special Maps, or on MegaRandom, or try winning a game with only Battle Elephants.
Apparently somebody cares about the campaigns, because it seems there was a big push for them to be fully voice acted. Well, you asked for voice acting, and for your sins they gave it to you, because it sucks. Lines spoken in the campaigns aren’t too bad (the “My lord! An enemy is at the gates!” sort of thing), but the narration at the beginning and end of each level is atrocious – whoever’s reading for the Khmer campaign genuinely sounds like a text-to-speech program, so emotionless is the delivery.
Beyond that, there’s not much interesting to say. The four new campaigns play out almost exactly like the last twenty. So if you’re one of the people who finds enjoyment in them, you’ll probably like these, and if you’re not, it’s an inoffensive addition to an otherwise excellent package.
I’m giving Rise of the Rajas a perfect score not because it’s a perfect game, but because it does what it sets out to do perfectly. If you haven’t gotten into Age of Empires II in the last 17 years, I doubt this will be what changes your mind. But if you’re a fan like me, then Rajas is exactly what you want, no matter how you play the game. If you like to be competitive, Rajas is far more balanced at launch than the previous expansion, and features civilizations that are sure to expand the meta in new and interesting ways. If you, like me, prefer to play with some of the more weird and exciting settings and are looking for new things to try, the new maps and game modes are sure to please. Multiplayer fans finally have a stable way to play, and singleplayer fans have both an improved AI and four new campaigns to try.
Rise of the Rajas is everything an expansion should be. In an age of ridiculous microtransactions and overpriced DLC, it’s surprising that Microsoft, of all companies, could get it so right.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Microsoft Studios; Developer: SkyBox Labs, Forgotten Empires; Players: 1-8; Released: December 19, 2016 ; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Age of Empires II: Rise of the Rajas purchased by the reviewer.