Brilliant, bloody, deep, and engaging, Medieval II: Total War simply has no equal among strategy games in terms of sheer variety of play. Sporting a real-time strategy combat engine hidden inside a sedate, turn-based strategy shell, M2:TW does both genres well enough to be good games in their own right, making the combination of the two all-but-irresistible. Moreover, the game's combat system, with its truly epic-feeling battles, may be the best RTS battle system seen in PC gaming to date.
In the game's "Grand Campaign," you will lead of one of Europe's fledgling nations to total domination of Europe, Asia, and the New World. Strategic decisions, such as managing settlements, moving units about, or keeping tabs your neighbors, take place on the Campaign Map, which has the look and feel of a Civilization game. As you upgrade cities, it's possible to see the countryside around them change from empty grassland to farmland and see the roads fill up with wagons trading goods to and from your ports.
While it's possible to spend many happy hours on the Campaign Map, it serves another purpose -- to build mighty armies to crush other nations. Long the hallmark of Total War games, these conflicts pit armies of hundreds and sometimes thousands against each other in medieval battles that would make William Wallace proud.
On the battlefield, it's possible to see an astonishing level of detail, right down to the faces of your men. By skillfully maneuvering your troops, it's often possible to defeat a numerically superior force. Unlike "unit-based" RTS games, such as Age of Empires III, your units won't necessarily stay and fight to the death, but will break and run, spreading panic to others and turning a close battle into a rout. The game does a magnificent job dropping you into the thick of battle, and it's easy to get chills from these conflicts, especially when you're trying to form up your pikemen as gothic knights bear down on you and trebuchets in the distance rain numinous fire down on you.
A potential downside with M2:TW is that you'll need a hefty computer to get the most out of it -- all of those mud-spattered helmets and grimacing men come at a steep computing cost. Also, you cannot manage naval battles at all, perhaps understandable given M2:TW's fanatical focus on land-based battles.
Minor flaws aside, M2:TW stands with the very best PC strategy games. While other titles may do RTS or strategy better than this game, none offer the sterling synergy of both as M2:TW does.
Graphics: Incomparably complex battles, rendered and animated to bloody perfection.
Sound: The combat effects and voices are well done, but some variety on the Campaign Map tunes would have been nice.
Enjoyment: A joy to play.
Replay Value: A single Grand Campaign can easily take a week or more. Prepare to lose many weeks with this one.
For years the Total War franchise, with its unique mix of gameplay, has enjoyed continued success among hardcore strategy gamers. A very elaborate turn-based strategy game sits on top of a brilliant real-time battle mode. The latter realistically renders massive battles with hundreds and hundreds of individual soldiers, simulating true-to-the-era tactics and unit morale. Good planning and strategy in the turn-based game will give you the troops and equipment you'll need when it comes time to fight, and similarly, awesome performance on the real-time battlefield can help you make miracles happen on the turn-based map.
It's a winning combination, and once again it pays off with a solid strategy game. For players new to the Total War games looking for a hardcore medieval warfare strategy game, Medieval II: Total War delivers. But for fans of the franchise, the new title may fall short of expectations, offering little in the way of substantial improvements over 2004's excellent Rome: Total War.
Although Medieval II has a multiplayer battle mode and single-player battle missions, the real meat of the game and star of the show is the grand campaign. Here, players will take control of a European, North African, or Middle-Eastern kingdom in the year 1080. It's shortly after William the Conqueror took England by force, the Moors occupy half of the Spanish peninsula, and most of Europe is parceled out into mini-states and small fledgling kingdoms. The game progresses through several centuries of history, beyond the discovery of the New World, the European discovery of gunpowder, and the Mongol invasion from the East.
The campaign map is divided into provinces, each of which is governed by one main settlement. It's up to you to decide what buildings or improvements to build in each settlement, what the tax rate should be, how many troops to garrison, etc. Longtime Total War players will note the biggest difference here is that settlements can either be developed as cities or as castles. Cities can grow huge and are primarily economic drivers, allowing you to build improvements to the region's trade and productivity. But castles are where serious military units (like knights or heavy infantry) are built, and the population is easier to manage under the shadow of a fortress. It's possible for castles to be rebuilt into cities and vice versa, but this can be expensive and you'll lose high-level buildings in the process. While this change doesn't redefine the gameplay (most Total War players built specialized cities anyways), it definitely forces would-be conquerors to plan ahead. Once you get used to the change (and the frustration of trying to figure out which buildings can be built where), it adds some depth to the game.
Religion was a major factor in the development of nations during this period, and it's represented in-game. Religion is especially important for the Western-European Catholic factions, always under the watchful eye of the Pope. Every region has its own blend of faiths, the people divided among Catholics, Pagans, Heretics, Muslims, etc. Kings of a particular religion who try to control a region consisting mostly of a different faith will find it more prone to rebellion. Players can build Priest units and religious buildings to convert the population. In the Catholic kingdoms, Priest units can eventually be promoted to Cardinals, which is important because there's a new papal election every time the Pope passes away. Since the Pope has the power to excommunicate factions or call for crusades, he's one important hombre. The wheeling and dealing to gain favor with (or control of!) the Vatican is a very cool new addition to the game, a great layer of strategy sitting on top of the campaign.
That said, religion is almost overbalanced; a relatively inexpensive church building and a couple of priests can convert a 95% Muslim community into 80% Catholic within a handful of turns (and vice versa). Priests are inexpensive, so there's no real decision involved -- players would be stupid not to crank out an army of 'em.
Only five factions are playable in the campaign game at first (almost all Western-European rivals, such as England, France, or the Holy Roman Empire). Each time you win a campaign, a new faction is unlocked -- given that even the "short" campaign is around 15 hours of gameplay, this restriction is really limiting. Fortunately, people have already discovered codes that allow you to unlock the full array of 17 different playable campaigns. The variety of kingdoms is one of the game's strengths, as the starting positions all offer unique challenges. Trying to play the smaller kingdoms (such as Portugal or Scotland) is a great test for any would-be monarch. It's strange that the developers chose to make unlocking all these other playable factions so difficult sans cheat code.
Battles in Medieval II: Total War are played out in real-time with hundreds of individually articulated 3D units, which in itself is visually spectacular. But above and beyond what we saw in Rome: Total War, the units have an individual detail that's inspiring once you zoom in to the action. Your troops, instead of being cookie-cutter soldiers, wear variants of your nation's historically-accurate armor and move as individuals. The combat animations are particularly gruesome.
Moreover, the backdrops are richly detailed, with weeds swaying at your soldier's feet or thick vegetation covering the forests. Sprawling cities or massive castles are awe-inspiring, as are the lush jungles of South America. (Only a small portion of the New World is rendered; just enough to give some flavor to the end-game.) While 90% of the new graphics aren't really noticeable until you zoom into the battle, there's a satisfying level of detail here above what Rome offered.
While Medieval II brings a lot of great gameplay to the table, some issues blunt the experience. The campaign mode starts off brilliantly, with players navigating through plenty of threats and tense diplomatic negotiations. But once you've conquered your local threats and established an economic base after a couple of hours of play, the campaign begins to slow down. Rome solved the problem by having the campaign game climax with a struggle for the Roman Capital, and Medieval II tries to address this by having late-game options such as conquering the Holy Land or invading the New World, but even hardcore strategy gamers might be put off by the hours of one-sided conflicts that arise once you've marshaled your forces and move to crush Europe's smaller powers one province at a time.
New additions to the game do more to slow it down than to address this problem. For example, you can build Merchants, who can travel the map acquiring and making money from map resources. Merchants trading close to your capital bring in only a trifle, so the only real way to earn money with them is to send them all the way across the map. There, they're vulnerable to being assassinated or taken over by rival merchants. For the minimal rewards, it's almost not worth the time.
The religious aspects of the game also contribute to dragging out the campaign. As mentioned, wrestling for political control of the Catholic Church is an interesting element. But moving priest units around the map and playing whack-a-mole with Heretic units that randomly appear and need to be denounced serves to slow down the game without really adding to the gameplay.
The game's AI on the big map is sometimes flawed. Large, lavish, wealthy coastal cities are often left undefended -- easy targets for anyone with a stack of units and a fleet. Within the real-time battles, the AI is a competent (if not brilliant) opponent, but will sometimes stand still and allow you to pelt it with arrows unopposed.
Undefended coastal cities are just one flaw that can be exploited. For example, during castle sieges, once the enemy has retreated to the inner keep of a castle, you can run your troops into the town walls and then cross over to the inner castle walls, usually unopposed, even going so far as to open the gate for yourself. None of these are major issues, but they pull down the campaign experience somewhat -- sometimes you feel like you're exploiting your way across the continent instead of winning it through grit and guile.
Gamers who've played Rome: Total War, especially with the excellent Barbarian Invasion expansion, may sense some d¿j¿ vu on the Medieval II map. It may have more detail, but you're fighting over essentially the same Eurasian and North African terrain as the previous title, which takes away from the game's novelty.
While the single-player game is clearly the focus of the title, the multiplayer mode is very polished. As with the other games in the Total War franchise, only the real-time battles are playable in multiplayer. A built-in server browser allows you to chat with your fellow Kings and quickly jump into a game. At the time of this writing, there were usually dozens of games being set up at any given time, with no problems connecting to any.
One-on-one matches with big armies were common, but it's possible to set up brutal eight-player throwdowns across a multitude of terrains. The only problem with the multiplayer is that some players couldn't handle large battles with their systems -- and if one player lags, the whole battle may lag. Players seem to be learning this. The best thing to do is stick to more manageable battle sizes. Even "manageable" battles have over a thousand units on the screen, so multiplayer games definitely capture the feel of all-out warfare. Human opponents are not so easily fooled as the AI and the tactics are far deeper in the multiplayer game.
The final word on Medieval II is that, despite some problems, it's still a great strategy game. Even with the A.I. issues, the game still puts up an interesting fight -- you're constantly negotiating your way through twisting allegiances and bitter rivals taking shots at your empire. The battle simulations themselves are many times more detailed than in other strategy games, and feature true-to-life tactics that never grow old. Longtime fans of games like Rome: Total War may fault the game for not adding more, but if you're looking for a solid strategy title, Medieval II: Total War delivers.
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