Review by Mwulf

"Medieval 2: Total War - More of the Same, More of the Best."

Overview
Medieval 2: Total War is the fourth entry into the revolutionary "Total War" Series. The game expands upon the game-mechanics of Rome: Total War, improving upon virtually every aspect of the older game as well as adding several new features that add further depth to one of the deepest strategic war simulators ever seen. Medieval 2 may not be as innovative as previous Total War games have been, but delivers a solid gameplay experience easily accessible to both the studious History professors of the world and those who cannot differentiate between a "phalanx" and a "phoenix". Medieval is a solid game, but it does fall short in several areas. Graphics and gameplay have again been prioritized over historical realism and intelligent A.I.. Given the rather limited variety of real-time or turn-based games, Medieval 2 does a stellar job of combining the best aspects of both genres into a highly enjoyable gaming experience.

Gameplay
Much the same as in Shogun: Total War, Medieval: Total War and Rome: Total War, gameplay in Medieval 2 is divided into two very distinct realms. In Medieval 2, you assume control of one of seventeen Medieval nation-states and attempt to dominate Europe. You control your faction on the turn-based strategy map, which encompasses the whole of Western Europe, as well as much of Northern Africa. Here is where you manage your cities, construct new buildings and technologies, as well as where you train a variety of units--from armies to assassins to diplomats to merchants to priests. The strategy map is turn-based and resembles that of Rome: Total War but better detailed. You can zoom in very close, and can even adjust the size/detail of the strategy map's mini-map, though when zoomed in the resolution for the mini-map is horrible. Mountain ranges look more-or-less like clones of one another, and the volcanoes are designed rather childishly in my opinion. The detail, however, is amazing, as the forest trees will sway back and forth in the wind, and the the snow-covering the terrain in winter truly is a spectacular sight.

. The strategy-map is played virtually exactly the same as in Rome: Total War and is relatively simple to utilize, but makes the overall feel of the game (while playing on the strategic map) more akin to that of a fan-created modification to Rome with enhanced graphics than a genuinely new game. Medieval 2 is the first game in the series to "copy" a gameplay engine from a preceding game, but considering just how well the strategic map is played one hardly has room for complaint.

Diplomacy and religion play a vital role to the strategic game, though again fall short of the level of detail and immersion one would hope for. That being said, this is the "Total War" series--diplomacy is far from the focus with these games. For the most part an "alliance" is only used when you do not want to go to war with that particular nation. It's a more reliable deterrent than a simple ceasefire or neutrality, but still not quite as reliable as one would hope.

The advent of princess units, merchant units, heretics and inquisitors add a nice layer of depth, but can get rather annoying over time. Princess units are a special type of diplomat that can be married off to other nations, or can arrange the marriage of another princess into the player's faction.

While priest units travel the map attempting to convert various pagan people to Christianity, heretics are a "rebel" priest unit that travels the map inciting riots and civil unrest. Ostensibly the inquisitor units (under the control of the papacy) would travel the world murdering heretics. Instead, unfortunately (and rather irritatingly) they travel the map murdering various family-members. In some cases this can get rather out-of-hand, as I've had upwards of 10 family members killed within a total of 15 turns. Luckily every time a family member is murdered by the inquisition, a "replacement" family member is found as a candidate for adoption.

Medieval 2 utilizes an "affinity" ranking that displays the overall quality of diplomatic relations between factions. In addition to the Papal ranking (very much akin to the popularity rankings in Rome) each individual faction has a ranking for every other faction, ranging from very-poor relations to very-good relations. How an opposing faction views the player's faction plays the key role in determining how they react to your actions.

The greatest flaw in the diplomatic engine is the lack of any new treaties or stances. You cannot declare war without attacking, you cannot demand that all enemy units leave your territory, nor can you threaten or chastise nations that consistently send spies and assassins into your territory. These omissions do nothing to detract from the gameplay experience, but they would have been a welcome addition.

The real-time tactical combat is where the game truly shines. It goes without saying that Total War games have far more depth to real-time combat than any other series or lone game. Superior tactics will almost always prevail against superior numbers. Flanking, charging, retreating... if a player utilizes every tactical maneuver to its full potential victory is certain in almost any condition. The same applies to the enemy. Morale is important, troop formation is important, and now--a first in Total War history--terrain also plays a decisive role in victory. Fields of mud will slow down your cavalry and knights and rain will greatly reduce visibility. A well thought out cavalry charge can decimate your enemy, an ill-conceived charge will leave you horribly outclassed.

The camera has three different modes. The "Total War Camera" is level with the terrain and can be elevated or lowered. The "General Camera" centers and follows the general of your armies. The "RTS Camera" is the closest to the cameras of previous Total War games, allowing you to zoom out and up, or down and level to get a good view of the battle. Moving the mouse to either edge of the screen will rotate the camera or move it, however the zone of the screen-edge that dictates horizontal movement is very small and located at the lower corners which can be a bit unsettling at first.

In addition to the standard turn-based "conquer-the-world" campaign, Medieval 2 also give the player a wide variety of historical-battle to choose from. As in previous Total War games, these battles are well-researched and well-programmed, often being fun, challenging and somewhat educational simultaneously.

As with all previous Total War games, Medieval 2 also offers an array of historical scenarios to choose from. My particular favourite (more for reasons of nostalgia than not) is the Battle of Agincourt, where the English and the French faced off in one of the most decisive battles of the 100 Years War. Each battle opens and closes with a nicely narrated cutscene which add quite a bit to the experience. There are, however, very few historic battles to choose from. Hopefully new battles will be created both by the developers and by the various talented fans.

The only real gripe I have with the gameplay is that several units and weapons have been greatly reduced power-wise for obvious (though rather irritating) reasons of game-balance. A volley of arrows or musket-fire, for example, will only kill of a few men in a unit, when in a real battle such a volley would be devastating. Also, the range of missile weapons (particularly archers) has gotten ridiculous. Archers can fire across a distance nearly one quarter the size of the map, and by firing arrows vertically they are somehow able to attack units that are very clearly invisible to the archers--behind a building, wall or other obstruction. This would be fine and dandy if the accuracy of the volleys changed--but it does not. Each volley of arrows is as inaccurate as the next.

The single greatest aspect of the gameplay lies in Medieval 2's multiplayer mode, where the play can fight head-to-head against a living, breathing and (hopefully) thinking opponent. And potential challenges are without limit, and the pride you achieve from crushing another opponent is unparalleled.

Rating: 18/20

Strategy/Difficulty
Medieval 2 has multiple levels of difficulty depending on the player's preference, ranging from the very easy--challenging, but not brain-busting--to the very hard--which will leave the inexperience and less-talented begging for mercy.

The artificial intelligence--or A.I.--in Medieval 2 is much better than it has ever been. Other nations will declare war on each other, will fight each other bitterly, and even weaker nations will ally with others to destroy mutual (and more powerful) foes.

It's not all good, however. The A.I. will occasionally do things that seem downright silly. Enemy nations that you are at war with, even at the point of obliteration, will continually demand exorbitant (and increasing) amounts of money for a ceasefire. Decimated nations with crippled armies will invade the giant superpowers when they are on the verge of obliteration, completely ignoring their smaller neighbors that would have been much easier (and less-suicidal) targets.

The Papacy, unfortunately, is nearly as annoying and nonsensical in Medieval 2 as it was in Medieval 1. For example, it cannot be destroyed. Ever. If you conquer the papal states, burn the city to the ground and slaughter the entire populace, but the next turn you will still get orders from the pope, or be executed and have nearly every other Christian nation on the map declare war on you while your own cities revolt.

As per typical Total War fare, you are still able to lay siege to cities, blockade ports, establish fortresses and watch towers. In Medieval 2 you also have the option of using merchant units to establish new trade routes to certain "rare" resources. These trade routes add slightly to the total revenue of your faction, but not enough to really be worthwhile.

In most strategy games, a very simple mechanic is used for determining who wins a battle. Unit A beats unit B, unit B beats unit C and unit C beats unit A. A>B>C>A. In addition, a large enough quantity of anything will destroy everything. In Medieval 2, however, the only real determining factor in battle is the strength of will and mind of the general--be it a simple A.I. program or a human player. With virtually every conventional combat tactic available to choose from and vast, vibrant tactical maps in for each battle to play out it, the sheer quantity of possible tactics is nearly infinite.

Medieval 2: Total War is the definitive game when it comes to strategy in any form. It's sheer versatility is amazing, both when viewed in isolation and when viewed concurrently with other games. The Total War games are a genre unto themselves. Medieval 2 simply reinforces the series' dominance, driving the point home with a seemingly-effortless grace.

The system requirements are rather steep, however, and most players will be forced to sacrifice appearence for better framerate. However even on the lower-settings the game still looks beautifull.

Rating: 15/20

Graphics & Presentation
The graphics in Medieval 2 are, by far, the single most impressive aspect of the game. Gone are the cloned-armies of previous games (indeed, of every real-time strategy game to date) replaced with vibrant and varied armies that are composed of individuals. While the whole unit (often composed of 60 to 80 men, though the number varies) has a similar color-scheme to help differentiate them from the enemy in the heat of battle, each soldier is an individual with a slightly different appearance than his comrades. The lack of synchronisation between units truly adds a layer of depth to the combat experience that the genre has never approached before.

The textures of the game are top-notch. The environments are incredibly well-detailed--it is evident that the developers and programmers put an excruciating level of effort in even the smallest of details--from the grass on the ground and the leaves on the trees to the birds that fly above the carnage. The weather-effects and terrain detail is astonishing. Honestly, no amount of description here can do true justice to the awe-inspiring realism of the actual game. Battles (often with upwards of 3000 individual units) are a humbling sight, rivaling the grand cinematic battles of Hollywood. With its incredible gameplay, the graphics are more like icing on the cake than anything else in Medieval 2. But bear in mind that, icing though it may be, it is ever-so delicious.

Rating: 20/20

Audio
Just as in previous Total War games, the overall sound quality is of the very highest caliber. The music, though rather reminiscent of Rome: Total War, is well-written, played and recorded and has a very epic feel to it. The environmental and battle sounds are equally impressive. Never before has the sound of cavalry charge of heated infantry melee sounded so realistic.

The voice acting is, for the most part, stellar. The only real problem is that several nations are reduced to rather poorly-accented stereotypes that have a preternatural ability to irritate the player in a very, very short amount of time. Is nice to see each different diplomatic unit speak in his or her own voice, and the some of the accents are pretty good. Others, however, are horrid. The Polish and Italian accents are some rather startling examples of just how bizarre the standards for this game were.

Before each of the historical battles you are treated to a cut-scene (just as in Rome) of the battle from a historical perspective, narrated by the same random monk that narrates virtually every single aspect of the game. He describes the basic history of the battle and what most be done to achieve victory.

Before EVERY tactical battle, the General addresses his troops very much the same way general addressed troops in Rome. When you start the battle you have the opportunity to wait, and though it does not start immediately, after a few seconds the general of your forces will make a speech. Though the dialogue here is far less irritating than it was in Rome it still gets very repetitive rather quickly. Instead of the long-winded speeches of Rome, where the General would constantly reiterate obvious tactics, the speeches in Medieval 2 are kept very short, few exceed more than a single sentence. Luckily, these scenes can be skipped at the behest of the player, though it would have been nice if the developers had put forth a tad more effort in this area.

Rating: 19/20

Final Comments
I mentioned in the beginning that even a history scholar would in enjoy this game. I also mentioned that it was far from being historically accurate. At first glance it would seem that these two statements are mutually exclusive. Let me assure you that they are not. The only real historical accuracy in the game stems from the half-dozen historical battles that were included with the game. But there is much, much more history-laden goodness on the way.

Total War games have traditionally had a very enthusiastic fanbase. Many of these fans devote themselves to creating player-made modifications to the game to force a pure historical-realism to the gameplay. One such mod, "Rome: Total Realism" for Rome: Total War was insanely popular, introducing new units, stats, factions and maps to the game to make it as true to the known history as possible. Medieval 2 looks to be getting the same treatment. Medieval 2: Total Realism is already under development by the community, and when it is completed it will make an excellent game even better.

For gamers wanting to play ANY kind of strategic game, there are only three real choices: there are the "Warcraft" that present extremely simple "rock-paper-scissors" style combat in tactical arenas of varying detail and limited complexity, there are the "Civilization" style games that attempt to create a massively detailed political landscape replete with competent artificial intelligence and a complex diplomatic engine, and then there are alternative games like Medieval 2 that combine the very best aspects of both other genres in order to create a thing that is far superior than the sum of its parts.

To be sure, Medieval 2 has its flaws. There are many issues that should be resolved with future software updates, several that the astoundingly-active community will address with third-party modifications, and a few that should never have left the developer's table. Nonetheless, Medieval 2 is an amazing game that provides a depth of gameplay that precious few other games can equal.

Rating: 20/20

Final Rating: 92/100


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/15/06, Updated 05/13/08

Game Release: Medieval II: Total War (US, 11/13/06)


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