Medieval II: Total War Review

The Total War games have been delivering some great gameplay for some years now. The series’ combination of turn-based strategic gameplay and massive real-time battles involving thousands of units has struck a chord with strategy gamers and earned it many fans. The series has set games in feudal Japan, ancient Rome, and the Middle Ages, and it makes its return to the latter era in Medieval II: Total War. Is the game another classic of strategy gaming or has the series already run its course?

Veterans of the series will recognize the basics of gameplay. The game is set in Medieval Europe, including the neighboring Middle Eastern and North African empires of the time, and runs from just after the Norman conquest of England to the Renaissance when gunpowder sounded the finally death toll of armored knights and castles. The game’s strategic map divides this territory into a number of provinces which are controlled by one faction or another. The territories under you control serve as your source of income through tax revenue and also as home to your cities and castles. Territories that are home to cities will primarily serve to contribute to your economic base and you can expand your cities to create additional specialized buildings to further your economic strength. The presence of a castle will turn a territory into part of your military machine, serving as a base for generating your more powerful military units and as a barrier to enemy factions trying to make a move on your territory,

Territories also contain special resource points that can be exploited by merchant units to earn extra income for your faction. Part of the total income generated by the resource is determined by how far away it is from your kingdom. The farther away the resource, the more income it generates. However, merchants can be “bought out” by more powerful local merchants, so you run the risk of losing the merchants that you painstakingly moved across the map. Because of this it often feels that merchant units are a bit more trouble than they’re worth, and you may just leave them close to home and leave them to quietly generating a little bonus income each turn.

There are other specialized units for you to use on the strategic maps. Diplomats can be used to forge alliances with rival kingdoms and princesses can strengthen those bonds through a royal marriage. Spies can be used to gauge an enemy’s defenses and troop strengths and assassins are useful for preventing enemies from doing the same. These units all serve their purpose, but their power pales in comparison to that of priests. The primary role of priests is to keep the population in your territories worshipping a single faith. A population that fully supports your kingdom’s official faith is less likely to rebel against your rule. Priests also help to maintain religious unity by stamping out any signs of heresy or witchcraft in your territories before they have time to take root. These abilities alone make priests powerful units in the game, perhaps a bit too powerful when you take into consideration how swiftly they can convert a newly conquered territory to your particular brand of religion. If you’re playing a Catholic faction, then priests are even more powerful yet. A priest that has some success under his belt can find himself being promoted within the Church to the rank of cardinal. When a pope dies, the most senior cardinals in the game will be eligible for election as the new pope. If your cardinal becomes the new pope, then the pope is in your pocket and you can use your influence to have crusades declared against rival kingdoms and force any potential attackers to run the risk of excommunication for their actions. Of course if a rival faction controls the papacy, you’ll find yourself on the short end of this stick.

The last type of unit is by far the most important. Your king, princes, and generals are your military leaders and you can attach troops to them to form armies. Since medieval diplomacy is primarily carried out by the sword, effectively managing your armies is key to victory. Your armies can be used to garrison your cities and castles, protect your borders, put down rebel uprisings, and conquer new territory. When you move your army into a neutral or enemy province with a garrison a battle will ensue. The game gives you the option of managing the battle yourself or having it resolved automatically. While the automatic resolution can save you some time by skipping battles in which the outcome is already a certainty, in most cases you’ll want to fight your own battles. Not only will you want to have some control over the outcome, the battles are the highlight of the game.

The battles all take place in real-time on beautifully rendered 3D maps that reflect the terrain of the territory in which the battle takes place. Each unit is made up of dozens of men of a particular troop type – archers, swordsmen, spearmen, mounted knights, etc. Even when you have over a thousand men under your control it is relatively easy to manage your army and issue orders to your men during the heat of battle. Units can be selected on the field by clicking on the banner they carry or by selecting their icon on the unit management panel that sits across the bottom of the screen. When issuing orders to groups of units they’re smart enough to maintain their relative positions, so you don’t need to worry about things like your archers outrunning your swordsmen and ending up in the front ranks when they reach the enemy.