Medieval II: Total War review
It’s been six years since the first Total War graced our PCs, and in that time it’s redefined what we expect from a strategy game (both turn and real-time). Medieval 2: Total War is the fourth instalment in the series – although it’s the first to be released with a new game engine – and returns to the epic battles that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The game lets you play as one of the six major European powers between 1080 and 1530, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Spain has a powerful navy, the French possess cavalry units of almost unrivalled power, the English have longbowmen and so on. Being an island might protect England, but it also means any overseas venture needs a first-class navy to land forces. Conversely, The Holy Roman Empire (Germany) is surrounded on all sides, which can spell opportunity or doom, depending on your perspective.
The ultimate goal is total domination of Europe and the Middle East, but with more than ten kingdoms it’s a challenge. While the most obvious method is military conquest, this isn’t the only option. Diplomacy plays a key part, and the judicious use of a single princess will not only cement the royal line but also turn an ordinary alliance into a blood pact.
As before, you’re presented with an isometric view of Europe, but the old 2D view has been replaced by a 3D perspective, which changes with the seasons. This is where you make your strategic decisions, assembling armies, shifting diplomats, indulging in a little cloak-and-dagger espionage and, on occasion, a spot of assassination too.
It’s also here that you develop and expand your towns. Settlements evolve in one of two ways: either larger and more imposing castles, or vast sprawling cities. A fortress enables you to build up armies, and taxation from the towns lets you pay their wages. As your fortress expands, so does the diversity of troops that can be recruited. While a lowly wooden castle will only let you build the medieval equivalent of Dad’s Army, a top-of-the-range citadel will let you construct catapults, archers and pike men. And with the advent of gunpowder, new tactics come into play.
And it’s in combat rather than diplomacy that the game really shines. You’re given a bird’s-eye view of the battle, and armies slog it out with Hollywood blockbuster-style visuals. From flaming arrows through to visceral hand-to-hand fighting, this game just feels right. It’s simple to control, pleasing on the eye and hellishly compulsive.
As your nation evolves, the monarch’s family tree expands and your kings come in various forms – noble, devious or just plain bonkers – which will have a direct effect on battles. A good leader confers a morale bonus on the troops, for instance. The game also throws in a few surprises, from outbreaks of plague through to occasional edicts from the Pope. Fail to keep His Holiness happy and you’ll incur his displeasure, antagonising your population and enticing other nations to attack you for both personal gain and to curry favour with the Vatican.
The developers have gone to serious lengths to make this game feel right, from the authentic accents when you indulge in diplomatic sparring through to the sounds of battle. Even the pre-fight rallying speeches are well crafted. Total War is a game you could lose yourself in for weeks at a time and still find new things to discover. It’s one of the greatest games we’ve ever played and is a worthy epic.