Updated: February 16, 2011
I love the Total War franchise. Every one of the games I've played, since Shogun, was a blast. In fact, Shogun was a total [sic] revolution. It created a whole new book of rules for the real-time strategy genre. You still played on the big world map, but you had the ability to sneak away into the battle mode and engage enemy units in massive combat of unprecedented scale, in real time. No one has ever seen thousands of spearmen, swordsmen and archers clash in a huge display of medieval zeal before. It was beauty and gritty realism combined.
Today, I'm going to tell you about Medieval II: Total War. The name implies there has been Medieval Mk.I. Indeed, the original game continued where Shogun stopped, introducing even more factions, more emphasis on the softer side of warfare, with politics, intrigue and rebellions playing a bigger part of your campaign. The game was tremendous fun to play, especially for fans of medieval warfare. But then, Windows XP SP2 came out and killed the game. Like Caesar III, it would no longer work. Rome: Total War came out next, and it was a little bland. You could play extra nations after completing your first campaign with one of the three Roman tribes, but they all felt fairly identical. But then, Medieval II was released, and it brought the old glory back.
Medieval II: Total War, first steps
I waited for the mandatory expansion pack to be released, called the Kingdoms, before buying the game. The expansion pack comes with many bugs fixes, but more importantly, four new campaigns, each of which can be considered a separate game. To be honest, the game is overwhelming. While I easily managed tens of campaigns in Shogun with pretty much any clan, completing even a single campaign in Medieval II is hard. You will need a lot of patience and time to manage your factions, sometimes taking as long as an hour for a single turn!
The difficulty of the game management has grown progressively since Shogun, too. I have completed a handful of campaigns in the first installment of Medieval, and maybe one or two in Rome - and just one with this one, to say nothing of the campaigns in the expansion pack. Moreover, I have not yet tried any of the latest Total War games, but I think the effort will be extremely challenging. More about that later.
Installing the game was not simple, either. The default installer wanted to place its not-so-trivial 12GB worth of data in the C: drive only, without offering an option to choose a different location. Luckily, I've found a neat workaround, which is detailed in my Medieval II: Total War tutorial. The game runs well on two older machines with Nvidia 6600GT and 7600GT cards, although it did max the power of these cards, as on one particular, very hot day, they both bluescreened after the cards overheated while playing Medieval. Today, the game runs on my minty new HP Pavilion dv6 dedicated gaming laptop, which has a 320M GT card with 1GB RAM. The game offers approx. 40-50FPS on the highest visual settings, at the very least. Sweet. But enough bureaucracy, let's talk game.
What is Medieval II all about?
If you're not familiar with Shogun and family, then a short explanation is in order. In fact, think back to the old DOS days. Remember UFO? Turn based, geoscape, tactical scape? Exactly. Medieval II, like all other Total War games, takes places on a strategic map with occasional real-time battles fought in the battle mode.
You begin as the ruler of one of the classic medieval factions, including England, the Holy Roman Empire, which would be Germany, France, Spain, and others. In the short campaign, your goal is to defeat one or two principal enemies and control 15 settlements. In the long campaign, you need to conquer 45 territories and one of the historic cities like Jerusalem or Constantinople.
You have many options before you, but ultimately, your goal is military conquest. To this end, you will have to build powerful armies and lead them into battle. Before you can do that, you will have to prove yourself as a cunning leader, managing your finances, upgrading your cities and your castles, protecting your territories from brigands, suppressing heresy, foiling enemy spies, assassinating your enemies, and developing technologies that will benefit your economy and your armies.
While you wait for towns and barracks to produce sufficient forces for a military campaign, you will be able to send out your agents abroad, paving a way to your future victory. Diplomats can negotiate treaties with other factions, including bribing enemy forces, exchanging map information, demanding tributes, or sealing trade rights and alliance agreements. Princesses can marry into other nations. Your spies will be able to discover enemy troops and provide important information on enemy generals, which can be a decisive factor before a battle. Assassins can be used to get rid of unloyal commanders, annoying diplomats or enemy officers. Merchants will generate handsome income when placed near valuable trade resources; they can also engage into trade negotiations with other merchants, and if successful, seize their assets. Your priests will fight heretics and keep the population docile. Later on, your bishops and cardinals will play a major role in the vote for papacy, which can significantly affect your foreign policy.
There's no one way of doing it, but here's mine. It is important to maintain a balance between cities and castles. The cities will generate far more gold in taxes, but you won't be able to produce high-quality troops there. On the other hand, your castles will be spartan when it comes to life comfort, but they will train some of the best units. Building everything everywhere is the wrong way of doing things. Instead, you may want to have a castle dedicated to training infantry, another for archers, yet another for mounted troops. In the cities, the same rules apply. You should focus on developing different buildings and technologies across your realm so that you minimize overlap and reduce expenditure.
Spies are extremely important. There should be at least one in each province, keeping subvert actions against you to a minimum. Assassins come handy in dispatching inquisitors, enemy princesses and high-ranking generals, allowing for much less bloody victories in combat. Skilled diplomats with a deep pocket will buy you towns and armies, without having to send large forces half across the map.
Your finance sheet balance will be the biggest concern in the first 20 turns or so. Unfortunately, just by trying to develop your economy without expanding won't do any good, so you will have to train some low-quality troops, mass them and hurl into into early conquest. In fact, the sooner you begin warring, the better. Don't let your foes build up their forces.
You will probably negotiate quite a few trade rights and then break them by attacking neutral nations, earning yourself a very bad reputation. This will make future agreements more difficult, but nothing lots of gold and a threat of invasion won't solve. Being utterly despicable and totally untrustworthy will increase your dread, making your enemies fear you. It is also quite likely you won't be liked in Vatican for waging wars against your fellow Christians. Don't be afraid to get excommunicated. Once you invade Vatican and kill the Pope, they will come to their senses.
You may also be asked to join Crusades against Jerusalem. Don't bother. It can take ages for a crusade army to reach the Holy Land. By then, you will have trained fresh troops and many more advanced units, and possibly even have conquered Jerusalem yourself. However, be aware that if you don't undertake assignments given to you by your nobles or the Pope, you will displease them.
In the half a dozen campaigns I have started - but never quite finished, stopping at the territory 44 or so just shy of the total conquest, I would always send one of the more powerful generals and another common army far away, toward Russian territories and the Middle East, in an attempt to seize a settlement and build a remote center of operations. Training troops in Europe and sending them to Jerusalem can take a lot of time. It's easier to have pockets of friendly territory all across the map, where you can have large armies massed and ready to march.
As the game progresses, there will be more rebellions at home. It's scripted and deliberate and quite annoying, because there's no reason for any of those to happen. Keep your King in the capital and don't send him far away from home. A spy and a priest in each province will reduce dissent. Having lots of town militia in cities can also help. Do not station your elite units in cities. It's a waste of money and can cause your settlements to revolt. Low taxes are always good for your people, but make sure you earn more than you spend.
Each nations and its own
|Longbowmen are unique to the English crown; the asymmetric distribution of strength, accurate both historically and culturally, adds a dimension of unknown into the element of combat|
Another beautiful aspect of Medieval II is the fact that each faction has its own ups and down. For instance, England has excellent archers and mediocre cavalry. The French put emphasis on mounted troops, but their ranged units will be just crossbowmen. The depiction of warfare is fairly historically accurate. Furthermore, there's no single elite unit that's superior to all the rest. In Shogun, you had rebel Buddhist monks that were just unbeatable. Likewise, in the original Medieval, the Swiss pikemen were the absolute terror in the game. This somewhat unrealistic advantage has been removed, allowing more focus on tactics and careful planning. This also means so much more is at stake, because you do not have any Chuck Norris weapons that can even the odds miraculously.
I happen to love playing with England. The yeomen archers and longbowmen are total fun to use in combat, especially when you're on the defense. They can deploy stakes in front of their rows to stop cavalry attacks, and when used in large numbers, they can repel numerically superior forces. This is very similar to what happened in Europe during the 100-year war, where often the smaller English armies managed to defeat the French, by using archers in support of infantry and mounted troops. But there's no guarantee to victory. You will have to be smart and decisive and make sure your forces are always used to the best of their abilities at all times.
Battle mode, the real fun
Fighting on the 3D real-time tactical map is one of the best parts of any Total War game, Medieval II included. Every time you engage an enemy army, you'll have the option to automatically resolve the battle, withdraw or fight yourself. The computer will always have the option to withdraw once. The second time an army is engaged, it will have to stand ground and fight. The same applies for your own troops. The only exception is the ambush, where you will be forced to respond to the challenge, without the ability to withdraw.
Sometimes, you may not care for resolving each battle on your own, especially if you have a tremendous numerical advantage. However, if the battle is expected to be pitched, you will definitely prefer to fight rather than allow the computer to statistically auto-generate the outcome. Furthermore, remember: the computer will never attack you unless it has at least a 51% chance of victory. This means that if you are attacked, you should step in and fight, since you will usually fight more effectively than than the artificial intelligence.
The combat is all you can expect - long, bloody and messy. You can field thousands of troops on the battle map, which makes for impressive displays of power. Individual soldiers are rendered with randomly chosen body parts and armor, so they look unique and distinctive. When you zoom in on your armies, you will love the detail, the tiny differences, the seemingly spontaneous behavior of each and every soldier. It's just amazing. You truly feel like you're governing a genuine medieval battle, from the perspective of a superior being operating a freemoving top camera.
To win, you will need to use your intellect, provided you have some. You can't just hurl units into battle. You will need to assemble your forces into groups and special formations, use their special abilities like spearmen shiltron and flaming arrows for your archers or the wedge attack for cavalry, use the bugle to rally troops, attack from behind, use elevated ground, and other critical tactics that separate fool from victor.
The quality multiplier is crucial to winning. You will need to know when to charge and when to hold ground, when to walk your troops and when to march them, which terrain to use, how to engage different units, when to withdraw, and so forth. It won't be easy at first, but if you've played other Total War games, the concepts will be familiar. Ignore the Art of War at your own peril. Sometimes, your single regiment of spearmen and the supporting body of crossbowmen will be able to defeat an army twice its size. And sometimes, your massive cavalry charge will fail, because you will have sent them rushing uphill against billmen supported by archers and artillery.
Don't get your general killed either - it will be a terrible blow to the morale of your troops. They may even rout. And when the enemy routs, press your charge, killing as many as possible and taking prisoners. Ransom can bring in valuable gold after the battle, especially if you capture knights and nobles.
Battles can stretch for 20-30 minutes easily or longer. If you set no limit to your battles, they can become an hour-long engagement. Be careful how you play, and don't rush things. My favorite defense tactics is using as many as ten longbowmen regiments, supported by two cavalry units at the flanks and a small force of spearmen in the front. This kind of force is virtually undefeatable. Use the cavalry to repel any side attacks and nip at enemy's soft troops, like ballistas, peasants, town militia, or archers. In one of the battles, my 16-unit force counting approx. 700 troops defeated four waves of enemy troops counting close to three thousand. It was a defensive engagement, with unlimited time. A real beauty. Agincourt, Dedoimedo style.
Sometimes, if you fight with valor and honor against superior forces, your common generals will be promoted into knighthood. You'll have the option to adopt them, making them your trusted military aides. This will also make the commander feel appreciated and boost his loyalty.
On the offense, I like to use lots of mounted units, always sending a sizable portion flanking the enemy, blocking the escape route and attacking from behind, usually engaging the general's bodyguards first. Archers, especially mounted units, are useful into unnerving the enemy and forcing them to break formation. If you're lucky enough to buy elephant mercenaries, use them as your shock troops. Otherwise, heavily armored infantry supported by siege engines should be the hammer element of your charge, with the cavalry being the anvil.
Naval battles in the game are secondary to the tactical battle map. It is impossible to fight with ships in first person. You can only decide naval engagements with an automated roll of the dice. Even so, naval combat is important in enforcing blockades against enemy ports, ferrying troops quickly across bodies of water and keeping the trade routes clean. Do not disregard the shipping, even though it may seem boring.
Graphics & sound, simply amazing
The quality of graphics in the game is really impressive. The attention to detail is stunning, both on the campaign map and in the battle mode, where it truly comes to bear. You will be enamored by the weather effects, the lighting, the shadows, the fact each unit is rendered individually from a random pool of pieces, creating uniqueness and depth to the scene.
In the battle mode, you will notice subtle details like the grass, the shadows cast by the units fighting, the flight of arrows, the flying pennants, the strewn bodies of men and horses, the charge of cavalry coaching their lances and storing a rabble of peasants. Don't forget the bad weather, snow, rain, forest ambush, mucky ground, fog, wind, and a dozen other factors, which not only add to the look and feel, but also dramatically affect the gameplay.
The audio effects are also great. There's the subtle, quiet music, the thundering noise of fighting, the cries of soldiers. Everything is geared toward making the experience as vibrant and palpable as possible. No wonder you need a powerful graphics card to enjoy Medieval in its fullest.
Finally, there's realism to take into account. Overall, Medieval II is extremely accurate. It takes into account numerous historical events, like the plague, the Mongol invasion, the Great Schism, the invention of gunpowder, and other important milestones. Combined with natural disasters, politics, intrigue, treason, personal traits for your military commands that make them so much more human and vulnerable, espionage, sabotage, the religious meddling, the establishment of guilds, the fine balance between wealth and bankuptcy, and many other factors, the gameplay is a very faithful depiction of what the world looked like five centuries back.
In a way, the attention to detail can be too much. Like I mentioned before, you may spend too much time micro-managing, even if you do not intend to, with whole hours spend going over each city or each unit, checking the vital statistics, expenditure, retraining units, moving them about, and warring. It's also too easy to overlook important facts that may come to haunt you later on.
Picture this. You have three missions from your Council of Nobles, another from Vatican, one of your general has defected, one of your princesses wishes to marry, you have rebels in your home province, you're short on money, you just lost a merchant, and the Pope doesn't like you. On top of that, you have twenty cities and castles to run, another thirty armies to shuffle about and make sure that heretics do not corrupt your nation. Being a king in the middle ages is definitely not a simple thing. If you're unprepared for the enormity of the task, you may want to start with short campaigns.
It will come down to military conquest. You will need to destroy your enemies, subjugate their people and seize their lands. Personally, I try avoiding destroying factions completely. It's not a smart thing to do. You're better off with a dozen weak enemies than a single powerful one. While this means more logistic overhead for you, it also means extra bickering and machination among your foes, too. They will hate you, but they will also hate each other, allowing you more breathing room to develop your forces and the infrastructure.
Historic battles (and custom battles)
Personally, I think the battles outside the scope of the main campaign are not really fun. First, there's no emotional attachment. Second, you get to field pristine formations of troops, not the ragged veteran bunch that's been through a dozen fights in the last year alone. Some of the grittiness and the band of brotherhood stuff is lost. Third, they are fairly sterile, and are only interesting if you don't like the strategic stuff.
It's rather chess-like. Place your pieces on the board and move them into the fray. Be sensible and careful and you may actually win, especially if the historic setting favors the faction you have chosen. Even if you lose, there's nothing to it. Just start over.
The expansion pack
After you've played the original, the Kingdoms expansion won't look so interesting. You get new maps, new units and new names, but essentially, nothing changes. Still, if you're looking for a breath of fresh air, you may want to consider these. There are four individual campaigns, including the New World, the Crusades, the Teutons, and the War of the Roses.
The most interesting part will be learning how different nations play and behave. For example, the Teutons require religion to produce some of their elite units. You won't be able to field the heavy cavalry until you have at least 70% catholicism in your regions. This means training priests and combat monk units. While they were a sort of a nice-to-have in the original campaign and for occasionally getting rid of heretics and witches, they play an integral part for the Teuton faction. The underlying political strategy is a nice addition, but overall, the campaign remains the same.
The Crusades campaign is also very interesting. And it's fairly accurate. You have King Baldwin in Jerusalem. There's the French castle of Karak in northern Syria. Antioch is there, too. Very lovely. Again, the main focus is understanding how your new units behave and how to use them in combat while developing your forts and cities and making sure you don't lose money.
Medieval II: Total War is an excellent game. I highly recommend it. It has everything you would expect from a proper, classic real-time strategy and then some. You have the basic economy and infrastructure management. You have diplomacy and subterfuge. There's the military buildup. And as dessert, you get impressive mother of all battle style combat engagements, with thousands of units clashing in beautiful detail. The realism is very high. The challenges are many and complex. The game is deep, rich, full of twists and tricks. There's no one way to victory, no one way to play and enjoy yourself. Your victory is from being a done deal.
If you're looking for a tough, entertaining challenge, you can't go wrong with Medieval II: Total War. You'll be able to replay the campaign with one of many medieval nations, and if this isn't enough for you, the expansion pack offers four new theaters or war, which can almost be considered entire new games of their own. Endless hours of great fun, just waiting for you. Overall grade: 9.5/10.