Updated: April 22, 2019
As the article headline says, good games are timeless. Now and then, I come across new titles that really grab my attention, with the likes of Cities: Skylines and Euro Truck Simulator 2 being some really awesome recent examples. But more often than not, I go back to my classics, games created ten and even twenty years ago.
One such example is Medieval II: Total War. Having played a whole bunch of installments in this franchise, this one happens to be the pinnacle of the series. Shogun was still early steps, Medieval was a little rough around the edges, Rome was an experiment, and MTW2 was everything combined - history, drama, romance, religion, politics, the cunning battle system, and kickass graphics. Ten years on, I'm still glued to the screen, thanks to the Definitive Edition on Steam. Now, we talked about this game before, but we shall talk again.
Middle Ages in sixty seconds
Very simple. You play the grand campaign as one of the many historic faction of the late middle ages, from Britain via Venice to Moors. Your goal is to capture 45 regions plus one of the special cities like Rome or Jerusalem, which depend on the faction. In parallel, you need to raise armies, build and maintain your cities, keep the people happy with low taxes and religion, escape the scrutiny of the Inquisition if you happen to be playing as one of the Catholic nations, defeat the Mongol invasion, and destroy your rivals, from rebels to fickle and avaricious neighbors.
Deep breath. In a turn-based system with separate strategy and battle action, you work your magic, charm and cunning. You have diplomats to strike trade agreements and alliances, princesses to woe foreign nobility, spies to keep an eye on dodgy enemies, and assassins to take care of personae not grata, i.e. anyone you don't really like. You can raise extra capital through merchants, and convert people to your religion with priests. As you can imagine, this is a central piece of the game, so you can't neglect the ecclesiastical duties lest your folks rebels against you.
What is it, forty seconds? OK, a bit more. In theory, you start the game with neutral relations with everyone, but as time goes by, some of the other factions may decide to stir a war or three. You will find yourself embroiled in open warfare, even if you only intended to peacefully crush the rebels in various regions. And that means lots of high-quality troops, battle-hardened generals, forts to cover strategic crossings and roads, and long, tense, music-flavored battles where thousands of individually rendered units fighting to the death on large, beautifully styled maps that match the region - from snowy Alps to sandy northern Africa.
Whether you like it or not, in the end, your hand will be forced. And it's the most delightful part of the game. Yes, it's fun doing the whole OCD catalog inventory management thingie, where you go through the building manifest of each region you control, and you make sure everything's super tidy and whatnot, but in the end, MTW2 is all about slaying your foe. You can let AI determine the outcome of battles, but in most situations, you will do better by fighting yourself, especially if the odds are matched or stacked against you.
What I really like to do is send a slightly under-strength army against various enemies, to see if I can beat them through cunning. Normally, you have an advantage if you're defending, as you can array your troops before the battle starts - not if you're ambushed, though. If you're fighting with ordinary troops - no general or nobles - then if you really excel in combat, army commanders can be promoted or even accepted in your family, which adds street credit to your ruler.
It's also always wise to fight with the king and his heirs, as they gain experience through battle, ergo command and authority, and if you're keen on exterminating populace when capturing regions and/or refuse ransom after battles, they also get battle dread. In turn, this makes them more feared, making enemies more reluctant to provoke you, plus you will have fewer disturbances back home. No one wants to rebel against a cruel king, and you won't be having any defections or traitors.
I've spent about 200 hours playing the game in the past few months, and I've re-done the campaigns with Britons, Scots, Russians, Venetians, and Germans. It's nice to see the differences among factions. For example, the Russians have relatively weak infantry, but they have missile cavalry, which can be devastatingwhen used en masse. Also, they need not worry about the Pope and being excommunicated by waging war on fellow Christians. Scots have really strong foot soldiers, and the British archers are top notch. Unique troops and mercenaries also exist, which can be levied or bought in different regions, so this adds another element to the game, allowing you to balance your faction's weaknesses.
The music is good, the graphics are good, and there's always something happening to keep you engaged. Later in the game, you can even discover the New World, send your caravels across the ocean, and fight the natives in the Americas. Yet again, this is another angle of fun. Top that with gunpowder and the Mongols, which may come swooping from the east corner of the map once or twice during the campaign, and you are in for a treat. Oh plague, did I mention the plague? And storms. And earthquakes. Lovely jubbly.
If you please, a few more lovely medieval oils:
You've seen and read it all in my 2011 review. But this is a game that I keep coming back to, no matter what. There's something magical about it, the way it's made. And you don't get that in later Total War titles, so it must be a unique combination of strategy, history and authenticity. Well, whatever the reasons, they are there, and a decade plus since I first tried it, Medieval II: Total War is just as fresh and cool.
Best of all, this game has everything. If you like strategy, it's for you. Conquest? Check. City building and technological expansion? Check. Long, complicated, messy battles with thousands of troops and deep elements of proper-war tactics? Yup, bring it on. Quite often, putting everything together can be very risky, as you end up with a title that doesn't really do anything well. And then you have a game like MTW2 that does everything extremely well. And it just gets better, the more you play it. Take care.