IGN Review of Medieval II: Total War Kingdoms
Even assuming that you've played it since it was released, it's a safe bet that there are still some surprises left in Creative Assembly's Medieval 2 Total War. But assuming that you've seen everything there is to see in the game, the developer is offering up a wealth of new content in their latest expansion pack, Medieval 2 Total War: Kingdoms.
The first thing you'll notice about Kingdoms is that it takes a ridiculously long time to install. It seems like ages ago that I was shocked by a game that took up a full gigabyte on my hard drive (No One Lives Forever, I think), and the 4GB's worth of content that this expansion packs makes that seem like small potatoes. On the plus side, each of the game's four campaigns is installed as a separate file, so you can install them as you need them.
Once your two-hour installation is over and you start the expansion, you'll see just why Kingdoms takes up so much space: there's a staggering amount of new content here. Just going by the numbers alone, you'll have four large campaigns, 13 new factions, 50 new building types and over a hundred new units. Judged purely from a standpoint of quality Kingdoms is definitely worth the attention of any hardcore Medieval 2 player.
Each of the four campaigns covers a historically significant conflict from the Medieval era: a five-way fight for the British Isles, Crusades in the Holy Land, religious wars against pagans in Northern Europe, and even the Spanish conquests in Mezo-America. Each campaign comes with numerous new factions, new units (including named heroes with improved abilities), more detailed maps, and some interesting opportunities to flex your strategic and tactical muscles. Each new campaign also comes with a whole of specific presentation elements, from new cutscenes to entirely new soundtracks.
The Britannia campaign is the meatiest of the lot. Starting in 1258 players can either take on the role of England as she tries to gain control of the islands or of one of four other players -- Wales, Ireland, Scotland or Norway -- as they fight to keep England from gaining dominance. At first glance, it seems like England has the easier task here. Though she has a large empire and lots of troops, she's surrounded by enemies and has lots of problems with unrest at home. In addition to fielding enough armies to take care of the small Welsh and Irish factions, England will have to protect her coasts from Norwegian raids and keep some troops at home to deal with the inevitable uprisings that are sure to come.
In terms of the other factions, the players will have to hold out long enough for England to waste herself on other fronts. It's not so much a campaign of rapid advances as much as it is one of avoiding battle until your enemy shows a weakness. Of course, on the English side of the fight, you'll want to take out a smaller neighbor as quickly as possible to shorten the list of enemies you'll face.
Those who thought it odd that the original game didn't have more of an emphasis on the war for the Holy Land will be happy to see the Crusades campaign here. Focusing on the two Crusader kingdoms of Jerusalem and Antioch and their war with the Turks, Egyptians and Arabs, this campaign really captures the spirit of the setting nicely. There's plenty of historical panache here, with mamelukes and mailed knights clashing in front of eastern cities in the desert.
Bishops aren't quite as important as generals or spies, but this is a religious war with two very clear cut opponents. Between them sits the Byzantines with their unreliable but oh-so-enjoyable Greek fire weapons. Off the map to the east and west are other European crusaders and the Mongols. Their appearance will be a nice surprise depending on which faction you're playing and where your borders are.
The Teutonic campaign focuses on the attempts of Christian nations, led by the Teutonic Order, to convert the Lithuanian pagans. The Teutonic faction gives players a chance to get their hands on some truly amazing knights that can pretty much ride roughshod over pretty much any enemy that gets in their way. The only trouble is that most of the other factions are prepared for fighting the Teutonic Order so you'll have an uphill battle with very little chance to launch a sneak attack on your enemies.
Though there are other significant players in this campaign, the other real standouts are the Lithuanians. As a slightly less advanced faction, they won't have access to the heavy troop types of their neighbors, but they have plenty of irregular forces that are ideal for fighting in the nearby forests. Moreover, they have very powerful Holy Warriors that they can recruit so long as they remain a pagan faction. Knowing when to convert to Christianity in order to gain the significant diplomatic advantages it brings is a particularly interesting problem for the Lithuanian faction.
The Americas campaign is the biggest departure from the standard Medieval 2 model. Rather than forcing players into a contest of equals, the Americas campaign highlights the technological differences between steel and gunpowder of the European armies and the less advanced but more numerous Native American tribes like the Aztecs and Apaches. While it's an interesting historical simulation, the inequalities inherent in the setting really make it seem like the native factions are designed to lose. Spain starts out with significantly fewer troops, of course, but their technology more than makes up for it, particularly when you consider that the natives have no access to cavalry or boat transport. Sure, it's accurate from a historical standpoint, but it's not nearly as fun as the other campaigns.
Even with everything that expansion adds, it fails to address some of the series' perennial problems. The strategic level interface is still hard to read and it can be difficult to sort out what's what when groups of armies gather around a city. Building and assembling armies, and setting orders and tax rates for your cities still takes far too much time and effort. Also, the performance still seems to suffer, particularly when there are lots of units in a given battle.
AI pathfinding is still a bit wonky, both on the strategic level and the tactical level. On the overland map, armies will automatically choose to go the long way around when shorter routes are blocked by the enemy and cavalry will still run the wrong direction and stop short on charges from time to time. In both cases you can micromanage the movement to get the results you want but it's an issue that should have been resolved.
On the subject of AI, the allied AI in battles isn't always as reliable as it should be, leaving players no option but to personally direct them in battle. But since the entire allied army is led as a single unit, it's a bit unwieldy.
The new expansion also allows gamers a chance to play hotseat multiplayer with automatic battle resolution. Adding to the ways you can play Medieval 2 is never really a bad idea, but there's really no enjoyment to be found here. The strategic phases are far too long to maintain your interest during your off turns, and the automatic resolution pretty much eliminates the game's main attraction, tactical battles.
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