IGN Review of Medieval II: Total War
The Total War series has yet to let us down. Through three different iterations and a handful of expansions, the series has consistently delivered some of the most exciting and visually appealing tactical action in any strategy game, historical or otherwise. It should come as no surprise then that the latest in the series, Medieval II: Total War, is an undeniably thrilling strategy experience.
Be warned, however. This is not the revolutionary leap forward we saw in Rome: Total War. The new sequel takes the basic package of Rome and revisits the basic campaign setting of the original Medieval: Total War. In terms of the overall gameplay, there aren't that many surprises here for fans of the series. There are a few new touches here and there that are worth investigating, as well as some substantial improvements in the graphics department.
The Total War series gives players the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it offers a turn-based strategic game where you manage the development of your settlements, handle foreign relations, create and move armies around the map. On the other hand it offers intense real-time battles that capture the cinematic pageantry and intense savagery of warfare. What's more impressive is that both aspects of the game are well integrated into a cohesive whole.
This time around players will be returning to the Age of Chivalry -- when knights went crusading in the Holy Land, when Italian city-states warred against each other with hired mercenaries, when succession crises provoked kings to make war upon their neighbors. The grand campaign covers several centuries, from longbows to cannons, and lets fight and conspire with nations from England to Egpyt, Portugal to Poland. There's even a small side trip you can take to battle the Aztecs in the Americas.
One of Medieval II's most important new concepts is the distinction it draws between castle and town settlements. Where the previous game offered a single generic settlement type, Medieval II requires players to plan out what types of settlements they'd like to develop. Towns are large, open areas, very susceptible to attack but capable of producing a greater financial benefit to your empire. Castles are much easier to defend and can produce more elite troops but they can't sustain themselves economically. Striking the balance between the two and knowing where to place them adds another interesting layer to the overall campaign game.
Religion plays a larger role this time around. While it's been present in previous games, it was never really as fully integrated into the overall experience. This time around the Pope plays a powerful political role, calling crusades down on the unbelievers, excommunicating uncooperative Christian rulers, and generally making sure everyone makes war against the right people. Particularly savvy players can even gain control of the Papacy and use it for their own personal gain. The different faiths in the game also makes conversion of conquered provinces a higher priority.
The new game also opens up new economic strategies with the addition of merchants who can claim resources scattered around the map. While not a game winning strategy, the careful placement of merchants can provide a modest boost to your income that can begin to make a small difference in the longterm.
One of the most evident changes is the addition of greater individuality among the units and the inclusion of subtle but striking visual effects. Where Rome presented homogenous units where every soldier dressed and moved alike, Medieval II breaks up the monotony by slightly varying the appearance and animation of each individual soldier within a unit. A cohesive unit of 40 knights will have individuals wearing different types of armor and different colored pieces. The unit will still adhere to your overall color scheme for quick identification on the battlefield but you'll really start to think of these units as being made up of individuals instead of clones. It adds so much to the experience that it will be hard to go back to Rome after this.
The animations are much more natural this time around as well. The individual soldiers seem to be fighting with one another to a greater degree than they did in Rome. Spear thrusts, cannon reloads and even death animations are very realistic and convincing. Even better, the animations that are mimicked by other individuals are played out of sync so you don't get units moving in unison like the Commodores.
A wide range of new effects makes the battles seem even more realistic. A new lighting system adds loads of atmosphere to the environments, particularly as it glints off the steel armor and weapons in the game. There are also new haze effects that are put to brilliant use during rain and dust storms. Seeing the way things gray out towards the horizon during the rain is simply amazing.
In fact, the environments are much larger and much more detailed than in any Total War game to date. Maneuvering in massive, snow covered forests or labyrinthine Eastern cities adds a lot to the experience. Even the boundaries around the map are filled with massive mountains, spectacular sunsets and a wide range of effects that convince the player that they're fighting in a real place.
The only real problem we found with the graphics was the tendency for models to skew when standing on a incline. It's subtle but definitely disconcerting to see a cavalry model stretch ten degrees in order to get all four feet on a hill. The frame rate's still not the greatest but a 256MB card should still be able to render most of the details you'll want to see without crippling your performance.
The quality of sound hasn't diminished either. The game is a veritable symphony of eerily convincing battle noises, from trampling hooves to whistling arrows to clanging swords. Shouted commands add another level of realism and tactical awareness to the mix. Add in a thrilling score and you've got a game that sounds almost as good as it looks.
Unfortunately, almost nothing has been done to improve the interface, either on the battle or campaign screens. Formation controls are still stuck where they were back in the original Shogun: Total War. Being able to lock formations of multiple unit types, change facings without changing size, and resizing from the center of a formation rather than the corner are still small aggravations that continue to plague the series. There's an option for a more minimal interface this time around but it's even more distracting than the basic interface. On the campaign map, there's still no easy way to locate all of your units and see which ones still need orders.
Likewise, the incredibly slow pace of the AI turns still drives us crazy. Sure, there's an option to avoid seeing enemy moves altogether, but that's not exactly a solution to our problem. We still like to see what the AI is doing; we'd just like to see his units hustle a bit when they're making their way across the map.
There are a few other problems with this sequel. First, the addition of the Aztecs seems like a bit of a gimmick. This New World power just doesn't fit the rest of the game's overall concept. It would make a hell of an expansion if beefed up by the addition of other South American powers but the concept doesn't really work here.
The Papacy is a wonderful element that helps to provide a framework for the game but there are some problems with the way it works. For one thing, the Pope hates it when Christians fight against each other. While that's fine in theory, it's completely ridiculous that you take a reputation hit when another Christian power sneaks in and takes a city you've been sieging. At the start of your turn, the Pope sees you camped outside another Christian city's walls and your favor drops.
Trying to stay in the Pope's good graces isn't any guarantee that he'll reward you either. It's nice not to be on the wrong end of a holy crusade, of course, but the real plum of good papal relations is having one of your priests assigned as a cardinal. The political power is great but it doesn't seem like being in the Pope's favor has anything to do with gaining those cardinal seats. We've had games where the Pope has awarded multiple seats to the nations he likes the least.
Medieval II also allows players to turn off the battle timer. We like to linger a bit on the field when our tactical plan requires extra time but it can be a real game killer when you're besieged by defenders who have no way to get inside your walls and are too stupid to retreat. If you take out the enemy's battering rams, siege towers and ladders, their forces will simply sit outside your gates waiting for you to reload the game or send your own forces out to fight with the enemy directly. Neither option is very satisfying. It would be nice if the AI could realize the futility of the situation and kick things back to the strategy map. At the very least, you ought to be able to enable the battle timer during the battle sequences.
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