How it all plays
That pitifully brief and unsatisfactory summary can give you only the barest glimpse of how interesting a game Medieval 2 is. Though we do lose sight of how far we’ve come along as expectations rise and the standard is constantly adjusted, Medieval 2 is light years ahead of its predecessors. It looks better than any of them, it is more challenging and realistic than Rome. The differences between Medieval 2 and Medieval or Shogun are too many to list, but consider that the first-generation engine games used pre-made maps. Medieval 2, like R:TW, creates the map based on the terrain tiles your armies meet at. It is possible to set ambushes and be amushed in this game, options that were not available in the first two. You can catch and kill enemy agents and special characters, as opposed to shuffling them around a set-piece board constantly in a futile chase, as in Medieval and Shogun. Finally, the vast empty wastes of Russia or Africa mean that supply lines are painfully long and the loss of a key unit or a particularly damaging battle can mean the end of a campaign for a dozen turns or more.
While there are those who will always prefer Shogun’s or Medieval’s tactical battles, the ones featured in Medieval 2 are more exciting and faster paced, without the absurd archers or excessive speed of Rome. It is, as always, vitally important to match units to their intended roles. The Holy Roman Empire’s Zweihanders have an incredible attack rating, but are horrible at holding a line due to their low defense. While they’ll chew up a foe, they’ll take unacceptable losses even compared to the mundane Spear Militia unit. Artillery is effective and truly mobile now. If you find yourself out-gunned, out-ranged, or worst of all, without artillery and facing an enemy barrage, the opponent dictates the battle. You can fall back to make him move his units, but sooner or later you’ll be forced to engage and that can mean disadvantageous terms.
The battles are also the area where we first notice a problem with Medieval 2. The AI is better than Rome but still not great. Difficulty levels don’t change how the AI behaves, simply how tough its units are. At Very Hard difficulty, peasants will not only hold their ground against a heavy cavalry charge, they’ll do so when being flanked. The simple morale bonuses are lazy and make combat at high difficulty levels unappealing since the AI so clearly cheats. Another problem in battles is when the computer opponent fails to react. This most often comes against ranged units and especially cannon. He will often sit in a position, even a very disadvantageous one, and get decimated by an artillery barrage. While Creative Assembly has promised a patch to fix this issue as soon as possible, we can’t help but wonder how it ever made it through testing in the first place – it happens so often that complaints about static AI are ubiquitous.
That said, the more realistic interaction between units, at least on medium difficulty, makes for an appealing tactical game. There is a singularly thrilling appeal in out-flanking a numerically superior opponent and following your squadron of heavy Chivalric Knights as they charge up behind the key enemy unit of Foot Knights holding the middle of the line. The thunder of the hooves, the glistening plate and mail in the bright sun, the way they lower and couch their lances in the last seconds of the charge before they shatter and scatter their opponents… it’s worth every single bit of stress, every effort you’ve made to set that maneuver up.
The wealth of audio-visual stimulation is half the appeal of the Total War series by now. The massive booms of large cannon as they lob their explosive shells is either inspiring or terrifying, depending on how you look at it. No wonder real knights considered gunpowder unfair and dishonorable. Like them, after you’ve spent years training up to a peak of performance with the best armor and experience possible, it seems shockingly unfair to have a dozen knights in your 40-man squadron get blown to pieces by a lucky cannon shot. Where’s the skill involved in that?, you can hear yourself echoing the complaints of men from seven centuries past.