Summary: Shogun: Total War was one of the best and most innovative titles we've ever played, despite lacking a fully fleshed out strategic aspect. Medieval: Total War, the sequel, promised to remedy that and bring the game to a more familiar European milieu. So does the end result get any better? Read on and find out!
Yes my liege
I get pangs of guilt whenever I think of my Shogun: Total War review. Considering the years of enjoyment it provided me, despite the quite legitimate flaws pointed out the review, it’s a crime that I did not grace it with an Editor’s Choice Award. It is quite simply a game that managed to overcome the difficulties that its design presented.
Now, with its grand sequel – Medieval: Total War – I fear I face another such challenge. Medieval, as you might guess, takes the gameplay of Shogun and brings it over to a similar period in Europe’s development, the medieval era. The Dark Ages have ended and European civilization is recovering. Christianity is established even in the East and only a few spots of paganism blemish the world. However, the Europeans face a challenge from the surging Muslims in Spain and the Near East.
As the years go by
Players can choose to start the game in one of three eras – the Early, High or Late Mid Ages. The Early era starts in 1087, a scant two decades after the Norman conquest of England and paving the way for the Hundred Years’ War, 250 years hence. The vast plains and forests of Russia are untamed and the Byzantine Empire is a force to be reckoned with – the last barrier between civilized Muslim nations and the relatively barbaric Europeans. Crusades will be a daily fact of life before the High period comes around.
Finally, the Late mid ages in the game start at 1321 AD. It’s almost a century since the Mongols crushed the budding Russian kingdoms and laid waste to the Muslim lands all the way to Egypt. The Holy Roman Empire (Germany) no longer stretches into northern Italy and threatens the Papal States. The Byzantine Empire is reduced to a tiny rump, and the Turks are becoming active, at the expense of the Byzantines and Egyptian Sultans.
SIDEBAR: 350Mhz Processor
128MB of RAM
DirectX 8.1 compatible card
1.7GB hard drive space (!)
256MB of RAM
GF2 or better
The interface hasn’t changed at all from Shogun. Players can still select a unit and a building to build in a province and queue up production for up to three other buildings or four other units. There have been additions to help the player use new features, but these are relatively minor. The game now features many more pop-up tips if you hold the mouse cursor over an item, and while these won’t save a typical gamer the need to play through the tutorials, they just may keep him from having to rifle through a manual.
While Creative Assembly have updated the interface for the new features, they haven’t done so to compensate for the new problems that the huge scale of the game produces. Whereas in Shogun you might have a few generals, fewer emissaries and even fewer assassins, Medieval is chock full with these non-combat units. Priests, Bishops, Alims, Generals, Emissaries, Princesses, Heirs – the list is huge! Each of these will appear in massive numbers by the start of the High period and being unable to properly keep track of them all with some sort of list is a terrible chore. Having over one hundred provinces to manage on top of that really does put a damper on the whole experience. The game is totally not equipped to handle that. The systems left over from Shogun do an adequate job that leaves players frustrated and exhaust, though not to the point of quitting the game.
Sounds in Medieval are not as impressive as they are in Stronghold – there are no professional voice actors providing tips. They’re not as flashy or strong, and the music isn’t going to manipulate your emotions. Yet they all work.
The calm, reserved, almost muted nature of sound in Medieval is a clear fit for the game. Even the thunder of a Lancer charge seems more impressive by being quiet yet still heard over the clamor of the battle below, since the player’s vantage point is so high. The sounds in the game’s front-end are rather pleasant, giving the strategic map the chessboard feel that it rightly deserves.
SIDEBAR: Pentium 4 2GHz
Abit GF4 4200 OTES
Survey the field
Despite the primitive 2D sprite nature of Shogun’s units, we liked the graphics there. The same holds true for Medieval. They may be 2D, their animations obviously won’t be as fluid as a 3D game, but it’s hard to find a 3D game engine capable of displaying 10,000 individual troops at a time, especially when they are as varied as the ones in Medieval.
Actually since the point is up, we’re wondering about that 10,000 troop claim with Medieval itself. It’s possible to set up battles with 10,000 men at the same time, but that never occurs in the game. Gamers are still limited to ludicrously small armies, of 16 units per side. Even when counting the maximum 100 men that fodder units like peasants or spearmen will get you, that means each side in the battle has a paltry 1600 men, for a maximum of 3200 per battle. Occasionally one side might get allies involved, but rarely will this be a significant force – and most definitely not another 1600 men. Typically, battles will resolve themselves with 400 to 800 soldiers per side, which is hardly the 10,000 claimed. When one or both sides brings over 16 units to the fray, those extra units come in as reinforcements. Again, what’s the point of claiming the engine can run 10,000 men in a battle?
Hot sexy hills!
Our experience has been that smaller or medium-sized battles are more fun and challenging than conflicts with 16 units per side. Well, maybe not more challenging, but certainly more satisfying. It is easier to appreciate the tactics when you’re not running around giving your units orders. This then suggests a simple solution to the large army problem – why not simply combine units? If a player brings two armies, why not throw together the two units of 100 peasants each into one single 200 peasant unit?
With all that said and done, it is impressive to see the armies maneuver, feint and strike across the gorgeous battlefields that are a stable of the Total War games. The maps are really something else, showing far more variety than previously. Terrain can be temperate, lush, arid, desert or winter. There can be light or heavy rain and even snow. The sky can be overcast, sunny and the weather might change from minute to minute. There are far fewer bridges and river crossings, most likely due to the poor decisions the AI makes in those situations, but there are plenty of mountains, hills, trees and even villages.
SIDEBAR: 10,000 men per side might be realistic in medieval battles, but it certainly was not for the major conflicts in Japan! The most powerful daimyos like Nobunaga often had over a hundred thousand men at their disposal.
How to be king
The major draw of Medieval is the campaign mode, but there are other ways to play. There are random ‘quick battles’, historical battles and custom battles. Custom battles let the player choose the field of war, who gets to be the attacker and defender, the nationalities and the troops per side. The campaign game itself allows gamers to start in one of the three ages we already discussed, and fight either a conquest or achievements game. Conquest is self-explanatory (though fortunately you need to own only 2/3 of the world), but Glorious Achievements is something else. Factions will have goals to achieve, like launching crusades, owning specific provinces, commanding trade in an area, etc. Glorious Achievements tends to lead to more realistic games, where you won’t see the Danes rebuilding the Roman Empire. In fact, it is rather interesting to see how the various nations do expand historically – the map layout really is excellent in this respect.
The campaign is far more sophisticated than it was with Shogun. Having to arrange marriages for your daughters and heirs, send spies to prevent assassinations, or to assassinate foreign agents – that’s a lot of work even early on. By the time you have half the map under your sway, it is an overwhelming task and shows the glaring shortcomings of the interface. The game would be far better served with lists of provinces, production, generals, and all the other non-combat units. In fact, spying, assassinations and the religious units could be handled abstractly. Players could invest a certain amount of income into spies, assassins and religious units, then give them priorities on what to work on. The provinces could stand to use a list as well, to facilitate easier unit and building production. Giving an AI governor the task of building a province to the point where it can create X unit or produce Y income would be a godsend. Creative Assembly should seriously consider this kind of system for future titles if they plan to have this many provinces and micro-managed units.
The need for micromanagement comes from the importance of these units, of course. Otherwise no one would bother to go to the effort. These units do add a lot of depth to the game, and make the strategic map considerably more relevant. The AI does cheat considerably and abuse them. Somehow they all know which provinces to stir up religious discontent in. When you send an assassin after one, he knows as well – running to a province protected by a spy or border fortifications, where your assassin is likely to get killed. This is really rather irritating, and hopefully may get patched out.
Is it fun?
Despite the tedium that Medieval has been known to inflict, and minor disbelief problems, it is an intensely fun game. Who cares that it doesn’t make sense to have a single outdated galley preventing a fleet of 16 carracks from transporting an army from Genoa to Sardinia? It’s just a part of the game system that players quickly get used to – though it can be abused if the opponent keeps sending one ship at a time into the sector in question.
Where men are men
Of course, combat is the core of the game, what sold Shogun in the first place and the most advertised feature of Medieval. Both games are about the clashes of real-life armies, in real-world battlefields. Shogun had samurai, Medieval has knights. The European battlefield was more diverse than the Japanese one, a fact that is reflected with Medieval. Part of the reason why Europe was so diverse was its size and variety of terrain and cultures – different units developed in different environments. Byzantine Cataphraktoi are descendents of Greek/Roman heavy cavalry, essentially unchanged at their core over a millennium. On the other hand, crossbows, arbalests and gunpowder weapons are developed as players play the game.
The diversity of the units gives more strategic depth to the game. Sending in spearmen, archers and mounted sergeants against an advanced Byzantine force of Cataphraktoi, Varangian Guard and crossbowmen is suicide. Each side does have cavalry, ranged and infantry units, but the quality is completely different. Players also need to consider weather very closely. You may count on your pavise arbalesters (shielded, very heavy crossbowmen) and chivalric men-at-arms to hold off an enemy force of pikemen and chivalric knights, but rain will devastate the effectiveness of crossbowmen. Of course, it’s better to have a partially effective crossbow in the rain than a gun that doesn’t work! Combat maneuvers are actually quite intricate, as the defender has time on his side (he wins the battle by default at the 30 minute mark), so he can retreat to ever more advantageous strategic positions if his current is threatened. The attacker will have to commit to a poor assault position soon, lest the time run out. The other option – splitting his forces – is unappealing since one half may be defeated in detail before the other can come to rescue it.
Medieval offers sieges as a way to play, but their implementation is far from perfect. Sieges depend on one thing only – busting down the walls and towers of the enemy fort. To do so, your weapons have to be in range, but not so close that they may get hit by enemy return fire (which is of course less likely to hit a relatively small trebuchet than the trebuchet would hit a wall!) Ideally, you want to set up outside of enemy range, but in the case of complex fortresses this actually may leave the inner walls or keep out of your weapons’ range, and your weapons may not be re-deployed. While we’re fine with deployment being limited during a battle, an assault on a fortress is hardly a time-limited activity. The attacker often had weeks to prepare.
The full campaign lets players choose from a dozen nationalities and includes several non-playable ones as well as the fringe “rebels”. The technology trees are split on religious lines, with Catholics generally having the best units in the end, but starting off poorly early on. The Islam nations are strong throughout the game, and Orthodox tend to start strong but taper off. There are also nation- and region-specific units, which can only be created by that nation, or the nation in control of the region. The most powerful in the game, the Swiss armored pikemen, are obviously available to the power in control of Switzerland (which, ironically enough, being around the time the Swiss firmly establish their independence.)
Graphics. Never overwhelming or ready to take your breath away, they are nonetheless impressive for the number of units they can portray and the beautiful scenery in the game.
Buggy. The game actually runs perfectly fine, it’s just problems accessing the front menu that are killer. Extended play sessions often end up freezing the game at the quit screen or even before you can save! Thank the heavens for autosave.
SIDEBAR: It’s good to have a new gaming rig, but I (really) think I ended up with a preview motherboard that VIA might have sent us. It’s a little touchy, but a few sessions with the kitchen stove’s power outlet straightened her out.
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