Summary: Jakub has an exhaustive and complete Medieval 2: Total War review ready for you today. Read on, you may be surprised.
Rome: Total War was not without its errors but due to the engine and improvements, we forgave much. Considering that Medieval improved significantly on Shogun in several areas, it was then not without cause that expectations for Medieval 2 were raised considerably. Yet, while Creative Assembly has addressed some issues, others continue to plague them. Worse, these problems have existed throughout the series and considering this is the fourth game in the franchise and the second with this engine, patience has worn thin to say the least. We’ll get to that later, however.
For those of you new to Total War, let me provide a brief summary of how the game works. After choosing a faction, difficulty level, and campaign type (short or long), you are thrust onto the main map, looking at your nation with the capital dead center. From there you can move armies and non-combat units, with the limits of their movement designated in green, you can click cities to build, repair, or retrain units and buildings. The statistics and traits of characters can be seen by selecting them and double-clicking their portraits. These screens will let you know what kind of defense and attack values a unit has, or the kind of skill a priest, spy, assassin or princess possesses.
It is on the strategic map where the player spends most of his time, trying to decide the proper course of action, making sure he has used his units to full effect and checking on movements by enemies that may threaten his cities, armies, navies, or special units. It is here that diplomacy is initiated and special characters ply their trade. Chances for success are given for spies, priests, merchants, and assassins, while diplomatic offers are guessed at, with hints ranging from “very demanding” through “balanced” to “very generous”. Armies are ordered to move, attack, besiege, or sometimes abandon sieges. Here, a graph suggests the odds of attack, though this is more useful for deciding whether to let the AI handle the battle or take the reins yourself. In bad situations, it is almost always best to take control. Victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy force more than once by Total War players where the AI would certainly fail.
Medieval 2 is perhaps the first game in the Total War franchise where the ability to move priests, spies, and assassins into an army is very welcome. While Rome did have this feature, in Medieval 2 it becomes particularly handy. Priests help keep your family members pious and on the straight and narrow, protecting them from inquisition attempts. Spies reveal more area around the army and help show hidden enemy spies and assassins, while assassins work to repel assassination attempts. Family members are of course important because they permit the player to give build orders in cities (unless the player chooses to enable an option permitting him to work in any city), and of course they are the only generals with any sorts of bonuses.
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.
The way special units gain skill is also unclear. Nothing in the game says that priests gain more piety by going into foreign lands and converting unbelievers or heretics. To become a cardinal (who can vote for a new Pope, or even become Pope), a priest must have at least 5 piety, which is of course gained by sending them off into the middle of the Arabian desert. This… is not quite how cardinals became cardinals in real life. In fact, it’s almost the complete opposite. Similarly, a diplomat of mine didn’t gain a single skill point when negotiating two treaties of trade, two alliances, bribing one foreign army and concluding a cease fire with the French. Yet, in two map trades, he gained two skill points. Bizarre? To say the least.
Merchants seem almost not worth using. Costing 550 gold apiece, they can – at best – gain about 100 gold per turn. More likely they’ll earn about 50 in their peak, which implies they must survive 11 turns on a resource while earning this peak rate. This doesn’t count the fact that it takes several turns to get that 50 gold, and they’ll likely start at about 10 gold per turn. Yet, if they’re in an area near a border or one that’s well-traveled by enemy units, an enemy merchant is sure to attempt to buy them out, and sooner or later they’ll succeed. Even then, the 300-500 gold or so that you can expect all your merchants to earn per turn is a miserable pittance compared to your actual income and expenditures. It’s barely worth the investment of time, never mind the gold. Fortunately, assassins and spies are more intuitive and useful.
The graphics are very pretty but they do have some annoying flaws. The level of detail algorithms and change are not very smooth at all. It’s like an extremely obvious and bad implementation of bilinear filtering, except much worse. Units pass a magical distance line and change from shapeless blobs of a certain color to recognizable objects, and then they pass another line and become the highly detailed creatures you see in the screenshots. Also, the game makes use of a lot of drastic terrain sometimes, and the engine clearly cheats in some sort of obvious and ugly way. Units become deformed and twisted as they enter steep terrain. It is unattractive to say the least. On top of that, mountain and hill battles are unnaturally common. Or at the least, they take place on terrain that is much steeper than would be acceptable in real life.
All this, even the interface, would be easily forgotten if the campaign AI wasn’t utterly insane. It will break alliance that have lasted 100 turns, just because you suddenly share a border. The national AI will attack without reason and often refuse to accept peace even when facing annihilation, simply because the mongols on the other side of the world are supposedly at war with you too, and thus the numbers are technically in its favor. The AI cancels alliances because you proposed a map information trade that, according to the game, was generous. This is not Civilization IV and nobody expects it to be, but in the name of all that is sane and rational, there has to be some sort of indication of what the AI thinks of you, some sort of history, some sort of incident or reasoning that explains why it suddenly decided to betray the two marriage alliances you have because apparently the perfectly natural Franco-Spanish border is intolerably close?
The Pope is certainly the most interesting character in the game, one with far more power and ability to level consequences than the Roman Senate ever was. Disobey the Pope and anger him, and you’ll soon find yourself excommunicated. One excommunication is cure enough for any player contemplating ignoring calls for Crusades, or worse yet, the conquest of Rome itself. Having been excommunicated twice, I quickly moved my Faction Leader into the nearest stack of large enemy units and made sure he died, so I would be forgiven as soon as possible.
In Rome, I was awash with money by the halfway point. Stacks upon stacks of my armies roamed East and West, North and South, crushing all in their way. Civilizations and barbarians alike trembled at the sight of my Urban Cohorts. In Medieval 2, money is almost always in short supply. Two, three, or perhaps four large stacks of units are the most you’ll mange to scrounge up. I failed to reach the win requirements in the long campaign not just once, but on two sincere attempts at winning the game. Once, as England, I fell short by 8 provinces and Jerusalem. The second time, as France, I faced utter defeat before the 50th turn as all my allies and neighbors decided that I had to go. I turned it around, but by the game’s end, I was still 7 provinces short of my goal, though I did hold Jerusalem.
Though I do complain about the graphics in some points, the fact is that Medieval 2 is a fantastic-looking game. Perhaps not quite F.E.A.R. or Quake 4, it does have a great deal of detail on its units and they’re not rubber stamps of each other. Little randomized details help separate one knight from another. You have to look, but they are there and they do break up the clone army monotony that was Rome.
Despite its flaws, and the AI and interface are very considerable, very old flaws right now, Medieval 2 is one of those “just one more turn” games that cannot be left alone. I went to take some extra screenshots, told myself I’d only play a few turns until the first battle, and ended up leaving the game two hours later as the prospect of yet another sleepless night became increasingly real.
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