Medieval: Total War, like its predecessor, Shogun, is both a turn-based strategy game and a real-time tactical combat game featuring massive armies containing hundreds or even thousands of troops. Released in 2000, Shogun might not have pioneered this style of gaming, but it was definitely one of the best strategy games to come around in a while. Now, two years later, developer Creative Assembly has returned with a follow-up set in the Middle Ages of Europe. It's another outstanding strategy game that's highly complex but richly rewarding.
Better castle sieges, with real siege engines, are new to Medieval.
Like feudal Japan, Europe in the Middle Ages was rife with political intrigue and open warfare. However, because of the more diverse range of peoples and histories, Europe and the surrounding areas of the Middle East and Mediterranean were prone to even more vehement hostility. Add to this fire the historic influence of the Church and the major role of religion in the development of the Middle Ages and you have a powder keg of possibilities that is more exciting even than the Senroku Jidai period depicted in Shogun. In Medieval, there is a lot more going on, and the game reflects that, providing a richer experience than the first Total War game.
Those unfamiliar with the Total War series will find a rewarding and very complex experience awaiting them in Medieval. Those who played Shogun would undoubtedly expect no less. Either way, you'll definitely need to play the tutorial before getting started in earnest, as the game at first seems overwhelming. There is a turn-based strategic portion to the game that plays like Risk, where you manage your empire and resources while marshaling your armies for eventual battle with your neighbors. In this mode, you see Europe as a 2D map and move various game pieces representing your emissaries, spies, and armies across brightly colored provinces and empires. And while you build units and construct buildings, you'll need to carefully watch your province's loyalty, maintain relations with neighboring empires, and nurture your economy. You'll also expand your empire by moving units to adjacent territories, increasing your holdings but also increasing the amount of necessary empire management. Any time your army pieces meet an enemy army piece in a contested province, the game switches to its real-time tactical mode. Here, the battle is played out in full 3D, as you control the actual armies on the battlefield. Medieval features literally a hundred different types of units, encompassing such things as artillery, including mangonels and cannons; foot archers; horse archers; infantry, such as halberdiers and spearmen; cavalry; conscripted peasants; gunpowder units; and much more.
In Shogun, the two halves of turn-based and real-time gameplay were playable and enjoyable, but the tactical portion was definitely the highlight--the strategic portion of the game was much less refined and developed. In Medieval, the designers have paid a lot more attention to delivering a more complete experience, and you won't feel like the quality in one portion was sacrificed for the other.
The strategic portion now has a lot more options, mainly because there are now 12 different factions to play, each with a few unique units and different strengths and weaknesses. In addition, there are now more buildings to construct and a lot more units overall, increasing the number of strategic possibilities for developing your provinces and armies. The game's setting lends itself to a lot more political intrigue than Shogun, and in addition to forging alliances through diplomacy, you can also marry off your daughters to create lasting ties with rival rulers. During the actual 400-year period covered in Medieval, religion played an enormous role in shaping history, and so it is in the game. Many of the different factions are aligned by religion--such as Catholicism and Islam--as are many of the provinces you can control. Matching your faction's religion with the religion of conquered provinces is a tricky business in Medieval, as Muslim provinces are more apt to rebel against Christian rulers, and vice versa. You'll have to monitor the zeal rating of your provinces, which measures how religious the province is and thus how much you'll need to appease the local populace with tax breaks or by appointing a general with the same religion to rule the region in your name.
Since the game is played in the Middle Ages, where lords often gave titles to their loyal generals, you can likewise gift land and titles to your loyal servants, who will then in turn govern the province in your name. You can actually use this system to your advantage, for example by making a pious Muslim general the leader of a Muslim province to increase its loyalty or by turning over control of a mineral-rich province to a shrewd general to increase revenues. Of course, if you do this, you have to give careful consideration to your general's loyalty (you don't want him to take the province away from you), his piety, his dread (which indicates whether he can cow the populace into submission), and his acumen (which determines how good of a money manager he is: The better he is, the more revenue he will generate for you).
The strategy portion is much improved over Shogun.
You can begin the game without understanding all its nuances and complexity, but if you do, the computer or a smarter human opponent will tear you apart. There are so many subtle factors that govern how things work in Medieval that to ignore them is to invite disaster. In battle, for example, you can just march your army toward the enemy because you'll get there faster and engage quicker, but you might not realize that if you do so too early, your soldiers will be fatigued faster. In the strategy portion, you might just start gifting land to your generals right and left because you know doing so will make them happy. But if you don't realize how a low dread rating can lead to more open revolts, you could lose those territories you cede to incompetent generals.
One problem with the enhanced strategy portion of the game is the lack of information. Once your empire gets truly gigantic, you'll have a tough time keeping track of all the goings-on in your provinces. The current information lists are much too minimal. A more informative interface and easy access to listed information that could be sorted by different attributes (such as organizing generals by highest dread, piety, or acumen ratings or showing the unit and building queues for all provinces) would have made the game much easier to handle. Currently, the massive amounts of information to digest will strain the brains of even the most hard-core wargamers. Still, the strategy portion of the game is very rewarding to play, even if it's a bit too complex for some, and many fans of Risk and Civilization will simply want to play this mode alone.