Calling XIII Century: Death or Glory a poor man's take on the Total War series may seem like a condemnation of this tactical RTS with mere faint praise. But even though this compendium of great medieval battles might not be as all-encompassing as its big brothers from Creative Assembly, first-time developer Unicorn Games Studios has put together a challenging historical warfare simulation with outstanding depth. It feels a little stripped down when it comes to frills and extra gameplay options, although the game has it where it counts if all you're interested in is pitting your mettle and might against enemy generals on the battlefield.
Freeing Andalusia from the occupying Muslim armies, one bloody battlefield at a time.
There actually isn't much here aside from you going all medieval on the computer's posterior. XIII Century swaps the stereotypical grand campaign where you rule an empire for "campaign light" mission packs where you fight alongside the medieval armies of England, France, Germany, Russia, and the Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan. Each of these collections features five separate historical battles that you unlock one by one. So the English start with Evesham then move on to Falkirk, Conwy, Lincoln, and Lewes. The Russians fight at Yaroslav, Torchev, Lake Peipus, Rakovor, and Lipitsa. The French take to the bloody fields of Taillebourg, Muret, Tagliarozzo, Benevento, and Bouvines. And so on. You get a pretty comprehensive tour of all the 13th-century hot spots by the time you work your way through all five nations and a set of bonus battles that open up as your rank grows through winning battles.
All this might seem a bit on the skimpy side to anyone coming off of an overwhelming epic like Medieval II: Total War. But since the battles here are so thoroughly depicted, it's hard to quibble with the warfare-centric focus. For starters, XIII Century is tough. Battles are founded on a rigorous rock-paper-scissors formula, so you can't just lumber about and rush foes with no consideration as to their relative strengths and weaknesses. This isn't a simple formula, either. Although many basics are in play here (keep cavalry away from pikemen, keep archers on high ground, that sort of thing), unit statistics are heavily detailed. This gives you a lot to keep track of during battles, which tend to fly by even at regular speed, but at least the interface provides ready access to everything you need to know. Moving the mouse cursor over unit formations provides banks of numbers detailing morale, number of wounded, whether or not the flanks and rear are covered, and so forth. So you can get instant snapshots of how your troops are faring when things are going hot and heavy, which lets you keep pace and give the right commands at the right times.
Stats aren't much help when it comes to dealing with battlefields, though. Maps here are so intricately detailed that you have to use the terrain to your advantage in order to have a chance at victory, even if the odds are heavily in your favor. Each is packed with hills that provide great positions for archers, paths that allow cavalry units to pull off sneaky flanking maneuvers, rivers that let you set up almost impregnable defenses, and so forth. Having to take the lay of the land into account before giving even the most basic order really enhances the realism of medieval warfare, and underlines how battles can turn on presumably minor issues such as how well a general uses a hill. Beautiful, detailed graphics really bring these backgrounds to life, too. Panning around during battles reveals postcardlike vistas of hills, mountains, and rivers, along with the rather incongruous (if majestic) sight of soldiers in full armor.