Aug 29, 2007
Medieval II: Total War's first expansion is immense and has taken up pretty much every waking moment of our past week. It's an RTS add-on pack unlike any we've ever seen before, one that shames many standalone games with its sheer depth and wealth of options.
Nestling inside this package is not one, not two, not three, but four full campaigns bursting with content. That's around 50 hours of gameplay if you want to get numerical about it. And that's if you decide to only play through each campaign once.
One of the criticisms leveled at the original game was that the Aztec sections were a positive letdown. If you were one of the people disappointed by this somewhat threadbare tail-end bonus, then you'll be champing at the proverbial bit in order to free your teeth so that you can sink them into Kingdoms' beefy Americas campaign.
The obvious choice is to opt for the Spanish, but while this may give you a sizeable technological advantage over the lightly armoured locals, you'll quickly find that expanding on your meager starting foothold is more than a moderate challenge. The campaign's early stages bear more than a passing resemblance to Rome's Alexander expansion, forcing you to rely heavily on local mercenaries while you wait for Spanish armies to be ferried across the sea.
Onto the Crusades campaign then, in which you command one of the five dominant factions scattered throughout the Holy Land in a bid to unify it. Of course, you'll also have to contend with those pesky European Crusades that crash against your walls like waves of steel on an irritatingly regular basis.
This cauldron of hate and death proves a far more considered and strategic affair than its claustrophobic Americas counterpart, forcing you to guide your armies over searing expanses of desert and unwelcoming mountainous terrain to reach your next destination, while ensuring that you keep your major cities fortified in readiness for the Crusade invasions.
If you've ever played the Viking Invasion expansion for the original Medieval, then you'll find the Britannia campaign instantly familiar. While it's not exactly the same, there are certainly a fair few similarities. Taking control of the land-rich English, one of the English-hating nations (Scotland, Wales or Ireland) or the invading Norse hordes, you must conquer the whole of the British Isles. The obvious choice here is to opt for the English, who start off controlling well over half the map but are soon beset on all sides by enemies. It's actually far more entertaining to play as the Scots, Welsh, Irish or even the Norse, who must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve victory.
Kingdoms' final bloody chapter is the Teutonic campaign, boasting what is perhaps the expansion pack's most diverse selections of factions. Eager to send the Pagan Lithuanians to hell, the Teutonic Knights launch an invasion of the Baltic, taking out anyone - Pagan or otherwise - who stands in their way. These boys pack some serious punch with a devastating array of heavy foot and mounted warriors, as well as Mangonels that fire exploding barrels that shower the enemy with a torrent of fire.
So there you have it: four whopping campaigns just waiting to suck you dry of your spare time and turn you into a social recluse. But that doesn't mean that it's above criticism.
For starters, cavalry is still a problem. In fact, seeing as it's such an imperative element of both the Teutonic and Crusades campaigns, it's even more of a problem than in the original game. Pathfinding is highly skewed, with horsemen often veering off in the opposite direction you've ordered them in, resulting in horses wading into lines of spears and turning themselves into ready-made nag kebabs. Exacerbating the cavalry conundrum is the fact that mounted units still have a tendency to pull up before the all-important impact, robbing you of those infantry-pulverising moments that made cavalry charges such a triumph in Rome.
The newly added mid-battle updates are also a mixed bag, proving inaccurate as often as they are informative. Setting the attitude of your AI commanders (who back you up in conflicts involving more than one army) is also somewhat anticlimactic. Choose from the three stances on offer - offensive, defensive and shootout - then watch as the AI general wades idiotically into the fray and gets himself killed, while his leaderless troops get butchered. A seriously missed opportunity if ever we've seen one.
While it may not be perfect, Medieval II: Total War - Kingdoms' sheer depth and replayability raises it high above any RTS expansion pack we've ever played. By breaking down Med II's main campaign into bite-sized chunks, adding new factions, units, diplomatic options and tasks, Kingdoms manages to provide an all new experience while remaining reassuringly familiar. It's an expansion that's kept us enthralled for dozens of hours and we've loved every ecstasy-inducing, spear-thrusting, pounding, hammering moment of it.