Forums all over the net were littered with cries of "Hey, they've already done that!" when game developer Creative Assembly announced that its next game in the Total War series would be something of a blast from the past called Medieval II. But nobody's complaining now. Even though the subject matter may be a little familiar, all the games that came before Medieval II: Total War seem like warm-ups for this one. The strategic and tactical aspects have finally been polished to near perfection.
This is a souped-up take on the standard Total War formula, but it's so pimped out that comparing it to the earlier games feels like comparing a Kia to a Cadillac.
Game style in the main Grand Campaign mode of play is very familiar, though, so you still oversee your burgeoning empire on a campaign map and play out actual battles on a real-time battlefield. If you've played any of the Total War series, you won't need to bother with the tutorials or check out too much of the manual.
That's not to say there aren't a lot of additions here. Huge improvements have been made to the turn-based campaign half of the game. Before, this seemed a bit flat, more of a map where you moved armies than an actual place to strategize.
Now, options have been fleshed out in every way imaginable. Here, you not only move armies, but manipulate agents for tasks as varied as assassinating popes and diplomats, converting heathens to Christianity or Islam, and bringing potentially rebellious generals into the fold through marriage to princesses.
Real-time tactical battles are more similar to those in the preceding Total War games. Orders work the same as they did before, and core tactics like flanking cavalry attacks and getting archers to high ground of course remain intact.
Still, battles have been beefed up with far more units than ever before and great attention to detail. Zoom in and you can watch soldiers drive home swords in hand-to-hand combat, cover their ears for cannon barrages, and furiously pump their crossbows for another round of fire. Majestic music and voice acting on par with a BBC historical epic (complete with appropriate accents) round out the battlefield drama.
Although there are only five nations available at the beginning of play, about 15 are unlocked after finishing a campaign, so you can try your hand running just about everybody in the region, from the Scots to the Turks. Essentially, you can do everything here that a real monarch could do back in the day. Invade neighbors, call crusades and jihads, rig papal elections - it's all good.
The timeline even stretches from just after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 all the way to the early 16th century, which allows for a great evolution in battle hardware and tactics. You start fighting over the usual European battlefields with ancient hardware like swords and end up possibly using cannons to battle Aztecs in the New World.
There are a few drawbacks to this Middle Ages madness, however. Enemy troops seem more resolute than before, so they aren't as prone to fleeing in panic so readily as in past Total War games. This is generally a good thing, but it sometimes results in battles dragging on as foes quickly rebound, no matter how badly they're being beaten. You can get into long battles of attrition and wind up in draws even after demolishing an enemy's castle and killing all but three or four of his never-say-die crossbowmen.
All the campaign improvements mean that other modes of play have taken a back seat again. Despite the demand for multiplayer additions like online campaigns, you can still only take part in one-on-one battles with other human monarchs. Solo battles against the computer are also limited, although at least you can custom-design engagements and replay seven historical battles, a line-up that includes titanic clashes like the Battle of Arsuf between Richard I and Saladin and the spectacular siege of Setenil during the Spanish Reconquista.
And you also need a big-time machine to experience battles in all their glory. Conflicts in Medieval II are so massive that you should have a top of the line Pentium IV or equivalent AMD CPU with a couple of gigs of RAM and a 7800-class video card. Anything less and you need to turn down visual settings, which leads to some ugly jaggies and jittery frame rates.
But don't consider the tech demands as a reason to avoid Medieval II; think of them as a reason to upgrade your computer. Since this is one of the best strategy games of the year, and arguably one of the best ever, you won't regret shelling out the moolah.