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Jim Ansell, the father of Total War, falls out with Creative Assembly’s new owners Sega and leaves to form an indie outfit. His studio’s first release is a thrilling thirteenth century wargame that runs Cantabrian rings round Medieval II. Reviewers love it. Punters love it. Even people that don’t like it love it. A fierce and fruitful rivalry is born. Ah, if only. In truth this doppelganger was made by a gang of Russians, and, though diverting, isn’t half the game Medieval II is. Well, actually in one sense it is half the game Medieval II is. Unicorn Games have basically recreated the real-time battling bit of Creative Assembly’s latest and greatest. They’d probably claim they left out the map-based grand strategy so they could focus on the fighting. We suspect they were planning another layer, but bottled out once they realised how much toil was involved.
So, just the spectacular slaughter then. Just choppy seas of armoured aggro, wedges of galloping lancers plunging into rectangles of spiky spearmen, knots of stout swordsmen cowering under shields as showers of arrows fall. Just the stuff we’ve seen and savoured a hundred times before? Yes and no. While XIII Century: Death or Glory’s approach, interface and units are all incredibly familiar, the AI and choice of historical scraps give the game sufficient personality to survive the inevitable unflattering comparisons. Medieval II didn’t provide much in the way of reenactments; what were there - half a dozen? Here there are 25 of the things, arranged, rather unimaginatively, in five nation-themed sequences. You don’t need to complete a campaign to unlock a new one, but you do need to win a few fights to access bonus battles such as Stirling, Worringen and Campaldino.
To call any of the scenarios simulations would be to misuse the word, but the designers have plainly done some homework. Take the Battle of Falkirk for example (episode 2, English campaign). While the venue has a slightly stylised RTS feel and the troop numbers are distorted to guarantee challenge, the terrain, army compositions and positions all echo the events of July 22, 1298. After using our mounted knights to shred William Wallace’s archer screen, and our bowmen to break up his four hedgehogs of schiltrom-ing spearmen, we went to Wiki to read about the real engagement. It turns out it developed along very similar lines. Impressive.
Wisely perhaps, Unicorn haven’t done versions of any of the Medieval II scenarios. If they had, comparing AIs would have been easy. Right now, we’d say the computer commanders in each are of roughly equivalent calibres. The new kid will make you sweat given enough manpower. Sure, his target selection could be better (cavalry should have a healthier fear of spears) as could his pathfinding (formations occasionally don’t bypass obstacles or envelope targets all that well) but usually he’s a credible and interesting adversary, and a reliable lieutenant. If anything, morale is more important in XIII than it is in That Game We’ll Try Hard Not To Mention Again. While there’s at least eight states of panic, men seem more brittle. When they run they seldom come back.
On the website feature list there’s mention of ‘mangonels and trebuchets’. Don’t be taken in. Siege engines and sieges look to have been cut at the eleventh hour. The few fortresses that did make it in are either decorative or scandalously permeable. Penetrating Lincoln’s lovely battlements involves sauntering in through one of four open and unguarded gates. Shabby. Some wheeled/weird weapons would certainly have spiced up the unit selection. At present pikes, spears, swords, bows, axes and lances do all the killing. There’s none of the agricultural implements, skull smashers, or gunpowder gadgetry you’ll find in... in...
The fact that you can’t talk about XIII without mentioning CA’s genre-bestriding colossus every third sentence is maddening. If the developers had just picked a different setting they could have avoided a lot of negativity. Thirteenth century Chinese warfare with its fledgling firearms, landmines, and grenades could have been utterly fascinating. How about a game about the rise of the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia? Elephant-mounted ballistae, ferocious female warriors... part of us is incensed by the lack of courage and imagination Unicorn have shown. Another part of us has to admit they’ve done a passable job of mimicking a masterpiece.
May 27, 2008