Creative Assembly's Shogun: Total War was lauded by many for its ability to blend turn-based strategy elements and real-time combat into a cohesive strategy game that focused on a setting that's often ignored in computer games: medieval Japan. The UK-based developer expanded on its original game with an add-on that was released a few months ago. Called The Mongol Invasion, this expansion pack takes place some 250 years before Shogun: Total War, and it is much better than the original game in so many ways that the original was made almost obsolete. With the popularity of the company's Total War franchise rising, it was no surprise that a third game would be in the works, and sure enough, rumors about the existence of a sequel started surfacing a few months ago. What was surprising, however, was that Activision--not rival Electronic Arts, which had handled the publishing duties of Creative Assembly's previous Total War games--announced that it would be publishing this sequel. Called Medieval: Total War, this latest game in the company's strategy game franchise takes place in Europe during the Middle Ages and lets you control one of 12 countries throughout 400 years of history. Among other improvements, the sequel features an enhanced 3D engine that can render an astounding 10,000 troops in battle. To find out more about this promising strategy game, we sat down with Creative Assembly's Michael de Plater, Total War's creative director.
GameSpot: Activision recently announced that it would publish Medieval: Total War. Can you explain why Electronic Arts isn't publishing the game, considering that it was the publisher of Shogun: Total War and the Shogun: Total War Warlord Edition?
Michael de Plater: Right from the first time we met with Activision, it was clear that they shared our enthusiasm for the games and our vision for the future of Total War. EA did an excellent job with Shogun: Total War, and we're still on very good terms with them, but our plans for Medieval: Total War are significantly more ambitious than those of Shogun: Total War, and going to the next level requires a different sort of relationship with the publisher. With that in mind, we thought that it made sense to look at our options, and after we talked to a number of different publishers, Activision came out in front for a number of reasons. In particular, we were impressed by their understanding of the games and by their aggressive attitude to getting behind the release. Also, we thought that Medieval: Total War had a lot to offer Activision as a flagship real-time strategy game that could go right to the top of the strategy genre as it moved to the next generation. We've been working with the guys at Activision for only a short time now, but it's already becoming clear that it was a great choice.
GS: How far along is the game at this time?
MdP: We've been working on Medieval: Total War since the end of Shogun: Total War, which was almost a year and a half ago, and we're just getting to the fun--and sometimes frustrating--stage where the gameplay is coming together. All the pieces are in place, the campaigns, the battles, the sieges and the units, and it's now a case of getting the gameplay, balancing, and polish of the game spot-on and ironing the bugs out.
GS: What is the team working on right now?
MdP: It's a big game and a fairly big team, so we are working on a whole range of stuff. In general, the focus is on the gameplay and AI of both the strategy map and the battles themselves and on reviewing our wish lists to see what extras we can squeeze in. There are some areas of the game--such as the tutorial and the campaigns--that you can't really start working on until the main game is in place, so we're also putting a lot of effort into these. In parallel with that, the artists are working on everything from creating the battlefields to the FMV. Then there are extra assets such as the voice-overs and music, which have to be finalized and incorporated. But out of everything, probably the most important thing to get working right now is the multiplayer, both because it's such an important feature and because it will allow me to prove my almighty generalship skills against the other guys here.
GS: What's the biggest challenge in making a sequel to Shogun?
MdP: One of the most rewarding features of Shogun: Total War was that it was genuinely innovative. The epic battles in particular stood apart from those of any other strategy game. Having done something so innovative and ambitious, the challenge is to exceed our goals and to push the frontiers again. Having said that, because Shogun: Total War was our first effort at a strategy game, we learnt a hell of a lot, and we've been able to apply that experience to make Medieval: Total War a really significant improvement upon the original. We've tried to be very ambitious with Medieval: Total War and we've tried to make a bigger jump as a sequel than what people generally expect from a strategy game follow-up.
GS: You recently changed the name of the game from Crusader: Total War to Medieval: Total War. Was there anything specific that prompted this decision?
MdP: Well, we were never 100 percent satisfied with the name "Crusader" because although it was a good name, it didn't cover the full scope or the rich diversity of the game. Then in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy on September 11, we decided that we should rethink it. Firstly, the name Crusader implied that the game was specifically about the invasions of the Holy Land, whereas this is only one part of the overall game. You can fight the Crusades, but you can also fight the Hundred Years War between England and France, throw back the Mongol Invasions, lead the Teutonic Knights against Russian princes, or rewrite history any way you want to. Shogun was an ideal name because it described who you were aiming to be in the game, and Crusader didn't really do this. You can be a crusader, but with 12 factions and more than 100 unit types, we have a whole host of characters from Byzantine emperors and the Great Khan of the Mongols to Turkish sultans and famous characters like Joan of Arc, El Cid, or Robin Hood. Medieval: Total War conveys the massive scope of the game, and I also think it gets across the style and tone of a brutal era.
GS: How did you decide to focus on the Middle Ages as opposed to other time periods?
MdP: It just seemed obvious, and it was perfectly suited to the direction in which we wanted to take the gameplay. There were three major areas where we really wanted to improve upon Shogun: Total War. At the top of the list, we wanted to have great castles and spectacular sieges, and the Middle Ages is the absolute classic time period for this. Secondly, we wanted to have a lot more variety in the game, both in terms of numbers of units and in differences between the factions. The medieval period is brilliant for this as well. We have a really diverse range of factions, including England, the Holy Roman Empire, France, the Byzantine Empire, Poland, Spain, the Almohad Empire, and Turkey, and because we cover four centuries of warfare, we have a much more interesting tech tree with a procession of cool units. Finally, we wanted to have more recognizable characters in the game and to have a stronger RPG element to the characters. The medieval era is fantastic for this, and it's crawling with great characters and leaders, such as Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, Frederick Barbarrossa, and Kublai Khan. I think that this helps give the game a lot of personality.
GS: Do you envision creating more Total War games based on other time periods?
MdP: Definitely. We've got a lot of ideas that we'll start getting our teeth into once Medieval: Total War is complete.
GS: Will Medieval: Total War use a new or updated game engine? Can you explain how this game is technically better than the previous game?
MdP: Medieval: Total War uses an updated version of the Shogun: Total War engine. The main advantage of this is that it lets us focus on feature additions and gameplay rather than on R&D. The most noticeable new feature in the engine is the addition of artillery and the ability to destroy castles. Also, the graphics engine has been given a significant overhaul. The battlefields and the units are distinctly more detailed and varied than in Shogun: Total War. The other major technical improvement that's gone on under the hood has been made to the AI and the combat system.
Also, upgrading the engine has allowed us to include a much greater variety of battlefields and terrain types, from English villages and eastern deserts to southern Mediterranean countries, which gives you a much stronger sense of where you are fighting within the gameworld, and they look absolutely lovely.
In terms of the AI, which is the heart of the gameplay, the computer now has a whole range of new tactics to use in battle, and the combat calculations are significantly more detailed. This leads to some very cool effects that make a real difference in the gameplay. To give you just a few examples, cavalry charges now smash into and carry through enemy ranks, formations of men can push enemies back out of position, which reduces bottlenecks at bridges and gates, knights can get impetuous and charge into battle, and shields are calculated to provide defense only from the front. I think that we're getting even closer to capturing the spirit of Sun Tzu's Art of War.
GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
MdP: We're always looking for feedback, input, and ideas. If anyone wants to visit www.totalwar.com, we have some really lively discussions from fans talking about what they'd like to see in the game. We continually keep an eye on the forums, and the more feedback we get from gamers, the better.
GS: Thanks for your time.