In our version of the Hundred Years' War, England was well on its way to spanking France in record time when those dastardly Danes betrayed our alliance and ruined the fun. About 150 turns later, we found ourselves bogged down in a three-front war against France, Denmark, and a late-to-the-party Spain, though at least those tenacious Scots were finally put down after a lengthy, hard-fought campaign in the north. Still, armies and navies were committed to battle as quickly as they were raised; spies, assassins, priests, diplomats, and merchants scrambled around the map and did their thing; sieges were laid and cities sacked; and battle followed bloody battle. And this is the "short" campaign in Medieval 2: Total War. In a nutshell, that summarizes what is both awesome and somewhat daunting about the latest game in the popular Total War strategy series. With its huge scale, deep gameplay, and beautiful graphics, this is perhaps the most seductive game about the Middle Ages yet, but it's admittedly quite a handful to take in.
Like in most strategy games, your goal in Medieval 2 is to try to conquer the known world. And as a ruler of a medieval kingdom, this means you have to rely on knights, men-at-arms, archers, catapults, cannons, and everything else you'd expect out of a movie such as Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven. That's not all, though; you also have a small array of agents to call upon. Diplomats can negotiate cease-fires (useful when you need some time to rebuild your strength) or alliances; princesses can shore up the loyalty of a general or a neighboring faction through marriage; spies can give you a peek at a fortified city's defenses; assassins can take out enemy agents. Then there are priests, but we'll get to that a bit later.
Since it's a Total War game, Medieval 2 sports two layers. The "big picture" is covered in the turn-based strategic layer, where you can examine a map of Europe and manage your empire. From here, you have command of all your settlements, armies, navies, and agents. You can also construct improvements to enhance the economy or allow you to build the latest in 15th-century military technology. For example, building paved roadways not only increases trade in a province, but it also helps speed along troop movement; improving farmland, furthermore, can help generate more food, and thus more gold.
Medieval 2 introduces a few new twists to the established formula of the original game. Settlements come in two flavors now, towns and castles. Basically, towns and cities generate a lot more cash, but castles generate a wider variety of military units and are much harder to capture. It's an interesting idea, and it's not exactly a detriment to the experience that the supercities of the original game are no more, but this does add in a bit more micromanagement as you have to constantly shuttle troops and agents between various settlements. For instance, you might want to send depleted formations back to a castle where they can retrain and upgrade with the latest weapons and equipment.
All of this costs cash, of course, and it's safe to say that you'll be scrimping for every spare gold piece possible, especially early on in the game. The economic game has been bulked up a bit with the addition of merchants and resources. Basically, there are resources such as wheat and wine that are located on the map, and by enlisting a merchant and placing one on a resource, you can tap that resource for gold. However, one merchant can try and "buy out" another merchant sitting on a resource, so you'll be managing merchants while you're also busy maneuvering all the other pieces in the game.
Basically every aspect of medieval life is covered, not the least of which is religion. You must construct churches or mosques to support the faith, and if you're a Catholic nation you can even get involved in some popery by getting your man elected pope. This isn't just for fun, either; having the pope on your side can be a very powerful thing, because he'll be much more willing to overlook some of your aggressive transgressions against your Christian neighbors. On the other hand, if you hack off the pope or one of your sworn enemies gets their man elected, the best you can hope for is to get excommunicated, and the worst is that you find yourself the target of a crusade, which means that it's open season on you. The papal election basically works like this: You enlist priests to help maintain the faith in your provinces as well as take care of any heretics or witches that crop up. The more effective a priest, the more likely he'll be promoted by the church to become a bishop and then a cardinal. Every time a pope dies, the three most senior cardinals are put up for election--and here's where you can engage in diplomacy to buy votes for your man. However, if you fail and you vote for the losing side, the incoming pope will have a grudge against you.
All of this skullduggery and maneuvering is going on while you're busy with your main task, raising armies and issuing them movement orders. The sheer variety of units that you can call upon is impressive, and each faction has its own distinct units, such as the English longbowmen or the Holy Roman Empire's gothic knights. As you'd expect, it's combined arms that wins the battles, so you can create armies consisting of spearmen, men-at-arms, mounted knights, bowmen, siege weapons, and much more. And after a battle, you'll be sending these units back to a castle or a town to replace losses, so there's a lot of army management throughout the game. Put this all together and it sounds like a lot of management overall, and it is, though aside from a few interface tweaks that we'd like to see, this is an engrossing experience. There's so much depth in the strategic game that you could automatically generate the results of battles and you'll still spend hours trying to outmaneuver your opponents diplomatically, militarily, and religiously.
The game restricts you to only about five major players at first (England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and so on), but after you win a campaign game you can unlock 12 other factions covering Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. You can even send armies to the New World and battle the Aztecs, though you'll likely find yourself with more than you can handle back in the Old World. You can play as any faction, and there are two victory conditions that you can pursue. The "short" campaign usually has you trying to conquer about 15 provinces on the map, while the long campaign is up to three times longer. If you're in store for a quick strategy game you'd best look elsewhere, because even the short campaign can easily occupy a week or so of casual play.
Campaigns will last even longer if you choose to fight out each battle in real time, and while you can usually skip over the minor skirmishes by letting the computer instantly generate the results, you'll most likely want to dive into the larger scrums--not only because you don't want to risk losing a major battle with roughly even odds due to a flip of the computer's coin, but because there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments in Medieval 2's combat. The "clone" armies of Rome: Total War are no more, and the brightly colored formations look incredibly detailed and varied. Best of all is that the combat animations are much more fleshed out. In a huge battle with thousands of warriors slamming into one another, you can easily pick up the individual duels going on as your men fight for their lives. You'll see guys getting knocked to the ground and struggling to get back up on their feet when their opponent delivers a finishing blow, as well as other cinematic moments. There are some weird anomalies, like when formations of men get jammed around a ladder, but the awesome spectacle of it all is glorious.
Control over all these units is a bit nightmarish, but battles tend to have that effect on command and control, as all plans fall apart once contact with the enemy is made. You're rewarded for using tactics correctly, like not sending knights into the teeth of pikes and maneuvering them to hit the enemy from the flank or the rear. Or you keep your archers safely protected to the rear, where they can inflict the most damage on your enemy. All the decisions that you made during the strategic campaign finally pay off in battle, like the composition of your armies, the upgrades that you've equipped them with, and the generals that you chose to lead them in battle.
You'll need a fairly powerful system, though, in order to appreciate the large-scale battles in all their grandeur without any frame rate hits. This is a demanding game, especially when there are thousands of warriors fighting onscreen at once. Our midrange system struggled to keep up, but on a high-end system the visuals were good enough that we could just sit back and soak it all in. And the campaign map looks beautiful, aided by the sense that you're not so much looking at a map but rather at a 3D representation of a living, breathing world. Tiny ships ply the trade routes between cities, caravans haul goods on the road network, and much more. The visuals are also aided by the addition of cool cinematic movies that show the results of various actions, like assassination attempts gone comically awry, royal weddings, and papal elections. Medieval 2 also has excellent audio. The music ranges from pleasing and subtle throughout the campaign map to bombastic and pompous during battle, though the musical cue that we liked the most was the haunting defeat chorus after losing a battle. There's plenty of voice work, too, as most emissaries will talk to you in appropriately accented English depending on their nationality. The prebattle speeches given by your generals are both rousing (in a Shakespearean way) and tactically sound, and you can glean important hints about the upcoming fight.
Aside from the single-player campaign, there are a few extra modes in Medieval 2. A single-player skirmish mode lets you create custom battles, so you can pit the Mongols against the Aztecs, for instance, while there are seven historical battles that revisit great moments in world history, such as Agincourt, where Henry V overcame all odds and crushed the French. The multiplayer portion of the game is restricted to battles. Indeed, given the scope and scale of the single-player campaign, we imagine that resolving a multiplayer game would be all but impossible save for the most dedicated of players. Yet one day we'd like to see some kind of small-scale multiplayer campaign that lets you use all those strategic assets against other players. Multiplayer itself features only two modes, last man standing and scored resolution, but the basic idea remains the same in that you want to kill as many of the other guys as possible. Battles support up to eight players, so you can really get a big scrum going on, but the meat of the game is certainly in the single-player campaign.
Medieval 2 isn't a hard game in the technical sense, as the controls are fairly intuitive for the most part. However, it is a game that requires you to pay a lot of attention, especially to what the enemy is doing. The artificial intelligence will certainly keep you occupied on the medium difficulty setting. The AI is smart enough to probe for weaknesses in your defenses and then attack if you're not careful, so you need to keep your guard up at all times. Unfortunately, enemy turns take a tediously long time to resolve on the default settings, as you have to sit and wait for every unit in sight to make its move. You can turn enemy movements off and the turns will go by much quicker, though you do lose the chance to see what the enemy is doing during its turns.
Still, Medieval 2 is an excellent strategy game--there's just so much here to occupy you for hours. At the same time, you'll need to be committed to get through the campaign, as it can take up a lot of time. If you're a strategy fan looking for an epic experience, though, you'll be hard-pressed to pass up Medieval 2's rich historical texture, popular setting, beautiful visuals, and deep gameplay.