E3 06: Medieval 2: Total War Preshow First Look

Creative Assembly's wildly successful large-scale strategy series is revisiting its medieval roots. We catch an impressive demo to see what's new with this highly anticipated sequel.

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It's a safe bet that the PC veterans at UK-based Creative Assembly know strategy games. Their previous effort, Rome: Total War, didn't exactly win GameSpot's best strategy game award in 2004 for nothing, you know. After the Assembly's brief flirtation with action-oriented console development last year, the fine lads at the company's Brisbane, Australia, studio are back to brass tacks with Medieval 2: Total War, the first direct sequel to one of the extremely popular strategy games in the Total War series. After we caught a brief hands-off demo at a recent Sega press event, it became clear how much work the dev team is putting into every aspect of this second Medieval game.

Naturally, the first thing you'll notice when you take a gander at Medieval 2 is the improved graphics engine, which has enhanced the visual presentation in a number of meaningful ways. For one, the terrain will now include dramatic variances in topography, meaning you'll see hills, cliffs, and other elements that will both give the battlefields more variety and provide new strategic options. As you'd expect, plenty of other little tweaks are being made, providing subtle improvements to the visuals that will add up to a big overall upgrade once you get a look at the finished product. Among these are roughly double the number of textures and new dynamic weather effects. Also, pleasingly, corpses (or at least the charred remnants thereof) will remain on the battlefield, so you'll get a sense of just how much destruction your army has wrought over the course of the battle.

But of course, the armies themselves are the stars of the show here, and the Assembly has put due effort into improving the look and feel of your soldiers. For starters, there will be no more lines of cloned troops--instead, the soldier models are being assembled from random body parts and weapons to give them a more distinctive and randomized look. The team has also utilized purportedly thousands of hours of motion-captured animation to bring these soldiers to life, and in fact, they'll even use specific animations depending on the type of unit they're fighting against and the sorts of weapons involved in the struggle. These new animations ought to be especially satisfying when one of your units kicks into a new fatality move, which is a one-hit kill that occurs any time an enemy soldier is knocked to the ground.

Of course, the team isn't putting all its energy into making Medieval 2 look prettier; the designers are working hard to make it play better, too. It sounds like there will be even more for you to do in the midst of battle than before, such as deploying some of the roughly 250 unit-specific abilities that will be available. One example of these abilities we saw was when a group of longbowmen set up a line of stakes to stop an incoming cavalry charge. We also got just a taste of Medieval 2's new siege gameplay, which will allow defenders to fall back to multiple defensible levels as they try to fight off their attackers. Alas, we'll have to wait until E3 to get a full demo of how the siege system has evolved, but Assembly reps did imply that it's been much improved.

Even between battles, Medieval 2 will boast more depth than its predecessors, since the diplomacy in the game has been beefed up significantly as well. You'll now get more raw statistical feedback on your negotiations with rival factions that will give you a clearer picture of how successful you were in your bargaining. Everything from marriage proposals to religious leanings will factor into your dealings with other nations, and you can even dispatch an assassin if you want to "neutralize" an offending diplomat. Beware, though--your assassin has a chance of failure, and you can be sure the other side will be none too happy if they find out you tried to off one of their heads of state.

In the historical context, Medieval 2 is unsurprisingly packing more than its predecessor. There will be a whopping 21 factions this time around, three of which will be new. Even the Americas will be included now; the Aztecs will be one of these new factions. You'll fight across a variety of locales, too; during our demo, we saw the typical wooded European fare, along with a battle from the Crusades taking place in a desert just outside Jerusalem.

Our first look at Medieval 2 has definitely left us excited to see what else Creative Assembly is adding to the tried-and-true formula, but we're already pretty certain that the new sequel will do the Total War name the justice it deserves. As mentioned, CA and Sega plan to show off more at E3, so we'll bring you more information once we've gotten a proper demo of the game.

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