Unless you’re pretty much a shut in, someone with no life whatsoever and untold free hours of time to burn, I’d have to recommend staying away from Medieval 2: Total War, a veritable Grand Canyon of a time sink if ever there was one. It’s not even necessarily that it’s so addictive – but it is such a complex game, one with so many different strategies to try and all of them taking a really long time to come to fruition or failure, that you could spend 20 or 30 hours, as I did, just trying to figure out if you even like it or not. This particular mix, of a very deep Civilization-like turn-based game and an intricate massive army combat RTS game, is an amalgam that strikes me as peculiar and disjointed today as it did back when I played the first Medieval: Total War. For those of you who are curious, I didn’t play any of the other Total War games between then and now, so I’m going to be unable to comment on how the features of the game have progressed through the series.
M2:TW is a game played in two layers. The top layer is a turn-based 4X game not entirely unlike Civilization, only with a lot more political, religious, and diplomatic intrigues. Set in medieval Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, you can begin play as 5 different factions; English, Roman, French, Spanish, and Milan. The different factions naturally have different advantages and disadvantages, but more importantly they begin with different geographic regions of control and neighbors. There are 21 total playable factions in various historical and skirmish battles, and even after all the time I’ve been playing I’m nowhere near close to picking a favorite.
On any given turn you can construct new buildings in your towns and castles, recruit troops, explore the area around you, set up trade routes, use spies, open or break diplomatic relationships, attack enemy units and fortifications, lay siege to towns or castles, and look at any number of sheets summarizing your military strength, faction happiness, productivity, income and expenditures. That’s really just a sampling – there are many more options available. There is also this sort of overarching intrigue involving your relations with the Pope that is so complicated I’m not even sure how to go into it and keep this game review at a reasonable length. All of this is done through an overhead icon-based map with nicely animated little units on it. I found the various diplomatic channels and options to be absolutely critical in the scheme of the game. My enemies were for the most part fairly warlike, and unless I was keen on fighting a multi-front war it was necessary to keep the majority of my neighbors placated so I could concentrate my firepower on a particular one or two. Combat is bloody, troops are expensive to recruit, and for the most party money is scarce – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that takes the adage ‘chose your battles carefully’ more to heart.
When you do gather your troops and chose a battle, you are given a power bar that gives you a rough idea of the strength of your troops to his. Perhaps others have far greater skill than I, but I found that overwhelming odds in the power assessment almost always meant a serious trashing on the battlefield – I was for the most part unable to find some Sun Tzu genius strategy that could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and often worked hard to have overwhelming forces. The computer is, for the most part, very good at the RTS with the exception that units under missile fire sometimes don’t seem to do anything about it. At any rate, based on that assessment you can either attack and play the RTS, attack and let the computer figure out the resultant losses for each side, or withdraw. Choosing to play the RTS takes you to the second layer of the game, a full 3D map of the battlefield complete with hills and trees and whatever town or city might be involved in the combat. After troops are positioned by both sides, the combat plays out in real time, with you giving orders to advance, withdraw, attack, change formation, or perform a special attack like charging or launching flaming arrows. In a way this combat requires almost as much strategy as the turn-based component, and it is possible to pause the action to issue orders to your groups. Basically your combat consists of only three unit types: missile throwers, foot soldiers, and mounted units. The actual mechanics of these units isn’t really new (such as missile throwers are poor in melee combat, mounted units charge and trample for great damage but are easily cut down by pikemen if attacking from the front, that kind of thing). Unit fatigue, morale and local battlefield geometry and geography are all important in the outcome of combat. The camera allows you a bird’s eye view of the battle, or you can zoom down and watch soldiers units hack it out which is nothing short of amazing. I understand that kind of close up requires a hefty machine, and as usual the über machine came through for me with literally flying colors.
So perhaps you’re starting to get a flavor of just how involved this game is. Depending on how large your faction has grown, how many towns and castles you have to manage, how many diplomatic things you have in the air, and how many agents and armies you have roaming around, a single turn can take almost an arbitrarily long time. An RTS battle involving many unit groups can also take hours to resolve itself if you keep pausing to plan and look around the battlefield, and of course some turns, many of them in fact, involve more than one battle. Next thing you know you find yourself as I did last night, playing for over 2 hours and just managing to complete a single turn.
While I like both layers of the game, I didn’t think they fit together too well. While playing a game that was relatively far along, one in which I was working on a strategy that developed slowly over several turns, interrupting my civilization planning to play out an RTS battle was distracting, and you can call me a senile old goat if you like but I would have to keep a notepad nearby to remember what I was doing before the combat began. The game does compensate to some extent by giving you a series of messages at the start of each turn concerning stuff that occurred in your last turn, but since your turn is literally suspended in the middle to resolve the combat portion (unless you save all your combats until the end of your turn), those messages didn’t stop me from simply forgetting to do some things during my turn entirely. I could of course have just let the computer solve the combat instantly, but the computer would often lose more units than I would, and in a gold shortage I really couldn’t afford the losses, not to mention that replenishing and replacing units takes several turns to accomplish. Additionally, especially towards the end of the game, when you are managing a very large civilization and just working to wipe out your enemy stragglers, the whole affair really feels like it is slowing to a crawl. A single ‘find and smite mine enemies’ button would have been nice.
Incidentally, and I think this is an interesting choice on the part of the game designers, the multiplayer game is only the RTS skirmish mode. I understand that it would have taken some very dedicated players to take the perhaps weeks that would be required to complete a full campaign game, but I still would have liked to see the option there. In college I played a hex based strategy game called War in Russia, where I would take my turn and quit and save the game, and later a friend would come by and take his turn, quit and save. One game lasted a fair chunk of my sophomore year. Anyway, up to eight players can duke it out on the battlefield and I found locating and connecting to games a breeze, though massive battles would sometimes become quite laggy. I’m uncertain of that’s because of connection speeds or simply lag in the individual machines.
I’m of the belief that people who go into M2:TW, people who presumably played the first one, have some idea what they are looking at. Like people who play Civilization know that they are setting themselves up for a game that will likely take several playing sessions to complete, M2:TW, despite the sort of action-y RTS segment, is a considerable time commitment to enjoy and experience to the fullest. The depth of the diplomacy, the many well-balanced factions, the intelligent layout of the interface, that all indicates to me a game design crew that really had its stuff together. While I don’t think as a game reviewer it would be appropriate for me to penalize a game for being too involved, I do think the pace of this game, the amount of plotting and planning versus the amount of payoff, is a little out of whack. But if you like this kind of game and have either no family or a family that you don’t want to see much, be my guest. At $50 a copy, it probably works out to less than a dime per hour of available gameplay. How many games can make that claim?