Medieval II – Total War
Release Date: The most memorable medieval title in the Total War Franchise came out in November 2006.
Genre: A turn-based grand campaign layer mixed with real-time tactical battles.
Best for: Fans of the Total War franchise with a passing interest in the time period. Fans of grand-strategy titles like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings but need epic 3D battles.
Excels at: Giving players a sense of grandiose achievements in everything they do. An interesting but shallow blend of strategy and tactical layers. High Middle Ages.
Feature List: Grand Campaign starting from the 1080s until 1530 with the map stretching from Portugal all the way to Jerusalem, totaling 225 turns. 17 playable factions with dozen of unique 3D rendered units. 7 Historical Battles. The game had two expansions, Kingdoms and Americas which expand the roster significantly.
Was this list to be any longer and I’ve got some serious doubt Medieval II would even feature, and before you go get your pitchforks and rusty longshanks to finish me off, allow me a couple of minutes of your time to explain what I mean by this…
In fact, Medieval II: Total War is the only game on this list that manages to somewhat auspiciously blend the strategy layer with the tactical one and churn out an enjoyable gaming experiêncie, even if it absolutely missing the mark in terms of realism and authenticity. I would go as far as to argue that it is the only game that even attempts to blend these two very distinct planes of action. Disregard the presence of Attila in this list- as it’s only here because of the 1212 mod- and it lends even more strength to this statement. My main gripe with Medieval II: Total War is the way it simulates the political landscape of medieval Europe: players are put in charge of a “family” but in reality, this family is just a placeholder for a country or nation, so players are, from the early 1000s’ in charge of what is, for all intents and purposes modern, and centralized nations, with the actions of virtual kings and constables immediately reflecting all across the geographies under the player’s control. Troop recruitment is a centralized affair and in no way, shape or form reflects the tippy relationships between kings, dukes, barons, and their levies in turn.
As the acting king, there are no political upheavals to deal with, court politics to navigate, and no ministerial backstabbing and parliamentary rivalries to refrain from. Medieval 2 lacks the very important human aspect of medieval politics. In a world where Crusader Kings 2 (and 3) exist and do such a phenomenal job of simulating the intricacies of this system, it’s getting harder and harder to praise Medieval II in this day and age for a job so poorly done. Had Medieval II had a starting date a couple of centuries later and most of this criticism wouldn’t find ground to stand on.
In the tactical plane, Medieval II does a far better job than it does in higher planes of strategical decision-making. Fortunately, the Medieval II 3D battle system is still one of the most sturdy in the wild. Battles are prolonged and multi-phased, with several charges and retreats, pushes, and pulls. They come with a sense of flow to them. Units, despite having little to do with their real-life counterparts, are easily identifiable and serve very specific roles, units advanced and adapt their roles over the centuries. Battles are a spectacle in their own right, with thousands of units fighting simultaneously. The maps are well-realized but offer little opportunity for more in-depth tactical decisions. The winning conditions -of either routing or destroying everything- don’t give a lot of breathing space for tactical victories, it’s better to fight with mindless doom stacks that can obliterate an entire army by force than anything else. This is where the game fails the most, especially when there are more modern options such as the venerable Field of Glory, where most battles are won by smart tactical decisions instead of feeding endless numbers into the meat grinder. Also, troops don’t have a lot of options in terms of tactical emplacements- traps, trenches, and stakes played major parts in medieval battles.
Medieval II battles are satisfying, arcade, 3D spectacles that offer more style than substance, but the lack of any other direct competitor that mixes both layers so expertly and manages to pack such an incredible amount of units into the screen consolidates Medieval II’s position in every “best of” list. That is until something better and more complete comes out.
If you really, really love the Total War formula then there are also a couple of titles you might be interested in trying out from the series such as the ill-received Thrones of Britannia, and the better but really not at all that great Attila (with the Medieval Kingdoms 1212 AD Mod).