This game may have been out well over a decade, but despite it’s successors possessing more powerful game engines, better graphics and more varied gameplay, it’s still one of the best RTS’ (Real-Time Strategy) and TBS’ (Turn-based Strategy) games of all-time. The fact is, the Creative Assembly has never matched the standards of its mighty fourth entry in the Total War series, and none of the CA’s rivals have offered a compelling alternative either. Only its predecessor, Rome: Total War, holds a similar regard in the minds of the fanbase. But why is this?
Maybe because the series’ dual style gameplay of having Real Time Battles spliced with turn-based management was so successful. The mix of siege battles and land conflicts adds plenty of variety to the combat, while random events, bad luck and AI factions lack of predictability can often leave you scrambling to face new threats to your empire. You can also avoid one of the aspects entirely if you want to focus solely on battles or empire-building (the computer can auto-resolve battles without you playing them, or can set taxes and building policies to govern settlements automatically it you want it to). The campaigns are also really unpredictable. Just when you think you have a faction on the ropes, their last army ambushes you unexpectedly in the woods. Just when you’re about to overwhelm your main rivals, one of your allies suddenly turns on you and strikes at a badly defended settlement. Or, worst of all, one of your generals defects and takes either an army, or worse, a whole settlement with him. Every campaign throws up new problems and offers enough factions to please any gameplay style. Love carving enemies up with Heavy Infantry? Pick Denmark. Love using cavalry? Go for Poland. Want an endless supply of Spearman? Welcome to Italy. Want to wipe out endless hordes of infidels on crusade? Pick Egypt and fortify the hell out of your cities! The multitude of factions means that your have many weeks worth of potential gameplay ahead, as well as immense replay value.
While Rome: Total War (referred to as RTW for the rest of this article) was initially my favourite entry in the series, I have to admit that Medieval 2 does fix several problems with RTW, and has more overall depth and replay value. The more I’ve played them, the more convinced I’ve become that Medieval 2 edges out Rome. To go into detail, Rome: Total War had a couple of irritating niggles, such as its basic and easily broken diplomacy system. Once your faction got too rich in RTW, the AI factions would instantly start demanding ridiculous sums of money for any potential deals. Worse, if your faction became too powerful, weaker AI factions would regard almost all potential financial/diplomatic offers as suspiciously generous, and would refuse them outright.
Another problem with RTW was one of balance: the four Roman factions were slightly too strong in comparison to every other faction, meaning that you would either end up sweeping the map while playing them or, if playing a different faction, would always have the Romans as your main rivals late game, not anyone else. While Egypt, Carthage and the Greek factions were capable of standing up to the Romans late game, the Barbarian factions lacked any kind of extra units or infrastructure once they upgraded their settlements to cities, meaning that whatever faction you started as, it was rather inevitable that once you destroyed the Romans you would have few rivals left capable of challenging you. Every game played out reasonably similarly as far as the AI were concerned: The Greek Cities, Gaul and Carthage would be overwhelmed by Romans within 50 turns, while the Seleucids were nearly always wiped out by a combination of Egypt, Pontus and Parthia. The final problem was that half the factions in RTW were initially locked until you beat the main campaign as the Romans, and a third were totally unplayable without editing the game files (which, fortunately, is not difficult and there are plenty of YouTube videos on how to do this!).
Medieval 2 fixes all of these issues: diplomacy was considerably refined, AI’s are more reasonable in negotiations and there aren’t any real issues creating deals with small or weak factions. All factions except the Papal States, Aztecs, Mongols, Timurids and Rebels are also easily unlockable. The game is much more balanced too: I’ve done at least 20 playthroughs over the years and its never been the same AI factions that have done well in every playthrough. Sometimes France is a really strong power who wipes out The Holy Roman Empire (Medieval Germany) and kicks England off the continent, sometimes they get crushed by a combination of Milan and Portugal. Sometimes Denmark takes over the whole Northern part of the map, sometimes the HRE and Poland leave them stuck in a single province. Sure some things recur: Venice always fights Byzantium, the Moors always fight Sicily, the Pope is a dick to Egypt etc. but while you often see the same kind of conflicts, the results differ. The AI still isn’t perfect, especially on lower campaign difficulties, where some nations just sit around or merely attack one or two rebel settlements, but for the most part it’s not an issue.
Medieval 2 also refines individual characters and their various traits. Everyone from Assassins to Diplomats to Priests have numerous traits that make them better or worse at their job. This can often have annoying consequences, as Priests who lack faith often become heretics, incompetent assassins get themselves killed and Kings who lack Authority suffer defections and rebellions. Every general has four stats: command, loyalty, chivalry/dread and piety. Commanders lacking in piety may be vulnerable to execution by papal inquisitors, disloyal generals cannot be trusted, Generals strong in command will rarely lose battles and men with high dread with frighten the hell out of the enemy. While some traits are random, you are largely responsible for how your faction members develop. Leave a general in a godforsaken hellhole for 20 turns? His loyalty will drop. Execute prisoners, use assassins and exterminate cities? You’ll be more dreaded than the Mongols. Build taverns in cities where you general lives? Expect a greater chance of him becoming an alcoholic and wrecking his stats.
Medieval 2’s time period also is a major factor in gameplay. Not only do you have to contend with the Black Death (which can wipe out a good 10-50% of your forces in the affected regions) but also invasions from the Mongols (who have extremely skilled Generals and awesomely strong cavalry) and the Timurids (who have elephants. And cannons. And cannons mounted on Elephants!!!). These ramp up the difficulty factor for eastern powers like The Turks, Egypt and occasionally Russia and Byzantium. The Christian factions are largely safe from these threats but have a bigger problem: the Pope. Not only will he constantly ask you to build churches and recruit more priests, but he will also commission crusades (usually against Egypt or the Turks) that force you to send one of your armies off to the East or risk his disapproval. Fighting other Christian nations (which happens all the time given that most/all neighbouring factions are Catholic!) will lead to the Pope turning on you and either excommunicating your faction, declaring war, or worse, declaring a crusade on you. On one campaign as the Holy Roman Empire I ended up assassinating 5 successive Popes because the Papal States were being such a nuisance. Another game-changer is the invention of gunpowder, which greatly diminishes the strength of your city walls and castles. For ambitious/naval inclined players, you can also send fleets to explore the ‘New World’ which can gain you a lot of money but also puts you in conflict with the Aztecs. All these means long campaigns have plenty of pratfalls to spoil your plans and prevent things being too easy.
Rating: 5 out of 5!
The game’s expansion pack, Kingdoms, which is included with the base game on Steam, is a great extra, offering four new campaigns and several new factions. You may not care for all of them, but there’s something for everyone, and it adds hundreds of hours of extra gameplay. The following ratings are my opinion – you may like the ones I don’t or vice versa, but they’re all worth trying!
The Americas Campaign: (Factions include New Spain, The Aztecs, The Mayans and the Apache, with another 3 tribal factions unlockable)
The Americas Campaign is my least favourite of the expansions, but if you want a challenge or miss the simpler, barbarian horde factions from RTW, this might be for you! The campaign focuses on Central America and the surrounding area at the time where the Spanish are just starting to invade (England and France will turn up during the campaign as well but aren’t playable). The Aztecs and Mayans are unique factions in Medieval 2 because they completely lack technology – i.e. no artillery, no guns, no cavalry – they rely solely on infantry and foot-based archers/missile troops. While this may sound like a major disadvantage, their numbers are vast and their infantry move VERY fast, so they can hold their own against more ‘civilised’ factions, although heavy casualties are a frequent feature of their campaigns. New Spain have the technology, but lack numbers, so the early game is quite difficult for them, and fighting too many tribes at once will get them easily overrun. The Apache are a balance between the two – initially they are as undeveloped as the Aztecs/Mayans, but once they defeat any army from England, Spain or France, they can learn how to use guns and horsemen. Personally I don’t like this one much (infantry only battles can be a bit of a slog, and the numbers involved are always huge – no small skirmishes here!) though I find Spain and the Apache enjoyable to play as.
Rating: 2 out of 5
The Britannia Campaign: (Factions include England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Norway – i.e. Vikings)
One of the best campaigns is the Britannia Campaign. Scotland get a much better unit roster here than in the main campaign, while England face a somewhat harder task than normal due to low approval and lack of funds, not to mention being at war with anywhere from 2-4 of the other factions for the whole game. Ireland are interesting if you like a mix of cavalry and artillery, while Wales are immense fun if you like using archers and playing defensively. Norway are a tough faction to win with, but Viking units are always fun to use, especially their infantry, and you can basically fight whoever you want with them (though Scotland will prove a problem if you don’t see them off early).
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Crusades Campaign: (Factions include Jerusalem [England], Antioch [France], Egypt, The Turks and the Byzantine Empire).
If you liked the whole Crusade aspect of the main game, this is the expansion for you. It’s basically giving you a chance to face off with much stronger units than you’d normally have in an early game. Personally I find it the least ambitious of the four campaigns – 3 factions are basically the same as in the main game, so you’ll probably want to stick with the Crusader states unless you really loved playing as Egypt, Byzantium or the Turks (my personal favourite).
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Teutonic Campaign: (Factions include the Teutonic Order, Lithuania, Denmark and Novgorod [Russia], with Poland and the HRE unlockable)
The Best of the bunch, the Teutonic campaign gives you two very different new factions (fans of Heavy Infantry/Heavy Cavalry will love the Teutonic Order, while the more simplistic armies of pagan Lithuania may provide a decent challenge to those who found the main game easy). Denmark are really fun to play as here, as they start from a much stronger position than in Britannia or the main game, and can really carve into the HRE and Poland before testing themselves against the Teutonic Order. Similarly, Russia (Novgorod) start off much stronger but lack the easy early expansion they had in the main game. Like the Britannia campaign, there’s something for everyone here.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Overall, if you’re any kind of PC gamer who likes strategy/military games, Medieval 2 is still a must have. Its far more accessible than the most recent total war games and more refined than predecessors Shogun, Medieval or Rome, and thus strikes the best balance between good gameplay and accessibility. Even better, you don’t need a good gaming PC to run this, whereas good-luck getting Warhammer 2: Total War to run properly on average PC’s. Medieval 2 is probably my favourite PC game of all-time, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. And if you ever get bored with it (or Rome Total War for that matter) you can always mod the hell out of them.