Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Medieval II: Total War Review

Medieval II: Total War, developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega.
The Good: Large and chaotic battles, issued quests are neat, improved graphics and excellent sound
The Not So Good: 99% recycled material, strategic mode is uninteresting and unavailable in multiplayer, inferior performance due to enhanced graphics, limited to just five controllable sides in campaign, units sporadically follow orders
What say you? A flashy title identical to the others in the series: 5/8

Since the year 2000, the Total War series has combined grand strategy with tactical battles spanning from Feudal Japan through Rome to the Middle Ages. The series has prided itself on epic, large-scale battles tied together with Risk-like unit production and maneuvering. Medieval II: Total War takes us back to the setting of the second game in the series: Europe in the Dark Ages. Will this next entry in the series get medieval on your ass? Sorry, someone had to say it.

Medieval II: Total War amps up the graphics from previous offerings and shows Europe in all its 3-D glory. All of the graphics are top-of-the-line. The units are extremely detailed, the landscapes look very realistic, and the overall game does an excellent job of portraying a violent part of human history. This includes both the real time battles and the strategic map, which looks very nice and is probably the best looking map I’ve seen for any game to date. Of course, you need a really hefty machine to run the game at any speed above molasses: my six month old computer can barely run the game at 1024x768 and medium settings, let alone at the suggested 1280x1024 resolution for my monitor. This is quite disheartening: even if you scale down the graphics, Medieval II: Total War is an extreme resource hog, making it impossible to smoothly render any large battles (which is the point of any Total War game). I was hoping that the game performance would be improved from the demo, but it is not. There’s something to be said for making a great-looking game, but what’s the point if nobody can run it? I would much rather have smooth, 2-D sprites (like Medieval: Total War) than an intermittent slideshow of 3-D effects. Less computer intensive but equally impressive is the sound, which includes appropriate battle noises and good, period appropriate background music. Still, it appears that Medieval II: Total War was designed to make your computer feel inadequate, and the game certainly does a good job at this.

I’m not quite sure why the developers chose to repeat a time period they had already done when there are many more to choose from throughout history (1950’s New Jersey, for example). But, I was interested in seeing how many changes they made from the original game, other than just graphical enhancements. Loading up the tutorial, I noticed that it is exactly the same as Medieval: Total War. Well, this isn’t a good sign. If they can’t even come up with a new tutorial, how will the rest of the game be any different (short answer: it’s not)? You still can’t play the strategic mode in multiplayer: you are limited to just real-time battles. You can play historical and custom battles, but there are only a handful of each and most people will just ignore them. Instead, you’ll probably spend most of your time in the grand campaign. You can take control of one of five nations (small in comparison to the 200 nations in Europa Universalis III) and lead them to complete either short or long term goals, which usually involves eliminating a specific country from the map. The strategic campaign is exactly the same as before, and essentially boils down to a slightly more complicated version of Risk. Build units, move characters around the map, conduct diplomacy: it’s all the same as before. There are a good number of units present in the game, including light infantry, heavy infantry, spearmen, missiles, light cavalry, heavy cavalry, missile cavalry, artillery, and boats. Each of these has a specific role and a specific counter, so you can exploit your opponent’s weaknesses. You can also choose each settlement to be a city, which is driven by income, or a castle, which is driven by military defense. There are some interesting side missions that you may get issued during the game which varies the gameplay somewhat, but most of the time you’ll be moving armies and storming castles. Religious elements in the game are somewhat interesting, but they are usually mission-related and don’t affect the gameplay as much as they should, considering how important religion was back then. The user interface used in the strategic mode is also poor: the game makes it difficult to locate friendly units and provinces and information on-screen is sparse and superficial. You must also watch all the AI moves in real time or not at all; you can speed it up by clicking, but there should be an option to show the moves faster. Since you’re playing against 10-15 different AI forces at any one time, this can get annoying quickly. Turn resolution takes too long as it is anyway; I’m used to the instantaneous turns or real-time play seen in much more complicated games like Europa Universalis III, Forge of Freedom, or Birth of America. Speaking of those games, you can’t compare the relatively shallow strategic campaign of Medieval II: Total War to any of those titles, but Medieval II: Total War will sure appeal to more people with its simplistic gameplay and pretty graphics.

Like the grand campaign, the battles are the same as before: large groups of units face off against each other and then turn into a gigantic blob of swords and horses. You are given all of these options for orders and formations, but the second that a unit starts engaging in battle, all of that organization goes out the window. Units will also routinely ignore or mess up orders: I’m not sure if this is intentional or not. You can flank enemy troops, but the battles usually devolve into a giant mass of people anyway; there is also no help from the questionable AI that doesn’t really follow orders very well or moves to strange locations when it does choose to follow orders. The best way of winning a battle is to kill the enemy general, which results in a guaranteed victory. Maybe I’m playing the game wrong, but like the campaign mode, the battles lack any real strategy other than keep archers back, send in cavalry, and the like. It’s all very simple, and while the game was unique and innovative six years ago, it’s just a stale rehash of old ideas today.

Medieval II: Total War is the same as the original game but performs much worse. In fact, it almost feels like an EA Sports game, repeating the same stuff over and over again. There are no striking changes in gameplay at all from Medieval: Total War, unlike the notable improvements made from Europa Universalis II to Europa Universalis III. I am just not impressed at all with this game; I’ve already played a much smoother version of this game and it was called Medieval: Total War. Medieval II: Total War lacks the overall strategy of other grand strategy games, but it adds in real-time battles, which almost (but does not) balance it out. They are decent, but we’ve seen this countless (well, three) times before. It’s almost insulting that the developers would think that just upgrading the graphics warrants a $50 price tag. I prefer a different gaming experience instead of a carbon copy of a four year old game: Forge of Freedom offers an innovative mix of grand strategy and tactical battles, unlike Medieval II: Total War’s retread of everything done in previous titles. To make a viable, interesting game, you can’t just add better graphics and call it a day; you must add at least something new to the game’s mechanics, and Medieval II: Total War does not.