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Medieval: Total War

Total War

This is an age of darkness…a world of fear, power…and death…but a few forge their destiny……Medieval…Total War

We all played with toy knights in shining armour when we were little, but the real thing was far from glamorous. Behind the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood and co. lie one of the most brutal eras of combat ever seen by man. Millions of men fought side by side in bloody battles which left thousands killed, wounded or homeless. The Middle Ages saw the emergence of the modern world through a time of brutal conflict and social upheaval. It was a time when Kings took and held their thrones by the power of the sword; when a Pope could grant forgiveness of all sins for killing the Church’s enemies as brutally as possible. Knights and their ladies practiced courtly love and when they had children, they were married off in dynastic and territorial treaties. Sometimes there was more than one Pope, each claiming to be the true leader of the Church, all wielding their own section of the ‘true cross’. Plague – the terrible Black Death – killed around a third the whole population of Europe, whilst heretics and witches were burned by the thousand out of pure fear. The Mongol hordes lurked to the East and heroes like Joan of Arc and Robin Hood passed from reality to myth and back again. Everyone sensible knew that the Sun went round the Earth and anyone who didn’t was promptly burnt to a crisp. Warfare itself was on the eve of a great change – the widespread use of gunpowder. This is no time for the faint hearted. This is total war.

Campaign mode is the heart of Medieval Total War and allows you to command one of twelve factions between 1087 and 1453. You can start your bid for European domination in three periods; Early, High or Late which start at 1087, 1205 and 1321 respectively. Each period has a different distribution of land, technology, forces, money and overall power. In each case, the game ends at 1453 and that’s when your achievements are judged. If you start in Early, you have more time but simplistic forces, while the Late period gives you many more units, but only a fraction of the time in which to win. Campaign mode is played out on a large map by moving units from region to region, just like in the board game Risk. However, instead of rolling die to decide the victor of engagements, you enter Battle mode where you personally direct your forces.

There’s more to just moving men around the Campaign map though. Forts, castles, citadels and ultimately mighty fortresses can be built in each province, where troops can be trained and your region defended. Other buildings such as churches, military academies and siege engineers can also be built to widen your construction and troop options. Provinces also have their own income, trade routes, resources and loyalty to be managed, but fortunately much of this can be automated. Generals rise from the ranks and gain promotions while your sons are groomed to take your place and your daughters are married off to distant lands. Medieval Total War will let you get involved to any degree you want; allowing battle hungry generals to get straight into combat, while letting more patient and strategic gamers work through in more depth.

As you sweep from province to province, you’ll inevitably come across people who aren’t too happy with what you’re doing. Huge battles of up to approximately 10,000 men ensue and the victor takes the province. Battle mode is not merely a tacked-on feature though; this is the real thing. Viewing your forces from above in a 3rd person perspective, you can move the camera wherever you please – unless you set it to limit your vision according to troop line-of-sight. Using just the mouse, you can move your troops around, group them together, attack enemies, rout or rally them, reinforce your line, change formations, halt them and set tactical preferences. Medieval Total War allows you absolute tactical freedom while keeping the interface perfectly streamlined and simple.

The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft’ astray – Robert Burns

No matter how much time you’ve put into assembling your battle plan, as soon as you engage with the enemy the battlefield turns into chaos. Just like in real combat, generals have to keep track of friendly and enemy units, fighting the individual battles while keeping an overall picture of the situation in mind. The pause function becomes an invaluable tool, allowing you to stop and survey the carnage unfolding beneath you. Battles are not simply one-off unit-to-unit engagements; you will need to halt and regroup your forces frequently and stop them from chasing down every last enemy on the field. As a historical simulation, Medieval Total War is quite convincing in its battle mechanics and tactical sophistication.

Anyone who has a basic knowledge of medieval warfare knows that units vary in their strengths and weaknesses, so positioning your troops relative to each other in supporting roles is vital. Archers, siege engines and crossbowmen provide excellent fire support, but are no good in direct combat. Ordinary foot soldiers are excellent warriors, but can only get to grips with the enemy close-up, whilst cavalry can take full advantage of their mobility. Sending any old unit into the nearest enemy one won’t win you any battles, so careful timing and use of your forces is crucial. Terrain is also important and has to be used wisely to ensure victory. Racing up to high ground and defending it stubbornly will have your enemy running away in minutes, but let them get there first and you’ll have a real fight on your hands.

Around a third of all battles involve castle sieges, and these are played out in the same way as any other battle. The defenders are positioned inside the walls of their fort in regular formations which the walls and towers of the fortification shoot arrows and boulders down at the attackers. The assaulting army have to breach the walls of the fort to get at the enemy, and this is done by storming the gatehouse or using a siege engine to demolish sections of the wall. Unfortunately, there are no specific vehicles which allow your troops to scale the walls or batter down doors. Nor are there any castle moats, drawbridges or anything else usually associated with castles. The fortress assaults are slightly disappointing in their simplicity, but still fun. Maybe next time we’ll get a more comprehensive model.

Far too many games fall apart when it comes to A.I., but not here. Medieval Total War has several difficulty settings, but unlike most games, the A.I. stays relatively the same at all levels. Instead of simply lowering the enemy forces’ intelligence, it decreases their morale and battle prowess. Even on the Easy setting, your opponent will react quickly and intelligently in combat, reinforcing their lines and attempting to flank you. The A.I. understands the importance of unit structure, terrain and tactics, making the gameplay challenging and rewarding.

While the Campaign mode is relatively interesting, there’s no doubt that battles are the core element of the game and the most enjoyable part of it. The moment when it all kicks off is an exhilarating one, your heart pounding as you try to keep track of yours and your enemy’s movements. One minute it may look like disaster is looming for your forces, the next it will be your opponent’s turn. The gameplay is also highly rewarding, another key reason why it’s such good fun; seeing your cavalry charge down from their ambush point to slaughter the fleeing enemy infantry is satisfying to say the least.

Both modes will seem daunting at first, but thankfully the developers have included a lengthy tutorial to ease you into the game. The Battle tutorials go through every conceivable aspect of combat, from basic selection and movement right up to castle sieges and army grouping. The Campaign tutorial is less comprehensive, but still concise and useful. Even if you’re a veteran of Shogun Total War, I’d still recommend spending an hour or so going through the tutorials one by one when you first get the game, as they’re invaluable.

Medieval Total War isn’t all about Campaign mode though. There’s Quick Battle which randomly selects forces and terrain, Custom Battle which allows you to select units and battlefields, Historic Battles which lets you fight a number of – you guessed it – historic battles. Historic Campaigns is just a series of battles linked together by history, View Replays lets you watch previously saved battles unfold again (great for showing off) and the Map Editor is a user friendly tool allowing you to make your own battlefields. On top of that lot, there’s Multiplayer which includes an eight player LAN option and four player online play using Gamespy’s Arcade software. Multiplayer adds a whole new dimension to play; facing off against real people is a new challenge and even more rewarding when you send them fleeing from the field. There’s so much to do in Medieval Total War that it’s hard not to come back and play more. The sheer number of modes and variety of gameplay should keep most gamers busy for months.

Graphically, it’s been tailored so that it’s open to those who have a high and low end graphics card. Resolution of the Battle and Campaign views can be changed independently, both up to very high levels and smoke and active fauna can be disabled if needed. The unit size is really the biggest factor that affects your PC’s performance, and this can be set from Small to Huge. Lowering it takes away the epic proportion of battles, but doesn’t degrade the actual combat at all. If your PC can handle it, then I’d recommend putting it all the way up – you’ll be in for a treat. Battles do look great, it has to be said. The terrain and units are both relatively detailed, with smoke rising from the ground, arrows arcing through the air and cannon balls bouncing through lines of enemy soldiers. Men move around realistically and fight one-on-one battles with the enemy. The animations are limited when compared to other genres, but for a strategy game, they’re quite good. Another notable element is that every single soldier is present – a 200 man force will show 200 men on screen – and each casualty is kept on the battlefield until the action is over, letting you see just how much carnage you’ve unleashed. The few buildings that are dotted around the battlefield are well rendered although rarely get caught in the fight. Castles are all made up of Lego like blocks including various walls, towers and gatehouses, each reasonably detailed and textured. Notably, I saw no graphical glitches at all and the collision detection was perfect all the time. The Campaign map is beautifully detailed, looking like a painted medieval map of the world, complete with little mountains and forests dotted around. Medieval Total War‘s visuals could obviously do with improving in the detail department, but as far as performance, textures and animations go, you can’t fault it.

The audio is equally impressive. The musical score emphasizes the epic nature of battles and sounds historically authentic while remaining varied enough to avoid repetitiveness. The tempo of the music increases as you get nearer to the enemy and goes into a full orchestral tour de force when you engage them. The effects are also very good, with units shouting war cries as they charge in, sounding just like us arguing over scores. It’s also directional, so users of surround sound or a good sound card will be rewarded. As far as audio goes, music doesn’t get much better than this and the sound effects aren’t too shabby either. Instead of being annoying to the point where you mute it, it enhances the whole experience in a way that captures the essence of medieval warfare.

Medieval Total War is an outstanding game. The gameplay is varied, challenging and complex while giving absolute tactical freedom to commanders. It rewards logical thinking and appreciation of terrain and unit characteristics, but doesn’t alienate those who aren’t seasoned strategy gamers. Battles and Campaigns are challenging, but do not frustrate in a way that make other games unplayable. The replay value is excellent and will keep dedicated gamers occupied for months, whilst allowing combat fans to dip in and out when they like. The graphics go beyond the call of duty and the audio complements the action superbly. It’s accessible to all, from history buffs to the casual gamer, allowing you to go as deep into the experience as you wish. It captures the spirit of medieval warfare like no other game does and excels in every department. I can say in confidence that Medieval Total War is undoubtedly one of the best war games ever.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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