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by Activision

Medieval: Total War defines the difference between casual and hard-core gaming. People who are looking for a quick in and out game, those who spend the majority of their gaming day playing Monopoly on Yahoo!, won’t want to turn to Total War’s latest release unless they’re looking for a change. Stuffed so full of intricate details that it’s near bursting with historical flavor, the game offers a level of complexity that is almost unheard of, nearly to the point of flaw. How detailed? I did a rough word-count of the manual and came up with around 10,000 words. That’s about an eighth of the length of the average novel, just covering the details of the game. Filled with literally over a hundred types of units, detailed historical descriptions of each of the European factions over a 400-year time period, and complex tactical battles, Medieval could drive the most historically oriented into breakdown. In other words, it’s a great game; built with extraordinary care, it’s probably the most detailed and playable warfare simulation on the market. While certainly not for everyone (I wasn’t kidding about the overload; I’ve seen grown men -- manly men -- crumble to the floor weeping after only a few minutes with games less complicated) it’s one of the few games that can neatly claim to be a strategy game or a tactical game interchangeably. And best of all, you can adjust the complexity, assigning more or less control of micromanaged tasks to the computer. With a little bit of practice and a quick jaunt through the tutorial, you’ll be cruising through Medieval in a form about as simple as Risk, or as complicated as… well, the political intrigue of the Middle-Ages.

Medieval is not the first in the Total War series. It actually follows in the footsteps of the highly praised Shogun: Total War, which was released about two years ago. It was a complicated game, focusing on the mass warfare of historical Japan – often with hundreds of troops on the battlefield at once – that was hailed for its realistic portrayal of the elements that affect battles, and its mixing of strategic and tactical elements. Medieval deserves all the same praise, and is very similar to Shogun, to the point of using the same 3D graphics engine as they did in the original game, though with some changes. Medieval is divided into two halves: the strategic and the tactical. Strategically, Medieval: Total War looks and feels like a very complicated form of Risk, complete with turn based movements. In this part of the game, you are looking down upon a map of the world, and little figurines represent the locations and sizes of your and your enemy’s various armies. Here you’ll find a tremendous amount of complexity, both from the perspective of resource management and political planning. You can assign spies and assassins to various tasks, or marry off your daughters and royal blood to solidify alliances with neighboring allies. You can also declare wars, and micro-manage the development of your countries. As you take over more and more areas on the map, you’ll also have to deal with territory morale and loyalty, city building, and religious factors. Your captured cities produce the units of your armies, providing that you build the right type of training facilities to do

The result is that you end up juggling a number of details simultaneously. Loyalties are dictated by a variety of factors, including which general you assign to overlook a region, and how his religion compares to that of the local population. With only a few cities, you’ll quickly be inundated with the task of assigning building resources (a thousand little pop-up windows per turn), but fear not: part of the beauty of the game is the ability to adjust your level of management detail. Don’t want to worry about assigning generals? Then don’t. Let the computer handle it. Same with the building of units and development of cities -- in fact, nearly everything. If you care little about the details of running a thriving government, hand it over to your CPU and focus instead on the tactical battles. Alternatively, if you care little about being a general, you can choose to have the computer automatically resolve conflicts. The entire game can be strongly tailored to your tastes, to the point of never even seeing an enemy unit graphically represented on the field of combat.

While the political and strategic elements of Medieval are appealing nearly as a game unto themselves (I spent most of my time here – but then, I used to play games like Risk obsessively), it would be incredibly dense without the tactical side of things. Every time you collide with another army in the map room, you can choose to personally command your soldiers in battle. Doing so often leads to fewer casualties, as a good general can turn a losing battle facing depressing odds into a resounding victory with a little clever thinking and skillful planning. Tactical battles are fought from the perspective of a free flying aerial camera that hovers above your troops and has a range limited to what your men can see (though that setting can be turned off). The complexity of the tactical battles is different than that found in the strategic Risk-like micromanagement. Where in the map-room you spend a great deal of time dealing with individual settings – who shall invade whom, what unit will what city build – those sorts of details are handled automatically during actual combat. Instead, the details appear in the outcomes. Troops standing on a hill are in a better fighting position than those at the bottom. Cavalry charging pike men will be less successful than those charging foot infantry. The composition of your army is directly related to how you make them up in the map room. If you had two units of Cavalry, and combined them with a unit of foot soldiers, guess what you’ll have when you go into battle? The box claims that you can have up to 10,000 men on the field at one time, and while I can’t attest to that many specifically (I never quite counted) I can tell you that the visual appeal of watching hundreds of troops marching across the battlefield to pounding music is more than capable of getting the blood flowing through your veins.

The audio score is magnificent. Well, very good, at least. The artists obviously tried to create music that fit well with the atmosphere of the game. Battles are fought to the beat of pounding drums and the impassioned cries ofsoldiers, accompanied by the stomping of horse hoofs and the rattling of armor. In actuality, one of the game’s strong points has to do with its feel, that dead-on accuracy with which they portray the medieval environment:  the opening graphics, the slow shadowy figures that move silently behind your menu options before starting a game. The elements flow together really well.

Of course, there are several drawbacks to Medieval, but there are relatively few annoying ones for a game of this complexity. For example, in the combat simulations, the left and right arrows pivot your camera, like looking straight out and turning in a circle. I would have much preferred a Myth style camera instead, where the left and right arrow keys instead swivel you around an object. Repositioning your camera so that you can see your troops better can be difficult, as you have to lose sight of your troops for a moment in the process of backing up, realigning, and zooming in again. When it boils right down to it, this isn’t a huge deal; I managed my troops pretty well regardless.

Additionally, the game considers regrouping to be a retreat. There was one time where half my army was routed; they started fleeing a field we were easily winning just because they felt I was retreating too often. This came about when I selected all my troops and assigned them a central gathering spot, calling them off the fleeing enemy they were chasing, and – as far as the computer was concerned -- retreating. It was rather annoying to have a healthy, winning army turning tail when all you wanted was for them to regroup two hundred feet away. This only happened once, and I still won (though I lost points on my score…grrrr).

The only significant complaint I have (and it’s not that significant when compared to some other games) deals with the political elements of the game. Through the battle map you can judge an enemy’s strengths, weaknesses, alliances, and land ownership. This is a very important element of the game. I don’t want to form an alliance with a weak monarch with lots of land I might want to take from him. The problem comes when someone offers you an alliance. Say a Spanish emissary comes and offers a treaty. An image pops up, and the screen locks. Until you accept or decline that offer, you can do nothing. This means you can’t look around to see how many armies he has on your borders; you can’t judge his military strength, or the position of his country on the map. Unless you memorized all of this information about the thirteen countries that you haven’t yet absorbed, alliances become a bit of a guessing game. In a game this complicated, where the fates of nations hang on such decisions, this shouldn’t be an issue. Aside from that, the complaints fall into the annoying category, like the fact that the "destroy" button when looking at your buildings is where most people would assume the OK button is. These are problems, they’re there, and you can’t deny them, but they don’t really interfere with the game. After you identify and get used to them, they pretty much disappear from sight. Sure, it would have been nice to have clearer color distinctions between countries on the political map, but I’ll live with the tiny line that’s currently there.

The game also includes a map editor. This is a feature that’s relatively easy to use, and lets you put together your own battlefields in which to crush your best friend. This little added feature is a nice touch. It just goes to show that there’s more in this box than you’d expect. With massive single player battles, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have 8 players on the field at once.

Overall, with the level of detail and complexity that this game is capable of encompassing, it’s amazing that there aren’t more complicated errors. The fact that almost anyone can sit down and learn Medieval: Total War, complications and all, without too much difficulty says something good about the quality of the game. The adjustability and overall feel are very well done--products of hard work and attention to detail both in the user interface and design. While capable of overloading the player with information, Medieval: Total War is still fun, engrossing, and willing to scale itself back for the average user. And for those non-average users? You won’t find a game that strives harder to match your desire for detail, your demand for depth. Don’t be afraid to don some armor; it’s a rewarding experience.

Aaron Stanton   (09/27/2002)


Ups: Incredible level of detail; great customization; nice ambiance; definitely satisfies the hardcore strategy and tactical fans.

Downs: Probably too complicated for casual gamers; some minor gameplay and interface issues.

Platform: PC