Medieval: Total War Review (PC)

If you enjoyed Shogun: Total War, don’t bother reading the rest of this - just buy the game - you won’t be disappointed. If you are new to the Total War games, read on.

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This game differs from most of the genre in that it is 2 games in one, you have the ‘main’ strategy element where you move your armies around & attempt to conquer new territories (just like the old board game, Risk), and, when attacking or defending any territories, you get to access the superb battle mode & command your army to glorious victory (or ignominious defeat). This is by no means a ‘quick’ game - time needs to be taken deciding just what is the best way to go (and don’t forget those game saves for when you get it all wrong). The micro management required each turn also takes some time (you can automate a lot of it but that does detract from the game a bit). The game comes with a nice manual and user friendly tutorial that will get you deep into the Total War world within a few minutes. The graphics for the battles are stunning, color pitch is set just right & everything looks ‘natural’ with birds flying around etc. The sounds are perfectly suited, with the screams of victory or pain, the steady tramp of marching feet & loud battle cries as well as the excited ‘voice over man’ who takes great delight in informing you of the battle situation at various stages. Each army can contain 16 units with 100 men in each unit, so it is quite possible to have upwards of 3k individual troops running around your screen (and, with very little evidence of ‘slowdown’ even on my old P500). There is also the option to save each battle so you can rerun them later & enjoy the smooth actions all over again. I can virtually guarantee that your jaw will be dropped after playing the 1st ‘good’ battle & enjoying the smooth movement as your units wheel & turn in response to your commands.

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Controls for the battles at first seem daunting, but after a couple of tries your units will be doing exactly what you want them to with the minimum of fuss. You can number individual units or groups and access them with a single mouse click to change formations, directions, speed etc. or select new targets. Surviving units all gain experience and you can soon have some nice elite troops that are generally ‘hard as nails’ that you can send in to deal with any particularly bothersome enemy unit. One slight glitch is that any unit appears to be easily distracted by any other enemy unit that is within range - I spent ages setting up an elite force of Royal Knights to specifically target the enemy general only to watch them massacre the 1st unit they came across & then just sit around while the battle raged - they seemed to totally forget their original orders? Mind you, that can also be used to your advantage to tame any nasty looking enemy forces - just stick some peasants near them which will buy you some time to counter them properly. Your mobile missile troops will always try & remain at ‘best’ range of their target, advancing or withdrawing as necessary to keep the rain of arrows continuous - until they run out of ammo when they are about as much use as a Barbie doll. Be aware that your artillery units (from ballista's upward) are totally immobile & will need protection. Also, they lose effectiveness as their crews get killed (it takes longer to load) and they will need ‘retraining’ at a suitable workshop to increase the crew number back to the max (no magical respawning here folks) When fighting a defensive battle, you get the option to place each of your units within the ‘drop zone’ to gain the best advantage from the terrain (always take the high ground general) and also to group some units for ease of control (3 units of archers drops a hell of a lot of arrows on enemy heads). You can set up ambushes by hiding troops in the woods or behind hills and leaving some cannon fodder out in the open to draw the attack. Each battle has a time limit - reach that limit & the defender wins. But delaying can work in your favor occasionally. Attacking armies can have their units grouped etc & can choose an overall army formation, but, apart from artillery, the units come ‘ready placed’. You also get the option to choose when to fight the battle (weather conditions can play a big part - archers with wet bow lines are not much use to anyone) Once the battle starts however, the outcome is firmly in your hands - attack with the wrong units & watch their number drop till they rout from the field - get it right though & watch those enemy run away. Once the ‘enemy flees the battlefield’ you can increase the time compression to get a Benny Hill type ending with people running all over the place at high speed - most entertaining.

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The strategy screen can seem a bit cluttered, with icons of all your forces, emissaries, priests etc all located in the relevant territories, but you can quickly see any weak spots that might need a bit of investigation. Here is where you draw up your grand plan for domination (if that is your aim - you don’t HAVE to dominate to win), forge alliances, marry off all your daughters and generally do everything else that is not contained within the battle phase. You can create specialized units like assassins, spies & emissaries, as well as the individual military units that go to make up each army. Use your assassin to try to kill an enemy general, emissary or even king to gain an initial advantage (but where are those lovely cut scenes from Shogun: Total War?? They seem to have been replaced by a grotty old picture and sounds of torture - most disappointing). All of your generals can be accessed to see just how good/bad they are (as can any of your opponents if you have a spy with them) and honors can be bestowed as you feel fit to try and improve (or destroy) their individual characteristics and loyalty. Naval units can also (must also really) be built to defend sea-lanes / trade routes and although they cannot be used in any land operations (no coastal bombardments etc) they are very handy for blockading opponents to prevent them trading & more importantly stopping them from transporting their armies by sea. Each territory is unique and needs developing individually to get the best out of it (certain territories produce better troops with bonuses etc) and woe betide you if not enough attention is paid to maintaining a defense force. Right clicking on a territory shows you how much income you can get from it (can be increased by taxation & farm development) as well as how content/loyal the populace is. It will also show any ‘specials’ applicable which helps you decide just what to build in that region. The Euro of the time is the Florin, and you need lots of these as armies are expensive things to run, so getting a good stable economy going is a must.

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Having decided upon your next territorial gain, check out the opposition by sending a spy or princess into the region, try & kill the commanding general to reduce the army morale a bit, then, when all is ready, it is simply a matter of dropping 1 or more army icons from adjacent regions onto the area to initiate the invasion. You then have the option of commanding the troops yourself (the most fun) or letting the computer work out the results - a word of warning here, the computer seems to work on numbers only and you can easily lose where you should have been able to walk all over the opposition. Never, repeat never, allow it to work out the results if there is a river crossing involved as your losses will be horrendous. Having beaten the opposition army, you can then ‘drop’ your army on the fort icon to attempt to storm the castle - this is where you can have fun with your catapults, trebuchets etc. You also have the opportunity to fight the major battles from historic campaigns to see if you could change the outcome. This makes a nice break from the main game as well as giving you a history lesson. I have lost count of the amount of times I have fought Agincourt but I still lose every time - I blame it on the booze.

Overall, this game is top class - a good successor to Shogun although there do not seem to be any major improvements. Die hard battle freaks might bemoan the fact that you only control 16 units within each battle which reduces the amount of tactics that can be used, but when it comes down to it, medieval battles were more about numbers & slaughter than strategical finesse and that’s what this game delivers.

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