In the world of sequels, few have been as revolutionary as Rome: Total War, a game which, with its ranks of meticulous, individually defined, Roman infantry – staggeringly intricate – and a far cry from the fuzzy, unresolved masses of the first medieval addition, forever redefined the Total War series. It may be expecting too much of Creative assembly therefore, to produce a follow up quite so dramatic, but even so, at first glance it is difficult not to feel a tad disappointed with Medieval II: Total War, which appears to merely apply the Rome format to a medieval setting, with superficial rather than ground breaking innovations.
When the player first navigates round the campaign map it is clear that not a great deal has changed since the days of Rome. There is the odd helpful modification, like being able to recruit more than one unit per turn from a settlement - which speeds up the mobilization of a large army – but overall, it has to be said that the new features are mostly uninspiring. The game booklet talks up the introduction of traders and clergymen as though they somehow add a whole new dimension to campaigning, but in reality; their presence is less a novelty than it is a nuisance.
It all gets a bit tedious when, in midst of world domination and fighting on four fronts, the player is continually harassed turn after turn as merchant’s assets are seized and more and more clergymen are needed to denounce stubborn heretics. In some ways, it seems like these new features are only there to give Creative Assembly a bit more currency when marketing the game instead of adding any new depth or complexity to it.
However, although the campaign map is fundamentally the same, when the player moves on to the battle field there are many positives, which, even though they are quite subtle, serve only to heighten the aspects of Rome which made it such a great success in the first place. For example, when the player scans over their units as they are lined up in full war array with banners flying, it is great to see how the designers have made the individual soldiers more inconsistent – no longer like a clone army - with some holding slightly different shields, some wearing different armour and a few with visors partially open. This gives the units real character aesthetically, and is nicely complimented by their new feeling of fluidity as they begin manoeuvring and fighting. The cavalry authentically reform when changing direction, and when opposing armies clash, the troops disperse and combine realistically, without the rigidness of the units in Rome. The designers have even introduced one on one fight sequences in an attempt to gloss over the way troops randomly swipe at each other when fighting on mass.
The greatest achievement however is with regard to the new units, particularly longbows and gunpowder troops, which are an excellent addition to the battle field. The cannon fire and musket mussel flashes are absolutely superb graphically, and the fact that the player can now unleash the cream of the medieval arsenal onto the horseless, hopelessly vulnerable, natives of the new world, is a feature as satisfying as it is sadistic.
Ultimately, the Rome: Total War format will always be a winner and the series will undoubtedly, like the board game Risk, transcend into legendary status as one of the most seminal strategy games of all time. Medieval II changes nothing fundamental in terms of graphics and game play to the Rome format, it merely refines it. New concepts are kept to a minimum while the new content gives the player everything they could possible want for all out medieval warfare. The game does not need to tamper with the original framework of Rome for it to be an undeniable triumph - irresistible to any fan of the total war saga - and a strategy game all others should aspire to.