People who play wargames want detail. They want to see the type of sword a guy is wielding; they want the man to be part of a formation that serves the tactical purpose it was intended for. His toga or tunic should flap in the stormy weather, which in turn should influence the archer units accuracy. A spear unit should cause mayhem to a cavalry squad and yet be cut to ribbons by a heavy hitting infantry unit. And it had all better be historically accurate.
But in the wargamer’s mind that's still not enough. They also want scope. Bucket-loads of the stuff.
This is all taken for granted nowadays thanks to the Total War franchise. But this time the Medieval 2 developers, Creative Assembly, have taken the wargame benchmark and simply put it in their pocket. Thats where it will probably stay until their next outing, Empire: Total War.
Here's why: Consider taking the role of a general, having thousands of men, from all over the world, battle on a mountainous landscape, with weather and time of day affecting your tactics. Once you have finished your epic battle you get to see how it has changed your political liaisons across medieval Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. Your generals can even gain personality and skill, which makes you stop to consider, who’s the right man for the job?
As well as carving up the known world with the hope of discovering and invading the Americas, you balance the religious backbone of your empire, which can help form unity through your lands. Keep the Pope onside and he will bestow his favour upon you, upset him and feel the wrath of the Pope-loving nations as they close around you. If this proves to be too big a problem, maybe it's time to do a bit of dealing and get your own guy in line for Popehood. This is wargaming, and it is properly huge.
The vague goal is to claim rulership of everything you can see on the massive map. And here comes the 'moan'.
I've never done this. I have never 'won'. Not because I haven't the political ingenuity (I assure you, I am cunning as a fox), and not because I lack military foresight, (for I am first to retreat, even before a fight), but because I don't have the patience to play any game for this long. You see, the end game just becomes too sluggish. Things beyond your control rise up to cause annoyance. For example, when pushing to complete the game, you will be juggling the finer points of regional tax. Don't get me wrong, I love spreadsheets, and it has to be done to afford your front line troops, which is what large scale war is all about; but then on your next turn an almost random revolt a million miles away overthrows a who-cares-about city and you have to back-pedal, costing you a multitude of extra play hours.
In my opinion this sort of thing has plagued the Total War franchise since conception. Even going back to Shogun: Total War, you would find that once available, the enemy Geisha units would spew forth across the map making it nearly impossible to win, despite complete superiority. These sorts of problems would actually be welcomed if they added an extra layer to the game but they simply hinder and prolong what should be a foregone conclusion.
But moan aside, you can’t forget looking down over the rolling hills of Southern France, your catapults ominously lined up, courtesy of the pinpoint accurate, easy to use, battle interface. A short distance away your armoured knights restlessly stomp the ground, archers and your fellow clansmen prepare for your orders, a smile will cross your lips and you won't be able to help but admire the superb unit modelling. This game lets you believe you are a Prince among men, and sprinkles the turn-based map with the obligatory skulduggery that goes hand in hand with rulership.
Despite the AI still needing some work to match the ingenuity or randomness of a human mind, it still does a reasonable job. The game also brings together RTS and Turn-Based Strategy marvellously. Now, in my opinion, erecting buildings should take months, if not years, and that is why the Medieval 2 campaign map takes a turn based approach. The battles on the other hand are played through in real time. When you march an army to attack another army on the turn based world map, the battle camera zooms in to an accurate representation of the region and the real time battle begins. For those that like to ponder over their strategy, you will be pleased to hear that you can still pause the game while giving orders to your various blocks of units.
This game is conceptually one of my favourite games of all time. If you ever try telling a friend how you are getting on with a particular campaign, it very quickly sounds like a piece straight out of the history books. But it still misses the mark. For me, it needs the personal touch to make it my perfect strategy game: I want to feel like I am really involved. I want to promote units that have fought their way through hell and back on my command. I want Generals, who I've gathered, to form strategies and offer opinions. I want to sit on my throne, in my great capital and see a noble's fear as he tries to court my favour. I want to be King!