In a way, Kingdoms is one of the most counter-intuitive expansion packs I've ever come across. The fact that it's also one of the best is not entirely unconnected.
Let me explain. A major part of the appeal of Medieval 2 - and indeed of the whole Total War series - is its epic quality. Here is a game where you can decide the fate of Europe's biggest nations at some of the most vital points in their history, and fight wars that range across and beyond the continent itself. Covering economics, religion, diplomacy and military might, it's one of the most comprehensive historical strategy games around. You don't really get much bigger!
So it might seem strange that, while an ordinary expansion pack would simply make the game bigger still or extend it into a new era, Kingdoms actually represents a reduction in scale. It's as if The Creative Assembly had decided to take a magnifying glass to the Medieval 2 map and concentrate on specific areas and specific points in history. We do get some new areas - specifically the Americas and an expanded Holy Land - but Kingdoms is all about taking things down a little, and getting stuck in a smaller campaign fought over a shorter period with fewer combatants and clearer, more straightforward goals.
Don't get too hopeful if you found Medieval 2 a little overwhelming at times; while Kingdoms is a little more approachable, the reduction in scale is accompanied by a rise in detail. Even if you're dealing with one small island group - the British Isles - you still have a lot of cities, armies and personalities to deal with. In other words, the rich, ocean-deep gameplay of Medieval 2 is intact. If Medieval 2 was all about the big, sweeping picture - the headlines of the middle ages News at Ten - then this is the in-depth analysis; the game where you really get to grips with the workings of history. What's more, the campaigns chosen have given The Creative Assembly scope to experiment with new styles of play and new challenges. And this is the key point in Kingdoms' favour. Most expansion packs give you one new twist on the original experience. Kingdoms gives you four.
First up, Britain, 1258. The English under Henry III are in charge, but they've spread themselves too thin and the Welsh, Irish and Scots are beginning to hate their guts. In the meantime, the Norwegians have plans for the North-Eastern reaches, and grumpy Barons are looking for signs of weakness in case they can have a crack at the crown. Second, The Second Crusades in 1174. Christian Knights hold the lands along the Western coast, but the Turks and Egyptians want the Infidels out. Could this be the right time for the Byzantine Empire to seize the moment and recapture its past glory? Third, The Teutonic Campaign. It's 1250 and the Teutonic Order has decided to wipe Pagan worship from Lithuania in the most bloody and brutal manner possible. Poland, Novgorod and Denmark, however, are concerned that the Order's ambitions don't stop there. Finally, America. It's 1521 and the Conquistadors have come to plunder. Sadly for them, the Aztecs, Mayans and Apache aren't going to sit around and watch their cultures crumble. Time to kick out Cortez and settle tribal differences, once and for all.