Excommunication is a serious issue, leaving you vulnerable to attacks from neighbouring kingdoms and – potentially – making you the target of a crusade. Before things reach that point, the church can also send in inquisitors, prepared to denounce your generals or agents and send them to an early grave. To avoid these problems, it’s a necessity to deploy churches and priests throughout your kingdoms, and stop heresy or witchcraft taking root. Keep the Pope sweet, and he’s more likely to forgive minor transgressions like, oh, laying siege to your neighbour’s city, sacking its churches and murdering its people, and he will also supply you with missions that bring home handy rewards. Religion brings other pluses too: sending priests into a region you plan to conquer can help bring their population over to your faith, improving your chances of a good reception after you have sent the troops in to take it over.
Trade also plays a greater role, with a new agent – the merchant – who needs placing near resources in order to generate revenue. With taxation, guilds, farming and mining to be taken care of, keeping the coffers full is hardly a trivial task.
Note that for reasons of space we won’t even go into the specifics of recruiting, retraining and upgrading troops, using spies and assassins, arranging marriages, choosing between settlements (for business purposes) or castles (for military purposes) and organising crusades. There’s almost too much to be getting on with before you even look at fighting battles. Well, Medieval 2 is too complex a game for the interface to be what you might call transparent – and to be fair there are a few nested menus to work your way through – but The Creative Assembly has bent over backwards to help the novice player out with a) clear tutorials b) logical menu structures c) useful advice at the click of the fair lady’s portrait in the upper left-hand corner and d) a handy set of show-me, tell-me devices that carefully ring the appropriate options to help you out. This is the most formidable Total War yet for newcomers, and certainly not a great choice of ‘My First Strategy Game’ but I can’t imagine anyone with a little sense and some background in the genre struggling to make head or tail of this one.