Time and time again, you’ll be struck by how well the game handles its warfare. Even on Easy settings, the enemy commanders take ruthless advantage of any weakness in your tactics, and a simple policy of charge and batter rarely reaps rewards, simply because your toughest hand-to-hand units – the cavalry – are still horribly vulnerable in a head-on assault against spearmen, making it essential to draw attacks with other troops then send them racing in from the flanks or from behind. Missile troops are just as likely to hit your own men as the enemy in a massed fray, so you have to think clearly about how you use them too. Even the weediest troops can make a difference if they can hold their ground in a tight passage, and the heaviest artillery needs to be deployed intelligently if it’s to have an impact on the outcome of the battle.
Simply put, no other game makes you feel more like a battlefield commander – not someone who manages resources, builds heavy troops and sends them wading in, but someone who has to be aware of terrain, troop strengths and weaknesses and the advantages of different speeds and formations. It’s a real test of sense, nerve and observation, and no other strategy game makes you work so damn hard for your victory. Yes, there are some walkovers if you plan things right in the campaign game and, yes, there are still times when your men seem unable to cope with a gateway and it all turns into a horrid, crimson coloured jam, but 99 per cent of the time Medieval 2 gets things right in a way that its competitors can only dream of. At worst, it’s tough but engaging. At best, it’s stupidly exciting and utterly enthralling.
All of the above does come with one corollary: even more than its Total War predecessors, Medieval 2 takes effort and commitment to get the most out of it, and if you simply want to smash heads then Battle for Middle Earth 2 or Dawn of War would suit you better. Don’t worry unduly; as I said, the game does its best to help you acclimatise and your efforts will be heavily rewarded. If you want a game that takes pains to build a rich recreation of the medieval world, in all its glories, fears and violence, then it’s hard to imagine anything doing it better.
Total War sits at the top of the hill, shouting “come and have a go” at lesser epic strategy games. It’s going to take a double-hard bastard to take on Medieval 2.