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As far as most sensible people are concerned, the Total War series has become the gold standard for epic strategy games. Part of the secret has been an evolutionary approach to the game design. The Creative Assembly got the basics right with the very first game, Shogun, and have steadily refined it and expanded on it with each subsequent version, taking advantage of increased system speeds and new graphics hardware, but never radically reinventing the game or making an attempt to dumb it down in order to reach the widest possible audience. The result is that rarest of things: a series that just keeps on getting better without a single damp-squib in the set. Even Age of Empires and Civilization can’t say that.
So some spiteful, cynical part of me wants to tell you that this is where it all goes wrong – this is where Total War jumps the shark. But I can’t. Predictably, Medieval 2 is just what you might expect: a glossy update of the original Medieval: Total War, taking into account the changes and refinements added in Rome: Total War, but with new enhancements thrown on top. In other words, it’s a ridiculously brilliant game.
As before, the main single-player campaign game is split in two, with a turn-based map in which you build units, develop your cities and grow your power base, and real-time battles when it’s time for your armies to hit the field. With Rome, The Creative Assembly made serious efforts to ensure that the turn-based portion could stand up in its own right, and this trend is, if anything, even more pronounced here. In each turn there are troops that need recruiting, generals and armies that need moving, buildings that need building, fleets that need directing and agents – spies, assassins, diplomats and the like – that need to be shifted around the map. As in any good Civ-style game, buildings aren’t just unit factories as they would be in an RTS; some, like churches or brothels, play an important part in keeping your population happy and save your cities from riots or open rebellion. And without trade and taxing for a firm financial footing, you’ll soon find your war chest running dry.
There are some new tweaks this time around. Overall, there’s an even greater sense here that your own empire-building is taking place on a larger world stage, where the alliances of others have a dramatic effect on how soft or hard you have to play things. This makes diplomacy, strong alliances and good marriages particularly important. This shift of emphasis is also reflected in an additional dimension: religion. As anyone who knows anything about medieval history can tell you, the support or enmity of the Catholic papacy played a huge role in the era’s more earthly conflicts, and Medieval 2 does a fine job of bringing this into the gameplay.