All of this is going to keep those of you who love the campaign mode very happy. This remains a complex game, requiring management of large numbers of units, various resources, a whole roster of priests, generals, merchants, spies and assassins, and at times it can be a bit like trying to play Civilization and Command and Conquer simultaneously. Having not played Total War for a while, I must admit that panic set in within minutes of starting my first campaign, and it took me a couple of hours to settle back into the stately rhythm of the activity on the campaign map, then grow accustomed to the speed of action in the battle scenes. Still, given that time I found myself totally absorbed in that dangerous “I haven’t checked the clock but I’m sure it’s just past 3am and I have work in the morning” sort of way.
Of course, not everyone likes to dig in for the full campaign. Still, even if you prefer to skip straight to the big battles there’s enough here in terms of new units and new enemies to put a big, whacking grin on your face. It’s a bit disappointing that each campaign runs light on historical battle scenarios (at a mere two apiece) but at least you can set up your own and still get the most from the weird and wonderful new troop types involved without having to get stuck into the wider Total War experience.
It’s in the showpiece battles, however, that some of Medieval 2’s problems are still apparent. Let’s kick off with performance. There’s no doubt that, running at full-tilt with all the options ticked, Kingdoms is an absolutely glorious visual experience. Combine the sheer scale of it all with the atmospherics, particle effects and glinting armour, and a full-scale battle is really something to behold. The Crusades campaign regularly brings to mind Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, but with the benefit of not having a wet Orlando Bloom in a central role. Sadly, there’s also no doubt that Kingdoms is extremely CPU intensive. It doesn’t matter whether you have a GeForce 7600GT or an 8800 Ultra – if you haven’t got a Core 2 Duo or a high-end Athlon 64 X2 then the game is going to slow down significantly during the bigger battle sequences. That’s hardly its fault – more a sign of its ambition – but it’s something you should be wary of.