Medieval II: Total War Review

Medieval II: Total War Review

image Harold Godwinson could have been the ruler of England. The designated heir of Edward the Confessor, he defeated the Viking king Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066, then marched south to engage the invading William of Normandy at Hastings, on October 14. Unfortunately, instead of victory and kingship, Harold found death and defeat. William went on to become "the Conqueror" and founded a line of kings; Harold was the last of his dynasty.

Medieval II: Total War is the Harold Godwinson of wargames. It could have been my king but will instead likely be the last Total War game to which I swear allegiance.

My interest in the Total War series stems from a love of historically realistic tactical battles. The original Shogun: Total War was the most historically realistic simulation of feudal Japanese warfare ever released. The strategic nation building element was just there to give structure to interesting pitched battles, and I liked it that way.

Every Total War since has moved in the strategic direction. The strategic game has been given added layers of complexity to the point where it almost exceeds Civilization for complicated turn-based play. Meanwhile, the tactical battles have become less historically accurate, more akin to standard RTS micromanagement than to realistic confrontations.

Historical military formations were very slow, and their ability to maneuver was quite limited. Command and control was awful. Battle was slow and plodding. Once the battle lines were drawn, a general could commit his reserve or lead a unit into a charge, but was otherwise sharply limited in his ability to control his forces. The single biggest decision of every historical battlefield commander from the Macedonian Conquest to the War of the Roses has been drawing up the line of battle.

Shogun: Total War, with its clumsy forces, slow movement and limited control scheme, came close to capturing this reality. Medieval retained most of the tactical historicity of Shogun, though battles were notably more fluid. Rome abandoned historical realism almost entirely with cavalry that moved like cars and command-control that Colin Powell would envy.

I had heard mutterings that a fair number of grognards were disappointed in Rome for that reason. And in speaking with developer representatives at E3, I'd been told to expect Medieval II to be more realistic than Rome, so I had high hopes that the trend away from historical accuracy would reverse itself.

image Sadly, it did not. Tactical battle in Medieval II plays pretty much like Rome, except with even smaller unit sizes - meaning even more micromanagement! The level of individual detail is increased, with thousands of individually animated soldiers marching and dying with a mouse click, but the result is largely devoid of historical realism. It might look impressive, but this isn't war as Richard Coeur De Lion fought it. In Medieval II, entire formations can basically sidestep to avoid incoming cavalry charges. My friends, the Saxon fyrd did not sidestep.

The evolution is the same on the strategic side of gameplay: "Rome plus." Medieval II retains Rome's operationally detailed map, its mission structure and its depth of strategic play, then adds more depth in the form of religion and trade mechanics. But in building its strategy game on Rome's model rather than its namesake's, Medieval II loses the schiltrom among the spears (or the forest among the trees).

In historical warfare, castles and walled cities were obstacles for an opposing army's conquest. An invading army could not march to battle with an occupied castle to its rear; its supply lines would be vulnerable to raid and harassment. Faced with an enemy in a castle or walled city, an attacker had only four choices: retreat; invest the settlement with a portion of his army to prevent its garrison from harassing his rear, while his main army drove on into enemy territory; besiege the fortifications with his whole force with intent to capture it before advancing; or draw the garrison out to battle by laying waste to the countryside.

In this light, the original Medieval was abstract but realistic enough. The Risk-like strategic map abstracted the maneuver of armies by demanding you conquer a province through battle or retreat. There was no need for supply line mechanics, as one could never be without a line of supply to a friendly province. You owned the province once you defeated its army on the field of battle, then you besieged their castles so you could safely advance to the next province without them in your rear. It worked.

Medieval II uses Rome's more granular map, which permits your armies to march across lands by your choice of routes and demands that you capture settlements to show your control of the surrounding area. Yet there are still no mechanics for supply lines. As a result, you can bypass settlements as you think proper, marching past mighty castles freely to dominate the countryside. Except that in Medieval II, the countryside is meaningless apart from its castles and walled cities. So you end up besieging settlements not to cover your rear as you seize territory and give pitched battle, but rather because settlements are ... just what you have to attack.

Of my 30 biggest engagements in Medieval II, 28 were sieges and only two were pitched battles in the countryside. In contrast, of the 30 biggest historical engagements from Chalons (451) to Bosworth Field (1485), only two, Lisbon and Constantinople, were sieges. The rest were pitched battles. Medieval II has the raison d'etre of medieval fighting entirely backward, and it shows.

Given that what I really want from Total War's strategy game is a framework for fighting lots of historically plausible battles, I find the entire strategy game fundamentally broken. As with the tactical battles, it looks good but it isn't good history. Creative Assembly chose to make a game different than what I wanted. Harold Godwinson wasn't a bad general; just not the right man to be king. And Medieval II is not a bad game; it's just not for me.

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I agree with your assessment of the Total War series' decline. I loved Shogun: Total War and find Rome: Total War to be completely uninteresting. I am not a big RTS fan to begin with, so I think Rome: Total War will be my last one.

What would be great is if they focussed on battle mechanics and large multiplayer areas/environments, where armies could form alliances and battle for control of the known world. Having different factions with a each player controlling their own army or unit and coordinating with field commanders to win battles and territories sounds like a lot of fun to me. I think it is time they brought RTS to the big table. 1v1 is great and all, but I think this type of game is perfect for MMO style online play. May be a bit ambitious, but i would really like to RTS games move in this direction.

I started Total War with Medieval, and then did Rome and Medieval II. I only recently finished my first campaign on Medieval, and I completely agree with your assessment that entirely too much importance is focused on Sieges. I carefully managed my economy to be able to afford Longbowmen and Knights Templar, only to see them be rendered useless during the many sieges. Close to the end of the campaign, I tried to trick armies into the open, and then engage them, so I could actually use my tactics. I loved Rome because pitched battles were frequent. But the computer turtles far too much in Medieval II.

That said, I still love the game. I just have to try to trick the computer in order to play it the way I want.

Max Steele:
Medieval II: Total War Review

My friends, the Saxon fyrd did not sidestep.

Of my 30 biggest engagements in Medieval II, 28 were sieges and only two were pitched battles in the countryside. In contrast, of the 30 biggest historical engagements from Chalons (451) to Bosworth Field (1485), only two, Lisbon and Constantinople, were sieges. The rest were pitched battles. Medieval II has the raison d'etre of medieval fighting entirely backward, and it shows.

Given that what I really want from Total War's strategy game is a framework for fighting lots of historically plausible battles, I find the entire strategy game fundamentally broken. As with the tactical battles, it looks good but it isn't good history. Creative Assembly chose to make a game different than what I wanted. Harold Godwinson wasn't a bad general; just not the right man to be king. And Medieval II is not a bad game; it's just not for me.

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overall i like this review, although the comment "the saxon fyrd did not sidestep" does suggest you know so much about the period a pc game everyone would enjoy would probably never be accurate enough for you. (i mean this in the best possible way, its no slur).

out of curiosity have you ever tried table top wargaming? it lacks the graphical spectacle a total war game can give you, but it can be very realistic...

as someone who started playing the total war series at Rome Total War, i liked medieval total war, largely, although even i was noticing certain historical inaccuracies.

a good example are the sieges you ragged on; in a castle with two walls, one inside another, i would put all my english longbowmen on the inner wall, wait till the enemy walked into the castle, then pepper the breach point. would you want to let the enemy into your castle?? and why, when i beseiged a city, was i able to knock 8 (count them EIGHT) breach points? i was under the impression knocking down a single part of the wall took weeks?

I agree with most of your review- with a few notable exceptions;

1) Siege warfare was not the rarer form of Medieval warfare- rather the more common. Pitched battles usually happened by accident, or because one or both generals had no other choice. Medieval generals were discouraged from fighting them simply because they risked much and ultimately achieved little- of the 'largest battles of the Medieval era' you have missed the seiges of Jerusalem, Acre and Jaffa- significant on their own but pivotal to the Crusading effort in the east in the 12th century alone. The -size- of battles does not determine their relative importance, for instance the battle of Arsuf ultimately decided very little, whereas the seige of Jaffa was pivotal to Richard's campaign. If you were to study the campaigns of the twelfth and thirteenth century closely, you would note pitched battles were rare and avoided, whilst sieges were the usual mainstay of campaigns.

2) "Historical military formations were very slow, and their ability to maneuver was quite limited. Command and control was awful-"- to a degree. This is however only really true of militia forces and the main bodies of infantry. Close proffessional forces such as Norman and Breton cavalry were noted for feigned retreats, quick tactical flanking manouevers and their ability to wheel and reform mid-battle. Proffessional soldiers were manoueverable and closely commanded by trusted leiutenants- it was the main bodies of armies, militia and levies, who were 'slow and plodding' in their use, deployment and battlefield execution. Note most Norman generals, such as William the Bastard, his son Henry I, Robert of Gloucester and Henry II and his sons fought where possible from horseback to allow them to move to critical points of their battles and issue direct orders, seize command of a unit, or commit their strategic reserve. Part of the Normans' advantage at Hastings came from their more mobile command approach, allowing William to issue orders throughout- and even to prevent an all-out rout.

3) The major criticism I'd also level is the behaviour of units. The promised 'wrap around' flanking never occured (where units would naturally try and begin a flanking manouever if they overlapped an enemy unit), which is natural behaviour for on-field units. Also cavalry are far too solid and infantry too fluid. Cavalry charged from the rear can -not- stand their ground, nor wheel and address the manouever mid-combat; all too often units of flanked cavalry continue to fight despite being 'hemmed in'.
They have also managed to mess up infantry vs. cavalry fighting- cavalry decimating spear-wielding infantry at the charge, then slowly being punished for it (at great loss). In reality a head-on charge against spear-wielding armoured infantry is costly, if not suicidal, but if they do break through the front ranks, the formation is effectively shredded (as the English right was at the battle of Northallerton, 1137). Cavalry should also not be able to maintain non-mobile combat with infantry as they do in-game- in reality, a cavalryman who has ceased to charge and move is an easy target to wound and unhorse.

4) And finally (sorry for the length of rant, I think I hit a vein of bitterness!) what happened to the option from MTW1 and Shogun to dismount cavalry? Norman knights fought up to 1/3rd of their battles on foot (due to siege warfare and the need for heavy infantry to bolster levies)? It means knights are not the tactically supple unit they truly were, and instead provide 'Tank Rush' units. The choice of when to dismount ones knights was a serious medieval consideration- the Anglo-Normans repeatedly doing so whenever it would offer an advantage. It would also allow knights to take part in seiges in an effective manner, rather than the unrealistic 'breech cavalry' the game forces them to become.

 

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