Medieval: Total War is the followup game to Shogun: Total War. Developed by Creative Assembly, a development house based in the UK, Medieval aims to create a unique strategy experience for gamers to try and break out of the mould of many common RTS games that are out there today.
The first I heard of Medieval was when I saw a couple of screenshots for it, and needless to say I was impressed right from the get go - the shots show literally hundreds - even thousands - of units battling it out in an epic-looking struggle, built on a lush 3D landscape. After a closer look, you can see that the units aren't models, but sprites. While not as visually cool as models, it nevertheless allows more units on the screen, which increases the scale of the battles and thus makes it even more visually impressive in its own right.
Activision were kind enough to send through a preview build of the game, which while not final code, contains just about everything the game has to offer. You've got a couple of tutorials, which are obviously the best way to start off so you can figure out what to do. The single player game itself includes a campaign mode (being the full game with all the bells and whistles), custom battle mode (where you can mix up your own selection of armies to battle), and historical battles and campaign modes, both of which allow you to select various actual historical scenarios to play through.
One of the main things that makes Medieval different is its great combination of two distinctly different gametypes within the one game. From the screenshots, it is easy to mistake Medieval from just being a 3d RTS in which you simply move troops around in battle. However, there is a lot more to it than that. A significant part of the game in campaign mode is a turn-based empire building aspect. When you start the game, you're presented with a map of Europe - spanning from Spain all the way into east Russia, and including parts of northern Africa. The map is massive and conquering it is no small task.
I found this turn-based component to be very reminiscent of Civilization, though not as low-level. Each of your cities requires buildings to progress, and the buildings you have determine what units you can build, as well as various other bits and pieces. Just like Civilization, building things takes turn - each turn is equivalent to a year in game time. After you've made all your moves for a turn - moved all your armies, selected all the buildings and units to build, and anything else you want to do to manage your empire - you hit End Turn and you're treated to a quick view of what all the other leaders are doing around you. This is neat to watch if you can keep up with the overall strategy, but fortunately (at least for me) there's an option to disable it so you don't have to spend the time watching the units slide around the screen.
I was quite surprised at the amount of depth in the turn-based game. I'd seen screenshots of it and knew it was there, but was quite unprepared about exactly how much of the game took place from here. I found myself getting so engrossed in this aspect of the game I'd select the handy option to have the computer automatically calculate the results of the battle rather than dropping to the 3d view myself and handling it. Creative Assembly have catered for a wide variety of tastes here. Gamers that aren't too interested in the management of their empire can select from a bunch of checkboxes which automatically manage various aspects of your domain - taxation, buildings, and the rest.
There are a bunch of other elements that are controlled from the strategy map that help you along the way. Economy is very important, of course. Leaders have certain attributes that make them more useful, and there is a royal succession that can be used to establish diplomatic relationships - marrying off a daughter is a good way to forge alliances with your neighbours.
There are a few issues I had with the interface. At the start of a new turn, you're hit with a bunch of dialogues which announce various things being completed or events that have happened. These simply cycle through and you're unable to take action until they're all done - by which time I'd forgotten what had happened or was concentrating on something else. Not a big deal but means you need to really pay attention at the start of the round.
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