Medieval Total War and the Viking Invasion expansion pack are everything a good strategy game should be and more. The strategy is as complex as chess; the action is varied enough to satisfy first-person-shooter fans; and the politics and diplomacy elements polish off a grand model of world conquest. Fortunately for gamers, both products are now available in Activision’s Total War: Medieval Battle Pack. But one word of caution: don’t start playing unless you have a full weekend or more to do so. This bundle has strategy so good that it invades your dreams, threatens your grades and can ruin your career or relationships because you will want to spend all your time playing it.
As in any good strategy game, your first hours in Total War should be spent mastering the basics, activities such as building facilities, training armies, tasking your spies, sending out envoys and fighting battles. The interface is easy to learn and is intuitive at every level. Of course, the game has to be easy to learn if you’re going to win, because the game is complex. Then again, so is world domination.
The game breaks down into a variety of key skills, and they all contribute to the outcome. Identifying territory and maximizing its resources is the first skill you must develop to have any chance of success. The main screen allows you to examine your territories’ resources, see your adjacent neighbors, evaluate your neighbors’ resources and armies, and review a map to decide where to expand.
To feed and expand your armies, you must build castles and establish revenue-generating facilities. This isn’t as simple as it seems. Some territories have no resources and should therefore be left vacant, yet in order to keep them, you can’t leave that territory unmanned and without defense. Careful planning and monitoring are required to master this aspect of the game, and it’s the keystone to success.
Building your armies is closely related to the status of your territories. You cannot train armored knights if you don’t have the money and facilities to do so. At the same time, you cannot just build up every territory to be a training ground, because it takes money to maintain facilities. And armies, even in medieval times, need money to operate. You must make wise decisions to build your troop facilities and train your troops if you want to avoid going broke.
But building farms and clearing forests isn’t enough; you must also build a shipping fleet and develop markets in your own territories and with other nations to stimulate commerce. As you play the game you will realize that economic power is probably more important than the biggest army. After all, a weak local economy hurts your ability to spread your philosophy and way of life to other inferior cultures later in the game. Here, sending envoys, marrying off your daughters, and assassinating enemy spies and diplomats is an entire game in itself, and it can certainly influence your economic success.
Presuming you can establish this commercial utopia and avoid medieval bankruptcy, you’ll be able to build your armies and use troops in battle, one of the more exciting elements of Total War. Older gamers, like me, will realize that the second-best instruction manual for Total War is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Here’s why: Nearly every battle is decided before the skirmish even begins, and it’s more important to decide when and where to fight than to actually know how to fight.
You have two options when a battle arises: let the computer play the battle out or control your troops directly. If you have a staggering advantage, it’s probably in your best interests to let the AI wage war, because it will avoid a 30-minute battle with a predetermined outcome. Over time, you will probably play fewer and fewer battles personally because, as the world dictator, you’re fighting macro-economic and geopolitical battles and have no time to personally manage “minor” squabbles. On the other hand, when the battle is going to be close or you need to pull out a miracle, you’ll probably want to command your forces personally.
The battle sequences are extraordinary. Total War allows you to place your troops before the battle, group them into small armies on the field, rally, charge and retreat. For example, you can make a group of troops with armored foot-soldiers, back them up with longbowmen and send them marching right down the middle of the enemy army. When they send all their troops to annihilate your small force, your mounted knights come swooping in from behind in a pincer move that quickly spreads fear and panic. Kill their commanding general, and their morale swiftly erodes.
The AI is quite good in this aspect of the game; possibly the best in any strategy game to date. You have to trust your troops after you send them in, which you can, and you can rest assured that micromanaging every element of battle isn’t necessary. The interface is simple to use during these sequences, but the battle can get confusing. Still, this is what I liked most about Total War. Like real battle, no plan survives the initial attack, and ambushes can really ruin someone’s day. Also, the availability of mercenaries and the ability to bribe enemy armies to join your cause makes for some intriguing gameplay and can switch the balance of power quite swiftly, but only if you have the coin to do so.
Like the real world, some allies will come to your aid, most will sit back and let you fight, and a few will break treaties when it serves their interests. But allies or no, you must take care to stay in power. Total War allows you to adjust tax rates, build morale-boosting facilities and generally numb the masses, and the more attention you spend on this aspect of the game, the more troops you have to spare to vanquish infidels.
The Viking Invasion component of the Medieval Battle Pack adds even more strategy, since It takes place exclusively in the British Isles. This means you must monitor your resources much more closely, because small errors are magnified.
There are many reasons to buy and play Total War: Medieval Battle Pack, but the three most important are its replayability, entertainment and focus on strategy. Most strategy games these days try desperately to avoid stagnation, but Total War is so complex and different that it’s virtually impossible for the gameplay to get tired. Second, the game avoids the “critical mass” problem in other strategy titles where your armies are so powerful and your resources so numerous that trouncing your enemies is no longer fun. It is very hard to win Total War, and overwhelming force does not ensure your victory. Finally, the game makes you watch all aspects of the internal strategies, and if you neglect one area of the game it will haunt you for the duration.
I have absolutely no complaints about this game, which is rare. The game is designed well, its interface is intuitive, it rewards hard work and deep thinking, and its has enough excitement to appeal to more than just hardcore RTS gamers. Play chess, read Sun Tzu, and be prepared for Total War.
- Gameplay: 9
- Graphics: 7
- Sound: 7
- Replay: 10
- Overall: 9
- An excellent strategy title. Buy this game now.
— Todd Foster