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Review by: Samuel Knowlton
Published: September 25, 2002
Games rooted in historical events have certain advantages, as well as challenges, that products based on original themes can avoid. The additional audience of history enthusiasts comes at the price of fierce scrutiny of the developer’s interpretation of past events, but the immersive qualities of an offering that depicts events that actually happened usually outweigh the drawbacks. Several years ago, Red Lemon Studios attempted to combine the strategic elements of an empire builder, the tactical elements of a real-time strategy game and a dose of actual history in Braveheart. Unfortunately, the scope of the project proved too ambitious for the Scottish development house, and the end result was poorly documented, bug-ridden and too complicated for even the most dedicated Scot-enthusiast. Since then, there have been few attempts to combine those elements in a PC release, and even fewer that actually succeeded. The only one that comes to mind is the first offering from Creative Assembly, a development house located on the other end of the British Isles from Red Lemon in Horsham, England. Their recent title, Medieval: Total War, expands upon Shogun, their original release, in its attempt to seize the Triple Crown of historical simulation, turn-based strategy and real-time combat.
Medieval thrusts the player into Europe as one of 12 major factions between the end of the 11th century and middle of the 15th century. It allows you to begin at one of three points during the roughly 360 year span of the game: the early period, when the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire were still formidable, and England and France were unruly collections of fiefdoms; the high period, when the Seljuk Turks were on the rise, Byzantine influence and territory was declining, and the advance of the Almohad Moorish Princes in the Iberian Peninsula had been slowed by the Christian armies and crusaders; and the late period, when the Ottoman clan took control of the Turks from the Seljuks, the Byzantine Empire was greatly diminished, France’s power and influence on the continent was greater than ever before, and the Mongols had conquered much of northwestern Asia and threatened eastern Europe.
Medieval is a richly detailed product that wears many hats. It attempts to succeed as both a strategy game and a tactical simulation, to appeal to scheming masterminds as well as the more action-oriented crowd. You can spend a lot of time managing the minutiae of your empire as it grows, or you can hand off tasks such as taxes, fortifications and unit training to the AI. Medieval also provides a considerable degree of evolution in the variety of playable cultures and religions. While Shogun‘s clans were slightly different from each other, Medieval promises radically different styles of gameplay between Muslim and Christian, as well as intra-religious, but inter-cultural, aspects that make the strengths and weaknesses of each faction more pronounced.
The folks at Creative Assembly crammed a lot of history into Medieval. Wherever possible, the developers inserted historical figures as royalty, generals and even spies or assassins, right down to Guy of Gisbourne. The conditions at the beginning of the game are remarkably true to the historical state of affairs in each period. After that, however, you’re free to make your own history. Campaigns started during the early period will likely not resemble Europe during the late period after a couple of hundred turns. In that respect, the developers make certain sacrifices in the interest of gameplay. While Medieval is chock-full of historical characters and warfare, the developers have said on many occasions that their desire is to be “reasonably accurate” – this product uses history to provide a foundation for and to enhance its gameplay, but it doesn’t pretend complete obedience to the past in all respects. Gameplay balance usually wins out over historical fact, as Medieval is not a history lecture. Consequently, it serves as an excellent vehicle to interest players in the political and military strife of the medieval era, but it isn’t an academic resource of any kind.
The primary conflict in Medieval depends entirely on your starting faction. In addition to the 12 major factions – English, French, German, Italian, Turkish, Egyptian, Almohad, Russian, Danish, Polish, Byzantine and Spanish – there are several minor factions that can influence the game’s outcome. Every faction is either Catholic (most of Western Europe), Orthodox (Byzantines) or Muslim (Egypt, the Turks and Almohads). Your faction’s religion determines your primary enemies and your most significant goals. Medieval has two campaign modes that also shape the gameplay considerably: World Domination, which requires that you take and hold every available province; and Glorious Achievements, which adds an extra dose of history by rewarding each faction with points depending on certain cultural and military achievements that were real priorities for that faction in history, such as holding on to ancestral homelands, building a famous cathedral in a particular province, or establishing imperial rule over part of Europe. Taking and holding other provinces is required in both modes; a single faction attempting to conquer all of Europe is where Medieval departs considerably from real history, although they do make it incredibly difficult to keep hold of lands far from your monarch – a feature that may be frustrating at first, but one that makes you appreciate the attempts of the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans to cling to even half of what you’re trying to claim as your own.
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