The core question for the Total War series is, and always has been; Do you want to rule the world? The answer is also the answer to your question; should I buy this game?
For those of us who have faithfully followed the series through it's three previous instalments - Shogun, Medieval and Rome - the core gameplay of M:TW2 will be immediately familiar. For the benefit of those who don't, the game offers you two meta-games in which you will prove your suitability to the throne of Emperor.
The strategic map, in which you start as one of five immediately available nations*, is where the big-picture game is played. It's not really complicated; the goal is your flag above their cities and castles. But, of course, that's their goal, too. And with the Pope about, telling everyone to just chill and be nice - and you'll quickly find a Crusade knocking on the door of your capital if you don't listen - you'll often find yourself treading a path on the subtle side of Hannibal in your quest.
To aid you in this, you are given four distinct ways of making this all easier; diplomacy, espionage, assassinations and, if all else fails, war. An enemy can often be talked into giving away a city if you offer him a suitable diplomatic incentive. However, if your neighbours remain stubbornly opposed to gentle assimilation, spying out their cities and having their leaders quietly toe-tagged will make your inevitable sieges and field battles dramatically easier.
And once that comes into play, we go into the second meta-game of M:TW2 (or is that M2:TW?)- the tactical map.
The tactical map, commonly known as the combat interface, is where the Total War series have traditionally split paths with other Risk-like games. This is where you start feeling like you decide the outcome of your bid for world control, your choices have consequences and it's your genius or idiocy that conquers the enemy. It distances you from the feeling that you're playing a numbers and odds game, like Civilization, and that's what makes the Total War series special.
(You are, of course, playing a numbers game, but it's one that doesn't wait around every corner to remind you by hitting you in the face with a baseball bat. And it's one that takes the luck and skill factor into account.)
So, as two armies clash on the strategic map, you'll be brought into a zoomed-in version of the map, placing you and your opponent into the context of the map. This is the above-mentioned and aptly-named tactical map, where you're given a bird's eye overview of your army's position and your enemy army's position. You manoeuvre to gain the advantage for your units and to counter your enemy's advantages. Broken down, it's a complicated game of chess with rock/paper/scissor-type units. However, the historically [largely] correct relative strengths of units as well as the impact of terrain and tactics serve to milden the edge of that design, and in some cases it even warps them. Remember; even a pike unit is defenceless against horse when they're charged into from behind.
Once you've grasped the inherent subtleties of the two meta-games, you'll also start getting an appreciation of the bonds between them. For instance, an unit of Sergeant Spearmen bloodied and experienced from a Papal crusade can bring back battle-bonuses like Damascan-steel armour and weapons, high discipline and strong morale. A unit like that will be absolutely brutal when deployed correctly in a battle in mainland Europe. It will also have strategic benefits, like an "honour" bonus to your law and order rating when used as part of a city or castle's garrison. And generals with the same background will become absolutely invaluable, strategically, and a fearsome thing to face on the battlefield.
Now, a lot of this might sound like tedium and details, adding to the already significant workload of micromanaging your cities, fleets and your campaign. And it is.
See, that's why I popped the question in the start of the review. Do you want to rule the world? If you don't - if you don't bring your own motivation - this very much open-ended, story-less game with close to zero explosions and naked chicks will quickly become boring. While you might find the battle sequences interesting and challenging, you'll quickly get bored of those, too, out of context.
And to top that, you can actually get beaten in this game. Trashed. Completely annihilated. Easily. Your kingdom will only be known in history books, as a footnote, misspelled and sadly so very, very alone. All alone. This game is mean.
But if you do bring that motivation - if you're actually genuinely interested in history, crave to try your hand at beating the world, or if you're a sadomachistic nutbag, this game will give you everything you can dream of. The contented sigh of watching opponent after opponent - empire after empire - crash down in a silent, unremarkable, unremembered thunderclap of flames. The visceral satisfaction of brutally tearing apart army after army by beating your opponent in a tactical game to the death - a game that might as well have been reality. The grin-inducing cheer of having conquered the world with Scotland.
And that's why I'll say that if you do, buy this game, if you don't, stay clear. It's pretty - the new graphics are neat and sometimes cinematically beautiful - and well-done, but if your spark just isn't there, find yourself another game.
*More are added to your list of choices once they're defeated in a campaign, or all of them if you manage to achieve world domination.
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