Medieval II: Total War Kingdoms Review

Medieval 2: Total War Kingdoms was released to great fanfare despite being somewhat upstaged by the announcement of Empire: Total War the previous week. It received 90% ratings from both PC Zone & PC Gamer so lets see how the expansion stands up to some rigorous playtesting by the TWH staff.
Note: This review is written in stages as I wanted to play each campaign properly to test the differing gameplay rather than only skim through each campaign. All campaigns have been tested briefly to check everything but full campaign write-ups will wait until all the campaigns are completed. First full coverage is of the Teutonic campaign.

First up, people dreaming of playing Teutonic Knights against the Kingdom of Jerusalem are going to be disappointed because the four campaigns of Kingdoms are effectively four separate programs with four different executable files but CA have effectively given us four expansions for the price of one so we shouldn't quibble too much. You can however play the factions of a particular Kingdoms campaign against the vanilla factions if you select "All" period on either custom or multiplayer battles.

Installation

Installation takes a long time because anybody who has modded M2TW files will need to uninstall the game. Kingdoms installation will automatically patch whatever version of M2TW you have up to patch 1.03 and then install the four Kingdoms campaigns. This is very handy because it means there's no need to download the 613 meg file that is patch 1.02. If you have issues installing or running Kingdoms, then you should uninstall Kingdoms, then uninstall M2TW and delete the Sega folder in program files before re-installing M2TW & then Kingdoms. If you are starting from scratch, allow at least an hour to do the whole lot.

There have been a lot of complaints with issues during installation of the expansion, the length of time it takes and the fact that you don't get anything other than a rather unexciting looking status bar to look at. If CA are going to take an hour out of our lives while we wait for the game to install, it wouldn't have hurt them to include a few nice screenshots for us to look at to pass the time & stave off tedium.

Patch 1.03 has been released for general use but it is only a patch to ensure compatibility between M2TW & Kingdoms. All the unit rebalancing & fixes in Kingdoms are currently only available to owners of Kingdoms.

Score: 4/10

The expansion and it's affects on Vanilla M2TW (Rebalancing of the Game)

As previously mentioned, a major rebalancing of units has taken place in Kingdoms and this applies to Vanilla M2TW as well. Full details of those changes can be read here.

Many fans had fears about the possible nerfing of cavalry but they can set those at rest. Cavalry are still very powerful even if their stats & numbers have been reduced somewhat. Use them for what they were designed for...flanking engaged enemy units and they will still control the battlefield. However anybody planning on using all-cavalry armies will be in for an unpleasant surprise when facing balanced armies.

Two-handed melee units have been much improved. In straight fights, they won't stand up to shield bearing knights but if you use them creatively (i.e. flanking) then their high attack & armour piercing capabilities will rout units quickly.

Archers have been made more accurate so they should deal more damage from a distance but they are weaker in melee now. Protect them unless you want to deliberately use them as cannon fodder.

All in all, the changes help to bring M2TW back towards the original MTW battle setup which should be a popular move for all the gamers who desire realism above gameplay. Opinion varies on this but in my subjective opinion, it's a good thing because it means that players face a bigger challenge and need to use more of their unit roster. Still, it's hard not to remember wistfully the days of yore when pixelated cavalry swept all before them.

Score: 8/10

The Campaigns

Teutonic Campaign

This is the campaign that interested me initially. It's a rather interesting but sometimes neglected period of history that has all the ingredients to make a superb gaming experience. Set in 1250, this campaign focuses the struggle between religions in Eastern Europe and the expansion of the Teutonic Order. The map covers the North-East Europe, from Denmark and Germany to Russia. The factions are as follows:
  • Teutonic Knights - white and black (white dominant)

  • Lithuania - dark blue and red (dark blue dominant). Mounted soldier

  • Novgorod - yellow and dark blue (yellow dominant)

  • Poland - red and white (red predominant)

  • Holy Roman Empire - black and yellow

  • Denmark - red and white

  • Norway - Blue and red

  • Mongols - yellow
  • The Teutonic Knights have the best unit roster in theory but they have quite a number of restrictions that serve to make them less overpowered than a cursory glance at custom battles would indicate. Firstly, their best units can only be recruited if the Catholic faith is high in that province. The Lituanians & people of Novgorod have a habit of putting their priests into your provinces which will stop you recruiting Halbruders & Ritterbruders. There's also the economic restrictions. Teutonic units are expensive and with your central position, you'll need to be thrifty to have enough soldiers to defend your lands. Their inability to build cities (but they can upgrade captured cities) will limit their finances significantly. Also remember that the Lithuanians cannot upgrade cities to their full size unless they convert to Christianity, which is a game event later in the game. Their strategic position also hampers them somewhat. They have lands to the north around Riga that are surrounded by both Novgorod & Lithuania. The separate lands to the south around the capital Marienburg are surrounded by Poland & again Lithuania. You begin at war with Lithuania so there is no prospect of peace with them. It's a fight to the death and that's before Novgorod decide that they like the look of your northern cities under Orthodox rule. Your economy will be a mess so you'll be relying on low level troops until you can establish a stable economy. Despite looking over-powered at a cursory glance, this is a tough & challenging campaign for the Teutons.

    For Lithuania it is even tougher. You are surrounded by an aggressive & deadly enemy but while he is divided, you are centralised. With clever strategic thinking, it would be possible to sign alliances with other nations against the Teutonic Knights and use combined force to eliminate them. You have capable two-handed infantry units and missile cavalry so different tactics are required than for playing with the Teutonic knights.

    Novgorod start with probably the best strategic position and can establish a sizeable empire while fighting on one extended front.

    There are a number of welcome enhancements. Boiling oil is back so rams will become a lot less popular than they were in the vanilla game. Just be aware that oil isn't quite as over-powered as it was in RTW.

    The visiting nobles out for some Pagan blood wading are a neat addition. If you kill lots of Pagans, they will reward you richly. Be warned that you need to augment them with forces of your own and that they need to be fighting on every turn to gain a good reward. Don't stop to siege cities with them! I played through the entire campaign and I only got two such events so don't waste them.

    See the pictures below for an idea of what awaits during the campaign. Note the Northern Lights!



    This campaign really is superb. The factions are relatively balanced and it will require real skill to be able to build up your faction. The religion aspect will be a big bonus to those who enjoyed it in RTW: Barbarian Invasion. Ultimately, it allows the player to explore a period of history as well as geographical location that rarely gets a lot of attention.

    Score: 9/10

    Americas Campaign

    This campaign is the biggest break with Total War tradition. There's no more even-handed troop development in the name of good gameplay. Here, you are positively invited to try and make unarmoured, metallurgy-shy and gunpowder-ignorant factions into mini-empires. This campaign is set in 1519, when Hernán Cortés and the Spanish arrive in The Americas. Playing as Spain, players will have to rely on the Spanish homeland for reinforcements and supplies. The map covers Central America and the southern edge of Northern America. The factions are as follows:
  • Spain - yellow and red

  • Aztecs - light blue and yellow

  • Mayans - green and white

  • Apachean Tribes - blue and brownish tan (brownish tan dominant)

  • Chichimeca - black and red

  • Tlaxcalans - orange and white

  • Tarascans - yellow and black

  • France - blue and white

  • England - red and yellow
  • There's a lot to be said for playing Stone Age: Total War which would be broadly similar to playing as the Apaches before they get cavalry & gunpowder units late in the game. Firstly, you get to annex nearly the entire modern day USA before you meet non-rebel resistance. Secondly, the upkeep for Apache units is low, so low in fact that it's quite possible to be the richest faction in the game. Money is never a problem for them even on hard settings.

    The Meso-American factions are a lot more sophisticated so you get options to build things like aqueducts rather than building everything out of wigwams. Their units are also unarmoured but most have high stamina and high attack/defence ratings so they pack quite a punch if used carefully.

    The Spanish faction of New Spain is gifted some serious advantages. They get armour and superior weapons. They also get cavalry but the unit sizes are tiny. The game dynamic for the Spanish is different as they must please the Spanish crown by completing missions. If they do this, they get access to higher level cities and thus better troops. Despite their technological superiority, they will need to recruit a lot of local mercenaries in order to prosper.

    It's hard not to admire the job CA have done in representing what must have been the trickiest campaign to develop but TW traditionalists may not take to fighting with rather unhistorical units. Compared to the other three campaigns, it feels like Total War does Age of Empires 3 and while enjoyable, it doesn't have the same repeat playability that the other campaigns do.

    Score: 6/10

    Britannia Campaign

    Fans of the expansion pack to the original Medieval: Total War will love this campaign. The map covers the islands of Great Britain & Ireland as well as the smaller islands such as the Isle of Man & Skye. The campaign is quite fast paced as there are only five factions with the possibility of a sixth (Baron's Alliance) if England loses it's northern provinces to rebellion. The English position is somewhat similar to the Western Romans at the beginning of the Barbarian Invasion expansion campaign in that it could lose huge tracts of land to rebellion and the other factions stand to profit from their difficulties. Religion is not a factor in this campaign as each faction has a "culture". When you conquer a new region, you need to convert that region to your own culture for two reasons, 1) to reduce civil disorder problems and 2) to allow recruitment of units. It is actually possible to recruit units from a different faction if their culture is the dominant one in your region. Churches, family members/generals within a region & the culture of neighbouring regions all have an effect on the culture of a region. Unfortunately, extermination appears to be necessary in this game as larger towns are almost always at severe risk of rioting when you capture them and this can hurt your economy somewhat. The factions are as follows:

  • England - red and yellow. Three lions.

  • Ireland - yellow and green. Harp.

  • Wales - green and red. Dragon.

  • Scotland - dark blue and white. Saint Andrew's cross.

  • Norway - dark blue and dark red (dark red dominant) Lion holding axe.

  • Baron's Alliance - red and white.

  • England do face a challenging start to the game in that they are almost certain to lose large portions of territory but they have the most balanced unit roster and by keeping control of key territories in the south of England, they will maintain an efficient economy to provide a solid base for regaining lost lands.

    Ireland have a straight-forward task at the beginning of the game. The English troops garrisoning Ireland are dispersed. Taking Trim castle severely weakens the British position. Once Ireland is secured, many options for future expansion present themselves.

    The Welsh begin with their backs to the Irish sea. They have no choice but to fight the English tooth & nail in order to survive and then expand. Their units will require inventiveness & creativity on the battlefield as they may struggle in direct conflict with the heavy infantry of the other factions

    The Scots begin the game with the English occupied with their own problems and can concentrate on the threat from Norway. Their heavy pikemen will be required to counteract the heavy shock infantry of the Norwegians. Once the isles belonging to Norway are secured, the Scots can look to advance into either England or Ireland.

    The Norwegians are gifted with heavy shock infantry but the dispersed nature of their realm is a disadvantage. Expanding into Scotland is the obvious choice and command of the seas is essential to their progress.

    The original Viking Invasion was a very popular expansion. This is set some time after that but captures the same feel. There's nothing quite like a bit of tribalism to add to the game experience. The factions are also very well balanced and online games between them offer a fascinating contrast in styles. The only downside is that the unit roster for the factions already in the vanilla campaign are replicated here in full and you'll need to play the new factions to get a different battlefield experience. It is still however a very playable experience and crucially, the simplicity of the campaign concept and pace of the campaign will have you rushing back for more.

    Score: 9/10

    Crusades in the Holy Land Campaign

    The Crusades were a popular feature in the vanilla grand campaign and CA have taken this and given players a fully realised campaign in the holy land. When playing the Christian, the atmosphere of the film Kingdom in Heaven is very noticeable. This adds considerably to the game experience as CA had the advantage of leaving you to fill the role of the great leader instead of hiring a somewhat wooden & charisma free actor for the role. Indeed, the faction livery for the Kingdom of Jerusalem & the Principality of Antioch consciously ape those of the film. However, this is only a small but significant detail in a smashing campaign. Religion is handled as per the vanilla grand campaign and many of the game mechanics are the same but there are new features. Each faction in the game has access to a general with special abilities. There was a fear that these abilities would adversely affect realism in the name of playability but it is really done quite well. They can only be used sparingly and only one character per faction gets these special abilities. The campaign map covers the near east from Asia Minor in the north to Egypt in the south and extends as far east as Baghdad. The factions are as follows:

  • Kingdom of Jerusalem - white and gold (white dominant). Gold Cross.

  • Principality of Antioch - blue and red.

  • Egypt - gold and black. Crescent.

  • Turks - green and yellow. Cresent.

  • Byzantium - purple and white.

  • The Kingdom of Jerusalem face a powerful foe to the south in Egypt. Saladin himself, commands them in battle. Thankfully you have an alliance with Antioch to the north and they will guard your northern frontier. While Egypt are the main foe, you will also need to be on guard against the Turks to the east. Their heavy infantry & cavalry are not subtle instruments but they have the capability to destroy opponents in straight fights. However, they should beware mobile foes who are not inclined to close combat.

    The Principality of Antioch have an almost identical unit roster to Jerusalem but their strategic position is rather different. They are shielded from Egypt by their allies in Jerusalem but the Turks can menace their northern & eastern borders. Further to the north is a resurgent Byzantine Empire who are dubious allies at best.

    The Byzantines awe many with their glory & prestige of their capital Constantinople but the upstart factions of the near east are not in that number. The Turks will have to be eliminated to ensure the security of the Empire but the Franks of Outremer are dubious allies at best. Expect to have to either dig them out of whatever trouble they get into or even have to fight them to re-establish your mastery of the region. They are helped by an updated unit roster which includes the powerful & fun Greek Flamethrowers.

    The Turks begin with a similar unit roster to that of the vanilla campaign but their strategic situation is different. Firstly, the two halves of the realm must be re-united and then war must be fought on two fronts to survive against both the Frankish crusaders and the Byzantines to the north. This is easily the most challenging game in this campaign.

    Egypt starts with a safe position and potentially powerful units to reduce the Christian kingdoms to the north. Their infantry cannot stand toe-to-toe with the Franks so they need to be cunning & resourceful in their tactics.

    This campaign is the standout of the Kingdoms expansion pack. It has atmosphere, setting and most importantly a fight to the death for all factions. To win the game, you will almost certainly have to eliminate at least two factions. It is the defining campaign of this expansion and while the other campaigns have their attractions and the Teutonic campaign comes close, this is the campaign that will stick in the mind and call for repeat playability.

    Score: 10/10

    Diplomacy

    A word on the diplomacy improvements in this game. Allies now stay allied to you and while they may/will break the alliance & attack you, they often help you as well. As the Teutonic Knights, I had the misfortune of the Holy Roman Empire annexing my western provinces while my forces were spread out. Polish forces helped me defend Konigsburg and then recaptured the provinces that the HRE had taken forming a buffer zone protecting me from the Germans. I was in trouble when Poland finally decided to attack me now but while the Poles had been guarding my western borders, I was busy expanding in the east, wiping out the Pagans and thus improving my overall position. This is the first time in a total war game (since STW) that an ally has actually helped me in any meaningful way.

    Score: 8/10

    Hotseat Mode

    This is a feature that was originally meant to be enabled for M2TW but various constraints meant that it had to wait until Kingdoms was released. It is technically meant for play on one computer only and all battles are auto-resolved but if you're happy to email files back & forth between players, then it takes on a very different nature. It's possible to have all players in the game as human and this opens up fantastic new possibilities for the game. No doubt...folks will be working on campaign tricks to cripple other human players that the campaign AI would never dream of using. Spies will now become far more necessary and I would expect to see a lot more naval blockading. Diplomats might become a little redundant as human players are likely to do their plotting via email but if you have AI factions, diplomats will still be required. Assassins however could be very useful, especially if pesky pagan priests are preventing you from recruiting your best units.

    See the hotseat game myself & my fellow staff member, EnemyofJupitor are playing to see some of the possibilities of the game. I think his screenshots are fantastic because I can see exactly where his troops are and what he's up to. It's fun to play online battles against your fellow Heavengamers but the notion of being able to do this on a campaign is very exciting indeed.

    My only gripe is that it should be a little more geared to being email friendly. Hiding the saved game deep inside the program files folder is plain awkward. Would some sort of exporting to the desktop tool be an option for future releases?

    Score: 9/10

    Reinforcements on the Battle Map

    With all the excitement about hotseat and four fantastic campaigns, it's easy to forget that you can now control reinforcements on the battlefield. The controls are basic but it certainly beats having a sometimes whimsical AI doing weird & not-so-wonderful things with your precious soldiers. It certainly raises the tactical options available to the player. This development gets a definite thumbs up from the reviewer.

    Score: 9/10

    Graphics & Game Performance

    Needless to say, the game looks beautiful. I'm lucky enough to be able to run the game on high settings and the quality of the detail & animations is staggering. While you would expect this to impact on game performance, I couldn't help but notice that the campaign game runs noticeably smoother than in M2TW. The battles show no change in performance with speed being roughly similar to vanilla M2TW battles.

    Score: 10/10

    The minimum specifications required to run the game are below:

    • English version of Microsoft® Windows® 2000/XP.
    • Celeron 1.8GHz Pentium 4® (1800MHz) or equivalent AMD® processor.
    • 512MB RAM.
    • 8x Speed DVD-ROM drive (1200KB/sec sustained transfer rate) and latest drivers.
    • 9.0 Gigs of uncompressed free hard disk space.
    • 100% DirectX® 9.0c compatible 16-bit sound card and latest drivers.
    • 100% Windows® 2000/XP compatible mouse, keyboard and latest drivers.
    • DirectX® 9.0c.
    • 128MB Hardware Accelerated video card with Shader 1 support and the latest drivers.
    • Must be 100% DirectX® 9.0c compatible.
    • Monitor must be able to display 1024x768 resolution or above.

    The Music

    My fellow staff member and Jesus Christ Superstar lead, EnemyofJupitor, has written a stupendous review of the music in the expansion. Keep reading for his thoughts on this vital part of the game.

    One thing that unites the four mini-campaigns is the standard of music. Celebrated maestro Jeff Van Dyke and his able team, Richard Vaughan and James Vincent, have put their heads together and come up with more than a few crackers of tunes to match the size and scope of the expansion, capturing the flavour of campaigns effortlessly.

    The crusades campaign is heavy on Middle Eastern musical traditions, instruments, and the singing, often in a lamenting style. Although I personally would have liked a couple more European instruments sneaking in and out to represent the crusaders, Richard Vaughan has done a good job in making the player feel like he's sitting a sand dune somewhere in Egypt.

    The Teutonic campaign is a completely different beast. Lower than the other campaigns and, except for a few, rolling in the minor keys, the music teeters between two main themes of the Teutonic faction - religious and all out blasting. A monk's choir-type synth is used to great effect in most of Vaughan's motifs and tunes - one is entirely voices - but he is not afraid to dent your eardrums with all the ferocity those warrior monks of the Order can muster. The best example of this is 'Hungry Sword', the battle set-up music. There's a lovely little campaign map snippet, too, named 'Sign ahead' which I would have loved had it been extended into a proper piece of music, and it's a shame it's only a small track.

    One track that isn't cut short, however, is the battle music 'Hymn of War'. A military marching piece with bells and choir, it is deliciously dark enough to conjure up images of dark forests and the dread knights on their noble cause. There are not many gaming tracks that earn a place on my iTunes, but this is one of them. It is, however, piqued to my favourite track of Kingdoms by a piece that appears in both the Teutonic and Britannia campaigns, as well as on the Kingdoms trailer. Written by Jeff Van Dyke himself, it is titled 'War of Kings', and sends shivers down my spine when I hear it - it's that good. Horns, male voice choir, urgency, percussion solo, this piece has the lot.

    Britannia music, however, has strong folk influences. Using mainly acoustic guitar, highland and other Celtic bagpipes, fiddle and wood flute, Vaughan draws together the different parts of the British Isles. James Vincent has also composed a lovely short 3-part duet for two wood flutes themed on spices and flowers such as Lavender and Peppermint, causing the campaign to feel more 'typical' Medieval than the others. Angela Van Dyke also lends her voice to a few tunes such as 'Celtic Tears', but also the main menu track 'The Dream of Albion' - a song many Rome: Total Realism players will recognise from the mod's credits.

    The American campaign is awash with drums and Native American-style music. Reliant on percussion for most of it's sound, it does seem rather less 'full'-sounding than the other campaigns through no fault of the composer (Vaughan again) - though the Aztecs did have a kind of beaten copper trumpet, they, like the other cultures of the area, didn't have many wind instruments past a wood flute, nor any strings what so ever. Consequently, I believe the composer has gone for a more intrepid style, rather than all-out - again fitting with the campaign style. That said, the battle track 'Rip My Bleeding Heart Out' seems to quicken the pace of many battles with stamping, clapping and voice.

    'Lift Thine Eyes' is the credits for all four campaigns, again written by Van Dyke, with Angela Van Dyke lending her vocal skills to the world of Total War. A calming piece in comparison to the violent nature of the game, it is taken from the original's loading track 'The Widow'. It is a well-done transformation into an actual song, and overshadows its immediate predecessor, 'We are all one', if only by the fact it doesn't loop halfway through. However, the credits of Rome ('Forever') still outstrip this tune.

    Overall, I find the music mirroring the campaigns they grace. A lot of work has gone into this, and the musical and sound department can clap themselves on the back a job well done. I can't wait to hear what they come up with for Empire: Total War, but please, no Sharpe-style electric guitars!

    Rating: 9/10- because music can always be improved.

    Final Thoughts

    Total War expansion packs have a habit of being very well received by fans and this one should be no different. It's not just the quantity of the offering, the quality is as good as ever. It's an evolution of an evolutionary game and when the expansion widens the scope of the original games while increasing the pace of sometimes plodding campaigns, there's lots to please the avid Total War gamer. Aside from the sometimes finicky installation process, there are really no complaints about this expansion pack. The gameplay is superb and on the off-chance that you have completed the original game, this offers weeks or even months of fresh gameplay.

    Overall Score: 9/10

    Thoughts of our Forumers

    Other forumers have also typed up their thoughts on Kingdoms: Count Mummolus, blaster fodder and SirDracko.