I fondly remember the first release of Medieval 2: Total War with its grand campaign leading the iron-fisted Holy Roman Empire, crushing the fortified Italian Nation-states of Milan and Venice whilst keeping the might of France, Denmark and Poland at bay. Few games have come close in scale and excitement to witnessing an army of Imperial Knights charging down a wavering foe. Nine years later, a plethora of patches, an expansion and a number of outstanding fan-made mods and conversions, the game manages to still capture my imagination. Released in 2006, Medieval 2 built on the success and game engine of Rome: Total War, but through the years it has continued to hold up as a solid and entertaining game in its own right.
The game itself quite successfully combines the genres of a turn-based strategy game in the overland map with real-time battle simulation. The grand campaign, the central game mode, is set between the years 1080 and 1530 and focuses on a number of aspects of the medieval era: warfare, religion and politics. The game world is set around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
There are countless reviews discussing and highlighting the features which made the game such a success in the years following its release, so there is no need to add further praise to the din. But how is it that after nearly a decade and several superseding titles in the Total War line-up that a game can still command my attention in such a way? In part, it may be the ability for the player to take charge of history and reforge the world in whatever way their imagination takes them. Perhaps it is the atmosphere of the battles, with hundreds of unique and colourful soldiers from peasants to nobles fighting valiantly for king and country. Most of all, I believe the enduring nature of the game is not in the vehicle, but due to the contributions of players and fans of medieval history alike.
Such a solid and robust game has paved the way for brilliant player-created modifications and complete overhauls or conversions to the game. These modifications have ranged from fixes to the most minute detail, to complete revisions of the game and even total conversions to whole new worlds (see The Third Age, a Lord of the Rings conversion). Whilst the original title was strongly inspired by medieval history a back seat was given to historical accuracy in favour of game balance and mechanics. In light of this, a number of fan-made mods (most notably, The Long Road and Stainless Steel) have taken it upon themselves to shove the player into a brutal, unforgiving and more historically accurate total war universe.
The most enjoyable aspect of these realism mods is reflected in the power of cavalry; no medieval ruler would have wanted to go to war without them. Nothing of the time was more terrifying than a line of heavy knights, encased in full plate, thundering into the fray across the field of battle. Perhaps more than anything, the simple, reliable and successful formula of the Total War series has really allowed for the imagination of players to step up and create something special.
While there won’t be any awards won for the teaching of History by Medieval 2, accessible and entertaining ways of engaging with the past will always be a winner in my books. So if you too are captivated by the stories told about the medieval era, of valiant knights charging into battle, of noble and not so noble kings and their empires, then why not pick up your own copy of a game which has truly stood the test of time (in PC years) and go and tell your own story of the medieval world.