Medieval II: Total War takes up the sword once again in the unending battle for land, power, glory and religion in the new Kingdoms expansion. Comprised of four unique campaigns that highlight conflicts from the Medieval Age, armchair generals take command of giant sprawling armies and march them across wide open fields and seize control by force.
Playing much like a slimmed down version of Civilization, but with a much harder and bloodier edge, Total War gets divided into two crucial components. The turn-based map lets players work on city planning, diplomacy and unit movements, but things don't become interesting until a battle erupts. At that point, the game switches to real-time strategy (RTS) mode, and players must tactically coordinate hundreds of soldiers, broken down into groups by type, to invade or defend territories. Kingdoms doesn't mess with the formula, and adds a few gameplay enhancements like forts to help hold territory and the inclusion of Hero units to activate special powers on the battlefield.
Separated into four distinct eras of turmoil, Kingdoms includes Britannia, Crusades, Teutonic and the Americas campaigns. The Spanish struggle against New World civilizations like the Aztec, Mayan and Apache arguably stretch the Medieval Age theme, since the Renaissance was in full swing by the time 1521AD rolled around. Plus, according to history, the Spanish had significant technological advantage with metalworking and firearms. One would think that winning a conflict like this would be easy, were it not for the overwhelming number of bloodthirsty natives; light armor and rocks verses armored Calvary and muskets. With the right general in place, the fight could go either way, and Total War games have always been about rewriting history. The Britannia Campaign lets players enforce or dethrone King Henry III's rule over the British Isles, so players looking to reenact scenes from Braveheart would do well to look here. Meanwhile, the Crusades prove that there's no such thing as peace in the Middle East.
Of all the campaigns, the ruthless struggle of the Teutonic Order against Pagan Lithuania and other countries in Eastern Europe stand out, since the Order isn't a kingdom. Instead of preserving royal family lines, the Order needs only generals. Even if the Order's leader, the Hochmeister, is slain, the next general gets promoted to the position, which makes stamping out the threat quite a challenge. The only thing that keeps the military force in check is the fact that it can only recruit knights from a Christian population, so it must take an area and ensure its population converts religion in order to keep its soldier ranks filled.
Each campaign installs separately with its own shortcut icon, which gets annoying because even when the player checks off for everything, they still need to baby-sit the process and manually confirm the installation. Once everything gets copied to the hard drive, each campaign launches and plays separately, so switching from one to the next requires quitting out completely and restarting the game. Also, the campaigns operate separately from one another, and the units specific to each conflict have no interaction with the other. With that said, those wondering what a custom battle between the Teutonic Order and the Aztecs would look like will need to look elsewhere. Players cannot launch the core game using the expansion disc, nor do any of the expansion benefits apply to the main game, adding to the list of annoyances. Kingdoms acts less like an integrated campaign and more like a collection of campaigns that happen to get tacked on.
With the exception of the Teutonic and, slightly less so, Americas campaigns, each conflict plays out like the core Medieval II game. The units look different and factions have different strengths and weaknesses, but there's no getting over the feeling that these are highly detailed mods being passed off as expansion material. Even subtle touches, like how King Henry III must ensure loyalty within his troops to make sure they don't side with a rival for the throne, does little to overcome this impression. Hero units end up being slightly underwhelming, since they're technically no better than skilled generals but have access to special abilities. Each Hero only has one special power, which can change the tide of battle if used correctly, but they don't offer anything so earth shaking to make them more valuable than normal generals.
The introduction of the hotseat multiplayer doesn't give players much to look forward to either. Unfortunately, the game's design doesn't lend itself easily to this form of play. Even when set to short mode, where a player only needs to take and hold twenty regions, multiplayer takes forever. The host has no control over the number of included factions, pacing civilizations or starting resources. The game stretches out even longer when battles aren't automatically resolved. Additionally, players cede control of their armies and decisions to the computer whenever a conflict arises. Players can't even decide whether or not they want to pay a ransom to retrieve captured generals. Worst of all, players don't receive a status report when one of their armies gets wiped out or routed by an opposing player. They're left to wonder why one of their armies mysteriously disappeared from the map.
Medieval II: Total War—Kingdoms offers some interesting and lengthy campaigns, but it doesn't add enough new ideas to improve the formula.