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At its best, the Total War series casts a spell over you. Your empire rises from nothing, surrounded by enemies who are poised to trample it into the dust. Each decision on the strategic level is a gamble on the immediate future, where “one more turn” isn’t just a stepping-stone to a new upgrade, but a perilous step onto thin ice. Each time you take to the battlefield is another do-or-die moment, a possible Hastings or Austerlitz that can open the road to conquest or plunge you into a desperate fight for survival.
But the Total War series has also been defined by massive, abrupt swings in quality. While the series has been on a linear trajectory in terms of graphics, the quality of the games underlying those vivid battlefield vistas has varied wildly. Total War at its best is interactive Kurosawa and Kubrick. At its worst, it’s a middle-school history textbook as told by Drunk History and filmed by the cast and crew of The Patriot.
So before the series (temporarily) leaves history behind for the grimdark faux-history of Warhammer fantasy, let’s put into order the times that Total War was at its best and why sometimes its lows were so very low. We’ll save the worst for last, because if there’s one thing that every Total War fan loves, it’s an argument over which games were the biggest disappointments.
In Now Playing PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time. Today, Matt tries to rewrite history in Medieval 2.
Stories in Total War appear without warning, like aunts on damp Sunday afternoons. Attila and Rome 2 deliberately construct these stories, letting you make decisions that nudge the narrative in whichever direction you choose, but I prefer the accidental drama of Medieval 2.
I m drawn back to Medieval 2: Kingdoms after reading about the Crusades: a compelling period of history, rich in tales of dashing Norman princes, religious fervour and the taut diplomacy of the Byzantine Empire. Specifically, the battle of Manzikert, in which the once-supreme imperial army was crushed by the Turks. It makes me sad, because the Byzantines were always my favourite faction, which is a bit like picking the least-worst racist in an inner-city chain pub, but also: I don t care. Compared to the frothing barbarians of the West, Constantinople had guile and romance. I decide to make myself feel better by changing history, because games let me do that.
I start a new Crusades campaign, 100 years after Manzikert. My empire is diminished but capable—although huge chunks of Anatolia belong to the Turks, it s still possible to fight back. Soon, purple fingers begin stretching across the map, gradually reclaiming lost lands which were probably taken from someone else in the first place. I construct mines and grow crops. I send emissaries into enemy lands to spread religious dissent. On the faction rankings graph, my purple line creeps upwards while Turkish forces diminish.
I reach that moment that comes in every Total War game, where armies fight to determine the future of each faction. It s an event where the lines on the graph converge; one faction falls, another ascends. Our forces clash at Amorium, and it s butchery. My general is killed, and the future of my campaign is left dangling from thin gristle like a hacked arm. A wave of green threatens to wash my forces away, leaving the path to Constantinople unguarded Unexpectedly, a young Byzantine warrior steps forward. Instead of fleeing, my troops rally to him. He charges the vulnerable flanks of the Turkish army, presumably screaming something really inspirational, and one by one, the enemy forces rout. Being a true hero, he hacks them down as they flee.
The Doge is captured, I ransom him for 28,000 gold, capture him again, then execute him.
Brilliantly, my hero s name is Modestos Bringas. I reinforce his army and send him after the remnants of the shattered Turkish forces. He pursues them relentlessly, menacing the fringes of the Seljuk empire for years, and I almost forget about him. Back in the West, a Venetian crusader force appears, intent on reclaiming Jerusalem. They re dangerously close to my capital, but being fellow Christians, they ll definitely pass by harmlessly.
The Venetians take Constantinople. Only one person is near enough to save the city: Modestos. I march him back to the capital. The Venetian force is led by the Doge. (That s their leader, not the smug dog.) Modestos pushes forward to Constantinople, marches through the same holes the crusaders made in my city walls, and expels them. The Doge is captured, I ransom him for 28,000 gold, capture him again, then execute him. Modestos Bringas, once nothing more a humble soldier, has saved the greatest city in Christendom. If only he d been at the battle of Manzikert.
Few things make me as happy as modders taking one game and stitching it to another. As Troy and Abed said, it only makes them more awesome.
Medieval 2: Total War is getting pretty old in the tooth, but modders are still working hard to find us some new ways to play it. The Elder Scrolls: Total War mod means you can now pit the various factions of Tamriel against each other in a war that can only be described as, well, total.
There are 20 factions to choose from, including The Kingdoms of Skyrim, Daggerfall, and Wayrest, the Clan of Blackmarsh and the Clan of Crowns, and the Great House of Hlaalu, Telvanni, and Dagoth, just to name a few. You can play as monsters too, like the hordes of Oblivion or an army of undead warriors. They're all custom skinned, so if you choose to side with Oblivion you'll really be marching around an army of Daedra.
There's a full map as well, based on The Elder Scrolls games, and appropriate custom banners will snap in the wind as you march your armies into battle.
The mod is not yet complete, but from my play session I'd say it's off to a good start. The campaign isn't finished yet, and there are some bugs, but I played a few custom battles and they worked just fine. It's also entirely in Russian, so in addition to the mod, which you can find a link for on this page, you may also need the English language patch. Even with it, some of the text still appears untranslated, though they're working on a better one.
Installing Medieval 2 mods isn't always easy, but there's a nice guide here on Reddit.
Until Total War: Warhammer comes along from Creative Assembly, the most ambitious and comprehensive Warhammer fantasy strategy game is a colossal mod for Rome: Total War called Warhammer: Total War – A Call to Arms. Over the course of five years, a high school student and a handful of volunteers tortured and twisted the aging Rome: Total War engine into becoming a full-fledged Warhammer game.
Powered by an obsolete engine even when the final version was released a couple years back, and soon overshadowed by the news the Sega had acquired the rights to make a Warhammer fantasy game on PC, A Call to Arms could be seen as a classically quixotic modding effort. But if you look past the dated graphics, you’ll find that A Call to Arms might just be the most faithful adaptation Warhammer fantasy will ever receive on PC. It is a sprawling, ambitious, and scarcely-coherent effort to bring every ounce of Warhammer fantasy lore to life as a Total War game – and in doing so it captures the spirit of the old Warhammer fantasy universe better than official games might ever dare.