PS3 Review: HISTORY™ Great Battles Medieval

HISTORY™ Great Battles Medieval doesn’t make the best first impression, for more reasons than just the generic, awkwardly punctuation-free name.

Taking Total War’s real-time historical strategy template and creating from it a History Channel-branded educational RTS game, Great Battles Medieval offers players the opportunity to play through the Hundred Years War as either the French or the English, assembling and training armies before unleashing them in battle to make history their bitch. In lieu of regular game cut-scenes, each mission’s introduction comes in the form of History Channel documentary clips, providing a short history lesson to compliment the gameplay. It’s a fine idea in theory, but in execution, the historical catch-up clips are the first of the game’s glaring rough edges. Despite being released on a console on which high-definition visuals are essentially a given, the cut scenes in Great Battles Medieval are low-resolution nightmares of fuzzy pixellation.

The game proper offers slightly more appealing (if slightly drab and sparsely detailed) visuals, though is no less problematic. We’re given a little control over the camera, but the choice is either a ground-level view of your troops as they trundle along and engage in stabby blood-letting or a slightly higher view that still feels strangely claustrophic and restrictive. There’s no option to view the battlefield from up high to get an omnipresent view of things, nor does the mini-map give any indication of the camera’s current position in relation to the map. Our first introduction to the gameplay is through the tutorial, which offers only an all-too-cursory, insubstantial insight into the game’s workings, meaning that we’re dropped into the main campaign barely prepared, resulting in a steep and frustrating learning curve of trial and (mostly) error trying to fathom the mechanics of it.

The game’s lack of a substantial tutorial and helpful hints or objective lists makes it all too easy to simply want to give up after a few early missions that are seemingly impossible without a full grasp of the game’s tactics, which is unfortunate since there’s a pretty engaging and worthwhile game hidden under problematic design and shoddy presentation. The gameplay is simple enough (in theory, at least) – battle occurs in real time, though each mission has a pre-battle deployment phase to plan attacks and arrange troops, and you can handily pause the game to cancel, assign or change orders to your units, with the aim being to use your arsenal of archers, infantry or artillery to mount a successful, strategic attack on the enemy. The battlefield is overlaid with a grid of square spaces upon which you’ll select locations and plot paths for your armies or click on enemy locations to engage an attack.

There’s a surprising amount of depth and variety to the game once you scratch the surface. In true RPG style, each type of soldier has specific strengths and weaknesses. For instance, archers are great at executing ranged attacks, but will get crushed underfoot in melee combat. You can use money gained from battles to recruit new troops or upgrade the stats and equipment of existing ones who grow more effective with each battle, with the option of commanding up to 20 squads. Through the versatile skill-set and equipment options, you can buy or select armour and weapons that enhance a soldier’s strength, fortify their weaknesses or merely fashion a Jack-of-all-trades unit that is decent in any situation. Terrain adds a small layer of strategy, too, as arrows are less precise through woodland and rocky ground offers protection against cavalry attacks.

Morale plays a small part in battle, amounting mainly to squads getting spooked if outnumbered or flanked and less likely to defend or attack with precision. Wear the enemy down enough and they’ll quickly rout and flee from combat. Battle Cards affect the outcome of combat too; available to use once per battle, they offer a temporary stat boost for a single unit – a Battle Cry card, for example, will offer a rallying boost of morale to the selected soldiers. In all, it’s a surprisingly layered battle system that lends itself to a great deal of strategy, though it’s unfortunate that the player is left to their own devices to get to grips with an expanse of tough mechanics without much guidance at all.

There’s plenty on offer in the game at large, too, with two full campaigns (one as the English and one as the French), optional missions to gain money and stats to aid you in the main campaign, skirmish modes, a few multiplayer modes which can be played online or against the computer AI, with an Army Editor which allows you to customise your army for use in multiplayer, with access to all equipment and weapons found in the main game. There’s plenty to keep players busy once they’ve gotten to grips with the game mechanics, and the PlayStation 3 is a great home for the game, where RTS games are in scarce supply compared to the PC platform. That being said, it’s tough to shake the feeling that it should’ve been a PlayStation Network downloadable game or a budget title, where the low-res visuals and nagging flaws would seem less problematic and more easily forgiveable.

HISTORY™ Great Battles Medieval is sadly heavily marred by clunky presentation and some glaring oversights that make the game a chore to come to grips with. If you have the patience to stick with it and navigate the awkward learning curve, though, there’s a worthwhile RTS game hiding under the flaws. With a deep, layered and rewarding battle system, a variety of gameplay modes and an entertaining and engaging historical hook, history buffs and RTS fans should find something to enjoy in the game, especially on PS3, where RTS games are in short supply.


HISTORY™ Great Battles Medieval is available to buy on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC now.
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