REVOLUTION, EVOLUTION, REVOLUTION, evolution. That's the development cycle by which the Total War series has single-handedly redefi ned the RTS genre over the past six years. And now, two years after Rome rode into town like a triumphant king to batter its competitors into a powdery submissive pulp with its ground-breaking blend of strategic depth and visceral, awe-inspiring real-time action, we arrive at an evolutionary junction for the franchise.
As with the last time the Total War series swapped renovation for decoration (with Medieval: Total War), we once again find ourselves revisiting the religiously fanatical era where superpowers from Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor carved each other up in the name of religion in order to extend their holdings and rake in as much cash as their coffers could hold.
GET ON YOUR HORSE
Before your rampage of conquest begins, you must pick an empire from a choice of England, France, Spain, Venice, Denmark and The Holy Roman Empire. Aficionados of the series needn't worry though, as a multitude of other factions become unlocked once you've completed the 40-60-hour campaign.
Each nation proves suitably distinctive and provides a unique challenge, both in terms of unit selection and starting position. England's island-bound holdings prove a mixed blessing with only the rampant Scottish hordes to contend with, though across the channel, the single English foothold in Europe needs to be quickly expanded upon and protected from the marauding French.
If you decide to play as the French, you'll find yourself equipped with the best cavalry in the West, though it's not till later in the campaign that the country we commonly associate with affordable booze, snails and mass-rioting really comes into its own, when it starts spewing out professional armies that don't just stand around grunting with dissatisfaction before trying to sleep with the wives of their fellow comrades.
At first glance, The Holy Roman Empire is the most tempting nation to start your Medieval II experience with, due to its generous land holdings - but as you'll soon realise, its realms are beset on all sides by enemies eager to take a bite out of any unprotected provinces.
Venice finds itself in a similar situation, though its meagre collection of starting states means it's perhaps the most challenging of the six, while the axewielding Danes make for a perfect introduction if you're a Total War virgin.
So you've chosen your faction, disconnected your phone, stocked up on cheese puffs and you're ready to go.
So what's new? Well, where do I begin? How about the revamped engine, which takes the graphical splendour of Rome and remodels its already ample assets with a plastic surgery-style makeover? Yup, that sounds like a pretty good place to start. So let's get started...
Without doubt, Medieval II is a visual feast, one that'll milk your 3D card to within an inch of its life and fill your monitor with battlegrounds so detailed, you'll be reaching for a towel to wipe your enemy's blood from your forehead.
Proving far more power-hungry than its predecessor (if you want to really get the most out of it that is), your medieval troops radiate the kind of detail that Rome could only dream about after a hard night's orgy.
Gothic Knights rumble across grassy plains, kicking up plumes of dust as they march, their hooves pounding thunderously against the turf and their polished platearmour suits glinting majestically as they catch the rays of the sun.