• Medieval II: Reviews of An Orcs Tale by Maltacus and Dreadbolt by Alavaria


    Medieval II: Reviews of An Orcs Tale by Maltacus and Dreadbolt by Alavaria
    Reviewed by Alwyn


    It was November 2006 when CA officially released Medieval II: Total War; ten years have passed and despite the improvement of the graphics technologies and the new directions of the video game market, this awesome masterpiece is still alive and running, loved by millions of fans and modded by some of the most talented modders available.
    - Flinn, Medieval II Total War – A Retrospective on Ten Years of Success
    Medieval II is a much-valued game which still has plenty to offer players. Even now, eleven years after its release, it is not difficult to see why. As Illuminati Rex and Flinn said in Medieval II Total War – A Retrospective on Ten Years of Success, this game is immersive, visually rewarding, requiring strategic choices and offering an in-depth campaign. This game provides battles that feel visceral and real, with a variety of troops and tactics as well as enjoyable campaign management as soldiers' equipment improves and characters get new traits. As modders can edit the campaign map and create new maps, the game can be used for campaigns in different parts of the world - and even other worlds such as the Middle-earth of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Eleven years after its release and with the aid of skilled modders, players still enjoy exciting campaigns and create compelling After Action Reports. These reviews will give you a taste of just two of the recent offerings. In addition to these tales, there are many more Medieval II AARs to enjoy in the Writers' Study.

    An Orcs Tale by Maltacus

    If anyone more competent made the call the land would be swept clean of these rebels and troublemakers, Minas Tirith sacked and the corsairs put firmly in line. Someone sensible of the ever vigilant Uruks, yes why not Malthur himself? And here he was, wasting away overseeing the road leading up to that dusty old cave in the fire mountain and patrolling the road between here and Barad Dur! He turned angrily away from looking up towards the mountain top...and immediately tripped on the sword hilt now firmly lodged in the ground. The cursing and swearing echoed far and away. Still, an idea was beginning to take shape in Malthurs head. A blurry and unfinished one but growing clearer each moment. Outward security measures were not the only one being insufficient these days. Perhaps the inner ones might be bent a little as well, for the greater glory of Mordor of course - Chapter I - I
    Thus begins the adventure of Malthur, a crafty orc who knows exactly what to say to save his own skin when other orcs are being executed for disobedience and how to gain promotion. One of the challenges with any AAR is to write characters who sound authentic. The orcs in this tale sound authentic: cruel, suspicious and brutal.

    Making his characters authentic help Maltacus to immerse readers in the story. Making his main character interesting helps to keep readers wanting to know more. The orcs are generally, as one reader wrote, “less than nimble intellectually” – as Tolkien’s orcs generally are. Malthur, however, is an exception. For example, seeing the gilded helmet of a fallen foe, he deduces the existence of gold mines nearby. While Malthur is good at reaching conclusions based on incomplete information, he sometimes feels frustrated at the lack of reliable news:-

    And if anyone higher up would hear a whisper of that it would be short work to find the responsible overseer to blame. And this latest talk, then! Minas Morgul itself, assaulted by those accursed Gondorians! Stormed, some said. Under siege, according to others. No, the Nazghul drove the enemy away. No, they fell into an ambush. No the Gondorians had all gone mad from the foul sorcery of the town. Damn it! It was hard enough to find trustworthy information even for him. - Chapter I - I
    This, too, creates the impression of Malthur as a realistic character. The player might know what is happening beyond the horizon, but Malthur doesn't. The rumours help to create tension and to make the reader want to find out what is happening. When we do discover what is happening at Minas Morgul, Maltacus writes about a battle there in the distinctive voice of an orc narrator:-

    Ufluk, the talentless scum, retreated to the inner walls almost as soon as the enemy showed their snouts near the gate. Probably saved his hide. He had two banners of the little archer scouts that plague the land like some vermin someone has yet to step on, and these were sent to the walls to hold their positions and support the boys down in the yard. - Chapter I - I
    I particularly like the way that the archers are described. Reading a battle scene, a reader can be immersed by great description - but then the immersion might suddenly be broken by the in-game name of a unit. Of course, mentioning the name of the unit is not necessarily a bad thing - particularly if that is what the point-of-view character (if there is one) would call it. If you wrote a Napoleon Total War AAR about a French campaign and your Old Guard appeared for the first time, there would be nothing wrong with calling them by their name. In this chapter of An Orcs Tale, we've heard the an authentic orcish voice in the description of archer scouts. Together with the authentic voice, we see impressive images showing how well the modders re-created a fortified city, Minas Morgul:-

    (from Chapter I - I)

    Initially, we focus on Malthur as he claws his way towards the command of any army. With this mod, the lords of Mordor require Mordor's generals to carry out missions. We might sympathise with Malthur, considering the difficulty of the challenges he faces. He needs to use persuasion to be assigned missions - and succeed - so that he can come to the attention of the Mordor's lords. While doing that, he must also maintain the appearance of a loyal servant of Sauron. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Malthur navigate between his need for success (showing himself to be useful) while not seeming to be ambitious (avoiding appearing to be a potential threat to the lords he serves.)

    Having established an orc's viewpoint and voice, Maltacus provides variety, using changes in perspective with great effect. As Malthur's campaign progresses, we see the situation through the eyes of Gondor's commanders as well as from the point of view of Malthur and his army. Maltacus presents an image of soldiers of Gondor who, at least initially, feel well-prepared to face the approaching army of orcs:-

    The army as a whole was organized in three parts, the southern watch guarding the bridge at Tir Ethraid and the town itself, the northern watch and the main contingent in between. The plan was of course that the latter would support each of the other two and for them to hold until assistance could come through. As such, we were fairly well supplied with balanced forces all over to counter all kinds of enemy compositions. At least we thought so when he struck the northern watch.- Chapter XXX - I
    This initially calm picture contrasts well with the chaotic and (for the people of Gondor) disturbing reports by people who have survived battles with the orcs led by Malthur:-

    I served on the left flank and I was able to escape thanks to that. We were not the most targeted but as the line buckled and companies routed and rallied we had our fair share of fire. We lost our commander and then decided on our own to make a ruin for it. I know we betrayed our oaths and should have stood and fallen. But then, I'm in good company seeing as a third or so of the army made it out together to meet up Aradors advancing relief army.

    Arador, in any case, was quite shaken by the state of our sorry lot and the rapidity of our defeat. He still pressed on though, and might have though he would take an exhausted orc horde unawares. The trouble was, loading a catapult isn't nearly as exhausting as swinging a sword while expecting to be hacked apart the next moment. The orcs were ready, I have been told, and just waiting for more of us to march into their maws.
    - Chapter XXX - II
    For me, one of the many enjoyable aspects of writing an After Action Report is asking yourself where characters, traits and events came from, and creating story-lines which explain these developments. For example, if one of the player's generals acquires a follower who is a survivor from an enemy army, the AAR writer can tell this survivor's story. In An Orcs Tale, this is done through the eyes of a survivor of one of Gondor's armies, Cirion. The addition of this character is a useful development; we see Malthur's orcs through the eyes of a terrified prisoner who is doing what he must to survive.

    This AAR offers authentic orcs, a crafty main character and a great introduction to the Third Age MOS mod which was used to play the campaign. Even though we might not expect to like a main character who is one of Sauron's orcs, the difficulty of the challenges which Malthur faces and the ingenuity which he brings to these tasks can cause readers to cheer him on. Perhaps, as the story develops in future, more hints of a long-term plot arc could be added? For example, I would be interested to know more about how the enemies of Malthur - both the factions he fights against and rival generals or lords of Mordor - react to his actions. For example, perhaps a long-term story arc could involve a rival orc general who seeks to outdo Malthur, or a lord of Mordor who is trying to get Malthur killed, or a general from an opposing faction who is a challenging opponent? Nevertheless, this well-written and enjoyable adventure in Middle Earth is highly recommended. For a concluding observation on the tale of Malthur, I quote from one of the many fans of this AAR:-

    And what you do with your AAR is generally astonishing. No, I mean it. You start gradually building tension right from the start. We, the readers, know how a few things have gone in the past, but your gondorian heroes don't. Which is the definition of dramatic irony. This contrast between what the reader and what the protagonist know gives a tone of building up tension, more and more, a little more, even more, until the final explosion of action. And then, you leave us there, with only a picture, imagining things, with a taste of conflicting feelings. - Socrates1984, commenting after Chapter VI - II
    Dreadbolt, by Alavaria

    Can you remember the first time when you played a strategy game which you really enjoyed? It might be the first time you played as the Julii in Rome: Total War, seeing your Roman soldiers march to victory, or your first Medieval II campaign. Of course, sometimes aspects of a new game can be confusing. Maybe you had the advantage of an experienced, witty friend or family member who provided useful hints? Reading Dreadbolt can feel like that experienced, witty friend teaching you smart moves in Medieval II. This AAR uses the Stainless Steel Historical Improvement Project mod, so it's also a way for readers to discover the difference that this modification makes.

    If someone wanted to write a new AAR and wanted theirs to stand out from the crowd, they might look around the Writers' Study to see how people are writing current AARs - and think of a different way to create their own AAR. Once, the classic style - simply reporting what happened in your campaign, with some commentary - was popular. Now, the narrative style - using your campaign to tell a story - is more often used. For me, one aspect of what makes this AAR so good is that Alavaria combines elements of both the classic and the narrative styles. Some parts of the AAR use the narrative style, including the perspectives of some of Pisa's enemies:-

    Venice frequently held Pisa in scant regard, but viewed its sudden expansion under Podesta's leadership with great worry. Naimero Polani marched his men towards Bologna, being now the third major force to try and wrest it from the Pisans. As he eyed the Pisan line of shields, his men formed up and began to advance in order. But then suddenly crossbow bolts began screaming out from behind the Pisan lines. Naimero was shot in the eye and died instantly. - Chapter 1 - 2 I'll be Polishing My Pavise With Your Tabard Soon
    The images combine well with the reporting of action on the campaign map and battlefield. In the image below, for example, Pisa's cavalry are charging Sicilian crossbowmen. This allows Pisa's own crossbowmen to target the enemy heavy cavalry.


    (Chapter 1-2)

    Looking closely at the image above, it seems that two of the Pisan cavalry are ahead of the others and that they reached the enemy crossbowmen before everyone else. This made me wonder if this there was an opportunity to say something about them (are they leaders, riding ahead to inspire their men to follow - or are they heroic veterans who noticed the opportunity to charge the crossbowmen and inspired the others to charge with their swift actions?). Perhaps there was a missed opportunity here? However, that would have involved a sudden - and possibly awkward - change in the level of detail in this chapter, so I can see why Alavaria decided not to add more detail. The report of this battle is written on the level of units rather than individuals. If the battle was told from the perspective of one or more combatants, then there would have been more of an opportunity to use this aspect of the picture - but, of course, how each AAR writer chooses to tell the story of their battles is up to them.

    Alavaria uses humour effectively, for example in chapter titles. The skill involved in successfully using humour in an AAR should not be under-estimated; it is more difficult than it might seem. In places, Alavaria uses a 'classic' style of AAR writing, speaking directly to the reader and providing insight into playing a Pisan campaign successfully:-

    One nice thing about Italian starts is your starting diplomats are pretty close to Rome, thus making your early life much easier. Pope can be treated as a machine you need to feed cash into to avoid getting into Trouble.

    Except that pope is also a maniac who will siege a lightly garrisoned town bordering him, thus instantly excommunicating you. You can definitely manage the risk but uh... - Chapter I - I: Podesta's Aggression
    When Alavaria reports on a battle, there are opportunities to learn strategies for a successful campaign:-

    Many Sicilians attempted to run when our crossbows made the flanks and began shooting them in the side. Unsupported, this is what happens to enemy infantry. We chased them down and took them prisoner (for delicious experience).

    The knights, however, did not rout, and preferred to continue trying to stab our spearmen while being shot in the back. So be it, they are worth very little in ransom anyway. (Note: Mercs have a high recruit cost, so they ransom for a lot) - Chapter I - I: Podesta's Aggression
    One of the things I like about Alavaria's writing style is the ability to say a lot with a few words, as in this example:-

    After an opening exchange of missile troops, the enemy was still reeling when our horse charged in and routed them (they would rally, but that's fine). The Sicilians thus tried to move up under our heavy hail of crossbow bolts.

    Once the Miles were in range, our crossbows started shooting them up. Horse are much higher priority than foot, by the way.
    ...
    Not seeing an obvious flank weakness, the Miles hurriedly charge into our spearmen on the side. And we were waiting for this, so our own horse charged into them!

    Broke horse, killed general, and then chased down the infantry as they ran. Victory!
    It's important not to underestimate the value of making an AAR easy to read - and this requires skill. A terse writing style can be overdone, of course:-

    Writers of bare-bones prose often defend their prose by saying that they themselves are bored by reading descriptions. These writers tend to be unaware of how important descriptions have been to novels they enjoyed. When well executed, description is unobtrusive and lends substance to a novel. It is the body fat of prose: too much is unhealthy, but without any, you no longer have the thing - you have the skeleton." - Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark "How Not to Write a Novel" (Penguin 2009) p. 114
    The writing is terse at times, and perhaps a few more details occasionally could immerse readers more deeply, but overall the writing is well-balanced between brevity and detail. Dialogue and details of Pisa's development (such as new technology, buildings and units) provide an effective balance for brief coverage of some events. Of course, not every event needs equal attention in an AAR; it makes sense to cover routine battles briefly (if at all), to allow more space for the most important and interesting events.

    In addition to the features of the writing which have already been discussed, Alavaria adds an extra ingredient to keep readers gripped. This ingredient is the element of mystery, in the figure of Our Lady. Of course, for a Catholic faction such as Pisa, it would not be surprising that characters would venerate Mary as the mother of Jesus. However, Our Lady in this AAR seems to more than a venerated religious icon - she seems to be a character with opinions, emotions and plans:-

    My heir's first child was a daughter. When she became of age, Lucrezia also became the first Princess of our faction to take up diplomacy. Her first assignment was a major one, replacing our diplomat near Rome. The man had been bribed to join Sicily.

    His defection notwithstanding, Our Lady seemed quite happy to have this 17-year old girl represent our entire faction to negotiate with the pope. But she probably had something in mind... I hope. - Chapter 1 -3 After-Slaughter Aftermath
    Like a popular recurring character in a long-running TV series, Our Lady returns - not just as an 'off-stage' character whose opinions or plans are speculated about (and who might be appearing in the dreams of others, rather than as a real person), but as someone who actually appears:-

    Our Lady was sitting on the pope's throne from which he held audiences. She had a really large scabbarded sword with her, the point was on the ground between her feet and the blade, resting between her legs, came up to where the guard which was about the level of her chest. She was tapping the side of the pommel impatiently. - Chapter I-7: Regime Change
    When she is mentioned, Alavaria keeps this brief, which maintains her status as an enigma. Our Lady has become popular with fans of Dreadbolt; one reader reported enjoying the "impish, mysterious and unnerving character of Our Lady" and, as Caillagh de Bodemloze said, "sometimes it seems as if the Pisans are magical."

    There are other gems to discover in Dreadbolt, such as a video in Chapter I - Ep 2: Phase I Commentary, showing events on the campaign map for the first 30 turns - an unusual feature for an AAR. We have seen that Alavaria demonstrates a lot of different skills: writing an AAR which is different from the currently popular style, providing useful insights into game-play, using humour effectively, showing us different perspectives and using language efficiently to provide a lot of action in a few words (without overdoing this). There is also the element of mystery and the character of Our Lady, who has intrigued the minds of readers and prompted them to ask for more. It is not difficult to see why Dreadbolt keeps attracting readers, who have plenty of reasons to keep reading and to keep coming back for more.

    Conclusion

    Medieval II offers incredible opportunities for AAR writers to create stories in different historical settings and even different worlds such as Middle-earth. Both Maltacus and Alavaria use their own distinctive style. While most AARs show us the action of a whole faction, the focus on one general, Malthur, adds to the tension in An Orcs Tale. From the perspective of the lords of Mordor, the high-ranking servants of Sauron, Malthur's army might be a disposable resource - one army among many. But, for readers of this AAR, this army and its leader command the whole of our attention. For Alavaria in Dreadbolt, a combination of classic and narrative styles of AAR writing creates a compelling story. In addition to tips for playing the campaign, there are elements of charm (in the style of writing), humour (especially in chapter titles), ruthlessness (in the actions of Pisa's generals) and mystery (in the intriguing character of Our Lady).

    Both of these AARs have much more to offer than I explain in this review - I highly recommend reading them, if you have not already discovered them. As well as telling a story, each AAR demonstrates the game-play which a Medieval II mod (or sub-mod) offers to players. These reviews simply introduce these AARs; hopefully, they will encourage more readers to enjoy the writing of Maltacus, Alavaria and other AAR writers. If you enjoy an AAR, I suggest leaving a comment about something which you enjoyed - our writers appreciate positive feedback. If you enjoy reading AARs, perhaps you would will consider reporting on a campaign which you have played (or part of a campaign) in the Writers' Study? Thank you for reading - see you in the Study!
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      excellent article and review for two impressive AARs; I've been reading about Dreadbolt for a while, now I know I have something more to lurk at
    1. Maltacus's Avatar
      Maltacus -
      Thanks Alwyn, your review was a pleasant surprise
    1. NorseThing's Avatar
      NorseThing -
      I recently discovered Deadbolt and now this review of the AAR. I completely agree with the entire review. I must be genius to have discovered Deadbolt just days before I read this however.

      As Flinn stated -- both are impressive AARs.
    1. atthias's Avatar
      atthias -
      completely agree with this