Reviewing an expansion pack for a game is always an interesting task, so let's make something clear from the outset - if you're reading this, I'm going to assume that you've played and enjoyed Medieval: Total War, a rather wonderful and completely engrossing, if very hardcore, PC strategy title which we awarded a coveted 9/10 score when we reviewed it last October. If you haven't played Medieval, go and buy a copy of that before you even consider the expansion pack; if you didn't enjoy Medieval, or it didn't appeal to you, look elsewhere, because there's nothing here to change your mind.
We come from the land of Ice and Snow...
With those pleasantries out of the way, let's get down to the meat of what's on offer in Viking Invasion. If the title wasn't enough of a hint, then the scary bearded men (looking a little like Kristan when he aims for the rugged, stubbly look in fact) on the front cover of the box should be a dead giveaway - this game brings the focus of Medieval: Total War back into the depths of the Dark Ages, and deals with the territorial and plundering ambitions of a bunch of rather unruly Scandinavians with funny hats.
In keeping with this setting, the entire game is set in and around the British Isles this time, with the only territories on the map outside of England being the bases from which the Vikings launch their attacks. The available factions in the game, aside from the Vikings obviously, are the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the Saxons, the Picts, the Mercians and the Northumbrians, each of which has their own units and unique balance of advantages and disadvantages.
The technology tree, however, has been completely changed from Medieval, with most of the advanced technologies gone (as you'd expect for the time period) and, crucially, the effect of religion almost entirely removed, with the only two choices being Christian and Pagan. That's a bit of an oversimplification which those who understand the history of the time might well sniff at a bit (there was rather a difference between a pagan follower of the druidic faith and a pagan follower of the Norse gods, after all), but it's not really a major complaint, although those who enjoyed all the political and religious scheming in the first game might be a bit disappointed.
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow
The transition to a smaller map with a lot of small territories, rather than the large-scale map of the original game, makes quite a difference to the gameplay. Territories move back and forth between tribes at a rate of knots in this game, compared to the altogether more sedate pace of the original, while another major speed boost is provided by the rethought ship combat model.
Obviously any game featuring the Vikings (and frankly, we can't see why you'd bother playing as any of the other races - even this writer's proud Irish heritage was forced to step aside for the fun factor of playing with a bunch of scary, bearded, horned sailors) needs a good system for maritime raids on coastal provinces, something which the original Medieval lacked for the most part. Viking Invasion fixes this problem by giving the Norsemen fast ships and the ability to land, pillage and then depart immediately - so you can ply your vicious trade up and down the coast, raiding settlements as you go before upping anchor and moving on.
Under the surface, however, this is Medieval: Total War with few major tweaks. The engine is the same graphics system that's been with us since Shogun: Total War, and although it looks great, it's starting to feel a little bit creaky thanks to its reliance on sprite-based troops. The game offers a few control system enhancements in battle - most notably the ability to scout the battlefield before an engagement and use spies to reveal the enemy line-up - a very useful tool in pre-planning a battle strategy. However, for the most part the game mechanics of the original title are completely intact, and it should be noted that you get thrown in completely at the deep end - if you haven't played the original Medieval, you're going to be totally lost with the factions in Viking Invasion.
The hammer of the gods!
In summary, then, this is more Medieval: Total War, but with a twist (possibly of lemon) which makes it quite interesting all over again. The lack of any new multiplayer options is a bit disappointing, but it's priced as an expansion pack and there's certainly enough here to keep any fan of Medieval engaged for quite a large number of hours. It's a worthy expansion pack to a truly excellent game, and should hopefully tide you over until the Total War team bring us their next magnum opus.