Medieval II: Total War, two DVD-ROMs in English by Sega, distributed by Hed Artzi Multimedia with a 66-page English-language user's manual, requires Windows XP and a 1.8 Ghz PC or better, for ages 16 through adult, NIS 219. Rating: ***** If you thought religious extremism was responsible for many of the contemporary world's wars, just go back to the Middle Ages, when it was even worse. This brilliantly executed, historically based epic strategy game set in the years 1080 to 1530 shows how the power of popes, imams and other high-level clergymen can fuel strife, brutality and death. You micromanage a medieval kingdom, sending large-sized animated ambassadors to foreign capitals to negotiate with other national and religious leaders; when diplomacy fails, you mass your armies - complete with elephants, horses, catapults and cannons - to fight wars. There is plenty of violence, hence the 16+ age recommendation - but mercifully no blood at all. Sega, which previously released Total War: Rome, has improved its graphics engine for this game, reaching the pinnacle of the art and presenting realistic, epic views that have never before been offered in a turn-based (you vs the computer) strategy game. There are dozens or even hundreds of soldiers and horses on the screen at any one time, but they are each individuals with different expressions and clothing - not cookie-cutter hordes. When soldiers are downed by others carrying lances and riding on horseback, you can see the anger and agony on their faces. You may feel frustrated at first that you can engage only the Holy Roman Empire, France and a few other factions, but as you win battles, a dozen more, including Arabs, are opened up on other continents. The wars are concentrated in Europe, but they can reach west even to the Incas in South America and east to our own neighborhood in the Middle East. You see the Dead Sea (oddly, with waves prominent slapping the beaches), the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee as the Land of Israel supposedly was almost a millennium ago, when Catholic popes targeted it for their Crusades. Settlements include not only towns and cities but also castles, which are more difficult to seize than urban areas but are valuable because they house a variety of army units and equipment. Zooming in and out of a map of Europe, you can manage your empire and learn a lot about historical wars. Play at any of four levels of difficulties, setting the season (summer or winter) and the time of day (sunrise to night) for battles. You will receive unsolicited advice for running your kingdom and forces from various male and female voices, but you don't have to implement any of it. Pithy quotation from Petrarch, Machiavelli, Shakespeare and others are shown on the bottom of the screen when battles are loaded. Your main goal is to conquer the world, using not only warfare but also negotiations for cease-fires, the deployment of spies to report on enemy weaknesses and the dispatch of beautiful princesses to promote alliances with other military or political leaders through marriage and the spawning of children. You earn gold coins by developing agriculture, developing industry and selling off the spoils of war. But religion is a very powerful force, and you are well advised to build churches and mosques to bolster your faith. When you rule Catholic countries, you should try to control the Vatican by getting one of your priests elected cardinal and then pope, who will forgive you for your transgressions against Christendom. Prepare the infrastructure in advance, as a pope can die anytime. If, however, an enemy of yours takes over in Rome, you are in big trouble. If you don't have enough patience (even though this is a prerequisite for enjoying this game to its fullest), you can let the computer generate the result for smaller battles, but if you fight out every conflict in real time, Medieval II: Total War is a sweeping, all-out experience that can have you busy for months and really doesn't end. It is unfortunate that Hed Artzi didn't produce the user's guide in Hebrew for local users, but even with such a translation, Israelis whose English is not very fluent will find it nearly impossible to understand the copious texts and carry out their strategic decisions. And if your computer is not a heavyweight with at least 11 gigabytes of free space on hard drive, you won't get off the (battle)ground at all.