“For many of you this is your first battle. Like your first lovemaking, expect it to be confusing until its over.”
The Creative Assembly have been working on the Total War series for many a year now. With a body of work spanning seven full titles and expansion packs, this history has afforded them the time to continually experiment with and refine a long established template, yet somewhere along the way things started to run away from them. After years spent making giant leaps in graphics, new features, and ever bigger content, the team was eventually forced to take a step back and fix all of the problems which had begun to plague the series. Total War: Napoleon was a successful exercise which allowed the erratic AI to be rebuilt from the ground up, and a tighter more challenging game emerged. The extremely high standards of the graphics were maintained, and even improved upon, but Napoleon could now be run at a smooth level without reducing even the most expensive processors to a heap of molten lava.
Interestingly Shogun 2 continues the process of improving and perfecting the template on a smaller scale and returns the Total War series to its original setting of Feudal Japan. The nature of clan warfare and the geography of the Japanese islands imposes significant restrictions on the scope of Shogun 2, which in fact feels smaller in scale than even the reduced Europe used for Napoleon. Coupled with the confined stage, the map revolves around the powerful Shogunate which lies smack bang in the middle of Japan. As the seat of sovereignty the Shogunate eventually needs to be defeated and conquered, which leads to each campaign inevitably gravitating in the same direction. The cultural setting also means there is a distinct lack of variety between the 8 playable factions beyond basic aesthetics such as colours, standards, and your generals favourite hat. Each clan does have a cultural specialty which bestows bonuses in trade; skill with a particular weapon; naval war; castle building etc. but this too can inadvertently place restrictions on your choice of clan should there be a particular approach you generally favour. The reality is that military units and building options are for the most part identical from faction to faction and the vast majority of battles will be fought between the same 4-5 variants of warriors, compromising the sense of grandeur and wonder. This historical period also precludes any game-changing invasions from powerful foreign conquerors, like the unstoppable Mongol hordes of the original Shogun and the Medieval era games, although there is a cannon wielding European pirate ship which can be hunted down and captured if you are brave/foolish enough to send your fleet into certain death. The narrow boundaries of the land mass also result in most campaigns developing along the same lines with factions racing for the same handful of strong points and valuable resources, and there is only really an option to expand to the left or right. The biggest battles and most chaotic wars here simply do not compare to the older titles. Gone are those special moments when an elite army was dispatched to the far ends of the world; fighting great battles across deserts and snowy mountains; encountering strange barbarian warriors hurling decapitated heads, or giant Elephants which could send your bravest warriors hurling through air like rag dolls. There are no great cities to plunder or wonders of the world to stick your flag on top. There are no mysterious corners of the map which remain unexplored. Shogun 2 still manages to randomly create its own interesting turn of events but from game to game they do not capture the same feeling of wonder and grandeur as they used to.
Once a clan has been settled on the beautiful and fully 3D campaign map will appear ready for your exploration. At first the only section of Japan visible will be the one or two provinces your faction begins with, the rest being obscured under a fog of war in the guise of a beautifully stylised old map. The irritating but necessary game advisors will suggest possible strategies to get the game going, and some early missions will be issued to give your moves a sense of direction and action. But other than that this is essentially a sand box game with toy soldiers. Just don’t get ahead of yourself and decide to attack the powerful Shogunate before you have built up your economic and military power.
In order to progress moves are turned based and divided into seasons. So for winter you will be allowed to manoeuvre each army and navy, levy new troops, and make development choices for each province. Once satisfied you have maximised your turn, clicking the egg timer will allow the computer controlled factions to make their moves and eventually the next season will begin. This system does give the human player a slight advantage in terms of initiative but it works incredibly for well in a strategic chess-like way, and kind of makes sense in terms of how a ruler would dispatch orders to far off armies and provinces.
Should your clan survive the difficult early stages without being buggered by everyone and their uncles, you can begin to think about waging ambitious wars of expansion. Of course military might is not always the most effective way to rise to the top and for the Machiavellian’s there are an endless number of features to help you gain every strategic advantage: diplomacy, alliances, marriage, espionage, trade, religion, and family. At first the enormous array of features can be overwhelming but not all of them are entirely necessary to progress. As long as the peasants are not taxed to the point of rebellion, certain arts are researched allowing new units and buildings to become accessible, and your Dynamo behaves with a shred of honour, then your clan will grow strong and stable enough to hold its own. All of your minions and generals can be leveled up, given particular skills, and can hire retainers who bestow yet more bonuses and skills. Managing your family has been realised particularly well, allowing you to favour sons, marry generals into your blood line, and order troublesome rivals of your Dynamo (faction leader) to commit seppuku or risk war. As ever, monitoring the ambitions of the leaders in your faction is important and all positions of power will have to be awarded carefully.
Every so often an underling will present you with a dilemma requiring some semblance of coordination and consistency in how your clan is directed. Are you to stock pile food for the coming winters, or prioritise maximising trade? Will you allow the foreign white devils into your lands and supply you with deadly gun powder, infecting your peasants with their dangerous philosophies and religions; or will you force your people to stick to the old ways of the Samurai? Making the wrong decisions could lead to a dagger in the back, a war against a rebellious son, or revolution amongst the plebs.
Whenever battle is joined the game allows you to switch to the real time battle engine (unless you put faith in the insanely harsh auto resolve) and direct full scale scraps involving thousands of individual soldiers, all realised in gloriously detailed graphics. Before the mass slaughter begins you will be presented with the battle ground and can make positioning decisions based on hills, rivers, woods, and weather conditions. In the event of a siege, battles will rage over easily stormed forts, or heavily defended multi-teared citadels, which will require an overwhelming number of well trained troops backed by siege engines if you don’t want to witness dozens of hours worth of planning fall apart into a heap of severed limbs. Armies are typically divided between Smaurai class and Ashigaru peasants. Obviously the Samurai are the elite warrior class which should be used to deliver the killer blow, whereas peasants, as is it their lot, are merely used to give the enemy an aching sword arm. Samurai armies can recruit four classes of unit: Infantry, Cavalry, Archers and Siege. Each class comes in several varieties, usually meaning they are armed with different weapons such as spear or katana, the difference being whether the unit can be used reliably for attack, defence or both. Each type of warrior class is trained for their specific role on the battlefield and they all have weaknesses which the canny enemy AI can exploit if you do not arrange careful formations. Eventually everyone will figure out the ideal formula for an army which can put up a good fight in most situations and this has often been referred to as a rock-paper-scissor system. But the comparison ridiculously simplifies what is clearly a very complex balancing act. Every decision made will have real time consequences and even a slight misjudgement could leave your elite cavalry in an ungodly mess resembling yesterdays kebab, all because they were not supported by covering fire or a screen of spearmen. It is incredible how much you begin to think in terms of real life battle strategies and tactics, and simply sending your entire army to attack on mass Command and Conquer style will quickly result in a shameful route.
This may be overstating the excitement factor just a little. Much of the time will be spent making fiddly adjustments to a units position as your opponent thwarts your intended attack. A good twenty minutes can be spent trying to gain the high ground, fill gaps in your line, and stop the enemy from executing its own flanking attacks. Eventually even a cool headed general can loose patience and send everyone forward into an all out do or die attack. This micro management remains the single greatest frustration and often leads to unavoidable and unfair mistakes. Armies are so big that committing to a single crucial section of the battlefield can lead to a bitter taste when victory is tempered with the realisation that your other positions have been overrun and butchered without offering any organised resistance. Watching on helplessly as your elite archers are cleaved open by a charge of double handed Katana men is immensely frustrating and no amount of screaming ‘run away! Open fire! Do anything you craven bastards!’ will help. Creative Assembly now need to look at developing a system which allows you to assign behaviour patterns to units before the battle, or some way of replicating the role of Lieutenants who would take command of a part of the army once fighting began. Despite these little gripes, once the men start setting each other on fire and stacking up great piles of bodies the battles become as exhilarating and epic as they sound.
Also making a return to Shogun 2 are the real time naval battles which now include land features and a greater variety of weather conditions. A similar level of complexity as the land battles exists but unfortunately the Samurai didn’t really master any refined form of naval warfare, instead favouring mobile troop platforms and ship boarding for more hand to hand fighting. Watching Samurai leap from ship to ship is a beautiful sight to behold, and controlling massive fleets of hulking ships gives the player an enormous sense of power, but without long range cannon fire the action never really gets going, making large scale fleet battles an epic chore. Perhaps a contributing factor to the lack of exciting naval warfare is the nature of Japan itself, which is a fairly straight forward stretch of long islands, but dominated by one big long island. It means naval dominance isn’t entirely necessary for most factions unless controlling all of the lucrative trade routes is too tempting a prize. This straight forward geography is probably the principle limitation of the game as it reduces every campaign to a simple choice of expand territory left, or right, and build navies to capture trade routes.
As usual the graphics are truly astonishing – beautifully crafted, jaw droppingly detailed, and animated to perfection for that cinematic feel. On the campaign map a fully 3D Japan has been accurately recreated in glorious detail and can be turned into rural paradise, developed into an industrial hub, or put to the fire through war. During battle the iconic sight of cherry blossom leaves can be seen floating across the rice paddies as your hapless warriors decorate the beautiful scene with decapitated heads and severed limbs. The practicalities of directing every aspect of a battle does require a panoramic birds eye view to be favoured most of the time, but zooming right up close on individual clashes becomes too tempting even if it leads to several units being neglected and accidentally destroyed.
The additional features beyond the campaign are exhaustive. There are historical and custom battles, a replay theatre, 4 on 4 online battle multiplayer, 2 player co-op campaigns, online risk style campaigns, map editor, and much more.
There is always an endless list of things which the Creative Assembly really should have introduced, improved, tweaked, focused on. There’s always that extra idea which could take the realism to the next step (If it were up to me I would include the option to threaten your own troops with execution if they flee), but this is only because the game is already so damn good that it is hard not to get over excited about what the future may hold in store…
GRAPHICS – 9.5
Running Shogun 2 at full pelt remains the preserve of the lucky few with ultra powerful £2000 dedicated gaming machines, but even on a good mid range graphics card the intricate level of detail during such epic battles is a wondrous feat of game engineering.
SOUND – 9.5
Elegant and beautiful classical Japanese during the campaign and stirring Gladiator style orchestras during the blood spilling. Even the voice acting is starting to feel polished rather than comical except when the Japanese actors speak English – “Shamfur Dispray!”
ENJOYMENT – 9.5
Truly endless hours of content. The high demands of strategy planning and micro management may be off putting to some but Total War: Shogun 2 truly is the pinnacle of its field. Well at least until Rome 2.