Review: Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)

Pushing the Boundaries of the Strategy Genre
A Guest Review by Edd Robinson

In the Winter of 1559, I panicked. I had come to the horrible realisation that Shimazu Tomokata, my best general, who had won so many victories for me, was starting to lose his loyalty. Partially this was down to his own success – he had successfully led my armies against several other warlords and was getting ideas about his own importance. But mainly this was down to my Clan’s leader being a lazy slob who had done nothing but sit in our home province and womanize. There was more to it than simply an objective worry that I’d lose my best general (and possibly the forces he commanded). With a sudden sickening sensation I realised that if he defected, I’d lose a general I’d grown to rely on and trust – a general I had watched and nurtured from his first skirmish victories to his current position as commander of a good third of my forces. And with that sickening feeling I fell in love with Shogun 2.

Total War: Shogun 2, puts you in control of one of several factions competing to become the Shogun of 16th Century Japan. The ultimate aim of each campaign is to take over a set number of provinces and hold Kyoto, thus becoming Shogun. Shogun 2 features the same strategic/tactical split that makes Total War games special. On the strategic front you have an overview map on which, turn by turn, you control your empire. You choose what building to construct or troop to train next in each province you own, as well as move armies, navies and agents. When the fighting starts, however, the game switches into its tactical phase. You find yourself zoomed in on the action, commanding individual units in real-time battles of hundreds (if not thousands) of troops. In both areas the game can be as deep as you want it to be – on easy modes you can play, not worrying too much about what you’re building where. In the harder modes you need to meticulously plan your next step, or you’ll suddenly find you’re facing a cash shortage and haven’t the right buildings in a province to give you access to superior troops.

The first thing to say about the campaign map is that it truly is a thing of beauty. The fog of war has been replaced with an artful line drawing of Japan, giving you a rough idea of where fortresses, mountains and resources are. As you explore the country this is seamlessly replaced with a glistening world. The first time I noticed the rainbows over a river I’d just unveiled I just stopped to take it in. Then I marched my army onwards to besiege the next fortress in my way.

It is not just the graphics that have had an overhaul either. Diplomacy really matters now – having strong allies is extremely beneficial, thanks to an improved campaign AI. In one memorable incident, two of my previous enemies allied against me. As one picked off my more weakly defended border states (something the AI is pleasantly good at spotting) I hurriedly moved my forces to stem the tide. Then I discovered my other opponent had an army-carrying armada heading for my coast. On the opposite side of my empire. Just as I thought all was lost, my allies came to the rescue – their armies marched across my lands to take on this new threat, leaving me to focus on my recently lost territories. The next time someone attacked my ally, I instantly sent my troops to help in the defence. I owed them that.

Missions are back, in the  form of Dilemmas. Every so often you will be given a choice to make, or something to do. Succeed and you gain a reward. In past Total War games, these were often “conquer this province and you’ll get money”. Now missions and rewards are more varied, such as “sabotage an enemy building” or “defeat a rebellion”, and receive a bonus for recruited units for a few turns or an increase in your tax revenue. Not all the Dilemmas are “do x” missions either – some are just Tropico-like choices – do you want to start trading with outsiders? Doing so gives you access to their gunpowder weaponry, but will start spreading Christianity in your land. Later on another dilemma might reflect your earlier choice – accept the traders and you suddenly find Christian rebels causing unrest. Like the improved diplomacy, Dilemmas just makes you feel more connected to the world you’re inhabiting.

Also improved on the campaign map are agents. As I indicated in the introduction, one thing Shogun 2 does very well is to make you feel connected with your generals and agents like never before. In previous Total War games they gained experience roughly based on what they did; kill a lot of enemies and your general might gain a reputation for being ruthless. Use your assassin to kill several people and he’d get better at it. Shogun 2 makes this development easier to determine by giving you a branching skill tree for each character. And by putting these upgrades directly under your control it makes you bond more with those characters, as well as making them more useful for your overall aims.

By the end of my campaign, as well as my undefeated general, I also had a ninja who was adept at assassination and a monk who was a dab hand at starting rebellions. As with diplomacy, agents are more important than before in campaign strategy. I don’t know how I would survive without my ninja, who can not only assassinate and spy, but also poison armies, rendering them unable to move for a turn. When an enemy invades with multiple armies, sending a ninja to slow them down can make all the difference between victory and defeat. What effectively become agent battles can easily erupt in these situations – my ninja can’t risk poisoning the army with their metsuke (who works as a ninja hunter) nearby. But I can send in my monk to convert their mestuke… as long as their monk doesn’t convert my monk first.

Whilst fun, this clash of agents is nothing compared to the clash of armies you get in the real-time battles. Fire arrows arc across the sky, ninja units (they come in unit form, too!) creep through the forests, and cavalry reposition to take advantage of weakened flanks. Every unit is directly under your control and once battle starts, unless you had reinforcements close to your army, no new units can enter the fray – it just comes down to who is the better general. Battles are frantic affairs. When units clash, you can zoom in to watch individual soldiers fight, blocking, parrying and, in some cases, using judo style throws on each other. Graphically the battles are great, as long as you don’t look too closely. Everything looks beautiful, but look too closely for too long at a unit and you’ll start to notice troops look a bit blockish, and move a bit unnaturally, even on the highest graphics settings. As always in Total War, the battle field tries to reflect what the surrounding terrain looks like – fighting near a farm? Then you’ll see the farmhouse, wagon and crops. Fighting near mountains always pleases me – their snow peaked tops drenched in fog never fail to look good. Disappointingly, the fortresses you besiege look very, very similar. In one campaign I got the same fortress five times in a row, each with the exact same surrounding terrain. A bit more variety would have improved this no end.

Of course, the major element of battles is the AI. Whilst the battle AI is improved from previous games, it still makes a few costly mistakes – especially being susceptible to the good old ‘carrot dangling’ manoeuvre where you can get a fairly sizeable part of an enemy army to give chase to one unit of cavalry. When you have archers ready to take advantage of this and pick off the moronic enemies there is no other word for it – it is cheating. On the whole though, the computer knows what it’s doing, especially on the harder difficulty modes. Annoyingly, unlike in previous games, you cannot set the campaign difficulty and battle difficulty differently. I always used to ramp the battle difficulty up to the very hardest to make it as challenging as possible, whilst leaving the campaign at a manageable level. It’s a minor niggle, but it still annoys me.

The return to Japan has also given the Total War series a good opportunity to have varied units on the field – the last two games suffered somewhat from the “everyone has a gun” syndrome, where units were barely distinguishable. Spearmen, cavalry (of various types), samurai, ninja, warrior monks, grenade throwers and even early musketmen are available in Shogun 2. The one thing lacking, however, is a substantial difference in units between the factions. In Rome Total War, the Romans had very different troops to the Egyptians, who had very different troops from the Germans. Even in Empire Total War, the Ottoman Empire and the Native Americans had different troops to the rest of the world. Shogun 2, being set in one country, does not have this variety. While certain factions have unique units, they are just more powerful variants of units available to all factions. It’s understandable, but it severely reduces my will to try all the factions out.

Another big problem often comes halfway through the game. As you increase in power, the residing Shogun becomes more and more aware of you and the threat you may pose. When you get too powerful he decides to act, declaring war on you, getting most of the country to follow suit. A few allies may remain loyal, but more than once I found a staunch supporter would split from me despite our historical ties. Suddenly you find yourself completely bereft of friends, and often heading towards bankruptcy, as your trading partners break ties. Whilst this does create a challenge, it also seems a bit unfair that all your hard diplomatic work can count for nothing. Also, no matter how powerful a computer faction has become, I’ve never been asked to declare war on them by the Shogun. I found that declaring war on the Shogun first actually solved these problems, and so often became my goal.

Sea battles, however, are much improved. Since their introduction in Empire I always found sea battles to be clunky and unrewarding. The fact that Shogun 2 is set during an era when oar power was prevalent makes sea battles a lot easier to control – no longer do you have to try and fight the wind. Similarly, the fact that most sea battles take place near land means that the battle arenas are littered with impassable shallows and other terrain features; features the high-sea battles of previous Total War games sadly lacked. These not only look nice, but also add a more tactical element to the fighting.

Finally, there is the multiplayer. I do not think I can do justice to just how good the multiplayer is. The first, and in some ways most fun, option is the “campaign drop-in” battle. Here you can invite another player to take control of a computer army in your single player campaign, or you can choose to drop into someone else’s. You get no overview of how the battle fits into their grand campaign. But you can often guess. I once found myself outnumbered three to two, defending what was obviously a computer faction’s last fortress. Half my army was cavalry, which isn’t great for defending a small fortress where you ideally want to man the walls. Or so my opponent thought until my cavalry charged out of the gates, sprinted half way around my fortress and smashed into the back of his infantry who were scaling the walls. In utter disarray, his army fled, the majority of it crushed. If not for campaign drop-in, I would never have found myself in that sort of battle, and I would never have tried those sort of tactics. Yes, there is the problem that jumping into a random game you can find yourself controlling one unit against an oncoming horde, but more often than not I’ve found people try to be fair and will only invite people in when the armies are nearly balanced. More often than not you will find your army is slightly smaller than your opponent’s, but that’s to be expected, and makes winning, or inflicting heavy losses, more rewarding. And of course this means that if you are particularly disappointed with the AI you can always try and fight another human. Not that that always makes things harder.

Aside from this, there is the Avatar mode. Here you move your army, one province at a time, across a map of Japan. Each province gives you access to something new, be it a better unit or improved defence for all your troops. To take over a province, you must fight a battle against another player. You each have the same amount of money to spend on your army, so battles start on a pretty level playing field. Again, what draws you in is connectedness you start to feel towards your army. After my second battle I was told one of my spear units had become a veteran unit. I was able to give the unit a specific name (I named them ‘Ford’, as it was their defence of a ford that had earned them their stripes) and I was able to give them a unit specific upgrade and customise their appearance. Now they cost more to deploy in battle, but they were my unit, with a history. After each battle, any casualties they took are recorded. Eventually, I will have to let them sit out a battle to replenish, or I’ll risk losing them all. But in that battle I was all the sorrier without them. And of course there is your avatar – your general. He also gains experience, and has a massive tech tree to be explored. Currently, I’m making my general a better leader, able to hold the army together for longer, as well as causing fear in my enemy. In one battle I suddenly noticed my enemy’s avatar had been equipped with bows and was unexpectedly firing at me from a distance. The sheer amount of customisable options – appearance, armour, banner, skills – is impressive. If you want to collect everything you can, you’re in for a long, long haul.

The other large multiplayer option is the online campaign mode. Here you and another player can either try to wipe each other out or work co-operatively to take over Japan. It’s a nice option to have, but I doubt I’ll use it much unless I’m playing with friends – otherwise I know I’ll waste a lot of time starting several campaigns that never get finished.

The Final Verdict

Shogun 2 is a wonderful strategy game. If you’ve never played a Total War game before and are a fan of slightly deeper strategy games, buy it – you will not be disappointed. If you are a long-time fan of the series, this is yet another strong entry, making improvements in all the right places, and a nice return to form after the somewhat repetitive gun warfare of recent games. As I’ve said time and again in this review, the main strength of this game is just how connected you end up feeling to everything. ‘RPG’ elements in a strategy game often cause a few raised eyebrows, but it really has worked. So if you’ll excuse me, Shimazu Tomokata and I are going to get back to smashing through the Hojo clan and then focus our attention on the North. Soon all of Japan will be ours.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

  • Copyright © 2010-2011 Bits 'n' Bytes Gaming
  • All rights reserved. Reproduction of content permitted only with Editor-in-Chief's consent.
%d bloggers like this: