The Total War series has come full circle. Shogun 2 is the latest game from Creative Assembly, and it has been a decade since the developer released their first title; Shogun Total War. As I write the Metacritic calculates it's average score to be an excellent 90/100. However, Empire was also almost universally praised by the media and was rated 93/100 shortly after release. All of us Total War gamers recognise that Empire was faulty and buggy in many ways despite it's high score, so how does Shogun 2 differentiate itself? Read on.
From across the ocean came the green demons, descending on my hard-fought-for provinces on the coast next to Kyoto and seriously hampering my bid to become Shogun for the second time. I am talking, of course, about the Shimazu Clan. Katana-wielding home wreckers and perennial thorns in my Daimyo's side. Never before in a Total War time has the game remained so challenging once I had more than 12 settlements.
I chose my first campaign to be the Uesugi which is rated as Hard. I left the difficulty at Medium and proceeded. At first there was a fair amount to take in. I had to get to grips with the province specialities which add a new strategical dimension to the tried and tested formula. For example one territory had a gold mine, others had a bonus to research,wood and another stone. Sounds like standard fare right? Smash and grab. But in Shogun 2 diplomacy is also important, I have good relations with two of these clans – one even a vassal. If I attack my Daimyo loses Honour, which in turn makes his generals less loyal, possibly resulting in them leaving your service or even your peasants rising up in revolt against you. On the other hand some buildings require specific resources, possibly limiting your ability to recruit a unit unless you conquer a region with that resource, or trade with a faction who has. It really adds some weight to the resources and research, tying them both together nicely.
Whilst we're on the subject of research, that is a little different from previous Total War titles too. On Empire and Napoleon you could simply build more schools, acquire more educated gentlemen and research more. Here however, we are forced to choose between the martial arts and philosophic technologies, able to research only one at a time. This forces us to decide our priorities – do you improve your farms early on, or get a bonus to morale? It is also unwise to focus on one aspect and neglect the other. This is a mistake I made with my Uesugi. My bloodthirsty Daimyo had devoted his learning entirely to improving his soldiers, and whilst they became a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield the Clan fell behind economically, when suddenly mid/late game I find myself unable to pay for all those spiffy Samurai and am forced to make redundancies.
Much was made about the RPG elements which were added to the game, so that we care about our agents and leaders, rather than the faceless and unending supply we experienced in Empire and Napoleon, not to mention the latter's invincible famous generals. Thanks to this RPG innovation though, no more can I wound the enemy leader so often he likely looks like a cheese-grater, only for them to respawn at the capital and re attack me. In Shogun 2 we get to level up our characters, choosing their speciality. Not only does this make them more valuable, but it also goes a way to giving them personalities. For example, I had levelled up one of my Ninja to be a deadly assassin. I imagined he to be almost as dangerous to the enemy as one of my armies, but I was genuinely worried for him when I got the notification an enemy Metsuke - a policeman of sorts – had tried to apprehend him. The same goes for your Daimyo and Generals, you need to choose a speciality for they cannot learn everything available, far better to pick a particular route and stick to it. I had a general who was an excellent cavalry commander, another whose bodyguard retinue was buffed to be fearsome in battle and another who was at his best when commanding a naval fleet.
Also making a much welcome return is the family tree, again another element we must manage if our Clan is to be all it can be. I needed to watch out for Generals with low loyalty, assign them to commissions (basically a sort of government office much like the ministers in Empire and Napoleon), maybe adopt or marry them into my Clan family or alternatively check to see which child I can send to another Clan to secure a diplomatic agreement, which daughter to marry to another Clan to secure an alliance and so forth. Though many were sceptical about the role playing addition to the campaign it greatly improved the immersion and atmosphere, it really feels as if it is your Clan you're running.
Back to where I started. The Shimazu, the second strongest clan left on the campaign map in 1580, followed closely by their allies the Chosokabe. Between the two of them, and a sprinkling of smaller minor Clans, they control the entire southern portion of the campaign map and are making a nuisance of themselves as they oppose my ascension to the seat of the Shogunate. Despite my Uesugi Clan controlling pretty much everything north of Kyoto, this AI clan coalition is still giving me fits. They banded together some ten years earlier when it became apparent to them that I was strong enough to seize Kyoto. They support each other in battle, I've had to fight a Shimazu army during a siege on a small Chosokabe fort, I've been attacked from behind by the Chosokabe whilst I marched to attack a rampaging Shimazu half-stack army. I have no doubt in my mind I will win the war, but oh boy will it be ugly. As I mentioned previously, never before has a Total War game kept my attention for so long into the campaign, I get bored easily once I'm making obscene amounts of money and control enough land that I will never lose it all. Creative Assembly have clearly recognised this has been the bane of their campaigns in the past and taken steps to correct it. Now, once you gain enough fame by conquering territory you get the attention of the incumbent Ashikaga Shogun who sees you as a threat to his rule. He rallies the other clans to his cause and declares you an enemy of the state. Depending upon your stance with your allies and vassals they may or may not also take up arms against you. You can also march on Kyoto and take the seat of Shogun before this happens, but once you're Shogun you'll likely experience the same hatred, jealously and coordinated attacks from the other Clans. Remember, all of them want to be Shogun, and none of them want you to be. There have been some complaints about this 'realm divide', as the game calls it. I personally welcome the challenge and lack of ability to 'steamroll' my opponents in the late game, this keeps every campaign fresh and holds my attention until completion.
The campaign AI is more cunning than it has been in previous titles too. It would circumvent a castle in which I have a large force awaiting a siege to attack one behind it with little protection. Regularly I came across AI armies which would fall back and surrender a province they had no chance of defending, only to return some turns later and try to grab it back. The diplomacy is also much improved. Clans will be happy to trade with you if you are bringing lots of resources to the table, less so if you have little to offer. They, for the most part, honour alliances and will try to help you if they can. It is no longer impossible to get a Clan to agree to be your vassal, and if you do they serve loyally unless you don't maintain good relations with them. On the other hand no Clan will want to ally with you if the other clans universally hate or dislike you. The AI will also be thankful if you offer to help them against one of their enemies.
Now onto the battle AI. The battlefield AI is also improved. On several occasions I have suffered a loss where I should have won or almost lost a battle I should have had in hand before it even began. They are proficient flankers and use cavalry effectively for the most part. I have occasionally seen a bizarre frontal charge by a General or cavalry way before they have any Infantry troops to support them. The AI won't march to you if they can set up on advantageous terrain such as a hill and makes necessary adjustments if you try to approach from a different angle. I remember one battle in particular where I attacked a Takeda enemy who deployed his forces atop a large hill overlooking the battlefield forcing me to approach him. I sent some of my Katana Infantry to their flank hoping to get in close and quick to stop their ample archers slaughtering my Ashigaru approaching from the front. The AI did not act as I suspected, continuing to rain their arrows down upon my Ashigaru and racing what melee infantry they had down the hill to attack my Katana Samurai before they were ready. In turn I had to abandon my original plan and race my Ashigaru over to the flank in support lest I lose my best soldiers. Then the Ai hit me with his cavalry. I won the battle, but it cost me many turns and lots of Koku replenishing and rebuilding my armed forces. The battles I have played thus far were all on Medium, rather than the Hard I usually play on and I was pleasantly surprised that I was just as – if not more – challenged by the AI on this difficulty in Shogun 2 than I ever was on Hard in previous installments.
What do I like about the game? Pretty much everything has been improved upon from Empire and Napoleon. The added depth to character development, trade resources, research and somewhat diplomacy are rewarding and very immersive. The game's atmosphere is palpable. From the peaceful campaign map music to the thundering drums of the battle as Samurai clash. The changing seasons, what a treat it is to fight a battle in an area during the spring, then again in the same spot during Autumn, seeing how the landscape changes. This engagement is only increased when you start to become attached to your Monks, Assassins, Generals and Daimyo. I feel so involved in the atmosphere that I tried to pay the paper boy with a bag of rice and had to stop myself from slaying a pensioner for insulting my honour when she refused to accept my help crossing the road.
The naval battles are also present in Shogun 2. Obviously different to those seen in Empire and Napoleon, for Japanese ships are oar powered and range from towering behemoths used to board and gobble up other vessels, to small and fast ships manned by archers to harass the enemy. Of course, there are also the late-game ships equipped with cannons and matchlocks but even they feel different to the ponderous vessels from previous games which all felt the same, just in different sizes. Another tweak that is possibly not noticed is that CA have reduced the maximum fleet size, down from the 20 ship monstrosities that we struggled to manage in ETW/NTW to a much more manageable number. In combination with the refined ship roles and landmasses/shorelines that need to be navigated around Shogun 2's naval battles are a much more tactical affair, they don't share the same tendency to devolve into massive unmanageable clusters of chaos and the experience is richer for it. On the other hand they are a little difficult to get the hang of.
Much was made of the siege battles before the game was released. I can attest to the fact that they are both good fun and frustrating. For example, if I'm assaulting a large fortress with a large defending force I'm pretty sure I can win. But if I'm assaulting a small fort with a large garrison I will likely lose. Something needs to be done to tweak the difficulty when facing the larger castles, or somehow make the AI pull back once I reach the outer walls, thus allowing them to defend the smaller second or third tier from my assault and rain more arrows down upon me, all the while my progress would be slowed by climbing walls, burning down gates and capturing towers. I've also gotten frustrated in several battles because my forces refused to burn down the gates, they'd simply halt outside and do nothing. The pathfinding is a bit clunky when they are trying to set alight an entrance, too.
It is a lot of fun to try and hold a castle though, and I find myself playing these battles even if I have no hope of winning. I was pretty disappointed however when I discovered there are only about four different siege maps. One for a settlement in the mountains, another on the plains, another on the coastline and another somewhere I forget. The only difference across these maps is determined by how big the castle is, but the approaches and terrain features are carbon copies. It feels like CA has missed a massive opportunity to maximise the fun factor during siege battles and in a game which pays so much attention to the little touches and details, this cuts like Seppuku.
The graphics are also breath taking. I am lucky to be able to run the game smoothly with everything on Ultra except for the Anti Aliasing and Texture Filtering. But even still the game looks great, I am especially fond of the weather effects. My soldiers look genuinely soaked through during a downpour, castles lit up briefly by a flash of thunder and the massive hindrance to visibility that fog presents. Shogun 2 is far better optimised than it's predecessors and will surely be patched further for full Anti Aliasing and better multi-core support.
There are, however, issues that undeniably need to be fixed. Apart from the minor and inconsequential bugs I've occasionally encountered such as a handful of my Hojo cannon crew running towards the enemy whilst his co-workers exchange glances of confusion and continue firing away. Sometimes during the sieges units struggle with pathfinding, usually when entering through one of the gates or when there are buildings nearby, but this doesn't effect the gameplay much. I've only had one crash whilst playing the single player, which speaks volumes considering the issues with instability that plagued Empire and gave it a bad rep.
The biggest annoyance I have come across is when using formations and trying to move troops around when grouped. They often reorganise themselves or turn to face a completely opposite direction, so I've taken to not grouping my men and advancing them forwards by right-clicking and dragging the desired formation out or using the somewhat inconspicuous 'move forward' button beneath your General's picture.
Overall, there is little I would change with the game barring the minor issues I mentioned above. There are some ideas I'll propose that would make the Shogun 2 experience even better in my book;
For one, although I like the realm divide and the AI ganging up on you to stop you becoming Shogun; once I have, there could be some kind of diplomatic bonus. Surely some of the remaining Clans would rather not take on the Shogun? Also, once the realm divide happens I can't keep my vassals, even if I conquer them after this event only a handful of turns down the line they will inevitably betray me.
I feel like the pace of the battles could do with being slowed a little. Sometimes a battle can be over in a matter of 3 minutes and it doesn't really feel like the melee went on for very long at all. I propose if the land battle pace was slowed by around 1/3 the game would benefit. Everything should be slowed in proportion though – so that just because the combat lasts longer you don't lose more men as a result.
One of the best parts of the campaign game is that it is dynamic – each campaign you play will be different. The major clans are not guaranteed to last until the mid game and sometimes you'll be fighting one of the minors who has ascended to be one of the most powerful in the country. For example in my Uesugi campaign the Takeda grew to be really big, as did the Shimazu. In another campaign, the Date were wiped out very early and the Imagawa conquered the Takeda. In yet another the Shimazu grew to be pretty large again, only to adopt Christianity and lose more than half of their territory to revolts, no doubt due to their religious unrest.
Shogun 2 is Total War under a microscope. It is not the vast continental caper that we enjoyed in Empire and Napoleon, but it still feels suitably huge. An improved AI, the added depth and intricacy to trade, agents, generals and research, coupled with it's gripping atmosphere and consistent beauty make the game undeniably the Shogun of the Total War series. Forgive the pun.