I've said it before and I'll say it again: Total War is, by far, my favorite strategy series. An addiction that started with Rome: Total War and has continued into Napoleon, this franchise has set a standard of quality and satisfying gameplay for over ten years.
The first game, Shogun, revolutionized the strategy genre by combining the Civ-style world map with massive tactical battles. Two entries later, Rome, considered one of the greatest PC games of all time, implemented smarter AI, expanded unit counts and diversity, and built new trade mechanisms. Empire (and it's standalone expansion Napoleon) turned the series on its head, introducing gunpowder, naval battles, and the entire known world ripe for conquering.
Now, Creative Assembly returns to the setting of its first game. Can they keep up their forward trend, or is this series in a sharp decline?
Like Civilization, there is no real story to play through here. The campaign follows players as they attempt to grow the empire of their selected faction, overthrow rival lords, and eventually become the Shogun. The scarcity of a framed narrative is disapointing, especially considering how well one worked in Napoleon.
On the upside, the lack of direction does allow for more complete freedom, which some players may consider even more important, particularly in a game where no two strategists share the same economic policies or battlefield tactics. The ability to make peace (or war) with any faction you want on your quest for control means players really feel like they are the Shogun.
Send thousands of samurai to their death for the glory of future Japan!
As in all Total War games, gameplay is split between turn-based strategy on the world map and real-time battles where players command their large-scale armies on a mixture of terrain.
On the world map, players will need to figure out how to expand their empire, using a combination of democracy and violence. Establishing trade routes via land and sea is key to growth. Diplomats can be used to forge political alliances, while ninjas can be used to sabotage foreign armies or assassinate their leaders.
To build their ranks, gamers train units in each city. These units usually consist of one to two hundred soldiers, and in order to train them, you need to forge the appropriate structure. Certain structures cannot be created until the city reaches the designated size. In addition, players must alternate between the recruiting of military units and building civilian amenities to ensure prosperity and order. Due to the amount of time it takes to advance along a tech tree, it is often wise to devote certain settlements to specific types of troops (cavalry or archers for example) and merge the armies later.
It's a delicate balance, keeping the citizens happy while keeping the treasury full, but when handled with care, the payoff is great. However, when the time arrives to engage your opponent on the battlefield, that's where the real fun begins.
No one does real-time strategy, the bread and butter of Total War games, better than Creative Assembly. Many were put off by the focus on gunpowder in Empire/Napoleon, as it made hand-to-hand combat a nonentity, but there's something to be said about aligning your spearmen to halt a cavalry charge or watching samurai cut each other to ribbons.
Flaming arrows demoralize the enemy's spirits and set rival encampments ablaze.
These battles play out as a grandiose game of rock-paper-scissors as players strive to find the gaps in the opposition's armor. Swordsmen beat spearmen. spearmen beat cavalry, and cavalry beats swordsmen. Archers can do large damage to foot soldiers but remain useless in close quarters. Cannons decimate all oblivious units, be they friend or foe, but the slow reload speed and lack of maneuverability means artillery should be protected.
Half the victory comes with knowing how to organize and deploy your troops. The terrain plays a major focus in battle (units lose stamina charging uphill), and there are usually plenty of defensible positions, both natural and man-made, which become viable hot spots for cinematic clashes. In previous games, players could have twenty unit cards in their army, but that count has been increased to thirty, meaning it is now possible to have formations totaling over 4,000 troops. The scope of the battles in Shogun 2 justifies the upgrade to a new PC processor or costly graphics card.
Naval battles, first introduced in Empire, have been retooled and simplified; no longer are they cumbersome or confusing. Your ships respond to orders without hesitance, but setting up and flanking enemy vessels can still be a little wonky until you understand the intricacies of navigating hostile waters.
And while Creative Assembly hasn't created anything revolutionary with Shogun 2, they have perfected what we have.
Don't worry. The ocean will clean that mess up.
Rome: Total War gave players all of Europe to conquer. Empire upped the ante with access to the entire world map. The freedom was impressive, though at times it could be a little overbearing. In Shogun 2, the action is limited to the peninsula of Japan. The major drop in occupant space is made up for by the heightened focus of a centralized conflict rather than a crazy dash for random colonies.
In addition to the campaign, quick battles scratch that tactical itch without the need for political interference. Also returning are the historical battles that charge players with overcoming situations previously insurmountable by real-life commanders.
But what about online? Previous games in the series have offered a very barebones multiplayer, where competitors simply create an army and fight a single battle on a random map. This can still be done, but Creative Assembly has made a vast improvement to PvP in the form of Avatar mode.
In this mode, players create an "Avatar", a General that represents them online. Next, they choose a location on the world map for the starting point of their empire. From there, the game plays just like the campaign, as you spread your influence by capturing colonies. But instead of squashing rival AI when besieging a colony, you face off against another player for control of the territory. If you win, you gain the province and a possible unit on your roster.
As you sweep battles, your Avatar levels in experience. You can choose to upgrade him, which extends to your army. If you employ archers regularly, improving the number of arrows in their quivers is a good idea. The push-pull nature of the online gives it the real sense of confrontation the campaign may at times lack.
Avatars can also be customized in appearance, as well as the banner your armies carry in battle. It's a small touch, but goes a long way in crafting a personalized online experience.
The calligraphy style map is a thing of beauty.
It would be too easy to say this game looks good: it's gorgeous. The textures, the detail to each unit, the way soldiers move and react on the field of battle, and the effects of the rain and snow on their armor sell the presentation. Seeing a cavalry charge stall as horses slip and slide on a muddy hill is breathtaking. At times, when I know the battle is going my way, I just like to zoom in and witness sparks fly as katanas clash or spearmen impale fleeing units.
The world map is another high point. The terrain and water are beautifully rendered, but that isn't even the best part. In previous Total War entries, unexplored parts of the map were obscured by a fog of war typical of many RTS games. In Shogun 2, unexplored areas are represented as calligraphy outlines, similar to what you would see on older maps. The small change really gives the overworld character.
Unfortunately, if you want to see everything I've just described, you're going to need a top tier PC to run it. Even the recommended specs won't get you the premium visuals this game requires.
But what is a war game without some major work in the sound department? Death isn't pretty, but the clangs and clinks of swords striking steel, the screams of samurai charging into battle, the dying moans of men pierced by archer fire, and thunderous hoofbeats trampling the ground underneath ensures it sounds damn good.
It's difficult to express the unmatched quality Shogun 2 provides. While Creative Assembly manages to refine the standing Total War formula to a near-perfect form, the developers definitely played it safe with Shogun 2 – a move that guarantees its spot at the top of the RTS ladder.
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: March 15, 2011
Number of Players: 1-2 (Campaign), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)