Total War: Shogun 2 Review
Artistically steeped in ancient Japanese culture, Shogun 2 nails both its real time and turn based components, making it a fantastic choice for strategy fans
I should mention initially that this is the first Total War game I have played, so this review will be from the perspective of a new comer to the series. The Total War series is fairly unique in how it combines epic real-time and turn based strategy gameplay, and Shogun 2 pulls it off with near perfection. The way that the two components are combined in both single player and multiplayer give both components more significance and depth than they could ever have on their own. They support each other brilliantly, and this is one of the many factors that go into making Shogun 2 such an incredibly cohesive package. The authentic art style and separate types of gameplay are seamlessly integrated into what amounts to one of the best strategy games in some time.
I'm telling ya, it was on fire when I got here
As a newcomer to the series I did find the initial learning curve to be fairly steep, although there were lots of tutorials to help ease me into proceedings. There are fairly extensive tutorials for both land battles, sea battles and even a three or so hour tutorial that walks you through the early stages of a campaign. Even after you begin a campaign, or jump into one of the multiplayer modes for the first time, you have the option to enable text and audio tooltips which help you remember what everything does. You can turn them off at any time, but the option to have them on greatly increases the accessibility of what could potentially be a title that is fairly impenetrable to newcomers. Once you get used to the multitude of features and mechanics at the core of this game, you will find Shogun 2 to be quite complex yet rarely confusing. This is a feat that is only achieved through logical UI design and great step-by-step walkthroughs of the many different components of the game.
At the center of Shogun 2 is the campaign, which can be played by in singleplayer or co-operatively. The goal of the campaign is simple: capture Kyoto and become Shogun in the time period allotted to you. You can choose the length of your campaign, the difficulty, and starting clan which all factor in to how each campaign will play out. Since each clan will start on a different part of the Island of Japan, and will specialize in different units, the campaign component of the game has fantastic mileage, even within a single mode. Depending on the length of the campaign you will be required to capture a certain number of provinces including Kyoto and a few other required provinces. A short campaign will require you to hold 25 provinces in total, including Kyoto, by the time your campaign ends.
Trees provide cover for infantry but create problems for cavalry
The campaign is divided up into two parts: a turn-based mode that takes place on the full map of Japan, and an RTS mode that has you fighting out your battles in real time. The turn based mode is similar to what is seen in games like Civilization with an increased emphasis on building an army and taking over neighboring provinces. Finances, diplomacy, clan politics and the happiness of your people all need to be taken into account in addition to expanding your empire and improving your armies. These different factors are all linked; for instance, your money comes from taxes and trade agreements. If you make taxes too high, people will become unhappy and eventually revolt. This will lead to a decrease in money in the long run.
Trade agreements require you to deal with other clans through the game’s diplomacy system. Other clans who are indifferent or even unfriendly are usually quite willing to strike up a trade agreement since it will be beneficial to both of you, and clans that seem stubborn at first can be persuaded to co-operate with a bit of money. You can also opt to form peace treaties and alliances, but these, along with the trade agreements, don’t often last as those who once served as your faithful allies will eventually prove to be in your way in your bid to take Kyoto. The difficulty curve is fairly even throughout a campaign, and the feature known as realm divide that occurs late in the campaign prevents your clan from becoming all powerful. As you win battles and take over territory, the current Shogun will (rightfully so) become more and more suspicious of your intentions. Eventually he will turn everyone else against you so you have to fend for yourself with only your most loyal allies staying remaining at your side. This makes the last leg of the campaign very tense and exciting, since you need to organize a force that is strong enough to attack Kyoto while at the same time defending your empire from hostile clans.
Whenever horses are involved, things get chaotic
The game does a great job of keeping you from feeling too safe or powerful since there are so many factors that could cause problems in your empire. Natural hazards such as earthquakes and fires might cause damage to your land, and enemy forces might try to attack some of the provinces you thought secure by way of amphibious assault. This is among the many reasons that you will want a strong naval force in your empire. Not only will enemy clans try and attack the rear of your empire and disrupt trade roots with other clans, you will also have the opportunity to trade with other parts of the world. You can build trading ships and trade with the western world in order to gain powerful firearms to add to your arsenal, but this trade has risks of its own. Contact with the western world can lead to the spread of Christianity, which can lead to discontent among your people and even full-out rebellion. These wild cards do a lot to make Shogun 2 feel exciting even when it seems like you are in full control.
Whenever you fight another clan either at land or sea, you have the option to switch to a real-time battle mode where you can control your troops to victory. If your army is clearly superior or inferior to the enemies you can choose to auto-resolve the conflict, but I found it to be beneficial to control my army myself if it looked like an even match. If you so wish, you can let a human opponent take over from the AI, or you yourself can take over from the AI in another player’s campaign. Battles are divided into three different categories; land battles, sea battles and castle-sieges. Most of your fights will take place on land with units such as cavalry, archers and katana-warriors. There are a good number of units in Shogun 2, and they all have fairly straightforward purposes and counters. All units will also have a morale level, and a fatigue level, which impact how effective your troops are in combat. If a unit is heavily outnumbered and outgunned, yet at full strength, they will suffer from low morale, yet if a unit that has taken heavy casualties is surrounded by fresh troops, they will likely have high morale. If a unit’s morale becomes too low, they will retreat from the battlefield.
Generals begin each battle with an inspirational speech
Land battles are fairly straightforward, having your force fighting an enemy force in a variety of terrain and weather conditions. You can hide your units in forests and set up ambushes, use the terrain to flank the enemy, and charge your cavalry through enemy ranks while archers pick away all the while. You can choose from a variety of formations that have names like spear tip or reclining dragon which while cool sounding aren’t terribly self explanatory. Castle sieges are significantly more complicated, as one side will be defending and one side attacking. When attacking you should be sure to have a superior force, or at least one with units that are the direct counters to those in your enemy force. As the attacker you have to deal with arrows upon approaching the castle, and then you must decide how you wish to breach its walls. You can break down the gates with sheer force, or have your men climb up the walls and capture a gate house. To win one of these battles you need to either destroy the entire enemy force or capture the castle keep, which can be done sneakily if you are careful. I did find the enemy AI to have some issues with castle defence battles in particular; if there was any cavalry in the enemy force, they would initially run to the base of the castle walls, but if they started losing the battle the enemy cavalry would run away to the farthest corner of the map from the castle, forcing you to chase them down. This was the only real issue with the AI that I observed.
Naval battles are fought significantly less frequently since you will only really need a navy in order to protect trade routes. There are a good number of different ships that serve different purposes, and the inclusion of land in the sea battles is a nice touch. You can use ships with ranged attacks to fire over shallow sections of water that a ship cannot cross, and you can plant sea mines in choke points between islands. The game provides incentive for not always destroying enemy ships in that you can capture them and add them to your fleet. You do this by ordering one of your ships to board one of the enemy ships. When two ships come into contact, a bar indicating which side is winning will pop up as the crew of the ships fight each other. While naval battles aren’t as varied as land battles, they are every bit as engaging and cinematic thanks to the amazing details; if you zoom in close on a ship that is attempting to board another ship you will see units skirmishing and falling overboard.
Japan in the eyes of an aspiring dictator
All three of these battle types carry over into the game’s primary competitive multiplayer mode, dubbed Avatar Conquest. In this mode you customize a General who will lead your army in multiplayer skirmishes, level up and gain a variety of perks. When entering a multiplayer skirmish you are allowed to field an army of a certain total value. At first you only have the weakest units available to you; the better units will become available the more you play. This is surprisingly well balanced since the weakest units are also by far the cheapest, so a skilled newcomer could defeat an experience player in sheer number of units. As you win, you will conquer provinces on a map of Japan. Each province you conquer will grant your army different perks, such as improved archers or infantry armor. If you enjoy the real time battles in Shogun 2 you will likely get a good deal of mileage out of this mode; it isn’t quite as intense as some other RTS games online since you don’t need to worry about base building or even build orders since you start each match with your entire force already deployed.
The presentation of Shogun 2 is absolutely top notch in every aspect. The entire game is artistically designed with ancient Japanese culture in mind, from the unit cards that look hand-drawn, to the Japanese death poetry displayed during loading screens, to the calligraphy-style map in the areas of Japan you have yet to explore in the campaign. Menus, interfaces and even the unit formation icons are all done in this remarkable style. The graphics during the real time battles also impress with incredibly detailed units that interact wonderfully during battles, and gorgeous sunsets over the shimmering oceans during naval battles. Given that the larger scale battles include literally thousands of units, the detail of each one is really quite impressive technically. The only weak point in the graphics is the lack of anti-alaising support, although the direct x 11 patch that is on its way will allow AA to be enabled. The flip side to these technically impressive graphics is that you will need a very capable machine to see Shogun 2 running on the highest settings. Fortunately it still looks great and runs quite well on high, although I found that during the large battles the frame rate dropped considerably.
When regular arrows just won't cut it
The audio on game is completely on par with the visual presentation; voice acting sounds authentic, especially the subtitled speeches given by your generals in Japanese at the beginning of each battle. Units will respond to your commands in heavily accented English, and while the potential for offensive cheesiness is there, they do a surprisingly good job of it. The music, comprised of traditional Japanese instrumentals, works very well with the game and serves to add to the authentic aura that surrounds Shogun 2. If you have even a passing interest in strategy games, some component of Shogun 2 will likely appeal to you. Its initially steep learning curve is mitigated by abundant and detailed tutorials and tooltips, and the sheer amount of content means that there is something for everyone in this remarkable strategy game from Creative Assembly.