Review: Total War: Shogun 2

With their Total War games, British developer Creative Assembly have crafted some of the finest games made in the last decade. They’ve taken us from ancient Rome, medieval Europe, the Age of Enlightenment and now to Japan during the Sengoku-Jidai (Warring States period), coming full circle, as the very first Total War game was set there as well. Let it be said at once: Shogun 2 is probably one of the strongest and most refined games in the series, yet at the same time it feels stale and unoriginal.

As with the other Total War games, Shogun 2 is divided into two main sections. The campaign map and the battle map. On the campaign map you take the major strategic decisions, i.e. recruiting units for your army, moving said units on the map, constructing buildings in your provinces, managing the finances, among other things. Dilemmas are another addition, in which the player is faced with two choices regarding a situation. Every choice has consequences, though they are not always evident right away. While this might just sound like the addition of “RPG elements” (urgh!), it actually works quite well most of the time. Some of them may regard the arrival of the Europeans, and whether or not you should open up your lands to their trade, or forcibly keep them out. Opening to trade might improve your economy, but also create an influx of Christians, and trust me, Christians can easily become the biggest nuisance in the game. But what if your economy is in tatters? You might not have that much of a choice anyway.

Naturally, being confined only to islands of Japan, the campaign map is considerably smaller than that seen in Empire: Total War, which spanned a considerable amount of the world, but still succeeds in seeming daunting and superbly challenging to conquer. The different factions aren’t as diverse as they were in Empire or earlier installments, and are now divided into different clans all vying for power in a chaotic Japan. Mostly the differences are superficial, but it still succeeds as the emphasis in battle now seems more to be on tactical skill, rather than overwhelming power as in the earlier games.

A major addition to the series is the fact that generals no longer just upgrade automatically as they win more battles. Instead, you have the option to add the skills and retainers yourself, enabling you to personalize each general to his uses and army, making you care more for each general, and make each of them more unique and specialized. Also, however clichéd and repetitive the speeches are, I am overjoyed that they have made a return. While I haven’t tried out the multiplayer component of the game, many will probably be elated that, at long last, a Total War game has a multiplayer mode for the campaign, something that fans have been yearning for.

As in Empire many of the buildings in a given province aren’t placed inside the city, but rather in the countryside, making them susceptible to raiding by enemy troops. However, an important change has been made. No longer does the player have to micromanage each little provincial building, as they are instead commissioned from the city building panel itself. A vast improvement, as such micromanagement could take far too much time. Time you would spend cutting your enemy down in glorious battle.

And the battles are glorious as usual.

The age of gunpowder and cannons has been replaced with steel and arrows (although riflemen are possible to recruit), making the battles as intense as they were in Medieval 2 and Rome,instead of the rather dull battles seen in Empire. Also, instead of each faction having a wide roster of unique units, they are now rather similar, divided roughly into spearmen, swordsmen, bowmen and cavalry, with a only a few genuinely different units. This serves to make the battles dependent on tactical skill and timing, rather than just having a bunch of line infantry and waiting for the enemy to charge you, as the battles in Empire often ended up being like.

AI has also been vastly improved, and is less prone to wander aimlessly from side to side, waiting for you to pick them off. I have several times been actually surprised when the enemy flanked me, and the enemy is also more likely to attack you from multiple sides, something rarely seen in earlier installments. That said, it’s still not terribly bright and fairly often makes some tactical blunders, and loses battles where it should have won with ease, especially in siege battles. However, siege battles are considerably harder to win when defending this time around. The multi-layered walls in the castles serve at making the courtyard battles glorious experiences. Now your troops are in actual danger rather than simply being able to shoot down the enemy while he tries to batter down your walls.

The naval battles, seen in Empire, make a welcome return, though the lack of cannons make them less intense experiences (and, sadly, there are fewer spontaneous explosions of ammunition depots). Instead, naval battles are fought with arrows, swords and fire. Said battles were perhaps the biggest innovation in Empire, an otherwise lackluster experience, and it is unfortunate that that Shogun 2 doesn’t really expand upon it. The naval battles, however pretty they may be, could easily have been omitted from the game without hurting the game too much. The land battles are comparably much more meaty and entertaining. It should be noted, though, that the ships are considerably easier to navigate than in Empire and so you get a somewhat easier introduction to the feature. Furthermore, in battles fought by the coastline, which most of them will be as the Japanese ships aren’t ocean faring vessels, there’ll be reefs and little islets which you can use to your tactical advantage.

Visually, Shogun 2 is simply stunning. CA have always excelled at the technical aspect of the visuals, but in Shogun 2 they’ve actually managed to achieve a much harder feat – making the game beautiful. This is particularly evident in the campaign map where it is a particular joy to watch the passing of the seasons, which is greatly enhanced from earlier incarnations in the series that basically just added a layer of snow when wintertime came. Instead, we can behold the sakura trees blossom in the spring, and gaze upon windswept islands in the darkness of winter. Another thing to note about the passing of time in the game, thanks to seasons , is that it for once seems to more realistic. No longer it takes an army four years to march a fairly modest distance, it might only take a full year.

The battle maps feel more diverse this time around, though you will very often encounter the same siege maps time and again, or with tiny, almost unnoticeable variations. This detracts somewhat from the experience, but thankfully they are mostly a delight to look upon, with dramatic, ragged cliffs by coastline, and rolling hills in the interior. Unit design has also been improved, and the soldiers seem more like individuals rather than an army of clones, which was particularly evident in Empire. In addition, it is a morbid delight to watch some of the wounded soldiers move around on the ground, trying their best to flee.

Music, composed as usual by Jeff van Dyck is as always spectacularly great, and the inclusion of Japanese musical instruments succeeds splendidly in immersing you in the game.
Voice acting is another matter entirely, though. While the generals’ speeches are in Japanese, accompanied by subtitles of course, the advisors speak with an odd Japanese-English accent. My suggestion: Either let them speak Japanese and add subtitles, or let them speak regular English. The middle way just sounds silly. I fondly recall the advisor from Rome who spoke with an Australian accent.

With all this shameless appraisal, with the exception of a few points of criticism, you might wonder why I stated that Shogun 2 feels stale. Well, frankly, the series just hasn’t moved all that much since 2004’s Rome where it received a new graphical engine. It’s still the same old game fundamentally that is only superficially improved with each new gameCreative Assembly will have to do something remarkably different in their next installment in the series if it is to remain relevant in the future. At the core, it’s still the same battles we’ve fought a thousand times over. But on the contrary, will Total War still be Total War if those core elements are removed? CA’s only other escapades in other games have been the Total Warrior games, which are essentially just solid but unspectacular hack-&-slash games, and Stormrise, a console RTS, a massive failure. Perhaps the Total War series should just be allowed to die peacefully, rather than become a generic biannual release. I sincerely hope CA will be able to change their current deadly course. It would be a shame if one of the best of strategy developers in gaming history would descend to mediocrity.

However, Shogun 2 is a remarkably well-produced game, the best in the series to date, and most everyone who has enjoyed their previous games will find something to like. Try it, if only to witness Total War‘s possible swan song.

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