Nobody had heard of Creative Assembly before the studio released the original Shogun: Total War, just over 10 years ago. Since then the developer has expanded on the series with the likes of Medieval: Total War; Rome: Total War; and more recently Empire:- and Napoleon: Total War. Since launching, the Total War series has become a cornerstone in strategy gaming, offering its trademark turn-based macro-campaign management component alongside beautifully realised 3D battlefields for real-time control over individual engagements.
The last Total War game we reviewed was Empire: Total War, and like many frustrated gamers, we found the experience to be a lot less polished than we would have liked at release. Poor optimisation and a buggy interface ruined what was an exceedingly ambitious title. Therefore I had mixed feeling about Shogun 2. On one hand, it is the direct sequel to a true classic, but on the other, the most recent outings in the series failed to impress due to technical inadequacies. Fortunately, I soon discovered that Creative Assembly has obviously worked hard at optimising code and testing Shogun 2 for bugs. Throughout my entire 25+ hours with Shogun 2 so far, I have yet to experience a single crash or crippling memory leak. Suffice to say that Shogun 2 is technically on par with Empire: Total War in its current post patch (and there have been many) state.
With that out the way, onto the actual game itself.
In campaign mode players can choose between nine unique clans as they battle to become Japan’s Shogun – the country’s highest ranking military commander. Each clan has its own strengths, weaknesses and special abilities. Players assume control over their chosen clan in the year 1545AD, and have until 1600AD to conquer a set number of provinces before being chosen to usurp the old Shogun. It’s basically a case of asserting so much alpha dominance across the various regions that you are elected to lead the nation in future military engagements.
Rows of archers make short work of lightly armoured infantry in Total War 2
As you conquer more provinces you gain infamy, and if you conquer too many provinces in a short period of time you risk raising the ire of the reigning Shogun. In this case, numerous clans will turn against you in a bid to put you in your place. Therefore, it is best to move slowly and steadily across the land. Move too slowly however, and you risk other clans gaining dominance. It also pays to choose when to attack various clans, and of course there are various implications for declaring war on a faction – particularly if said faction is allied with numerous other clans.
The primary tactical component of the game is the macro-management of your clan across a map of Japan. This is delivered in a turn-based format, and you are able to move various armies a set number of tiles per move. You may also construct buildings in your towns, all of which will unlock new abilities for said settlements, such as new recruitment options. Buildings cost money which is earned from taxation as well as trade. Heavy taxation can lead to unhappiness and rebellion, and in less severe instances, it hurts the population growth rate of your province, which hurts the long term economic growth of the province. Like any civilisation management title, this portion of the game quickly becomes a difficult balancing act.
Various provinces will have their own unique resources which will unlock new unit types or technologies. For instance, a province with a native horse population will allow you to develop and recruit mounted units, while a province with iron reserves will unlock new unit and building upgrade paths.
One of the most striking differences between Shogun 2 and Empire is the former’s smaller scale. Shogun 2 plays out across Japan’s three islands and 60 provinces. The scope of the game is therefore nowhere near as epic as Empire, but the gameplay is far more focussed, approachable and concise. An honour system also differentiates Shogun 2 from previous Total War games. For instance, if you fail to come to the aid of an ally, you will lose honour, which will have a negative effect on the attitudes your generals have towards you. It is possible for generals to turn against you should you act dishonourably on an ongoing basis.
Shogun 2’s Yari infantry are great for moonlit cavalry impaling sessions
While the macro-economic management portion of the game has nothing on the likes of Civilisation V, it works well within the context of what is essentially a war management simulator.
The 3D battles make up the second portion of the gameplay, and significantly increase the pace of the game. There are a wide variety of units to control on the battlefield, and everything is rendered with superb detail. The controls are slick and intuitive, and although the 3D presentation can be somewhat overwhelming at first, it is something one becomes accustomed to quite quickly. Units gain experience between battles and seasoned veterans are noticeably more dangerous on the battlefield. Generals also gain experience and level up, unlocking new abilities and traits which can have significant affects on conflict outcomes. As always, it is possible to auto-resolve combat instances, which allows you to pick and choose the confrontations you want to personally oversee, while less exciting encounters can be skipped.
Combat has been somewhat simplified, and the result is that the game is more approachable and ultimately more fun. It is now relatively easy to remember the key features of each unit type, with the basic rules being spearmen destroy cavalry, sword wielding troops annihilate spearmen, and ranged units are good against most units from a distance, but vulnerable to melee attacks.
Heavily armoured samurai warriors capture an enemy naval vessel
Naval combat also makes an appearance, and is also somewhat simpler than in Empire. Unlike land based combat, Shogun 2’s naval combat does not necessarily benefit from being simplified. A basic formula of “attack with arrows from a distance” before moving in to board enemy vessels applies rigidly. While not as engaging, naval battles are as much a joy to behold as ever, with individual units scurrying about on deck, firing arrows and so on.
The subtleties and features in the campaign are too numerous to mention, but suffice to say that it is a deeply engrossing and challenging experience which can be replayed on different difficulty levels using different factions and gameplay styles.
Probably the most notably innovative feature added in Shogun 2 is the avatar conquest mode. Players can customize an avatar and then hop into a multiplayer map where they will go up against other players as they fight for provinces. Doing so earns your avatar experience points as well as new units, technology and personal retainers which grant abilities and stats bonuses. There is also a multiplayer campaign option which can be played cooperatively or against each other. This portion of the game is still a little buggy, and although I did not experience any crashes, there have been numerous reports of niggles with the servers. Thanks to the nature of the gameplay, it is completely viable to play with people from all over the world without experiencing noticeable lag.
Unlike Empire, most of Shogun 2’s ships don’t have sails, instead relying on oars
Creative Assembly has boldly delivered a more streamlined and simplified (gasp!) Total War with Shogun 2, and it works. Its smaller scope and refined and focused gameplay coupled with the fact that it looks and sounds fantastic makes it an excellent addition to the long standing strategy series. The game runs smoothly and is scalable on a variety of systems, although you will want a decent amount of RAM as well as CPU and GPU power to get the best Shogun II experience. Owners of high-end gaming rigs will marvel at the impressive visuals unlocked on high detail settings. Oddly, the DX11 rendering option is blanked out in the system settings panel, and Creative Assembly has indicated that support will be patched in retroactively.
The only real complaint about Shogun 2 is that of un-optimised multiplayer servers, but given Creative Assembly’s history of strong post-release support, we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this will be tidied up in the next few months.
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