Total War: Shogun 2

Katana nirvana.

After that business with hydrophobic invasion forces in Empire: Total War, it's impossible to sit down to review a new Creative Assembly creation without anxiety.

Will I miss some grievous bug and end up looking like an arse? Should I sprinkle my paragraphs with verbal get-out clauses like 'appears to', 'from what I saw' and 'on the whole'? Am I destined to be remembered as the critic that failed to notice that all the horses in Shogun 2 only have three legs?

It can reach the point where you wonder if you'd be better off phoning-in sick and letting the poisoned chalice pass to another poor blighter. What stops you from fleeing are the memories. Brain echoes of blissful afternoons spent carving-up Carthaginians, axing Saxons and peeving the Pope. Vivid recollections of cherished generals, valiant defeats and impossibly narrow victories.

The TW titles might be minefields for the hard-pressed and thin-skinned reviewer, but they're also blessed oases. You fret when you review a Creative Assembly game, but it's worth it to be reminded just how rich and riveting strategy games can be.

1

Target audience? Mark out of Peep Show.

With all the preview talk of Shogun 2's RPG-style character skills and persistent multiplayer avatars, I was a little concerned that Horsham's finest might have lost sight of fundamentals this time round (real-time battles! Turn-based city/state management!).

I needn't have worried. Elements like the new agent skills do make the decision-making noticeably denser and the distractions more numerous, but the pay-off is a level of personality and charm you just won't find in earlier TWs.

For a very literal example of that personality you need look no further than the Strat Map of my current campaign. Down there on that road near Fuchu is Yoshitaka, my senior ninja. Over the last day or two, I've shaped him into Japan's premium VIP exterminator via choices made during level-ups.

Now level 6 and age 54, he goes about in the company of an unscrupulous sushi chef ("A man can die in many ways, but choking on a fish bone is truly unfortunate"), keeps a geisha disguise and a set of tiger claws (for climbing) in his trunk, and boasts a skill set that includes 'poisoner' and 'exotic weapons'.

Because I've invested time in him and have come to rely on his discrete deadliness, I can't send him on a mission - however high the chances of success - without a little twinge of fear. I can't click on him without a flicker of pride.

2

In winter, attrition gnaws at expeditionary forces like a lazy mouse.

This morning he was arrested and briefly imprisoned. I was beside myself. The little life-taker has become very dear to me.

And he's not the only one. I could just as easily have spotlighted Tomokata, my favourite general (Likes: armoured war dogs, koto music. Dislikes: his shrewish wife).

Then there's Yoshihisa, my longest-serving metsuke (Metsuke are Sengoku-era gestapo, used mainly for hunting ninjas and bribing enemy armies). And Sanetok the Monk, the lynchpin of my anti-Christianity drive.

All agents and generals have their own personal portmanteaus of traits and player-selected companions and skills. These little caches of humanity counterpoint TW's historical/martial grandeur perfectly.

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