Version tested: PC
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.
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.
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.
As much as I enjoyed Napoleon: TW, I'm not sure I ever fully bought into the version of 18th and 19th Century geopolitics it peddled. The nations rarely behaved like nations. With Shogun 2, the illusion feels far more robust.
This might be partially because Sengoku-era Japan is less familiar than Napoleonic Europe, but I think it also owes something to improved diplomacy routines. I've yet to see AI rivals or friends do anything outrageously implausible. There's no sign of flip-flopping, no illogical requests (actually they seem a mite shy) or lunatic warmongering.
As I've speared, arrowed and katana-ed my way across the beautiful 60-province theatre map (now with unexplored areas represented by attractive period cartography), I've witnessed the attitude of strong hawkish clans soften as the tide of war starts turning against them. I've seen very human examples of opportunism and suspicion.
The only time I felt the AI had dropped its kabuki mask was when my clan's reputation hit 'legendary'. This seems to spark an unavoidable 'Shogun's Ire' event. Basically, everyone declares war on you.
This does guarantee a lively end-game and prevents the kind of freewheeling to the Finish Line that ever-so-slightly blighted the original Shogun. But seeing old friends transform into enemies at the drop of a hat doesn't do much for immersion.
The nature of Shogun 2's clan-crowded map means it's pretty hard to keep your head-down and quietly consolidate in the early stages. There's usually someone's army hotfooting it towards your territory.
Playing as the Shimazu, I experienced a pleasing mid-game lull after some extremely tense battles to take Kyushu, the large island on the western end of the map. Slightly strangely, all subsequent attacks came across the heavily-defended land bridge at Buzen. A more imaginative artificial adversary would have landed amphibiously down the coast.
If Shogun 2 has somehow inherited Empire Total War's allergy to beach landings it would be most odd (Napoleon wasn't afflicted), but not a disaster, as all significant territories can be reached on foot.
Apart from that apparent reluctance to use troop ferries and and a slight tendency to leave towns poorly protected, the Strat AI struts around the map with considerable confidence and skill.
Attacking forces are invariably large and sensibly composed, enemy ships blockade ports and raid trade routes like its going out of fashion. Foreign agents are regularly sticking their noses/daggers/prayer-wheels in.
Played on 'hard' - the middle difficulty setting - campaigns feel tough but fair. You push ninja and metsuke into the fog of war with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
The solidity of the Strat AI is mirrored by the solidity of the battlefield stuff. It might be illusory but enemy armies seem to stay tighter for longer in Shogun 2. This discipline reaps rewards in pitched battles, making it much harder to chisel opposing troop concentrations into vulnerable chunks. I unexpectedly lost my first three skirmish games to these tight-knit tactics.
When fortresses are involved, artificial adversaries are less intimidating. CA has vastly improved castle assaults by a) encouraging attackers to attack from multiple directions, b) leaving castle interiors empty and c) giving all troops the structure scaling abilities of sticky squirrels.
What it hasn't managed to do is teach assaulters to ignore the nuisance feints of insignificant cavalry forces. With a small knot of horsemen you can distract vast numbers of foes, leading them on a merry dance through the fire zones of all your angriest arrow/lead/firebomb slingers. It's fun, and a life-saver in some situations, but the realism-hungry may wrinkle their noses.
If I was responsible for tweaking the siege skirmishes, I'd also be looking at map variety and the habits of generals. Currently the same castle map crops up in a surprising number of locales. Heavily-armoured leaders are often to be seen dismounting then scrambling up battlements when all hope of victory has long faded. Of course, the way to guarantee sly battlefield behaviours is to cut the AI out of the picture entirely. Napoleon's innovative 'drop-in' battle system reappears in Shogun 2 meaning any campaign confrontation can be played against a random flesh-and-blood opponent.
Those seeking human guile are going to love the new Avatar Conquest multiplayer mode. So substantial it's almost a game in itself, this has you creating a persistent daimyo character complete with banner, skills and starting location, then cultivating them by fighting your way across a bespoke strat map. Victories unlock specific unit types, while skills Achievements in single-player translate into buffs like new armour.
It looks like the perfect way to add meaning to multiplayer skirmishing. I say looks like because sadly, due to a couple of bugs (already fixed according to CA), I was unable to properly test this major series addition.
Other facets of Shogun 2 I haven't explored as thoroughly as I would have liked include naval combat and the historical battle selection. To be honest this has as much to do with personal preferences as time constraints.
The rigid scripting that guides opponents during the early moments of historical battles rubs me up the wrong way. CA's swift and tangled interpretation of wet warfare has never grabbed me in the same manner as their treatment of land-based violence. With Empire and Napoleon's gorgeous ships-o'-the-line replaced by boxy Japanese galleys, I'm even less inclined to head out to sea.
Then there's that richness mentioned earlier. It's hard to communicate just how envelopingly busy Shogun 2's campaign is, just how pungent its atmosphere.
Medieval Japan seeps from every Bushido/Chi tile on the tech tree, every stylised interface portrait, every loading screen haiku. It's in every note of the sublime soundtrack, every rasped vocal cue and lilting utterance from your advisor.
A turn seldom passes without some intriguing world-enriching choice landing in your kimonoed lap. It might be an optional mission or one of the periodic policy choice dialogues (Do you want to honour the sea god? Discourage migration to the towns?). The Creative Assembly designers are masters at transporting strategicians to a different place and time, and here they are at their beguiling best.
Those expecting revelatory improvements in areas like AI may be mildly disappointed by Shogun 2. Those after a sumptious, weekend-whittling strategy epic heaving with flavour and challenge can reach for their uchi-bukuro with confidence. This is a corker.
9 / 10
Total War: Shogun 2 is released on PC on 15/03/2011. Please note that our review version of the game featured DirectX 11 support; however, Sega informs us that this will not be patched into the retail version until some weeks after release.