Total War: Shogun 2 Reader Review
I find myself conflicted when trying to summarise this game. Everything appears to be correct, everything appears to run well.. but something doesn't feel right. Thats not to say I haven't enjoyed playing it, but there is just this nagging feeling that it could have been better.. somehow.
I love the Total War games, even Empire kept me entertained for literally days (100+ hours played according to Steam), further extended by the use of mods to paper over the more dissapointing aspects of that flawed gem.
The era and location represented in Shogun is one I know virtually nothing about, save what I have now learned through this game (anything I might have learnt in the original Shogun has long since dissapeared into the ether). So the units and buildings all feel a bit alien to me. It doesnt take long to realise that Yari means big pointy stick, Ashigaru means untrained, No-Dachi is a big bastard sword. At first it can definitely be a little confusing. But the game does a good job of providing advice and guidance, either through the talky talky advisers (who sometimes will not shut up, I've turned the advice off now and still at the start of every bloody siege battle I get the adviser trying to tell me what the enemy are going to try to do...) or the serviceable encylopedia. So it doesn't take long to get back in to the swing of things.
For me and I suspect most people, the campaign is the main draw of this game. The Shogun 2 campaign is certainly on a par with its predecessors. A large geographical area (in this case Japan) is broken up into lots of provinces, each domianted by a city. Control the city and you control the province. The campaign map is virtually unchanged, it looks pretty, allows you to plan your strategy, move your pieces around and this time you can even sping it around to look at things from a different angle.
From the campaign map you manage your economy and your military. Directing research into either civic or military development, choosing which provinces to upgrade and what units to recruit. This is all very streamlined and efficient thanks to an updated UI that gives quick access to every facet of your clan. I made the mistake of starting the game on hard difficulty. I was able to win battles comfortably, but as soon as took my first province, literally every clan on the map (certainly felt that way) including allies that my adviser had previously told me were trusted, declared war on me. This might be because I chose the Tekeda clan, who are sat more or less in the middle of the map, but each clan has a unique bonus and theirs is improved cavalry. I like cavalry. I was able to survive, but every time I smashed one rival clans invading army, another would arrive, effectively pinning me down and slowly starving me to death. So I gave that up and tried again on normal difficulty. Armaggedon still beckoned, but at least my allies didnt turn on me. Well, not straight away anyway.
So for the first time ever in a total war game, I was beginning to find the strategy game genuinely challenging from the offset. Diplomacy seemed to make sense, I didn;t notice any dodgy diplomatic actions anyway. Any expansion had to be carefully weighed against which clans it would likely turn against me. The economy is tricky to maange, unit upkeep is much more expensive than in previous games, so you have to limit your armies and use them wisely. Even when I had beaten the campaign and controlled half of Japan, I struggled to maintain more than 5 full unit stacks, and they were usually 50% made up of cheap ashigaru units. Again this possibly is a symptom of the takenda start location, no access to the sea, by the time you do get access, most, if not all of the other clans are at war with you so there is noone to trade with anyway. Its a brutal game, and very focused on moving things along quickly. So its all the more satsifying when you start to break out and do well. Of course, then the shogunate starts to take notice.
The campaign is split into two sections. The first, youa re like any other clan, building from a single province and trying to consolidate your power. As smaller clans are wiped out, the bigger clans grow more powerful, but the existing shogun doesnt want any one clan to rise to dominance. If you get too powerful the shogun will rally all the other clans against you. The second stage is when that happens. Every clan is at war with you, no trade and no possiblity of ever gaining peace with any of them again. This was a real shock and despite the slightly hard done by feeling you get, it was a welcome challenge that stops you from steam rollering the game by bringing your behomoth clan down on smaller clans one or two at a time.
When this stage began it was almost exhillarating, which is unusual for a strategy game. I found myself deliberately abandoning provinces as I raced to consolidate my forces and borders from locations that I actually could hold with confidence, and then slowly break out and retake them once I had held off the initial onslaught. This kind of strategising and tactics had never happened to me before in a Total War game. I always found it easy to remain on the front foot and grind everyone down, perhaps the closest challenge to it in previous games is trying to fend off the Timurids or Mongols in Medievil 2 total war, but even that doesnt really compare. So a welcome addition to the game that kept it challenging just at the point it was beginning to get easy.
Other aspects to the campaign map include the use of agents - ninjas, metsuke (secret police) and monks are used to carry out or foil subterfuge. The presence of an effective enemy ninja can cause you real financial pain, so the implementation of well trained metsuke becomes essential.
Then there is managing your generals and family members. Your Daimyo has two key statistics, his command ability, the same as any general and his honour. The more honourable he is, the easier it is to conduct diplomacy and the more loyal your generals are. In turn, your generals have command and loyalty. Neglect them or fail to build your daimyo's honour and they will turn on you.
Characters gain attributes in different ways. Like in previous games, their exploits in battle sometimes result in a trait being given. Sadly this is still a hugely cut down offering on the huge depth of traits offered in its medievil and rome predecessors. However this is somewhat made up for by an rpg like experience system. They (and all units) are awarded xp for their battles. Each command level gives them points to spend on improving themselves - combat ability, naval or ground warfare and general warfare to benefit the army as a whole. You can also pick retainers (characters that act much like traits) that follow them around. High level generals are a powerful commodity, bolstering your army and providing a powerful shock unit for use on the battlefield.
Which brings me nicely onto the battles. These are a massive improvement over Empire. They are generally fast flowing, with combat between units resolved at an unfamiliar pace. The tactical exchanges of gunfire in Empire, or even the grinding melees of medievil and rome are blitzed by the brutal combat here. Archers and matchlocks cut units to shreds given any decent length of time. Infantry and cavalry are able to cover ground quickly and when the fighting gets up close, its usually over pretty quickly. I don't know if thats realitic to the time and style of warfare of the time, I suspect its a gameplay decision to speed the battles up.
The level of detail on display is impressive, really impressive. Graphics quality is exceptional, unit detail is incredible, especially when you consider there are thousands of them on screen. There is no support of anti-aliasing, so things sometimes look a little jaggy, but the game runs exceptionally smoothly even on my somewhat aged machine (and at maximum detail levels too). The combat animations are the best yet. Units fight each other convincingly with an impressive array of animations to keep the battles interesting to look at. Assuming you have the time. I sometimes found myself settle the battle speed to half to watch everything in slow motion. To be fair, thats the only real way to see what is going on. At full speed it all looks a bit of a mess unless you zoom in and concentrate on a few individual units. I'm not sure this high speed approach to combat is ideal. Melee fights in medievil total war took longer, but they were more organised and clearly defined. When units crush together in Shogun, its one mass of colour against another, for the most part.
The enemy AI is hugely improved, they use terrain properly and generalyl dont do completely dumb things. They still wotn offer the same challenge as a human opponent, you can still predict what the AI is going to do (for the most part), but no even battle is ever a walkover. Apart from the sieges. I think, I hope, siege battles will be tweaked. The defending army has the most insane advantage. Archers on the walls poor fire on the attackers as they approach and climb the walls - see the above re speed of combat and you can see how giving archers time to work on units might become a problem. I've had armies consisting of 4 or 5 peasant archer units annihilate armies of samuari two or three times the size, just by holding any that made it over the walls up with spearmen and peppering them with arrows. The same is true when attacking - which means you either auto resolve (which seems to not take into account this advantage), manage the attack against a moderate sized army, or maintain the siege and wait for them to come to you or surrender. It would usually be a pointless waste of your troops to ever manually play a siege against a fully defended castle. These battles are still fun, but the lack of balance takes away from the overall game strategy somewhat.
Naval battles also return, but I've only played two or three (in the entire campaign...). How much naval action you see will depend entirely on where your clan starts. There are some islands and trade ports, but most of them are to the south and virtually nothing in the north (where Takeda are). So other than some trade ships and some ships I was awarded when I became Shogun, I've not really fiught much. Japanese naval combat involved ships built more like small fortresses, lined with archers. They try and kill each otehr screws, set fire to each other or board and take control of each other. It all seemed to work quite well, looked nice enough, but thats about all I can say about it.. seems largely redundant, but its better that its included than not.
There are some new multiplayer modes as well. Now you can pay the usual quick matches, but there is also a coop campaign game (taht I haven't tried) and avatar conquest. This is the main multiplayer game. You create your general and pick and choose which regions of japan you want to fight for. Each region gives bonuses - like access to different units or abilities. I don't think they can be taken away once you have them, but you choose the region you want to tak, tell the system to find an opponent and then you play a battle. If you win, you get the region you chose, some xp to improve your general and hopefully access to new units to choose from when picking your armies. Its a nice idea and deffinitely adds to the depth on offer. My only concern is that it doesnt seem very busy, a couple of times it hasnt found an opponent, no games are ever isted as in progress or waiting.. that might be some other issue im having with multiplayer that im not aware of, but it does seem odd that it isn't busier.
You can also align your avatar with a clan, clans game xp and bonuses as well and in multiplayer clans can battle for control of regions within their leagues. The game integrates with steam, allowing you to easily create a clan from any Steam group you are a member of, or just bespoke one.
Overall, this is a really postive addition to the Total War franchise. The engine is slick, smooth and gorgeous. The music is thunderous, the atmosphere seems authentically Japanese (for whatever I know) and the level of challenge is fantastic. However, the game seemed to whizz by, it doesnt feel as epic as previous games. I've had it for about a week and already finished the grand campaign.. I've never managed that before in a Total War game. This is why I just feel something isn't quite right. I can't put my finger on it. This is an excellent game in its own right, but I feel they needed to build a bit more longevity into the campaign than they have. Regardless, for fans of the series its a must and if you fancy your hand at a challenging and absorbing stratgey game then I'd be pretty surprised if you found anything serious to complain about with Shogun 2.