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Shogun 2: Fall Of The Samurai Preview: Gunpowder vs. The Sword

Creative Assembly offers an old-school expansion pack with all-new toys.

Jan 27th, 1868. A snowy plain just outside of Kyoto. The battle of Toba-Fushimi is about to take place. A small battalion of Imperial soldiers shiver as they face down a force of the Shogun's finest warriors advancing across a handful of rivers, hopelessly ineffectual at preventing the samurai from their coming attack. Hundreds of these majestic samurai warriors riding on noble horseback are drawing near. Playing as the Imperials, I'm hopelessly outnumbered. Traditionally, I wouldn't stand a chance. But these are hardly traditional times.

From the trailers released so far for Fall of the Samurai, you could be forgiven for thinking of the ill-fated Satsuma rebellion that made Tom Cruise sad in The Last Samurai, but while set in the same period of turmoil, Fall focuses on the earlier 1869 Boshin War, a civil conflict that barely lasted two years. A brisk timeframe to contend with as you struggle to determine the course of Japan's embrace of industrialisation.

But don't go thinking Fall is going to be a couple of scant missions and some new DLC outfits. This is a proper old-school expansion pack with all-new toys, a different beast entirely from Shogun 2's campaign. This was a period in Japan's history that saw it transform overnight from a feudal agrarian society into a steam-powered industrial powerhouse. To represent the lightning pace of development, turns on the campaign map take up a mere two weeks. Better pack an extra pair of mittens, as that means Winter now lasts a morale-shattering six full turns.

Or perhaps supply isn't so much of an issue as you might think. Fall introduces a steam-powered rail network, the subsequent movement and trade bonuses completely changing tactical deployment with the ability to quickly transport troops across distances unimaginable to the common Japanese farmer a mere decade previously.

But that farmer isn't going to be happy with these strange machines tearing up his farmland, or with the smell of soot now a constant presence in his air. Every time you progress up the tech tree, trading for new and better tech with Western powers, you're going to have to deal with resentment from a populace unused to such dramatic change. Let that resentment fester and you'll have a full-blown rebellion on your hands. But modernisation can be worth the hassle from your vassals as Fall brings back naval warfare in a big, explosive way.

"This is a proper old school expansion pack with all new toys, a different beast entirely from Shogun 2's campaign."

Ships are no longer a frivolous distraction. Pilot your fleet around the campaign map and you'll see a range of effectiveness: the reach of their cannon. Point them in the direction of the enemy and you can deal serious damage without ever entering a battlefield. Fight a real-time battle near the coast and you can target the battlefield with an artillery volley, decimating the enemy ranks. At a single stroke, boats have become one of the most useful tools at your disposal on your road to domination.

That road has changed, too. The late-game Realm Divide stage is no longer a target painted on your forehead for everyone to aim at; Fall asks you to decide, once and for all, if you want to support the open-minded Imperial or isolationist Shogun agenda. All the trading, agreements, conniving, assassinations and daughter-marrying you've made up to this point can determine your allies and enemies for the final push. You could opt out of the entire process to form your own Republic, of course, but get ready for the incoming pain if you do.

There's one way in particular you can dish the pain back out on the battlefield that'll raise the eyebrows of any Total War fan. Move a heavy unit like the new and mighty Gatling gun into position and you'll have the option to change from the bird's eye view to direct first-person control of the gun, crosshairs appearing in the centre of the screen. Select a boat during a real-time battle and you can have direct control, steaming at Full Ahead and firing a broadside against the enemy. It's an astonishing rush to be in direct control of your units in such a personal way.

It's a change in scale from the other grand addition to battles: 40 vs. 40 skirmishes. That's a straight-up doubling of deployable army sizes from Shogun 2, and it dramatically transforms the way you command. You're no longer flanking with a single detachment of Cavalry, you're flanking with a whole other army.

And in the case of that snowy plain just outside of Kyoto, that's an army that has just deployed Gatling guns along the eastern river. The Shogun samurai size up the dozen men with the funny-looking horse-drawn wagon. They begin to charge. I take direct control of the Gatling guns, line up the crosshair over the charging enemy, open fire and introduce the steadfast samurai warriors to death at 200 rounds per minute. A brief shower of blood and screams and they turn tail and retreat, forces routed, resolve crumbled. The day ends in victory for the Imperials and a new future for Japan beckons on the horizon.

The times of stagnant tradition are over. The sun is setting on the Shogun and his samurai warriors. All hail the new seats of power in Japan: Mr. Smith, Mr. Wesson and Dr. Richard J. Gatling.

Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai is set for a March release.

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