A formidable fortress lies on the horizon, gangs of men line the walls with arrows poised to fire and spears readied for combat. My forces are also eager to get into combat, but a direct frontal assault would be the purest folly. Although victory might well be achieved, it would be at such a great cost that holding the fortress against a later counter-attack would be almost impossible. There must be a better way.
A plan begins to form. Arranging my archers in a loose formation, I exchange shots with the massed ranks of defenders, a couple of expendable yari ashigaru moving to one of the gates to lure the enemy into defending it too heavily. On the other side of the castle, an elite squad of kisho ninja begin to scale the walls, their objective the crucial keep flag position, which if held for 60 seconds guarantees victory, no matter the situation elsewhere.
Undetected, the ninja unit swooped down on the undefended winning area and set up camp. Torn between the bolstered frontal assault he'd sent additional units down to fend off and this new threat, the defender desperately attempted to get troops back to prevent my victory. It was too late, the castle was mine and the future campaign had been secured.
Cutting swiftly to the chase, it's fair to say Total War: Shogun 2 is a fabulous game. It's another in a long line of superb strategy titles from Creative Assembly, rounding of more than a decade of Total War games by going right back to where they started: feudal Japan. The return to the land of the rising sun was seen as a curious decision, so many expecting a second Rome game, but it was also a welcome one.
As always, the game is split into two distinct sections: campaign and battle. The former is where you decide the grand strategy of your fiefdom, building up armies, dealing with improving your territories and trading with other factions. The latter is where you'll face off against the opposition in combat in a manner reminiscent of table-top wargaming.
Both parts have been significantly improved since Empire and Napoleon: Total War arrived on our hard drives. The art team has made a point this time of attempting to help drive the user experience, with everything designed with an authentic Japanese feel in mind. Style rather than utility is the watchword here, with the interface, the feel of the campaign map, the unit cards, all these things and more given a distinct oriental touch.
This doesn't always work, though. The naval unit cards are particularly confusing due to the similarity in look of most of the ships, and the unit groupings could have been a little more distinct. The encyclopaedia, which on the whole is extremely useful, also seems a little sparse design-wise and could have been done better. Generally, things work and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that little changes could be made in future patches, if we're lucky.
Feudal Japan was also unique for the forces you could take onto the battlefield, and in this Shogun 2 (like the original) gives us a wide array of fascinating units to send off to their deaths. The core of your armies, at least at first, will be the ashigaru, badly trained peasant-y units that can do a job on the battlefield, just not much of one. Samurai are the real backbone of any army worth its sale, holding either the yari (spear), the bow, the katana (sword) or the nodachi (a very big sword), as well as coming in mounted variants too.
For the more adventurous player, kisho ninja act as stealthy assassins, very hard to detect and perfectly capable of suddenly popping up behind a general's unit and taking him down while the enemy's attention is elsewhere. Battlefield monks, a personal favourite unit, are fanatical and will fight to the death for your cause, though they wear no armour and are thus easily taken down with effective use of arrows.
Naval battles have changed the most, with oars and massive floating wooden tubs full of men the focus rather than cannon and circling each other for hours. It's a more intense fight now on the sea, with boarding actions happening all over the place, and everything generally happening in much closer quarters. Empire's naval battles were decent, but sometimes lacked that intensity, something that Shogun 2 has addressed well.
The basic battling though is the same as it's been since 2000, and that's no bad thing. It's the tweaks that are important, not the overall picture. There's a bigger role-playing element to controlling your armies now, with generals levelling up with experience and gaining user-defined bonuses where before they were assigned automatically. The same goes for agents like ninja, metsuke (counter-spying cop guy) and wandering monks. It adds a level of customisation previous titles have lacked somewhat, plus there's the return of the much-loved family tree, where you can assign jobs to your leader's sons or relatives to keep them loyal.
The big question is whether the AI has improved, as it's been a perennial issue since, well, the first Shogun. Thankfully, it does seem like things have got better in this area. AI generals don't fling themselves into your spears as often and in general the enemy do usually try to find weak spots in your line to attack. However, there were a few occasions where they remained rooted to the spot while defending fortresses, peppered by arrows but doing very little to change the situation. It's certainly an issue that'll be investigated over the course of the next few months, just like it always is.
A quick word on multiplayer before we leave each other. The traditional options are present and correct, as is the relatively new multiplayer campaign mode. Now there's an Avatar multiplayer to have a go at, which involves creating a general who'll lead your forces online, a basic campaign map allowing to 'capture' territory to get bonuses, levelling up and so on. It's an intriguing new feature and it fully utilises Steamworks to allow for clan play and such. Is it good though? Too early to say, but it looks to have a lot of potential.
For some, Empire and Napoleon missed the point of the Total War series, which was getting stuck in with swords, not whittling away at each other from afar with muskets. Shogun 2 addresses this and plenty more besides, delivering the current definitive Total War experience until the next game comes out. Play it just to see your ninja single-handedly capture a castle.
- Visually unique and wonderful for it
- Ninja and Monks
- Lots of good tweaks, changes and improvements and AI seems to be better...
- ...but it'll take a while before we can really judge
- Some interface issues, design-wise
- Won't appeal to you if you have a strange aversion to awesome strategy games
The Short Version: As ever, Creative Assembly have delivered another excellent strategy wargame, delivering wonderful visuals, stunning combat and a potentially engrossing multiplayer.