While I’ve certainly come to be Fred McPCgamer here in my time at Splitkick, the phenomenon is recent enough that I’ve missed nearly all of the Total War series. With Rome 2’s early preview coverage looking quite interesting, and a friend offering to teach me the Shogun 2 I’d had sitting around from a Steam sale, I figured it was a perfect time to journey back to the Warring States period of Japan. It’s been a blast.
The only Total War entry I’d played previously was the original Medieval, purchased from a $10 value bin at Walmart ages ago, a game that equally fascinated and mystified me. I remember wanting – badly – to love the game but I was terrible at it. All those years later, the formula hasn’t changed much: you get an interesting hybrid of a turn-based strategy game where each battle can be fought as a pseudo-RTS engagement.
At the strategy layer, you’ll engage in things like diplomacy and trade largely via menus, upgrade cities to serve various purposes, and move armies on the map into position for attacks. Each turn represents a season, establishing a rhythm to the game that’s incredibly important. Armies in hostile territory will suffer attrition during the winter turn, a random penalty which can kill upwards of 50% of your troops. Learning how to move from peacetime economy building into a wartime economy (and back again) is an essential part of mastering the game.
Players will spend most of the time at the strategy layer, and the map starts off flat, with an attractive hand-painted style. As you uncover new territories, the map transforms into 3D and is now subject to fog of war. I really appreciate the love Creative Assembly poured into the map for Shogun 2. The 3D rendered map has scenery effects including all of the necessary season transitions, but also things like rainbows over waterfalls, grossly out of scale hawks flying over head, and sakura petals blowing in the wind. Combined with an artistic UI, it’s a really gorgeous design that goes out of its way to support the theme of the game.
Connected to the strategy layer are the optional real-time battles. While it is a no-brainer to simulate lopsided engagements, skilled players can achieve results much better than the computer will give them in close battles. I can’t claim greatness in the tactical layer, but in just a few hours I was already doing better than the simulation, particularly in defending upgraded castles where archers can set up devastating fields of fire. The game offers the ability to pause and reassess the situation, but the default speed is typically sedate enough for me to manage troops in real-time. I really appreciate the seamless way you can re-configure a unit’s formation by drawing it out on the map, something few RTS’s have done well (or at all), allowing for new and inventive maneuvers. Battles have strict 30-minute time limit but typically end in 15 minutes or less, since there’s no element of base-building once you’ve committed to a battle. There’s no concept of earthworks or fortification outside of castle sieges, but perhaps a feature like that would add one element too much.
My first campaign in Shogun 2 reminded me of the old days, getting wiped off of Honshu in three years. That’s when I took up my friend’s offer to start a co-op multiplayer game which we recently concluded, having played once a week for several weeks. While the game’s built-in tutorials are nice, if you have someone willing to teach the game things will go far better. Plus, chatting back and forth via Skype during turns, and giving pointers (or taking control of units) in the real-time battles, adds a nice depth to what is still a relatively dry strategy game.
I’ve since won an additional solo campaign besides the co-op campaign which just concluded. Expect each “short” campaign to take roughly 12 hours to achieve victory depending on how many battles you fight manually, but the game offers two longer campaign modes with higher victory requirements that will take considerably more time to achieve. The conclusion faces me with a choice: take control of the same clan at a higher difficulty to master them or learn the intricacies of a new clan. Shogun 2’s clans are not as dissimilar as factions in an RTS, but variables like religion, unique units, and most of all starting position plays a critical role in how and how hard achieving victory will be.
Masters of strategy can min/max their economy through smart upgrades and manipulating trade via diplomacy, putting themselves in a near-unstoppable military position. That said, tactical masters can pull victory from the jaws of defeat, pulling off heroic outmanned castle defenses or turning an evenly-matched battle into an utter rout. Masters of both have all sorts of difficulty levels to challenge themselves at, not to mention overhauls such as Darthmod which drastically rebalance the game. While Darthmod’s Easy difficulty is harder than the vanilla game, the host of improvements it adds makes it well worth your while, especially if you enjoy the tactical battles.
There are very few quibbles to be made, outside of miserable naval combat I always auto-resolve. Several aspects of the design could be simplified, most notably the tech trees. Both the “mastery of arts” tree for your faction, and the upgrade trees for generals and agents, are bloated messes. Either Creative Assembly should have pared down the number of options, or increased the speed at which research and XP progress, allowing players to actually reach the depths outside of the extra long “domination” campaign. A handful of extra music tracks would also go a long way toward keeping the game feeling fresh during multi-hour sessions.
If you’ve never played a Total War game, Shogun 2 is one of the most-universally praised games in the long-running series, and Creative Assembly has done a yeoman’s job in making it approachable yet deep. If, like me, you’ve been wanting to play it for quite some time, but haven’t installed the copy you bought on sale ages ago, do it before Rome 2 comes out this fall. Pardon me while I go assault Kyoto.