Strategy games can be impersonal things where the people under your control become little more than ants in a farm, navigating their way through tunnels of artificial design. When the genre fails to appeal to our hearts, it inevitably moves into the realm of the — becoming nothing more than an abstract exercise in cold, calculating intellect. Total War: Shogun 2, The Creative Assembly’s latest work in refining a specific type of strategy game, rejects this notion, demonstrating that, yes, both tactical play and emotional charge can coexist in the genre.
Shogun 2 is the end result of a developer that is continually taking note of the lessons it’s learned throughout a decade of releases within the Total War franchise. The gameplay isn’t much changed from previous incarnations of the series, but it has been refined and, ultimately, improved. Taking place not across an entire continent, but within the confines of the islands of 16th century, Sengoku era Japan, the game sees its developers focusing their expertise in the most highly concentrated edition of their series to date.
The central concepts of the Total War series are in evidence here — management takes place through a turn-based map while actual conflicts are enacted in real-time battles — but the experience has been simultaneously bulked up and stripped back so that extra features are made available while design frivolities have been axed. A streamlined user interface and the addition of fun, historically appropriate agent units like ninja assassins, monk missionaries, metsuke secret police and geisha spies, demonstrates an evolution of the non-combat intricacies that have always been an essential part of the Total War series.
The Creative Assembly have hit on the right time to release a title with the scope of Shogun 2 as well. By incorporating the advancements made in naval battles with Napoleon: Total War and the developer’s continual honing of land-based combat mechanics into the title, Shogun 2 is able to offer a comprehensive suite of play-styles that have been adequately experimented with and refined.
There’s no story, as such, in Shogun 2 but, as with all of the Total War games, the natural progression of a given campaign creates its own narrative within the loose binding of historical fact. Players are able to pick from one of nine available clans and then create their own path toward conquering Japan and achieving the shogunate. The decisions made in matters such as diplomacy, finances, clan management and military practice all add up to create a personalized experience that ensures that no two players will ever experience the game in the same way.
In one run of the solo campaign, a player may chose to control a military dictatorship where citizens are repressed in order to further the might of a vast invasion force. In another, a clan can be ruled benevolently, enjoying an equal measures of success through diplomatic treaty-making while only rarely entering into the game’s real-time combat sequences. This flexibility, honed to its finest point to date here, makes Shogun 2 a game worthy of infinite replays and strategic experimentation.
It’s the Little Moments that Count
Shogun 2’s presentation is top-notch. From the quiet pathos of a dying soldier reaching out his hand toward that fast-closing light to the cheers of an enthusiastic group of spearmen successfully routing the enemy, the game is full of subtle, brilliant moments that are the obvious result of careful and dedicated work. While at its time of release it is an extremely performance-intensive title (I had to prop up my computer with an extra fan to stave off heat-related crashes), the system-taxing negatives are handily outweighed by immersive benefits.
The sound of a cavalry charge — hooves pounding across terrain — coupled with the ability to zoom right in and actually watch a targeted infantry group scatter haphazardly away from these mounted soldiers is fantastic. It’s the kind of effect that allows the player to forget about the user interface they’re clicking on and the glowing battlefield lines they’re keeping in the back of their mind and actually believe, in some way, that a real, 16th century war is taking place within the computer monitor.
Even outside of combat, aesthetics in Shogun 2 are magnificently realized. The soundtrack is excellent, composed with a heavy emphasis on booming taiko drums and melancholy shamisen plucking. Unit cards and loading screens feature traditional paintings and brushworks and a majority of the voice acting is conducted in Japanese with English subtitles. The nation map is composed of province listings written in inky calligraphy atop a woodblock finish and, once explored, these provinces transform into beautiful vistas of mountains, rivers, rice paddies and gently falling cherry blossoms.
All of these impressive details carry over throughout each mode of play — and Shogun 2 has many. The game comes equipped with the obvious choices of single-player and multiplayer but also allows for online, cooperative play in both modes. The single-player offers a robust tutorial mode, custom campaigns and the ability to take part in a healthy number of scripted, historical battles from within the game’s 16th century timeline (like the famous Battle of Sekigahara or Battle of Okehazama). Within a single-player career, Shogun 2 also offers up the ability to join up with another player’s game to control enemy troops in combat or invite real people to drop in and replace their own battlefield’s AI.
Multiplayer comes in two flavours — a skirmish-centred mode (that will be familiar to Total War aficionados) and Avatar Conquest, the most noticeable innovation to online play. Avatar Conquest borrows some of the concepts inherent to persistent character development games (like MMOs and, in some ways, the current generation of competitive FPSs) and incorporates them into a sprawling multiplayer mode. Players are able to create their own profile, personalize their clan flag, deck themselves out in customizable armour and then set forth to conquer a simplified map of Japan by battling it out with rival territories, either one-on-one or in alliances with other players. The regular multiplayer mode — a fairly by-the-numbers affair — pales in comparison to the addictive quality of Avatar Conquest’s boardgame derived set-up and RPG inspired character progression.
Yet aside from all of these welcome additions to the gameplay, Shogun 2 isn’t exactly a massive leap forward for the franchise. It is, essentially, what players can expect from The Creative Assembly at this point — another refinement of a proven formula that becomes slightly better with every new release. That’s not to say that it’s boring or stagnant repetition of what has come before — it’s just hard to play this latest edition of the series without thinking that it’s really a bit of a placeholder for whatever comes after. For everything it does right — and it does a lot right — the game can be (and inevitably will be) improved in future Total War titles. Urban combat, improved offline AI and more polish on naval combat scenarios are features that are surely in the works and, as much as Shogun 2 innovates, the eventuality of game-changing enhancements does overshadow some of its success.
Just the same, Total War: Shogun 2 remains a great game that is sure to appeal to both history buffs and strategy gamers alike. It is the distillation of a more than a decade’s experience creating an impressive franchise that appears to be learning from past mistakes, moving forward and elevating its chosen genre beyond the sensation of playing with mere army men in the sand.