Shogun 2 Review (Part II)

Three weeks of Shogun 2 have come and gone since the first part of my review, and I’ve got nearly 30 hours invested. My campaign is far from over, however. The proud Takeda horselords, hemmed in on all sides at the center of the Japanese mainland, lick their wounds and prepare for the battles to come. Lured by the rich goldmines of Sado province to the north, the main body of our army found itself stranded on an outlying island, unable to defend the clan’s core territories against an admirably opportunistic A.I., which waited to invade until precisely the moment that the Takeda guard was down. Thanks to a large fleet, though, our veteran forces will soon return and wreak revenge.

Even thinned by many seasons of internecine warfare, the number of clans active in a mature game of Shogun 2 can be dizzying. At first, you root for rivals to be eliminated because it results in fewer A.I.’s taking a turn, which leads to less downtime between the time you hit the “End Turn” button and the time you can start playing again. Eventually, however, you want to see other factions bite the dust for more traditionally strategic regions — some enemies are treacherous bastards, others outright warmongers, and all can be counted on to declare war on you at the drop of a hat, should you show but a moment of weakness.

Once you’re at war, the best (if not the only) way to get out of it is to deliver a stinging battlefield rebuke to your opponent — a change from previous Total War titles, whose enemies often seemed entirely intractable, if not suicidal. The revamped diplomatic system is also a boon; you now have more negotiating options, like pawning off daughters (in marriage) or your sons (as hostages) to curry the favor of other daimyos. The game provides a helpful indicator that tells you whether or not the deal you’ve proposed is likely to succeed — a welcome change from the trial-and-error diplomacy that plagued the series’ early installments.


Shogun 2 (PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: March 15, 2011
MSRP: $49.99

Other gameplay elements are more subtle. I quickly jettisoned the tutorial hints, marred by their cloying voice-acting, only to fall victim to some of Shogun 2′s new mechanics, like when my uppity general (the daimyo’s brother), who defected to my enemies at a crucial moment, once his loyalty meter had waned to a sufficient low. Despite this setback, I was able to put my western neighbors, the Hatano clan, in their place.

Action on the battle map continues to be satisfying. Creative Assembly have perfected the pace and the flow of combat, particularly by allowing armies to run slightly faster and by capturing the suddenness of a morale blow that turns an even battle into a victory for one side or the other. For those with powerful PC’s, high-tech weather effects add a new source of tension and realism to the game, especially when the enemy is able to advance on your position under cover of thick fog. Siege warfare is also much improved, although the same castles (and their accompanying terrain) seem to be recycled over and over again.

Sea combat is still almost as underwhelming as it was in Empire, though attempts were made to liven it up. Its basic undoing is the fact that it’s harder to win as the underdog at sea than it is on land, making retreat a more attractive option or, better yet, the construction of a dauntingly large fleet that can be used to auto-resolve your adversaries into oblivion. At least the oar-powered Japanese baots move more quickly than their lumbering, square-rigged European counterparts. Though A.I. factions still can’t stage an amphibious assault, they are aggressive about raiding trade routes and blockading ports.

These actions can have a crippling effect on your economy, highlighting another wonky aspect of the game’s design. Due to the Balkanized geography of Japan, the flow of trade is an infinitely complicated affair, determined by who owns which province at what time — a circumstance that is constantly changing. The ability of an enemy to easily interdict even a robust cash flow seems slightly overpowered, especially when coupled with the game’s general stinginess and the A.I.’s copious aggression. Total War has always been about prioritization — you won’t be able to build something in every city on every turn — but it sometimes seems like fickle economic development is choking off access to expensive end-game goodies, even when playing on “Hard,” the middle difficulty level.

If maintaining functioning trade routes strikes you as complex, wait ’til you explore Shogun 2′s brand-new “Avatar Conquest” multiplayer mode. A bizarrely effective marriage of strategy and RPG game mechanics, Avatar Conquest casts you in the role of a ronin warlord, whom you gradually develop into an unstoppable killing machine. Starting with a dauntingly robust set of visual customization options, which enable you to design your Avatar and his heraldry, you then begin fighting battles and leveling him up, a process that can be undertaken in a wide variety of ways.

During each battle, you field either a pre-set or custom-made army. Each general will work within a specific budget, spending cash to populate his host with the units of his choosing. A low-level avatar starts with 5000 available coin and a circumscribed, low-level pool of units to choose from. By winning battles, capturing territory, and completing achievements in the singeplayer game, more money and better units eventually become available, along with perks and bonuses that enable you to further customize your general and his army. Despite its daunting complexity, the mode is thoroughgoingly addictive. Server population was high enough to enable easy matchmaking, and the inclusion of Clans and Leaderboards will augment multiplayer’s social aspects.

Though some of the franchise’s familiar niggles and frustrations appeared after more extensive play, three weeks of Shogun 2 experience haven’t changed my initial opinion: this is the most polished, satisfying Total War title yet, and its carefully calculated scope enables the Creative Assembly dev team to really strut its stuff. Even the multiplayer, which seemed at first like a classic Total War design overreach, is more fun than it has any right to be, given the singleplayer’s extensive charms.

Pros:

  • Japanese setting combats mechanic bloat, problems of Empire.
  • Factions, provinces, and units are more streamlined and intuitive.
  • Satisfying RPG aspects make you really care about your generals, ninjas, and other NPC’s.
  • Visual aplomb, beautiful art direction.
  • Clever, deep multiplayer.

Cons:

  • A.I. behavior still occasionally bizarre.
  • Tepid naval battles.
  • Recycled siege settings.

Final score: 90/100

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