Shogun 2 Review (Part I)
Creative Assembly is a studio with an advantage enjoyed by a select few: they’ve been making the same game over and over gain since the year 2000. This sounds like a criticism, but it’s not — it’s a testament to how good their idea was when they first dreamed up the original Shogun: Total War, sometime toward the end of the previous millennium. Combining deceptively simple turn-based strategy with real-time battles on an epic scale, and hewing as closely to historical realism as possible, the British company created a model that has been changed surprisingly little in the 11 intervening years. Over the course of five sequels and almost as many expansion packs, the gameplay has been tweaked and refined to a great degree, but never enough to make a new title unfamiliar. A contemporaneous fan of the first Shogun game, transported through time, would have little trouble sitting down with its sequel and jumping right in.
Shogun 2 (PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: March 15, 2011
One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is the scale. Shogun 2 is a gigantic game, spanning decades of history and a mountainous multiplicity of mechanics. It is extremely hard to sum up the entire game succinctly, doubly hard when your time with the game is circumscribed by necessity. This review, therefore, will appear in two parts — the first focusing on my initial impressions, the second dealing with the middle and end-game, along with the multiplayer.
Upon first firing up a new campaign, you’re able to choose between nine different clans. This is a much smaller number than previous offerings, but the restriction is intentional. In Shogun 2, each playable clan is given a clear and intelligible strategic personality, rather than just a couple of unique units or buildings. The clan selection screen also gives you sense of the initial challenge you’ll face, based on the size and fecundity of your clan’s provinces, and the strength and proximity of your enemies. I experimented first with the Date, who have a bonus to charge for all units and superior no-dachi samurai, powerful swordsmen who wield gigantic two-handed blades. Hailing from the far north of the Japanese archipelago, the Date are clearly a clan for getting up in your enemy’s grill, or at least his mustachioed lacquer-wood war mask. I also tested out the Takeda, master horsemen, who had a bonus to cavalry stats and recruitment.
Provinces, too, have been made more distinctive. Each one has a valuable and noticeable resource, like gold or stone, making some more attractive than others based on your immediate strategic needs and tendencies. The Takeda horselords, for instance, start in a province with the warhorse resource, an obvious synergy. Their homelands also feature the majestic Mt. Fuji, which is but one of the many dazzling graphical touches that appear on the campaign map. Undiscovered territory in the turn-based campaign mode is depicted like Japanese scrollwork — all thick paintbrush lines and black ink. Eventually, your exploration reveals waterfalls casting shimmering rainbows, tiny tradesmen navigating the roads, and even tinier cherry blossoms floating gently in the breeze. Creative Assembly’s deep understanding of their subject matter is exemplified throughout the game, but it is particularly striking in the visual presentation, which is immaculate.
As in other Total War titles, your clan starts with an initial goal, mostly to acquaint you with where your friends and enemies lie — Japan’s patchwork of 60 tiny territories makes even a central European land war in Empire: Total War look as simple as Halo’s Red vs. Blue. The Takeda were tasked with eliminating enemies to the north, so I dutifully trained up a couple light cavalry, merged them with my standing army, and rode off in search of my enemies. The unit recruitment system has been elegantly refined. Each basic military building can produce a single type of unit related to its function — a sword school produces sword samurai, and archery range bow samurai, etc. Build a second building, and you can combine traits; with a sword school and a stable available, you can build sword cavalry, for instance. The number of buildings is limited by the size of your local castle, which can be continuously upgraded to allow for more construction. Upgrading the buildings themselves unlocks new units and new combinations of traits.
With three units of cavalry, the enemy force to my north was quickly dispensed with. The A.I., long a stumbling block of series’ excellence, has clearly been improved, but adjusting it is clearly a process without end. Timid when faced with cavalry in the past, the AI is now too cowed by it, often to the point of dividing its forces and chasing a much faster mounted unit fruitlessly around the map. These blunders extend to the campaign map, and are not always ameliorated by the game’s robust “drop-in” battle system. Though the idea of having a human player appear and compensate for the A.I. is appealing, your drop-in opponents will often be faced by stultifyingly impossible odds, or, worse still, exploit an unusual situation to grief you. Attacked by a weaker force when the computer foolishly sallied forth from a beseiged city, I was faced with a human opponent who announced via chat his intention to turtle up and “prepare breakfast,” rather than be complicit in the computer’s suicidal strategy. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to revert to a recent quick save. Despite its many faults, however, combat on the battle map continues to improve, and the A.I. is generally smarter and more aggressive — it even laid a neat trap for me at one point after I had misguidedly committed my forces.
As the fortunes of the Takeda continue to wax, so will this review, which will eventually encompass on-field weather effects, siege battles, the technology tree, naval combat, and a whole host of other subjects. Until it does, rest assured that Shogun 2 is a worthy entrant in a venerable series, changing and streamlining what needed changing and maintaining what already worked. With their range of design challenges made more manageable by the Japanese setting, Creative Assembly have managed to augment their honor even further.