Total War: Shogun 2 Preview
Creative Assembly incurred the wrath of many with Empire: Total War, an ambitious but bloated project that shipped in what was widely considered a half-finished state, riddled with bugs, AI hiccups, and other issues. Expansion/Sequel Napoleon: Total War cleaned up many of these issues, but despite the little corporal’s delivery of improved quality assurance, any mention of Empire on a PC Gaming messageboard acts as tinder to an immediate flamewar; many players swear that after the game‘s manifold privations, they’ll never buy a Total War game again.
People might change their tune when Total War: Shogun 2 hits stores. Many of the problems of Empire stemmed from its gigantic scope, which piled on so many continents and systems that the developers appeared almost as overwhelmed as the players were. Often, it seemed things were included to answer the questions “is this possible” or “is this historically accurate?” but never “is this fun?” Many of the gripes about the state the game shipped in also stemmed from broken promises — the team at Creative Assembly were too willing to stoke the fires of expectation, only to underdeliver.
A return to Japan, in the form of Shogun 2, is exactly what the doctor ordered. To begin with, it brings the studio back to the subject matter that gave them such an auspicious start 11 years ago. Geographically, the game is meticulously contained, confining players to the Nipponese archipelago and its rich, monolithic culture. Wisely, the hype has been kept to a low boil this time around.
So how does it all work in practice? We were given access to a press preview of the game, which encompassed the full tutorial (more extensive than you’d think) and included one of the Battle-Map-only “Historical Battles.” The tutorial should provide new players with an effective introduction to the game’s many overlapping systems, though for experienced Total War generals, it mostly highlighted the many changes. You begin as the Daimyo of the Chosokabe clan, on a medium-sized island off the Japanese mainland. The Chosokabe are expert archers, with a bonus to all archery units, and their bow samurai, recruitable from the outset, represent a big advantage.
Giving clans intelligible, simple tactical personalities was a clever move that should improve both faction selection and replayability — gamers will be interested in trying out multiple clans to better understand their differences. This embrace of an easily-graspable bonus system is Shogun 2′s most diverting and impressive feature. Previous Total War titles, in their misguided desire to have a UI that is immaculately beautiful above all else (and therefore frustratingly hard-to-read and information-poor) have generally kept this kind of thing behind the scenes, or at least buried in the manual.
Once you get your armies on the move and start putting the Chosokabe’s neighbors to the sword, you’ll discover another delightful improvement in specialization — the provinces. Each one is defined by a particular resource, which in turn unlocks a bonus for your clan. Conquer a province with a quarry, and you’ll be able to build bigger, stronger castles. A province with the warhorse resource will recruit improved cavalry units. A province with a smuggling network will bring in loads of cash. These bonuses make it easy to plan your campaigns around conquering enticing resources, and give the tug-of-war over various border provinces more significance than a simple fight over tax revenue.
To harvest certain resources, you’ll need to build buildings, another area in which Shogun 2 has streamlined and improved Total War tradition. Each city has six building slots, which can be used in myriad different ways. Four are somewhat predetermined. One slot is always the castle — the seat of local power. Another is always a transport network, and a third is always your agricultural infrastructure. A fourth pertains to that province’s special resource — a port, say, or a gold mine. After that, its up to you.
It is impossible to discuss the other building options without simultaneously discussing the units. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese military science, the game’s unit system is more intuitive than any of the series’ previous incarnations. Build one building — an archery range, say — and you’ll be able to build samurai archers. Couple it with a stable, and you’ll be able to build horse archers, but if you use that building slot instead for a monastery, you’ll create bow-toting warrior monks. By using two different recruitment buildings, you can create a vast number of combinations, even within the confines of the demo. Alternatively, you can eschew military build-up altogether in a city, and build a market or, more epically, a sake den, which will enable you to recruit Ninjas.
Once you’ve recruited some units (I favored Naginata Warrior Monks), you can take them out for a spin, entering the famed Total War battle map. Graphically, it looks as good as ever, no doubt taking advantage of the latest and greatest in technological prowess. One innovation that looked particularly nice was the addition of billowing smoke, a glaring omission from previous titles, considering how often things in Total War tend to be lit violently on fire. The interface takes advantage of many of Napoleon: TW’s improvements, making it easy to tell at a glance the state of a unit’s morale and, additionally this time around, its energy level — ask a unit to run too much, and it will tire, decreasing its effectiveness in battle. The animation quality lavished on each individual soldier remains staggeringly high.
The siege battles are also transformed, again taking advantage of the game’s setting. Barrages of arrows going in and out of castles are much more exciting than Empire’s tedious cannon bombardments, and the ability of any unit to scale any wall with a ladder makes capturing a castle an entertaining game of cat-and-mouse, full of feints and deception. There is also a larger variety of available defensive tactics — letting attackers breach your outer cordon, in order to trap them and rain down fiery death, is now very much an option. The multi-tiered citadels are also a glorious sight to behold.
If you win battles, your general will gain experience points, which can now be spent in a delightful little mini-RPG tech tree that allows you to customize his abilities. Though this kind of experience-based improvement has long been a feature of the series, in previous titles it was out the player’s control. No longer. You can also spend cash on “retainers,” which further increase a general’s abilities. The more experienced the general, the more retainer slots there are available. This whole system also extends to your Ninjas, who can be used to sabotage armies and enemy buildings, assassinate rival generals, and open castle gates in preparation for assault by your conventional troops.
A persistent, RPG-lite system has also been resurrected when it comes to control of your clan, which has returned to the family-tree-based system that veterans will recognize from Rome and both Medieval: Total War’s. Diplomatic options have been spiced up by the addition of arranged marriages and hostage exchanges, which will both strengthen relations between you and a friendly clan.
Despite all these improvements, some familiar Total War problems remain. The economic system can be touchy — it’s easy to get stuck in what seems like a never-ending spiral of impending bankruptcy, especially if your enemies have a strong navy and decide to blockade your port cities. They might not always take this opportunity, though, even when it’s presented to them — the A.I., always the bane of strategy game developers, still seems to make some puzzling decisions. Unit pathfinding also retains its traditional quirks. With just a press build to evaluate, its hard to be too critical of graphical glitches, but they definitely did appear.
All complaints, aside, however, it appears that Creative Assembly have put their best foot forward with this game, seeking to erase the stain that Empire left on their meticulously-tailored, historically-accurate waistcoat. Thanks to streamlined, intuitive systems, a manageable setting, and, most importantly, awareness of past mistakes, Shogun 2 is primed to storm the strategy-gaming keep.
Need a leg up in the game’s historical battles? Check out our Shogun 2 Game Guide!