As long-term fans of the Total War series will know, most recent releases by Creative Assembly have been riddled with bugs, making their games close to unplayable. In addition to this, Creative Assembly is notoriously bad at supporting their games, often taking months, if not years, to resolve the major issues with their games. To rub further salt into the wounds of their many fans, they often plain cut features that were outright promised and never bother to implement them at all. Yes, Empire – I am looking at you with your co-operative campaign mode that never materialised. No Creative Assembly, adding it to Napoleon isn’t good enough as I’ve never bought that. (Napoleon and his period has about the same appeal as a triple heart-bypass).
Anyway, long story short: Shogun 2 is a refreshing change to Creative Assembly’s usual releases. For the most part, the game played pretty damned well straight out of the box. I’d still like to see more fanatical support, but the fault there will sit with the management of the studio and not the developers themselves. So, onwards to important matters – what is the game actually like?
Shogun 2 is set in the so called Sengoku period in historic Japan. When Europe was battling it out with matchlock rifles and cannons, the Japanese for the most part stuck with more traditional forms of warfare. You will find a European influence, as well as European weaponry in Shogun 2 but for the most part you’ll see bows, spears and katanas.
Japan is torn apart by rival clans, each with their own schemes and agenda. The one thing they do have in common is that they all want to rise to power as Shogun, the ultimate ruler of Japan. In pure game terms, this is done by capturing and controlling Kyoto for 4 seasons. This sounds a little easier than it is, as growing too powerful or outright attacking Kyoto will result in so-called Realm Divide. Essentially, this means that most clans will declare war on you in defence of the Shogun, with only your most loyal allies sticking at your side. You really need to time your moment very well and be prepared for this eventuality otherwise your own greed for power will truly become your downfall.
Shogun 2 features 8 playable clans, with an additional clan if you own the limited edition. Each clan has its respective traits and bonuses:
(This is a quick summary and not an exhaustive list of all features of each clan)
- Chosokabe – Superior bow infantry and additional income from farms.
- Date – Superior No-Dachi Samurai and charge bonus for all units.
- Mori – Superior Ships and increased campaign movement for all ships.
- Hattori (Limited Edition) – Fantastic Ninjas.
- Hojo – Superior Siege Units and Cheaper Castles.
- Oda – Reduced recruitment and upkeep and improved morale for Ashigaru units.
- Shimazu – Superior Katana samurai and heroes and increased loyalty for generals.
- Takeda – Superior Cavalry and improved morale for cavalry.
- Tokugawa – Superior Kisho Ninja and bonus to diplomacy.
- Uesugi – Superior Warrior Monks and increased trade income.
As we are used to in Total War games, the game consists of a turn-based campaign mode, and battles which are fought in a gorgeous real-time 3d engine. There are three different campaign settings: short, long and domination and the main differences between these are the number of turns you have to complete your objectives, as well as the number of provinces your clan will need to control. An example of this might be to control a total of 25 provinces which include 5 specific provinces + Kyoto. Meeting the stated objectives within the specified time limit wins the campaign and unlocks the associated Steam achievements, as well as a neat video which shows your clan rising to power.
In terms of province and building management, Shogun 2 is greatly streamlined and incredibly easy to understand, even for new players to the series. All provinces have roads and farms which can be upgraded to be more effective as you unlock technologies (Bushido and Chi arts). About half the provinces also have a port which can be developed to provide you with more usable trade routes. Most provinces also have a ‘special’ building which provide a specific bonus to that province. These can be military, economic or other bonuses and the way you will develop each province will be greatly influenced by these buildings. As will your military strategy as the acquisition of specific strategic resources such as horses or iron becomes incredibly important to your efforts.
In addition to this, each province has a castle which can be upgraded through 5 different levels. Each additional level costs a fair bit of gold and time to construct, and takes 1 food from the global pool, which means that you have to be a little strategic and not simply upgrade all your provinces to the maximum. Each level of your castle also unlocks an additional construction slot in the province, which can hold the buildings that allow recruitment of Samurai, Ninja, Monk, and Siege units of specific types. For example, if you wish to construct spear cavalry you will need the buildings that allow Yari units and Cavalry buildings, which already takes 2 slots. In that case you would probably want to do this in a province with horses to allow for superior cavalry. Markets and happiness boosting buildings occupy the same slots, creating a very simple system with a ton of depth and choice for the player. From my point of view, this is incredibly well executed and works a lot better than all the Total War games before this.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Total War game if we didn’t have agents. In Shogun 2 these consist of Ninja, Metsuke, Monks and Geisha. These all perform different functions which range from completely demoralising enemy armies or inciting revolts to converting agents and even straight-up assassination. Ninjas in particular are absolutely fantastic in Shogun 2 and agents can truly make the difference between victory and utter defeat. The biggest changes to previous Total War games are two-fold. First, you no longer need diplomat agents to physically walk over to another clan to engage in diplomacy. This always irritated me greatly in Empire: Total War as it is unrealistic and actually limits the player in engaging in proper diplomacy with other factions. In Shogun 2: Diplomacy is absolutely vital, so it is fantastic that Creative Assembly has recognised that and not limited the player in this arbitrary manner.
The second, even bigger (and better!) change is that agents now have skill trees, like you’d see in any decent RPG. That’s right, your agents will gain experience and each time they ‘level up’ you are able to choose specific skills from a skill tree – complete with pre-requisites. In addition to this, you can now choose the ‘followers’ of your units manually as well. Instead of these randomly appearing, you get to choose between 2 specific ancillaries which greatly enhances the involvement and attachment you feel with your agents. In previous Total War games I couldn’t have given 2 pennies about my agents; in Shogun 2 I really care whenever I lose one.
Generals & Heroes
These improvements don’t stop with agents. Your generals also have extensive skill trees, with skills that make a massive difference both on the battlefield and off it. In addition to that, your generals can be assigned a commission which provides further bonuses. Keeping your generals alive and acquiring experience and skills has literally never been more fun. Losing one is an absolutely massive blow to your clan and should be avoided at all costs.
In addition to generals, there are now also ‘hero’ units – the highest class of unit you can recruit. Acquiring these involves getting to the right technology level (arts) and building the absolute highest level of military building; for example for bow infantry the legendary dojo. The hero units are much smaller than conventional units but have hugely increased statistics and provide an immense bonus on the battlefield. And things don’t end there – like in previous games your normal units gain experience as well. In Shogun 2 this is very visible as you can follow the exact experience your units have, and often your focus will very much be on trying to gain experience on specific units. These simple changes have added a ton of depth to the game, and at least for me have made the game a lot more fun for a much longer period of time.
What long-term fans are obviously wondering is, ‘How does it actually play?’ Well you can stop worrying here and now: Shogun 2 plays absolutely fantastically. Imagine the best moments from previous Total War battles – now hold that thought for a while. In Shogun 2, that will be your worst moment. The engine both looks and feels incredibly impressive, and ran smoothly even with the unit size and graphics on maximum. I will admit I have been playing on a fairly beefy machine, but Shogun 2 would run fine on much lower specced machines on medium to high settings as well.
The real beauty is that the units are very much balanced in a rock-paper-scissors manner. There is a counter defence to almost anything, as well as a way of breaking any defensive position with the right units and tactics. Terrain can be used to your advantage by using trees, hills and rivers in the optimal manner, and employing the right formation has never been more important. What I enjoyed the most was the way your general interacts with the troops. Ashigaru units are used en-masse in this period and their morale is (being peasants and essentially forced into the military) very poor. If your general isn’t closeby, there’s a very good chance they will turn tail and run as fast as their legs can carry them. Knowing this and using this knowledge against your enemy can be a sheer joy. There’s nothing more satisfying than managing to cut a gigantic enemy army in two, separating huge chunks of Ashigaru from their general and forcing them to route using only a few well-disciplined samurai units.
Sieges are similarly enjoyable, with previous games often forcing battles into a bit of a stalemate where the defenders sit comfortably on their behinds and attackers throwing some rocks from afar in the hope of breaking a wall or door, or even knocking some towers down. Shogun 2 sieges are very different. With historic Japanese castles working more like a gauntlet, inviting enemies in rather than keeping them out, with low walls and easily burned gates and towers, most sieges end up in beautiful carnage. The defender obviously still has a huge advantage, especially if they play it smart, but no stalemates here. An attacker with overwhelming forces can simply rush the castle, climb the walls and throw themselves at the defender. If this is done with Ashigaru however, the tables can turn very quickly and the attacker could end up looking quite foolish. The balance is truly fantastic and incredibly refreshing after previous games in the series.
Fleets & Naval Battles
One of the aspects I wondered (and worried) about prior to release was how naval matters would work. Empire introduced naval battles and trade zones – but they were not implemented particularly well. I disliked how spread out they were, how difficult it was to keep tabs on everything and how stupid the naval battle engine was. Many players felt truly ‘out of control’ during naval battles and simply reverted to auto resolving them again. Well I am delighted to say that Shogun 2 really tackled this one very well. At times I enjoyed the naval battles even more than the land-based ones. There are many different ships, allowing the player to employ a wide variety of tactics including really cool stuff like sea-based mines. Again, terrain plays a huge role here with little islands and shallow areas adding depth to the battles. The detail is truly fantastic, and I love seeing one of my ships throw grappling ropes onto an enemy ship, pull it close and have the marines jump onboard the enemy vessel to fight it out in hand-to-hand combat. If you zoom in, you can follow the progress in minute detail with every single one-on-one encounter animated in painstaking detail.
The economic side of the game is incredibly important and can’t be neglected if you want to be victorious. Unit upkeep is expensive, and koku doesn’t grow on trees after all. The economic side in Shogun is greatly simplified and incredibly easy to manage as well. You set tax levels at a global level, with individual provinces either being except from tax or not. On the taxation screen you get an instant overview of the entire map and all your provinces – with a colour code showing you which provinces are struggling with morale and need attention. It’s a great interface that really streamlines this aspect of the game. Provinces make koku (gold) by having a certain ‘economic value’ which gets taxed by a set percentage. This value can be increased through infrastructure and building improvements, as well as specific events in the game. Over time these have a massive effect and make the difference between being able to afford that massive army or going completely bankrupt.
The second method of generating income is through good old-fashioned trade. As in previous Total War games, you can trade either through land-based or sea-based routes, with the number and level of your trade ports dictating how many trade agreements you can have in place at any given time. Trade is boosted hugely by possessing trade goods which can be exported, and which are gained both through your provinces and from the ‘trade nodes’ on the map. Unlike in Empire: Total War, these are found directly on the campaign map and not in different ‘trade theatres’, which makes things much easier to manage. In addition to this, it adds strategic depth in terms of having to protect your trade nodes and placing fleets strategically so they are able to defend both your trade routes and your provinces.
Graphics & Sound
Shogun 2 looks truly fantastic. The units are incredibly detailed, with distinct colour schemes for the different factions. I love that you can zoom in on a unit of your army and have all of the individual units of a 200 man strong unit look just a little different from each other. They even hold their weapons in a slightly different way, as well as riding completely different horses and so on. The terrain at times is absolutely stunning, with typical Japanese blossom trees and beautiful scenery. If I had to make any criticism, I personally found the buildings a little underwhelming when compared to everything else. This is especially visible when buildings are damaged, contain snow or are otherwise altered in appearance to show weather or damage. The artwork outside the units and campaign map is beautiful as well, with Creative Assembly opting for a cartoony, hand-drawn style that fits the game perfectly.
The music is equally impressive. Possibly not as great as Medieval: Total War 2 but still incredibly fitting for both the setting and the ‘war’ type feeling the game should convey. Sound and voices are also very well done, though I don’t speak enough Japanese to judge the quality of the voice-acting in that respect!
UI & Controls
The UI is incredibly functional, with everything being in the location where I expected it to be. It doesn’t take long to get used to it at all and the units responded and acted as I wanted them to, with just a few minor exceptions resulting from playing other games within this genre too often. The formation system is incredibly useful, the mini-map is great and I love the detailed ‘unit cards’ which pop up when you hover the cursor over a unit in your army. The controls are equally impressive: WASD controls the camera and units can be controlled in several different ways, continuing the improvements from previous titles in the series. I only had a few minor niggles with the UI: First, the font used is far too small. I play on a 1920*1080 resolution and I can almost not read some of the text. The second nuisance was that some of the visual indicators that were present in previous games in the series are gone. For example, when an enemy general dies you now rely on your advisor telling you – there is no visual indication or icon at all like there was in previous titles. Neither of these are big issues though and can be easily rectified either through a patch or through a small mod further down the line.
If you’re a fan of the series, wait no longer and go buy Shogun 2 right now. It’s by far the best game in the entire series and truly a pleasure to play. If you haven’t played a Total War game before but have an interest in either the Sengoku period in Japan or this sort of gameplay, it’s very much worth giving the series a try. I’ve seen Shogun 2 sold for £17 for the Limited Edition, so there isn’t really a reason not to start the series right here! If you like strategy games and have the remotest interest in the medieval and/or Japanese period – go and buy this immediately!