Given that Total War’s scope kept increasing since the Rome edition, Total War: Shogun 2’s revisiting of Japan might feel like a reboot of the franchise. But with the map of Japan divided into sixty provinces, the developers have applied a lot of lessons from previous franchises to give us a focused campaign set during the time of the samurai.
Unlike recent Total War games, the return to Shogun means more homogeneity amongst all the sides. This is, after all, still Japan and not pitting gunpowder troops on mameluke camels. The clans, of which I’m not personally familiar with, grant certain bonuses either to a certain unit such as superior katana wielding samurai or all naval units. Personally, I felt the harder task was choosing a clan that had defensible territory. You don’t particularly want to be sandwiched in the middle with no access to the sea. Certain clans also come across gunpowder easier due to the existence ports that have Western visitors so if your battle tactics require you to have gunpowder, you’d best steer yourselves to those clans.
Shogun continues to provide two very compelling games. The turn-based campaign game holds its own. Every iteration of Total War presents a new wrinkle for strategy gamers to wrap themselves around. In this iteration, you do have to make a judgment on whether you want to grow a certain province. This is on top of the decision to steer the city towards a military or domestic track. Even on a domestic track, you have to consider the food supply, which in most cases is tight and gets worse with unrest and enemy armies raiding your land. Starvation leads to further unrest and the only way to fight that is to lower taxes limiting your ability to build farms and research technologies to get yourself out of the rut. I found myself frankly designating swathes of land as backwater provinces and capping them at a certain limit, focusing on a few key regional capitals rather than trying to develop each and every single building. It takes too long and is too costly until you build a decent enough navy to supplement your meager income through trade routes with other nations. Only then can you afford to build blindly everywhere for growth. This is why treating the vanquished as a protectorate can be a good idea because it excuses you from some of these hassles if you’re fighting off far flung clans that aren’t on the march towards Kyoto. The other domestic agenda item is that of religion. Who knew that Christianity and Buddhism did not get along! The more friction there is between believers, the more you have to play with the tax lever or even tax exemption to prevent rebellions. Certain religious buildings can be added to slowly convert people, but those take time and exposure to Christianity also means exposure to gunpowder technology.
While agents continue to make a presence in this game, I found their use to be limited. Agents are like buying a lottery ticket. Sometimes an assassin can take out a high ranking general, but often times they get into trouble themselves and end up dead. I found agents, any agent really, to be of great value scouting ahead since they move faster than all troops except cavalry. As a bonus, they also do not suffer from attrition in the winter.
This time around, Shogun incrementally improves the Total War diplomacy model. Compared to the first few Total War games, the diplomatic exchanges make sense now. You will have to pay for lucrative trading rights that boost your income. In addition, earning goodwill with allies can be done and sustained in the long term, although your efforts will be labor intensive compared to outright battling them.
After the conquest of another clan’s capital, you have the option to subjugate them as a protectorate. This used to be rare instance up to chance but now is presented even if you slaughter the rebels who are holding the province. Protectorates are great because they relieve you of the administration headache especially if it’s a region suffering from religious conflicts. However, when you need to raise an army quickly, you can effectively only count on their one time contribution of a unit to your forces. I couldn’t really rely on them to carry any offensive thrusts into enemy territory but they did guard their own possessions.
Research is separated into two areas: domestic and military. You simply choose an item you want to research and wait for a number of turns to past. What’s different this time around is an emphasis on the development of your generals as well. They can be developed in the same way as your clan’s research tree by focusing on tactics or actual battle prowess depending on how you use your general’s cavalry unit. Generals also gain retainers that reflect their behavior. With the exception of a marriage where you can choose between one attribute to another, you can’t choose the other retainers.
At a certain point in the game, you will have amassed enough strength that all the sides will unite with Kyoto and turn against you. This happens regardless of how much effort and money you’ve invested in your allies. Although I understand that this is a historical facet of Japanese history, I felt it was more like a deus ex machina for the main campaign. Now you have to fight all the clans combined so rather than letting you slowly chip away at the rest of the map, you may have to suddenly look at your rear guard as relatively benign clans that you may have left to survive in a corner will mount an attack on your provinces. Usually it takes about a few turns to steady things and reallocate your troops so you can push forward towards Kyoto again. But I still felt it was a cheap gimmick every time this happened.
In actual battle, Shogun’s units stack up pretty much like paper, rocks and scissors. Spearmen are effective against cavalry. Swordsmen are effective against other infantry while ranged units can massacre infantry and cavalry but rout quickly in melee. Visually, the battles can look stunning with the little flags sitting up from each person’s armor. Think the penultimate battle in The Last Samurai. All of these visuals and hordes of soldiers require a bit of horsepower. In cities where there are large castles, especially the one in Kyoto, borderline systems may need to tone down the graphics to play the battle all the way through. Speaking of castles, siege warfare is still a hit or miss for enemy AI. On the balance, the AI only knows to attack from one side. While on defense, a mass of archers can decimate a garrison with little to no movement from the AI general. Similar to the naval battles, there continues to be quirks you can use to change the odds into your favour. Perhaps that’s why human drop-in battles are enabled by default; a feature I turned off most of the time considering I only attacked with overwhelming numbers when I knew I would win.
While naval battles have been present in Total War for awhile, I still prefer to play the land battles over them. Naval battles are less mature and sometimes there can be tricks to overcome overwhelming odds. One trick I used was to fool the AI’s two ship fleet into circling around an obstacle until one of them overshoots and I stop and engage the sole remaining vessel. Once that vessel is weakened or I repeat the trick until they’re sunk, I can focus on the ship that got away.
Late in campaigns, I found Shogun to grow sluggish at executing turns, even though the amount of clans diminished from the onset of the campaign. This was something I found with almost every Total War game and unfortunately Shogun also exhibits this issue. Furthermore, lengthy playing sessions would occasionally cause blue screens of death that required a reboot of the computer. If you were in the middle of a battle, you’d also lose your progress as well.
Another area where Total War is making incremental improvements is the multiplayer area. The typical skirmish battles are still there. However, there is now the addition of an Avatar Conquest mode. The Avatar Conquest is a modified form of a campaign without the domestic side of things. This mode basically takes a page from the first person shooters that let you create a persistent profile by having you craft a general and an army that can be reused in between skirmish battles. These units can gain experience but they have to be excused from a few battles before their numbers replenish. Generals can grow in experience and retainers similar to the single player game. Avatars can also belong to a clan and these clans can be organized on Steam so it mimics the clans and teams in a first person shooter. A group of like minded players can then jump into Avatar Conquest and work together to take over Japan. For those who do want to enjoy the domestic turn based game, Shogun continues to feature multiplayer campaigns. This enables two players to control one clan each and work together in the strategic map as well as the tactical battles. Human players can assist each other by loaning the other player units even when only one of the human armies is in the battle. For example, I can give my human companion all my archers to harass the enemy while I continue oversight over infantry and cavalry. Shogun is another stepping stone towards making Total War’s multiplayer just as deep and engaging as the single player campaigns.
For audio, Shogun continues the Total War tradition of providing great sound effects and ambient soundtracks. But I did find the Japanese accented English narration to be an annoyance. Given the game has subtitles anyway, it would have been far more effective for the pre-battle speeches and advisors to simply speak the native tongue.
This doesn’t take away anything from the developer’s love of the source material. It’s clear they didn’t revisit Shogun simply because someone in marketing thought it was a good idea to cash in on an old game design. There is a je ne sais quoi elegance on how the game is presented and how well put together the game as an entire corpus is. Although it’s still mired by some version 1.0 bugs, Shogun is highly playable and deserves a place on any Total War fan’s hard drive.