It could be for a lack of critical mass in the retail space, or just that they’ve carved their niche too deep now, but it’s odd that Creative Assembly are rarely challenged as the market leader when it comes to strategy games. And that’s not to say I’m unaware of a little company called Blizzard and their RTS behemoth, StarCraft 2, it’s just that that game is built around a classic tool-set and Blizzard, by Blizzard’s own words, has never really
What makes Creative Assembly the King of the RTS, in my opinion, is that they took strategy to new ground; unflinchingly, and some might add “boldly”, creating their own spin on the genre, until it became a genre unto itself. So, like so many genres out there, there are genre-defining examples, and in Creative Assembly’s spin, that definition is Shogun.
The first Shogun is remembered lovingly by Total War fans, and to a degree, nothing since has topped it. The reality is, most actually have in a feature-set sense, but everything that has come post, just hasn’t had the charm. This is why the team have revisited the era and nation, only this time, like some well-trained ninja packing devices of death to the gills, they’re armed with the knowledge and skills of years and years of TW development, ready to decimate all that came before it, and leave a trail of strategy delight in its wake.
Total War: Shogun 2 also has a little something most TW titles have lacked in favour of the grand over the years: personal charm. There’s a greater level of investment in building your empire this time around because it’s easy to become attached to your agents of death and diplomacy, like ninja assassins, for example, who you can level up and invest copious amounts of strategy and design in; shaping him to be your very own model soldier. He’s part of the meta-game here, which offsets the large real-time battle component that made this series so famous, and he’s as important as your largest unit in your equally large army.
Balance throughout Shogun 2 is as tight as the series has ever been, and pliable to really cater to unique and varying play-styles. The key thing about this series is the term “strategy” and in Shogun 2 it’s the absolute centrepiece to claiming victory.
For the uninitiated, the game is centred around the Sengoku Jidai; an era of war in feudal Japan’s history where lords competed to claim control of the country as the one, true Shogun. It makes for a perfect videogame setting that not only involves large-scale warfare in real-time, but also diplomacy, city-building, naval construction, hostage-taking (or negotiation), sieges and so much more. All of this is neatly packaged into the single-player game where you choose one of nine different Clans, each with their own perks, strengths and weaknesses. You can choose to play the game from the over-world map and never once set foot on the battlefield, instead, just allowing the game to play out battles in an automated way (which is based on percentages factoring in unit strength, weather, morale etc), while you build and talk your way to Shogunism
. Or, you can dive headfirst into each land battle or sea battle (naval warfare plays a bigger role here than previously) and operate the battlefield like some master of war puppeteer; controlling everyone from peasants to archers, cavalry and beyond.
The sheer scale of choice in the series is at fever-pitch in Shogun 2, and I’d be remiss to not tell newcomers it can be daunting. I’ve dabbled in a few of the series’ previous iterations and I have to say, Shogun 2 took me a while to really wrap my head around - there’s just so much information to digest early on in the piece and you’ll likely find yourself making silly mistakes, like attacking stronger armies when you probably would have benefited more from diplomacy.
This comes back to the game’s stronger emphasis on personality. Morale plays a major role throughout, and you’ll actually need to manage this through your Generals who have a sort of area of effect for morale. Troops will become nervous if ambushed instead of, say, being able to see the enemy coming and all of this affects their abilities in battle. It’s a razor’s edge of management, but it does play out organically, and thankfully the AI across the map isn’t too over-the-top in their own micro-management.
There is a Civ V-like moment where they’ll all turn on you if you’re entering the end-game component; decisively on your way to ascending the Shogun throne, which can be a bit disconnecting if you’ve been building a solid relationship with another clan, but it makes sense from a gameplay perspective.
A lot has changed here as well, beyond the all-encompassing design history of the series to create the most robust TW game to-date. Multiplayer is the biggest overall in terms of what’s new, with you creating an avatar to take online and build up over time. There’s a sense of persistent play as a result, and you’ll level up to earn new perks and abilities to take online, even being rewarded with items and units from the single-player campaign. I didn’t get a huge chance to extensively play this new feature, but the time I have spent with it has been very satisfying, and I can see it extending the life of the product massively post-release.
There are also Historical Battles you can partake in that are basically just skirmishes with specific rules based on events in history. These can be challenging, but are an unnecessary distraction from the meat of the title, which is the single-player campaign because its overwhelming management component will create a very different experience for basically every person who plays.
From a visual stand-point, the series has never looked so good and the presentation throughout is to be applauded. I’m a very big fan of ancient Japanese artworks, poems and the like, abd the game is just riddled with this type of cultural offering. Moreover, voices are all in English (except for uniyts, who speak short, punctuated Japanese), but are clearly Japanese in origin. It adds to the authenticity and immersion factor immeasurably, while the new Encyclopedia will keep you more than informed about this rich, rich world.
I had everything dialled up pretty high and am still running a GTX 8800 and I never really saw too much in the way of lag or frame-rate issues. A bit of screen-tearing here and there, but that’s almost par for the course on my rig. And finally, the game’s audio is incredible with a stunningly crafted soundtrack totally befitting the time-period, and there’s just something to be said about the sound of katanas clashing with one another on the battlefield. Creative Assembly have done an incredible job in all areas of the cosmetic kind with Total War: Shogun 2.
It’s not a game for the feint-hearted, and you’ll be investing many, many hours if you play the campaign the way it’s meant to be played. The new multiplayer stuff is excellent and almost a reason to purchase the game alone, will the other bells and whistles equally add to the value of the product. There’s absolutely no question this is the best in the series, I just can’t see where the team go from here. Total War fans or strategy fans looking for something to invest heavily in need look no further than here. Highly recommended.