Review: Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)

Total War: Shogun 2
Genre: Strategy
Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega Europe
Release Date: 3/15/2011

I was originally introduced to the Total War series with the second title, Medieval Total War, but I was not completely introduced into the series until the critically acclaimed Rome: Total War, which to this day remains one of my all-time favourite videogames. Following Rome, we had Medieval II and Empire: Total War, and while both were great games, I felt that they weren’t as fun as good old Rome.

Now Creative Assembly tackles the sequel to their very first Total War game, Shogun. Will they be able to do their original game justice?

1. Story/Modes

Anyone who’s played Total War for any length of time is familiar with the grand campaign mode but here’s a short summary for those who aren’t familiar: you take control of one of many factions in the game (Clans in the Sengoku Jidai, in Shogun 2’s case) and guide your nation in a turn based map similar to a tileless Sid Meier’s Civilization. When two armies meet, you are taken to a separate real time battlefield to command your troops in massive force on force battles. The ultimate goal of the campaign map is different from game to game but in Shogun 2 the end goal is to become Shogun by taking and holding the Imperial capital of Kyoto. There are also the standard multiplayer modes, as well as single battles and single historical battles where you take the roles of leaders such as the famous Oda Nobunaga amongst others.

The main difference between this title and older Total War titles functioned is how multiplayer is integrated in the game. You have an avatar to represent yourself online, the general of your army. He gains experience and skills as well as unlocks new items as he levels up. In addition, you don’t set up your match by going into a lobby, but rather by moving an army piece across a giant board map of Japan AND THEN entering into the lobby (though if you want the old fashioned “browse through a list of games” option it’s still there). If you win the match, you “gain” that territory and unlock special upgrades such as “Katana Master” which gives your sword infantry +2 attack, new items for your avatar, or new and powerful units for your next match (as you can see from the attached screenshot, I’m not making much progress because everyone is so good). The amount of customization and unlocking here is crazy and leaves FPS games like Bad Company 2 and Call of Duty in the dust. Add Steamworks integration and special clan warfare modes into the mix and you have the best multiplayer Total War ever.

There’s only a few downsides to this. First off, there are only 5 historical battles in the game, one of which is a sea battle. Second, there’s no way (to my knowledge) to play a simple game without all the modifiers that experience levels bring. Say you wanted a match between you and a friend, no items, no modifiers, no special units of any kind. You can’t do that and must play with that person as well as his in game skills.

Story/Modes rating: Amazing

2. Graphics

The Creative Assembly is known in the industry as one of those graphical powerhouses – those companies like DICE, Crytek, Unreal and id who are constantly trying to push the boundaries of video game graphics. When Rome Total War came out, I wondered to myself how any RTS in the next five years can come even close to matching its graphical fidelity. Well, I was wrong as amazing looking games like Age of Empires III and then Company of Heroes came out within two years of Rome until Medieval II came out and dropped my jaw to the floor yet again.

But this time I’m serious, I don’t know how Creative Assembly can make Total War: Rome 2 (the rumoured next instalment in the franchise) look any better than Shogun 2 without requiring a supercomputer of some kind. The game simply looks exquisite; no RTS comes even close to looking this good. Units all look beautiful in gleaming lacquer armour and lighting effects are even better than in Empire.

The beauty in this game isn’t simply due to its technical prowess but also due to its stylistic excellence as well. The entire game, from the menus to the very game map itself, feels Japanese. All the unit portraits, menu interface icons and artwork are done in the beautiful Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock style and the map itself changes with the seasons. In the spring, the entire screen is filled with pink cherry blossoms floating across your cities while in the fall the entire map is full of red and yellow leaves. Another great touch is that during springtime, the lighting indicates it is morning; in the summer, it is noon; fall is sunset and the winter season is night.

This unity of technical and stylistic graphics makes Shogun 2 a frontline contender for “Best Graphics” awards this year.

But there is a downside: the game at launch does NOT have access to DirectX 10 and DirectX 11 features including such basic things as anti-aliasing. That’s right! Shogun 2 does not have anti-aliasing AT ALL! This basically takes the beautiful graphics of the game and degrades them. Now the game still looks great but it’s like someone took a beautiful painting and smudged it with their Cheetos crusted fingers – it will drive you crazy!

The DirectX 11 patch is coming out in the first week of May and may in fact be released by the time you read this but how can something as basic as anti-aliasing not be featured in a game of such graphical fidelity right out of the box? I can understand not supporting Shader Model 4 and 5 (they’re also in the patch) but hasn’t anti-aliasing been a standard feature since forever?

Graphics rating: Classic

3. Sound

I envy the Creative Assembly’s music department. Whether it’s Ancient Rome, The Medieval Ages, or the Napoleonic, they always seem to write good music that perfectly fits the time period their games take place in and Shogun 2 is no different. You have excellent period style Japanese music with plenty of Shimasens and taiko drums to wet your eardrums, and it all fits in with the stylistic approach I explained above in the graphics section.

The voice acting is also good; most of the unimportant dialogue (order confirmations…etc) is in Japanese while the more important advisor messages and battlefield announcements are done in a very heavy Japanese accent. Now here is where we might diverge. Most people loved the over the top Japanese accents but some thought they were too corny. I fall on the side that finds these voices completely hilarious and I’m not the only one; the term “SHAMEFUR DISPRAY” uttered by your battlefield aide when your troops are routed has become a mini meme in itself within the community.

Sound rating: Classic

4. Control/Gameplay

Shogun 2 represents the Creative Assembly going back to basics, not only in the sense that they are returning to the title and era that launched the entire Total War series, but also trimming all the fat that’s accumulated over the years. Now “streamlining” is almost a swear word these days in gaming and synonymous with “dumbing down” and at first glance, Shogun 2 seems to be axing a lot of stuff from Empire.

To start with, Empire had nearly 300 different units while Shogun 2 has around 40. Empire had three different tech trees while Shogun 2 has only two (conveniently on one screen) and removes the whole university mechanic from Empire (though there are buildings and skills to increase research speed) and generals have only two meters (Skill and Loyalty/Honour) and can have at max only three retainers. In addition the map is smaller than in Empire and has fewer factions.

While it seems these might mess up the game up and “dumbs it down” so to speak, the game is in my opinion better off without all of that extraneous stuff found in Empire. Shogun 2 moves along faster without bogging you down in unnecessary details and allows you to focus on the grand strategy of your faction and movement of your armies. A good example of “streamlining” for example is found in army replenishment. In previous games, if units lost men you would pay less for upkeep until you paid to have that unit bought back to full strength. Usually that meant having to recheck your finances and calculate if you can actually afford to have that unit being paid full wages – a really tedious process! In Shogun 2, you ALWAYS pay full upkeep on a unit even if only one man remains in it; however, the unit will continue to gradually replenish itself for free as long as it remains in your territory, and there are certain skills and buildings that increase this replenishment rate. This new system eliminates much of the complexity of earlier systems and makes military offenses more risky as the enemy can replenish troops in their territory but not you so they can soak up more losses in combat and it also puts an end to massive counterattacks where the both you and the enemy are back to full fighting strength the next turn thanks to money; bloody battles will take time to recover from.

In terms of tactics, there is a clear rock papers scissors system in place with spears beating cavalry, cavalry beating swords and swords beating spears while bows fall outside of this spectrum, but Creative Assembly take this simple formula and add layers on top of it so that the general can never lose sight of the original formula but still bend it around to his favour. For example, naginatas are hybrids of swords and spears and so fall somewhere in between those two in that they’re decent against cavalry and swords. Speaking of cavalry, you also have sword, spear and naginata cavalry and they can dismount to become elite infantry. In addition you have three types of infantry, Ashigaru peasants, Samurai and Monks (Ninjas are a special class of infantry) with Samurai being better armoured than Monks but Monks packing a greater punch in combat. Elite Samurai can easily beat Ashigaru units even if they have the wrong weapon in the triangle (but the Peasants can still win out in numbers). I haven’t even mentioned No Dachi swords, siege weapons, guns, heroes, and special units. The bottom line is you don’t have to worry about the lesser amount of units translating into a less complex battlefield.

The AI in the game is better than previous iterations; enemy factions will attempt to backstab you when you busy in another war or when they think you’re doing too well and actively try to use amphibious assaults to land troops behind your lines and in battlefield the AI will actively try to flank you and cause chain routes. However, the AI is still pretty basic and will make silly errors or just plain unexplained douchebaggery; factions I am “very friendly” with and trustworthy by their nature will attack me even if I’m on the other side of Japan for no reason at all. Goofs like these blemish the game.

Your general’s and agent’s progression through the ranks has also been changed for the better with you choosing how to distribute skills in a skill tree system rather than from random skills that the general gains due to outside factors. This way you can choose how to specialize your generals and agents. An infantry commander adept at siege warfare? A Ninja who is adept at sabotaging enemy armies rather than assassinating leaders? The choice is yours but there is still an element of chance with some random skills such as “Brave” which will only be rewarded to your general if you place his life on line in battle. You can also still gain negative traits if you leave a general watching a city with a well-stocked Sake den for too long.

I can’t blame Creative Assembly for the smaller map and lesser units because Japan just isn’t as expansive as Europe, but perhaps they could have differentiated the special units of the factions somewhat? The Shimazu clan’s special Katana Samurai looks exactly the same as every other Katana Samurai in the game, just with enhanced stats. Could they have not at least given special units a unique model or something?

Overall, Shogun 2 is the most sound game in the Total War series since Rome from a gameplay perspective.

Control/Gameplay rating: Classic

5. Replayability

There are nine clans in the game (ten if you got the limited edition) with differing starting situations and specialities, which should provide plenty of replay value in single player as well as the in-depth multiplayer system that ensures you get your money’s worth from this title.

There are some flaws, though. All the factions have access to the same units as everyone else with only one “upgraded” unit per faction that’s exactly the same as the unit that all factions have access to but with upgraded stats. All the factions also have the same mission: capture a set number of territories and then Kyoto for a period of time to become Shogun, which tends to become stale after a while. Not to mention that the map itself is quite small compared to the ones in previous Total War games; it would have been nice to see part of China or Korea be available as a late game conquest, but I suppose we have to wait for an expansion pack for that.

Replayability rating: Very Good

6. Balance

All of the factions have access to the same units, so there is no overpowered faction (even if some factions do receive bonuses to certain units), and the units themselves function on an easy to remember rocks-papers-scissors style (spears chew up cavalry, cavalry beats swords, swords beat spears). Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that as you have to throw in things like naginatas, which are a blend between swords and spears, and then you have warrior monks who kick everyone’s asses in melee combat or No Dachi samurai who are devastating on the charge but have nearly no defence.

Online multiplayer is good and balanced but not everyone has access to the same units. You only start with peasant Ashigaru units and have to “unlock” the rest of the units in the game through the Avatar Conquest mode. Why can’t I just play a simple “everything goes” skirmish match with a friend who is higher level than me?

Balance rating: Very Good

7. Originality

I’ll admit that Creative Assembly went out of their way to introduce new concepts and features such as the Avatar Conquest and Clan Warfare modes in multiplayer, but this remains a sequel to the first entry in a series that’s eleven years old now. Most of the gameplay improvements are the result of tweaking and streamlining the tried and true Total War formula rather than re-inventing it.

It’s nice to see feudal Japan again but shouldn’t this have come before Medieval 2?

Originality rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

The grand campaign map still has that addictive “one more turn” syndrome created by it and other 4X strategy games (Sid Meier’s Civilization being the creator), but the reduced amount of factions and the hurried nature of the grand campaign kind of pushes you faster than you want when all you really want to do is slowly let your empire simmer and bleed off hostility while building high level improvements.

Multiplayer is incredibly deep and customizable to the extent that you’ll probably never collect all the avatar items no matter how long you play the game.

Addictiveness rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor

Total War is one of PC’s greatest franchises and one that PC gamers are reasonably assured will not make the hop to consoles like so many other franchises. On top of that, pre-release hype was excellent and the game was critically acclaimed on release.

However, gamers still have a bitter taste in their mouths from when Empire was released with huge bugs, and even with many patches the game still has some left in there but support was abandoned to that title in order to focus on Napoleon and Shogun 2. This all raises the question about whether Sega Europe has any say with Creative Assembly’s release schedule as even Shogun 2 feels rushed without the basic anti-aliasing and DirectX 10 and 11 support.

Appeal Factor: Good

10. Miscellaneous

Creative Assembly has done a good job with using Valve’s Steamworks as it is one of the more acceptable forms of DRM protection out there and it has used all the advantages of Steamworks in building a comprehensive multiplayer component. Though I do know that some people dislike using Steam as it quite a comprehensive service and prefer to use other download services such as Impulse or Gamersgate.

It seems though that ever since Creative Assembly was acquired by Sega that their customer support went down and their games became more rushed. Empire Total War no longer has support despite its bugs and Shogun 2 was released without several important graphical features, and this is a worrying trend that I don’t want to happen to Rome 2 whenever it comes out.

Miscellaneous rating: Above Average

The Scores

Story/Modes: Amazing
Graphics: Classic
Sound: Classic
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Shogun 2 is a great step forward for the Creative Assembly in streamlining the engine that they’ve accumulated over the game and is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best Total War title since Rome: Total War nearly seven years ago and is a candidate for PC game of the year.



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