by: M.S. Smith
; edited by: Michael Hartman
; updated: 4/17/2012
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Over ten years ago, a small company named The Creative Assembly developed an amazing PC strategy game called Shogun. It launched the Total War franchise and a game formula that remains intact to this day. Does Shogun 2 pay proper homage to its history, or has it grown too large for its own good?
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Welcome to the Country at War
16th centry Japan was a place of turmoil, war and death. The country had fractured into a loose organization of rival clans lead by warlords fighting for control of the country or, in some cases, fighting for the sake of fighting.
While this may not have been a place you'd want to live, it's the perfect setting for a video game, and it inspired the creation of the first title in the Total War series. Now, Creative Assembly is revisiting the setting.
There is more to be concerned about than the era and location of the fighting, however. Over the years, the Total War series has remained among the premier PC strategy franchises, but the games have become larger and more complex with each new title. Some players have complained that the franchise is losing its roots.
Is Shogun 2 able to revisit the setting of the original Total War game without introducing overwhelming complexity? Let's find out.
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As the Total War series has expanded, so too as its scale. Total War: Medieval focused on Europe, Total War: Rome expanded the campaign map to include some of north Africa and the middle-east, and Empire added the North American continent to the mix.
This expansion resulted in loss of focus, however. Goals became more obscure and controlling territory became a more laborious affair. Total War: Shogun 2's return to Japan tosses out the huge campaign maps of the former games for a much smaller landmass. Indeed, the campaign map looks and feels somewhat like a board game. It's large enough to provide some flexibility in how you move about it, but is small enough to be manageable.You'll never find yourself having to build more than one or two buildings per turn, and while population happiness and tax levels must be managed, they're greatly abstracted and generally not a concern.
In my eyes, that's a big advancement. The fact is that although Total War has become a decent grand strategy game, it's never been an excellent one. Shogun 2 has a better campaign than any previous title in the franchise, but Civilization 5 this is not. The campaign map exists to give context and meaning to the battles, and Shogun 2 realizes that fact.
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The battles have, of course, always been the focus of te Total War franchise. No other series matches Total War's ability to depict large-scale battles, and I'm happy to report that Shogun 2's depiction of wide-spread mayhem is the best yet.
At the core, you're doing the same thing that you have done in previous Total War games. You have large units, usually of between 60 and 120 men, and you must maneuver them in real-time. Shogun 2 offers excellent unit diversity, however, and also provides more tactical abilities and special units than any other Total War game. For example, agents such as Ninja are powerful both on the campaign map and in tactical battles. They also now have access to branching skill trees, just like generals. Siege battles also deserve recognition as an area of great improvement. They're more fun than ever thanks to larger foritifactions that allows for more tactical maneuverability.
Naval combat is still included, as well, but it's far simpler and far less common than in previous titles. I think that's great; naval combat was never a strong suite for the series.
Of all the small tweaks and enhancements, however, the most important is undoubtedly the AI. A single-player strategy game is no fun if your enemy can't put up a proper fight, and in previous Total War titles that was often the case. Shogun 2's computer opponents are actually quite crafty. They know how to flank, they know how to use terrain (for example, they're capable of ambushing you with units hidden in woods) and they know how to siege a fortification. Your average human player will still likely win an evenly matched battle, but the margin for error is much smaller now, and the AI makes fewer obvious mistakes.
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Creative Assembly went to town with the creation of Shogun 2's multi-player features. The "drop-in" campaign multiplayer feature, which allowed players to take over for the AI in campaign mode either at random or by invitation, has been carried over from Napoleon. Co-op play is also now included.
The best new feature, however, is undoubtedly the Avatar Conquest mode. This is an attempt to give the multiplayer battle the same context as the single-player campaign. You creative an avatar - your general - and then move him around a highly simplified campaign map while fighting battles. Experience and rewards will be throw upon the victor, and this lets you earn new units and new perks.
It's a great feature for fans, as it gives a reason to play besides bragging rights. With that said, however, the wealth of feature associated with Avatar Conquest are a bit overwhelming at first. I also found that gaining traction was quite difficult, as I started out with terrible units that broke rank quickly in the face of my opponents more advanced and veteran soldiers. It didn't take long to more competent troops, but this will probably prove even more frustrating over time as players who bought the game earlier obtain better and better armies.
Some players may never find this problem, however, due to another; bugs. Total War is a series infamous for its bugs, particularly in multi-player, and Shogun 2 does nothing to change this. The process of finding and setting up a match can take five minutes, and players are often disconnected at random. Lag is also an issue at times. Units will appear to "hop" across the battlefield rather than run or walk smoothly.
These problems may be patched; but really, that phrase is a cliche when reviewing a Total War game. What Creative Assembly needs to do is focus on their net code. As cool as Avatar Conquest may be, it's all for naught if bugs make the experience frustrating.
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Graphics and Sound
From the point of view of an America, Japan has a culture that is uniquely its own and entirely unlike anything you find on the shores of North America or Europe. Everything from the music to the art to the literature has its own cultural identity.
Creative Assembly has done an excellent job of taking that identity and painting their game with it (in broad strokes, of course). Technically, the graphics of Total War: Shogun 2 are not impressive. Unit models are blocky and textures don't hold up to close inspection.
Yet that's unlikely to bother you, as every inch of this game is drenched in beautiful art, from the armor the units wear to the icons used to represent the various paths you can take in the research tree. Even the campaign map is wonderful and full of detail; the terrain changes based on the season and fortifications look properly imposing or timid, depending on their level of upgrade.
The attention to detail lavished on the graphics carries over to the sound. The music selection is limited, but is true to the source material and never becomes annoying, as it is very light and almost ambient. The voice acting is excellent. Although many lines are spoken in English, they're acted with a strong and fairly convincing accent. There is a significant amount of untranslated Japanese in this game, as well. For example, the random speeches given by generals prior to combat are acted entirely in Japanese, with sub-titles being the only way of understanding what is said (assuming you don't speak the language, of course).
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Total War: Shogun 2 is an excellent game. It's not only the best Total War game yet; it's also the best strategy game released so far this year, and I'm sure this game will show up on many "best of" lists come December. The single-player campaign is excellent, and well worth the price of admission.
It's only the bugginess of the multi-player campaign that keeps this title from earning a score of Excellent. Yes, they could patch this, but let's be honest. Creative Assembly has been down this road many, many times before. In fact, I don't think I've ever played a Total War game that launched with stable multiplayer.
That aside, this is a strong game, and a must-buy for anyone interested in strategy. It's also a great choice for gamers who want to find out what the Total War franchise is about, as it's much easier to jump into than the last few games in the series.