Shogun 2: Total War Hands On

Developer: The Creative Assembly / Publisher: Sega / ESRB: RP / Release Date: March 15, 2011

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Ninjas and samurai. Epic battles and bloody skirmishes. Lands to command and conquer. Names to make and legendary status to earn. The return of the Total War real-time strategy series to its feudal Japan roots looks to build on both the style and substance of iterations that have seen gamers enter the battlefields from ancient Rome to Napoleon’s conflicts across Europe, with gamers able to play out the most significant battles at Waterloo and Trafalgar.

The original Shogun: Total War came a little out of left field when it was released on PC in 2000. Developers The Creative Assembly were better known for producing sports games for EA, but branched out with what looked like a very risky play in the burgeoning real-time strategy field. It made sense to dive in to a popular genre, even though it was dominated by powerhouse franchises like Command & Conquer (watch the excellent All Your History Belong To Us show about C&C here). Feudal Japan wasn’t an obvious choice for a foray into mass battles, but the period proved incredibly fertile for campaigns where characters emerged above the hubbub of hundreds of clanging swords on armor. The game was successful enough to kick-off a franchise. In addition, the underlying technology of the sequel, Rome: Total War–showing detailed individual combatants in rolling, real-time 3D battlefields—was used to illustrate historical battles in the popular BBC history-quiz show, Time Commanders, and in the History Channel show, Decisive Battles. Bottom line, it could represent these ancient battles incredibly effectively.

The return to Japan brings with it a slew of upgrades from the original Shogun and lessons learned through the Rome, Medieval, Napoleon, and other titles in the same franchise.

Jamie Ferguson, lead designer: “We got to the point with Empire and Napoleon where we had something that was massive in scale. For some of us it was felt it could be overwhelming for some people. And while we didn’t want to lose that scale, we wanted something with more depth in the gameplay. With Shogun what we dive in and really make the player feel like they’re in a medieval Japanese environment. And at the same time give them that feeling that it’s not a small world; just because we’ve gone to Japan that the map is just as large as it was for Europe in terms of actual scale. At the same time you have a unique environment and a world that has its own feeling, flavor, and consistency, and you’ve got warfare on this massive scale between huge armies still clashing.”

For Shogun 2, chosen as the team’s next project by company poll, the opportunity to return to a realm it already knew allowed for a total reimagining of a feudal Japanese landscape powered by new tools, new lessons learned, and new technology.

Jamie Ferguson: “The number of features, if you look at Shogun and now Shogun 2, the variety and types of features has grown exponentially. In terms of technology, all the things we wanted to do back in Shogun and what we can do now, there is no comparison. We had sprite men in Shogun, we have 3D men now with hundreds of polys and loads of textures, enormous textures by comparison. Then in terms of 3D, we were doing very basic ‘rolling hills of Surrey’ battlefields, where now we have something that I would suggest is a pretty close approximation of a Japanese environment.”

The single-player game begins in 1545, and you start with one castle and a single army. The slow and steady learning curve is designed to ensure that newcomers to the franchise–even newcomers to real-time strategy games in general–can get a sense of the tasks expected of them as a feudal chief. Set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history, it represents a time when several factions controlled relatively even amounts of land and resources. That impasse of serious power resulted in fairly constant bickering, backstabbing, trade and diplomacy, and when it all broke down, battlefields strewn with archers, cavalry, katana-wielding samurai, and more. A fun time to step up and prove that you’ve got what it takes to unify a fractured Japan.

That’s the premise as you dive into this unique setting. Aware that not every gamer will immediately understand some of the naming conventions applied to unit types, locations, and even character names, a full encyclopedia–accessible with a quick right-click–will answer virtually every question.

Jamie Ferguson: “It means that every time you raise a new unit for the first time you’ll get a little movie that plays. That will explain to you what that unit does, why it’s there, and also what its strengths and weaknesses are against other units. As a result, as you go through the game, you know you’ve got a spearman, you’ll learn they’re not great in combat, etc.”

From this small start advisors will offer suggestions on action to take, allegiances to make, or wars to start. Open up diplomatic communications and the view will switch to a 3D representation of your negotiations, allowing you to see the reaction from your opponent to your suggestions. Play it right and you should get your way. Misread the room and you could descend your faction into a costly war that could seriously impact broader objectives. While certainly at the outset the advisors will have sensible interests at heart, you’re free to ignore them and pursue your own course.

As you establish trade alliances with neighboring factions, or simply invade their land and take it by force, you’ll build more units from a roster of roughly 35 basic types. Samurai, ninjas, and even geishas can all play a pivotal role in your faction’s progression. In addition, different neighboring states can provide specific bonus types if you conquer them, so choosing where to move and where to negotiate, depends largely on how you want to shape your army. Is cavalry crucial to your plans? Then invade that state with the advanced stables to help boost your own stats.

In battle itself it can appear daunting to have thousands of fully motion-captured 3D soldiers on screen at once. But a control interface refined over 10 years of practice in the trenches of RTS design lets you select, face, move, and retreat your squads. It proved easier to pick up than we expected. Though the initial siege we faced in the Skirmish mode that forces you to defend a castle from an attack that can come from anywhere across the 3D map ended in two damning defeats, by the third attempt we were starting to look good. Infantry could be garrisoned behind the ramparts while we kept our cavalry in reserve near the main tower. As the enemy infantry appeared in random spots, we had to make sure every gate was guarded…but if they did manage to breach one level, we could shore up defenses further into the castle complex and use our height advantage to repel the attack.

Swirling the camera through the battlefields revealed a rich attention to detail as weakened infantry were cut down by marauding cavalry, or obscured archers picked off stray units. Yes, there was a lot to follow, but just hovering the mouse over a squad’s banner provided instant feedback on their health and morale, if they were taking heavy casualties, or kicking ass.

According to Jamie Ferguson the AI understands castle structures but can also make mistakes like you can. If you pause the game to think, the enemy AI pauses too, not taking advantage of the downtime to calculate its next moves and endgame. That said, finding the difficulty level that still affords you to have fun while moving your path to domination forward may take a bit of trial and error.

As befits any PC RTS franchise, particularly one as popular and well-regarded as Total War, it will reward the level of effort you devote to learning its nuances, and then applying your skills on the battlefield.

Jamie Ferguson: As the game progresses, the enemy will also progress, so you’ll get larger and larger armies. You’re decision process will stop being just “what do I do with my castle?” but “what do I do with all of my castles? What do I do with my trade, how do I keep these guys happy, I’ll have to carry out some diplomatic deals.”

Of course, single-player is only part of the Shogun 2: Total War story, so check back soon for our hands-on impressions of the multiplayer component that promises some intriguing features to keep you scheming for dominance.

And if that’s not enough, did we mention it has geishas?

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