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Developer: Creative Assembly / Publisher: SEGA / Played on: PC / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Teen [Language, Sexual Themes, Violence]
Since the original Shogun back in 2000, the Total War franchise has grown in scale and complexity with each new release. Culminating in the humongous Empire and Napoleon, the series definitely tilted towards the hardcore strategy audience while struggling to field an AI that could play its own game intelligently. But when The Creative Assembly announced it was returning to the setting where it first launched into the strategy genre, the developer also announced that it would return to its gameplay roots, cutting out the fat and slimming down the code. Some fans, like myself, feared this return to basics would make the game feel too simplified or old-school. Fortunately, with Shogun 2 The Creative Assembly has proven yet again why it is one of the best developers in PC gaming.
All the core mechanics of the series remain intact: on one end, turn-based economics, empire-building, and diplomacy; on the other, the signature real-time tactical battles. But this time around, these components are streamlined, simplified, and above all, accessible. You’re steadily, deftly introduced to all of these mechanics, each of which has a user interface that is simple to understand and use. I’ve barely touched tax policy in previous games in the series, but in Shogun 2 I found myself constantly checking and tweaking the Finance tab to maximize my revenue while keeping my populace happy. In fact, that attention to usability permeates every facet of the game. From upgrading territories to managing your generals, everything has an obvious function and easy-to-grasp controls.
Diplomacy is another area of the franchise that I usually gave only lip service, but while the number of options available in diplomacy has been reduced from previous versions, for the first time I feel like each option is actually significant. Allies actually act like allies and help defend your territories. Trade has become such a huge part of the economic game that it is vital that you keep at least a few other nations in your good graces. You won’t be able to play this game as an aggressive warmonger out to get everybody; knowing when to make friends is absolutely critical to success.
Of course, knowing when finally to attack a rival clan is just as important — this isn’t Total Peace, after all. As before, if you engage in a battle on land or at sea, you can choose to have the computer auto-resolve the conflict, or fight it out yourself. Auto-resolutions are fought in front of your eyes in a nifty avatar-on-avatar battle, adding just a little bit of polish that is surprisingly satisfying. Playing the battle out yourself involves commanding a host of troops in realistic battles with beautifully rendered soldiers.Thousands of them. As always, you’ll have to implement real-world tactics, from flanking to taking the high ground, in order to defeat your enemy. Every unit has a morale bar, and if it dips too low, that unit will panic and run away. In other words, battles aren’t necessarily about killing all of the enemy, but rather panicking them into breaking formation. Making proper use of these tactics, you can potentially crush a much larger force with a small group, and the rush you get from that kind of victory alone is worth the price of admission. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the pathfinding can still mess up in classic Total War fashion. In a game where positioning of your forces is everything, having your units march out of line can be devastating.
Having experienced generals in these battles has always been crucial. But now, after several victories in a row, a general will unlock points for his RPG-like skill tree. This allows you to customize generals into ruthless attackers or staunch defenders, and adds an extra sense of consequence whenever you lose a general in combat. Each general also has his own loyalty to you as faction leader, so if you don’t treat them well with commands and commissions, they just might leave you — or even defect to a rival faction!
The game’s polish manifests itself in a hundred other minor details that all combine to make the slickest, best-looking, and most accessible Total War yet, while retaining that deep sense of strategy and tactics at both the governmental and command levels.
Multiplayer has gone the other direction, adding in a slew of new features. First and foremost among these is the Avatar Conquest mode. In this mode, you have your own Avatar that you can customize with different armor. Your Avatar is your general who fights in a persistent campaign across Japan. As you conquer more territories, you unlock more gear for your Avatar and also more units for your army. The campaign itself is static; you simply click the matchmaking button when you want to play a round, and then you will square off against an opponent in a real-time battle. You can choose to host and join games from a list instead, and from there you can even choose to skip the Avatar Conquest and just play a traditional match.
Shogun 2 retains the ability to drop into another player’s campaign. For example, if you’re about to assault a fortress in your single-player campaign, you can choose to let another player take command of the defending forces. This gametype is available in the Avatar Conquest mode, which is odd considering neither your Avatar nor troops will be used in drop-in games. While a cool way to merge single- and multiplayer, true hardcore players will want to check out the multiplayer campaign, which is the entire turn-based campaign for the conquest of Japan played out with other players, either cooperatively or competitively.
Sadly, all of these great features are hampered by pervasive networking issues. Lag can be pretty miserable in games, and stats will not be tracked accurately. This can even include important details like whether you won or lost the battle — I once conquered a province in the Avatar mode after losing a battle. Maybe these will get fixed in patches, but as of right now, it handicaps an otherwise great experience.
There are some genuine issues with the game, mostly to do with the AI and networking. There is also little that is brand-new here: if you already tried Total War and disliked it, there’s nothing that’s going to convert you. Shogun 2 is arguably the same basic game we’ve been playing for 11 years now. But another way to look at it is that Shogun 2 is the result of 11 years of experimentation, polish, and perfection, and the result is the leanest, meanest, and best Total War game there’s ever been. If you’re a fan of turn-based empire games, you will love Shogun 2 for its deep strategic dilemmas and easy-to-use controls. If you’re a fan of military history and tactics, you will adore commanding thousands of troops in realistic battle simulations. If you like samurai, there are literally thousands here for you to play with. If you’ve never played a Total War game before, but have ever had even the slightest interest in strategy games, you owe it to yourself to pick up this game and see just how many times you can say “One more turn” into the wee hours of the night.