Total War: Shogun 2 Review

By Jeff Mattas, Apr 05, 2011 1:45pm PDT

The latest entry in the long-running Total War series, Total War: Shogun 2 tasks players with unifying feudal Japan during the Sengoku period. It was a time of great strife and social unrest that saw many families vying to wrest power from the hands of the country's current Shogun. Ever vigilant, he’ll assure that no rise to power goes unchecked.

Total War veterans will immediately feel at home with Shogun 2. Players choose a starting clan, which determines the starting city and bonuses. In order to win a campaign, the player must capture and hold a set number of territories (including some specific regions), capture the current Shogun’s fortress in Kyoto, and then defend it for four seasons (turns). With sixty-five provinces making up Japan, even the shortest available campaign (which requires securing and holding twenty-five provinces before the Kyoto assault), takes many hours to play.

Accordingly, just getting to know the game takes some time. Shogun 2 includes several hours' worth of tutorials that cover the basic mechanics of battling on both land and sea, and issuing orders via the strategic map. In-game advisors also chime in quite frequently once a proper campaign is started. Even then, Shogun 2’s in-game encyclopedia is where many of the finer details about unit and building construction will be learned. A good deal of time can be spent referencing the encyclopedia, if only to find information about the structures, skills, and arts needed to construct certain unit types.

At the strategic level, the turn-based campaign map has players moving and recruiting armies and generals, building and upgrading town structures, managing tax rates and citizen happiness, and conducting diplomatic interactions with other clans. Although the final “win condition” of a campaign amounts to seizing Kyoto in a giant siege, forging alliances with other clans is critical early on. Allies can be called on to assist against enemies, and the value of a lucrative trade agreement can’t be underestimated when marshaling an army. The AI can be fairly aggressive about forging its own alliances as well, so it’s best to make friends early – despite the often temporary nature of such friendships.

Though military might and clever combat tactics will win the day, Shogun 2 includes numerous buildings and special units that provide notable advantages when used before battle. Build a Saki Den in one of your cities, for example, and ninja can be recruited. With ninja, players can try to sabotage enemy structures (including city gates prior to a siege), establish criminal networks in friendly cities, or even assassinate the generals of rival armies.

All unit types accrue experience, becoming more effective with the more action they see (and survive). The player’s Daimyo, secondary generals, and a few other unit types can earn points to spend on new abilities that provide additional bonuses like enhanced movement or troop morale. Bushido and Civic arts can also be mastered over time (via a clan-wide upgrade tree), with each art often serving as a prerequisite for constructing certain units and buildings. Several seasons (turns) worth of planning are also often necessary. Players will need to make sure they’re researching the right arts, building the right pre-cursor buildings, and stockpiling enough resources to build their empire.

Shogun 2’s turn-based strategic game is backed up by a fantastic real-time battle system. This part should be well familiar to Total War aficionados. When two rival units collide on the strategic map, players are presented with a quick breakdown of each army and then transported to the battlefield to resolve the conflict. (Players can still auto-resolve battles, but should avoid doing so unless the odds are clearly stacked in their favor.)

The actual battlefields in Shogun 2 generally reflect the environment of the corresponding area in strategic view – a nice touch of attention to detail. Players can select and group units, and select a battle formation that compliments the group’s unit types. As in previous Total War games, battles come in three flavors: land, sea, and siege (city assaults). While early conflicts have a pronounced “rock-paper-scissors” feel due to a relatively basic nature of starting army compositions, unit specialization opportunities and different upgrade paths soon come into play, adding a lot more variety.

Unifying feudal Japan is a hefty challenge, thanks to an enemy AI that’s particularly devious, especially at higher difficulties. Enemy cavalry units bearing down on a group of bowmen will stop mid-charge and re-evaluate if you manage to get some spearmen in their way. Leave an important coastal city too-lightly defended and a back-door naval attack shouldn’t be surprising. Routing an enemy army with twice as many troops is incredibly satisfying and still a significant challenge, even on “Normal” difficulty.

Siege battles are particularly impressive. Assaulting armies must contend with breaching outer walls, capturing towers that rain down fire, and eventually capturing the main structure, all while battling the enemy troops.

The beautiful art-style and music are authentic to the period, down to the hand-drawn unit cards. Waterfalls produce rainbows, seagulls circle ports, and each season change is rendered beautifully on the strategic map. On the battlefield, individual troops look nice and detailed up close, and it’s really something to see hundreds of them at each other’s throats. It’s the best-looking Total War game to date, a series already known for putting on quite the show.

Shogun 2’s multiplayer component includes a wealth of modes and options, ranging from the ability to play the story campaign with up to two players, or battle against up to eight players. “Drop-in” battles return, letting a human player take the place of the AI in any of the skirmishes during a campaign. In “Avatar Conquest” mode, players create a persistent avatar and fight a series of multiplayer battles as they conquer Japan. Points earned from each battle can be used to upgrade a player’s general, and veteran units become more powerful. Minimizing the turn-based strategy elements present in the single-player game is a great solution that keeps the action mostly on the battlefield.

The layers of depth and complexity that make Shogun 2 such a great game also (ironically) prove to be its biggest shortcoming. The game contains a ton of content, a vast expanse of skill trees and strategic opportunities. In spite of the tutorials and encyclopedia, there is precious little that actually educates players on the overall tactics necessary to achieve victory in the main campaign. For example, the current Shogun eventually declares the player an “enemy of Japan.” When this “Realm-Divide” event occurs, the player can pretty much kiss all their hard-earned alliances and trade agreements goodbye, and all remaining clans will become hostile. To make a long story short, if the player hasn’t been adequately fortifying conquered territories (which can be tough with finite resources); he’ll likely have to watch his new empire collapse like a botched soufflé.

For scholarly tacticians, such unexpected turns may come as a welcome test of their skills. Newcomers, though, may want to exercise caution, tempered by their interest in the subject matter and willingness to learn the art of war.


[Total War: Shogun 2 review based on both a pre-release and retail copies of the game for PC, provided by the publisher.]

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