Total War: Shogun 2 Review

Shacknews reviews Total War: Shogun 2, a truly epic strategy game that rewards tacticians willing to invest the time to unify feudal Japan.

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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.]

From The Chatty
  • reply
    April 5, 2011 1:45 PM

    Comment on Total War: Shogun 2 Review, by Jeff Mattas.

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      April 5, 2011 1:53 PM

      Love the series, and this game sounds like the best so far. Excellent review as well, just makes me want to play it more. Wish I had a computer that could run it though...

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      April 5, 2011 2:52 PM

      I love this game and have put many hours into it, but with that said I think the review is a bit generous. While the singleplayer campaign is what you would expect, the game sort of falls flat with the new MP features. The match making and lobby system is still basically in a beta state, especially the team battles, you cannot even exit the MP lobby with out alt+f4ing. The match making causes crashes to desktop, uneven teams, both player skill levels and actually uneven, like 3v1, or simply fails to ever find a match forcing you to alt+f4 to get out of search. Not to mention the bugs that allow players to duplicate veteran units, or pick armies that exceed fund limits, or alt+f4ing to save yourself a loss.

      Still I am hopeful that CA will have all these issues fixed within the next couple of weeks, but who knows.

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        April 5, 2011 4:14 PM

        You can blame them for using UDP and not TCP for their network protocol. Basically UDP has no way to know if everything network related is ok.

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          April 5, 2011 4:39 PM

          Wait.... ugh. That means they will never fix this.

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          April 5, 2011 4:44 PM

          That's really only partially true. You can build reliability on top of UDP, but yea, its not the same.

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            April 5, 2011 5:03 PM

            You are right but its not built in like TCP is what I meant and by the looks of things they don't have reliability or error checks built in. Hopefully they will improve their network code in later patches. But, realistically, the best we can hope for is they use TCP for their next Total War game.

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              April 6, 2011 6:25 AM

              Most games rely on UDP for the bulk of network traffic, because TCP does not offer the response times necessary for networked gaming. You have to build error and loss compensation on top of UDP.

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      April 5, 2011 4:36 PM

      Really is an impressive game and an impressive series. I hope the game is selling well. Any word?

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      April 5, 2011 4:40 PM

      Love the game so far - but I haven't had the AI try a single naval invasion yet. Does it require a specific difficult setting?

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        April 5, 2011 4:47 PM

        My first normal difficulty game had 3 different doom stacks arrive on my shores.

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          April 5, 2011 4:50 PM

          Maybe its a little random, playing as Shimazu on Normal I've had it pretty easy so far except for a blitzkrieg the first few rounds from my neighbor and a huge fleet of Wake pirates.

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        April 5, 2011 4:58 PM

        They did one to me on Hard. Fuckers.

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      April 5, 2011 4:45 PM

      Love this game but it is so fucking hard, especially in the late game :(

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        April 5, 2011 4:47 PM

        Which clan are you playing? I'm spending forever making turns now although I can still see a path to being Shogun.

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          April 6, 2011 6:23 AM

          I was playing as Shimazu. I was rolling across the map, banking like $6000 per turn, tons of vassals etc. I thought I was good to go, but even strong allies QUICKLY turn against you it seems. I managed to capture Kyoto, but the rest of my empire crumbled really fast. Seems like you need to have a huge bank or something before triggering the big event, because once your allies go, so does your source of income since nobody will trade with you and it's impossible to support your armies at that point.

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      April 5, 2011 5:51 PM

      its times like these where I wish you guys used a rating system...

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      April 5, 2011 6:22 PM

      multiplayer crashes a lot right as the battle ends and im a dishonorable coward

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      April 6, 2011 6:16 AM

      I've been spending way too many hours on this game (singleplayer of course, since none of my friends seem interested in thinking and a bit slow paced strategy games anymore) compared to hours I spent on Civ 5 (yuck) and other games. Even makes me want to purchase their older Total War series, but since I'm already spoiled with the graphic and the animation, maybe I'll give Empire a try before jumping back even further...Any suggestions?

      All in all, this game definitely is not showing a shameful display! :)

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        April 6, 2011 6:24 AM

        my suggestion is dont try empire. napoleon yes. and any of the others. not empire! :)

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          April 6, 2011 2:20 PM

          Haha, any reason why?

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            April 6, 2011 7:59 PM

            its a tad funky, still pretty buggy and the BAI has a tendancy to just not be that awesome usually. having said that its a lot better than it was on release but that wasnt hard to achieve really :/.

            napoleon fixed most of the problems but you dont get the grand campaign map or a lot of factions to choose from. its playable tbh, but i still feel like i got burned pre ordering empire.

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              April 8, 2011 2:47 AM

              Yup...I will never buy another CA release, at least not at full price. I got burned too badly by Empire. I had bought every total war to then, but that pissed me off too much.

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      April 6, 2011 8:42 AM

      The coop campaign is still broken. Me and my buddy have tried two different coop campaigns that have both ended with a freeze and a corrupted save game file 50 to 70 turns in. Even when we try to reload a save from a few turns before the corruption, the game still crashes at the same turn down the road. You can't do anything about that except start a new game. They need to fix this.

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        April 8, 2011 8:57 AM

        I agree. The coop game is SO much fun. We made it to turn 87 and then it started desyncing :(. It's a great coop experience though , you can actually share your troops with your friend on the tactical map.

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      April 7, 2011 9:40 PM

      MP has basically become a combination of artillery campers, exploiters, and ALT+F4. Oh, and a very few legitimate players like me.

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      April 8, 2011 8:55 AM

      Great game, if you like the series this is one of the best!