Total War: Shogun 2 review
We saw the first Shogun: Total War way back in 2000, where it revitalised the RTS genre by blending a turn-based campaign map with epic real-time battles. Rather than ploughing through pre-set missions, you could use the campaign map to influence who you fought, with what troops, on what terrain and under what weather conditions. It was such a revelation that it came to define its UK developer, The Creative Assembly, who then went on a tour of military history with Medieval, Roman, Colonial and Napoleonic iterations. It was even turned into a BBC2 TV series called Time Commanders.
As time went by, the core idea was not only refined, but also expanded - most notably with naval battles and more complex resource management and diplomacy. However, it could be argued that some versions were a tad over ambitious - resulting in bloated games which were released in a buggy state with less than great artificial intelligence. Thankfully with this return to feudal Japan, the Total War series is back on top form - so if you're wholly new to the series, or tired of it along the way, then this a great place to jump in.
The presentation here is immaculate; with so much period detail you can practically taste the Sake. The lush opening cinematic isn't an anti-climax, as it segues into luscious menus elaborated with calligraphy and woodblock art. Whether you're navigating the risk-style campaign map, or fighting a real-time battle with thousands of combatants, the graphics are detailed and atmospheric. They scale well for those with lesser PCs, but at their DX11-driven heights you get sumptuous visuals with all the latest technical trickery.
The dual nature of any Total War game means there's plenty to get your head around - though unlike some iterations we never felt overwhelmed. Still, it's well worth playing through the small selection of tutorials and maybe a couple of standalone battles before getting stuck into your first real game.
The objective of the single-player campaign is to dominate Japan and become Shogun. In fact there are three game length options, with differing victory conditions depending on how much free time you have - though even a short 30-year campaign will probably take at least 15 hours. Replayability is high too, as there are nine major clans to choose from at the outset, each with a different starting position, victory objectives and special abilities.
We choose the Chosokabe clan, largely due to its easily defensible starting position on the island of Shikoku - they are also master archers and great farmers. Although you are left to your own devices on how to achieve your final goal, the game does try and guide you by offering lucrative (and usually tactically astute) missions to get you started. These clan-specific tasks can include conquering a certain province or researching a particular skill.
Each year breaks down into the four seasons, which are turns on the campaign map. Here you not only move your troops into position for an assault, but also improve your towns' defences and construct a limited number of buildings in each. These buildings decide which units you can recruit (providing you have the cash of course). A simple taxation system provides your funds, and you can also make improvements to local resources - such as rice paddies and quarries.
It may sound similar to decision-intensive games such as Civilization, but this part of the game isn't nearly as time consuming. You can simply automate taxation and build the odd new dojo or castle upgrade as required. Even this basic approach will provide you with enough resources to crush your enemy, at least at the normal difficulty level.
However, the game quickly draws you in, and before long you'll be happily scouring your clan's family tree, promoting your favourite generals, customising their skills and even marrying them to wives with complementary talents. When our original leader, or Daimyo, was struck down on the battlefield, we were more than happy to pass over his young son for a capable old hand with a talent for bloodthirsty cavalry charges. The key here is in the balance, keeping the resource stuff simple, but providing plenty of tinkering potential for the things that directly affect your battlefield performance.