Over my years as a gamer I have played relatively few strategy games. The ones I have played were games like Fire Emblem, Sakura Wars, Shining Force; turn-based games that come packed with their own pre-determined stories. Shogun 2 is neither turn-based, and the story really isn’t determined in any set way before the campaign starts, so it’s very different from what I’m used to in those respects. To be honest I’ve never really gotten into the swing of RTS games before. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just the idea hasn’t ever interested me enough to pick one up. Does Total War: Shogun 2 change all of this for me? Hit the jump to find out.
Total War: Shogun 2 is set in 16th century feudal Japan known as the Sengoku Jidai in which the nation is in a perpetual state of civil war between several clans. The game does a very good job of making itself feel like an authentic representation of this time period. The music sounds like it is actually from this time period, and goes between captivating and minimalistic when it needs to be. For example the more interesting, enthralling music occurs during cut-scenes and loading screens when there is not much else to do, while battles and the over world sections have much more minimalistic ambient music. At times when stressful decisions are needed to be made this can be a welcoming thing, but at others when you’re doing routine tasks some more music would be nice.
The voice acting, like the music, is true to the game’s atmosphere in that it is always either Japanese or English in a Japanese accent. In a way I’m very happy the people in charge of this didn’t go with people with British-sounding accents like what tends to happen when something old is represented. The English voices, despite their accents, are very clear and easy to hear. The Japanese is accompanied by subtitles when necessary. It’s weird to think, but I am actually going to say it: a Sega game has good voice acting. I never thought I would see the day.
All jokes aside the music and voice acting aren’t the only things that contribute to the game’s atmosphere. Loading screens feature Japanese art from the time period, and similar artistic depictions are featured on all messages you get during the campaign. Naturally fortresses and soldiers are both represented as they would appear in the time period. The map of the game is also indicative of the time period. When depicted on the map the letter “N” is backwards, which I assume is the way a Japanese person would do it. The fact that you can climb all walls when attacking a castle is significant because, more so than other cultures, Japanese architecture of this period used slanted walls to prevent against destruction that could be caused by earthquakes. Finally, commonplace stuff from other strategy games is referred to in ways that are distinct to Japan: clan leaders are called Daimyos, what would be equivalent to an Emperor is called a Shogun and the technology tree is not the Mastery of the Arts table, to name a few things. The designers clearly paid attention to the little details in this game. It seems like they spent a lot of time to make sure that everything was culturally consistent and that nothing was left out.
However, the developers didn’t sacrifice gameplay for style. The game operates on a turn-based/real-time hybrid system in which battles are fought in real-time while diplomatic relations and movements are carried out in a turn-based setting. On your turn you can do an unlimited amount of things. It’s incredible how much stuff there actually is to do. You can manage finances (though this can be taken care of automatically for those who prefer not to think about math), manage your armies, move them around, move around your navies, and even carry out diplomatic relations.
The diplomatic aspect is actually a very interesting concept. You can forge alliances and trade agreements with other clans, which in turn adds to your reputation and your finances. You can also declare war with other clans. If war doesn’t sit so well with you for any reason you can also attempt to sign a peace treaty. There are a ton of factors that go into the diplomatic aspect of the game and it’s actually pretty easy to get the hang of without being so easy that it feels unnecessary. The whole diplomatic aspect actually plays a big part in how the game is played. There were many times where I simply didn’t have the interest in continuing a war with a clan that began because they were allied with another clan, so I asked for peace and all was settled.
Another interesting thing is that clans will actually approach you with these diplomatic endeavours as well. Several times I found myself at the receiving end of a trade proposal, an alliance proposal or a declaration of war. All too often I find that games have cool features like this that are simply not used by the A.I., so I was delighted to see that the other clans had the capacity for it. Likewise your allies will actually help you when you’re at war with other clans. At one point one of my castles was certain to fall when suddenly an ally force came out of nowhere and obliterated my attackers. The other clans feel very real, and it adds to the overall enjoyment of the experience.
Unfortunately I often found myself having more fun doing diplomatic tasks than actually taking part in battles. The battles are somewhat enjoyable, and the stress you feel when on the defensive end of a siege battle can be unreal, but often you can feel somewhat out of control. Naval battles especially fall victim to this. In a battle basically all you do is send your units to fight the enemy units. Some units have advantages over others, so there is a fair amount of strategy involved, but often the winner will be the one with the bigger army. This is not always the case though, especially when it comes to castle sieges. Sieges are by far the most enjoyable type of battle in the game, provided you’re on the defensive end. As I mentioned being surrounded by enemies is stressful, but it’s a good kind of stress, and it makes any victory all the more rewarding. Unfortunately these battles are somewhat rigged in favour of the defender, so attacking a castle can be a huge pain in the ass if you’re up against a sizeable army.
Naval battles are by far the least enjoyable type. Even more so than in land battles you feel out-of-control. All you can do is send your boats to fight other boats, and then board the ones that seem weaker than you. During the boarding process all you can really do is wait and see what will happen. Naturally you want to wear down ships before you try to board them, but it’s not really that fun of a thing to do. I rarely ever had to do any naval battles though, so it’s definitely not a game breaker. There is probably more depth the more advanced your navy is too, but I never felt the need to advance my navy to that level, nor did I encounter a particularly advanced navy, so it didn’t seem like a big part of the game.
Like avoiding naval battles, the problem with land battles can be easily circumvented though: there is an option to auto-battle. This feature is not always the most reliable (I recommend not using it if you’re up against an equal army), but to avoid spending time fighting small enemy armies it is a great option. However if you’re up against a force of equal or greater size it’s typically a better strategy to actually battle them. Also you never actually have to attempt to siege a castle. When attacking a castle you have the option to starve out the forces within by waiting. Often if the force is big enough they will simply come out and fight you in a regular battle.
Despite my qualms with the battles the game does employ a very interesting system which has a lot of factors weighing in on it. Terrain can slow down and wear down armies, while weather conditions can affect their fighting abilities. This can have a huge effect on the outcome of a battle. I was once defending my castle which was essentially on top of a huge hill from a force of over 4000 soldiers including reinforcements with an army of less than 2000 soldiers and I actually managed to successfully defend it. Likewise I fought a battle with more advantageous units using hilly terrain to my advantage to defeat a larger army in a regular land battle setting as well. On the other side of the coin, failing to use these factors to my advantage resulted in the slaughter of my army all over the battlefield.
A gripe I have is that it seems possible to wear down an enemy so thoroughly that they pause infinitely and refuse to attack you. I haven’t encountered this with regular land battles, but I have in castle sieges. In the aforementioned battle where I was outnumbered 2 to 1 a big factor was that my castle was on top of a hill, so by the time the attackers made it up all the way to attack me they were pretty much so warn out that my archers could pick them off one at a time. The problem with killing 1500 units with archers though is you run out of ammo very fast. Thus the opponents waited on the outskirts of the battle area and I waited in my castle; the attack never came. In order to win a castle siege defensively you must either make the enemy retreat or successfully defend the castle for a set time limit. This battle’s limit was a full hour, and I sent the enemy to the outskirts of the battle in about 10 minutes, which left me 50 minutes to either stand there looking stupid or march into the death I would surely suffer if a second attack was ever launched. Even with the battle on fast forward x4 that left me with roughly 12 and a half minutes of time to waste so I didn’t lose. This was a huge pain in the ass, but luckily it only happened to me once. The fact that there is no way to avoid this fate though really bothered me. If I quit the battle it would be tantamount to surrendering, so I had to wait it out if I wanted to win.
On a more positive note, one thing that I really appreciated was how easy it is to save before a battle so retry it. Occasionally if I knew an enemy army was approaching and that I couldn’t defeat them on land I would send my army to the closest castle to defend myself that way. Other times I used diplomacy to my advantage and protected myself that way. Other times I just noticed what I did wrong and improved on it the second time around. You always seem to have a chance to go back and revise things you do. This is good because more often than not the things you do will have large effects in 5 or 6 turns. Sometimes this can be great because you made the right choice, other times you might find yourself successfully wiping out a weak clan only to be ripped a new one by their much stronger allies. In either case the effect doesn’t feel cheap because it is an indirect effect of an action you took, but it would be nice to not lose an hour of gameplay and tons of progress to it.
This paragraph contains heavy spoilers, so please skip it if you don’t want the campaign spoiled. During the campaign you can become so strong that arbitrarily every other clan, regardless of your past alliances with them, turns on you and declares war against you. As a story twist this is kind of cool, but if you have no idea this is coming it can be a huge shock. Especially if you primarily hold the middle of the map, thus leaving yourself vulnerable to attacks on all sides. I quickly found myself fighting a war on three fronts against three full-sized armies, including the shogunate. This actually ruined my clan and I was unable to defend against the invaders. I also couldn’t go back because my territory was decided by decisions I had made 40 or so turns back; I was stuck in this mess. Despite this, now that I know this is coming I plan on going back and starting a second campaign and taking over provinces more strategically to better defend myself.
Spoilers are over so continue reading! I also plan on paying more attention to the victory conditions. In my last campaign I didn’t realize that three of the seven provinces I needed were held by allies of mine. Unfortunately I waited years to attack them, which made my clan look terrible since I would so easily turn on my allies. The required provinces seems relatively arbitrary, there’s really no reason that I needed those provinces over others, so I don’t understand why I absolutely had to take them.
This game also features several multiplayer aspects. There is an option to have a real opponent drop-in to battles in your single player campaign, as well as regular multiplayer battles and a co-op campaign mode. None of these modes caught my interest as much as the single-player modes did, but that could be due to the fact that I don’t have any friends who own this game. I think the multiplayer components have a lot of potential and are very well-done, but I simply can’t find myself compelled by them. From what I have seen their quality is consistent with the quality of the single-player modes, so at least the developers got that right. I found myself easily pouring 20+ hours into the normal-length single player campaign, so I could see the multiplayer campaign adding to that immensely. The game has very good replay value in that there are 10 different clans to start your campaign with and a variety of different factors that make those clans unique.
I’d like to end with a weird, but significant point. I’m not sure exactly what makes this happen, but I found that the game ran exceptionally well, even when I was tabbing out to other windows. On a couple occasions I forgot that my laptop battery was almost dead and my computer went into hibernate mode while I was still playing the game. Instead of crashing it and losing all my progress, the game actually remained functional when I turned my computer back on. All I had to do was wait for a loading screen and I was back exactly where I left off without any functionality lost. Unfortunately I can’t be sure if that was the game’s programming or my computer’s technical might, so this won’t factor into my review, but based on the overall work that was evidently put into this game elsewhere I’m inclined to believe it was the game’s programming.
Overall this game is a ton of fun, even for someone who has little interest in RTS games. The atmosphere is great, the gameplay has very few faults, the ones that are there seem unimportant, and the replay value is immense. A.