Total War: Shogun 2 review

In all its many incarnations, the Total War series has never been known to have much of a gentle learning curve. Micromanaging entire civilizations and conducting massive armies comprising a few thousand warriors in staggering real-time battles always seems a daunting task until you spend enough time in the fray to sort all the little details out. What’s cool about Total War: Shogun 2 is the way it simultaneously brings the series back to its roots and streamlines some of the game’s inane complexities without sacrificing all the depth hardcore strategy geeks get all hot and sexy for.

Set in the turbulent Sengoku period of Japan’s history, the game’s campaign mode opens in a time of great unrest. The current shogun has grown weak and the rival clans scattered across the land are all poised to make a grab for power. As the daimyo of one such clan, you must bolster your forces, capture nearby provinces, and seize control of Kyoto to claim the shogunate before your rivals do. It’s a perfect setup for some serious warmongering, yet there are also plenty of opportunities to frolic in the ripe fields of civic duty as well.

Shogun 2’s core mix of turn-based strategy and real-time combat is still intact, though lots of subtle changes and updates give the formula better balance and make it more digestible to newcomers. The turn-based civilization management portion of the game plays out across a beautiful world map of Japan that’s expansive without being overwhelmingly huge. Playing as a clan of your choosing – which in turn comes with a unique set of perks depending on your selection – you start off with a small army, a meager settlement, and perhaps a farm or two to lord over.

In the early stretch of the game, you’ll need to lay down a solid foundation to springboard your war efforts later on. This involves raising money through taxes each season in order to build new structures, boost your budding empire, and rally a solid force of troops. While you’ll still have to worry about stuff like juggling tax rates, managing town growth, marrying off your offspring, upgrading your infrastructure, fostering (albeit temporary) diplomatic alliances, and soliciting trade, most of these tasks are explained gradually over the few seasons by verbose advisors who chime in at regular intervals.

The game’s simplified interface makes it a lot easier to keep track of everything without having your nose planted in dull menus for long stretches at a time, and if you really get hung-up, there’s always the extensive in-game encyclopedia to consult. Researching new technologies, assigning skills to your leveled-up generals, and tracking your clan’s overall progress can all be done from a few key menus. There’s still a lot of moving parts to contend with to keep your clan running smoothly, but the good strategic portion of the game is a lot more manageable than other recent Total War titles. It also doesn’t take very long before you have to flex some military muscle if you want to progress, which is where Shogun 2’s epic real-time battles come into play.

This time around, Creative Assembly pared down the overwhelming number of unit options to a more manageable selection of core troops. There’s a mix of archers, swordsmen, mounted troops, spearmen, and even more exotic units like fire bombers. Each comes in two flavors: lighter Ashigaru units are cheaper and more expendable, while the pricier Samurai variants offer more power. Expanding your stronghold infrastructure unlocks new troop types to purchase, though you’ll also benefit from hiring specialty troops like ninjas, geisha, and monks, who can serve as spies, conduct sabotage, and help wreak havoc among your enemies.

When full-on war breaks out on the battlefield, it’s truly a sight to behold. These real-time encounters have you herding large armies of troops across diverse and beautiful terrain in massive clashes against opposing forces. Certain troop types have clear advantages over others (for example swordsmen are strong against spearmen, while spearmen are extremely effective against mounted riders). This blends perfectly with the streamlined unit types to paint a much clearer picture of how to best utilize your forces in combat. Storming strongholds makes for some intense strategizing, and naval combat has also been simplified and improved for the better. The AI has been updated – computer-controlled armies will draw from a broad bag of tactics to use terrain features against you, even if they sometimes stand around while under fire.

Shogun 2 is an all-around great looking game if you have powerful enough hardware to keep it running at a smooth clip. It’s still quite pretty on lower graphical settings too, but you’ll want to have a pretty rugged machine to tackle this beast on its highest visual settings. The presentation expertly captures Japan’s majestic beauty as a culture and its fierceness on the battlefield. From the detailed landscapes and excellent musical score to the changing seasons and minor nuances of the updated graphical interface, the game really nails the authenticity. Other nice touches like short videos that pop-up during the turn-based portion of the game to punctuate interesting events (when your ninja sneaks in to raze a stronghold, for example) and gorgeous cutscenes that play out at the start of battle really step things up a notch. The actual combat animations in battle are equally impressive, whether viewed from a distance or right down in the thick of the fray.

The game’s multiplayer component is also brimming with options for those who seek out the thrill of massive battles against other human opponents. The Avatar Conquest mode does away with the turn-based portion of the game in favor of a board-game style map interface that has you engaging in individual battles with online players to capture chunks of Japan. You start by creating your own custom general who grows more powerful over time as you rack up wins in battles and conquer provinces. There’s a ton of unlockables to earn too (gear, skills, and custom armor, etc.), and upgrading your general allows you to recruit stronger forces to wield in battle. A separate Multiplayer Campaign mode also lets you team up with another player to conquer Japan cooperatively, with the option to save your progress and return to finish a game in more than one sitting.

Creative Assembly trimmed some of the fat while boosting the flavor to make Total War: Shogun 2 one of the tastiest entries in the franchise yet. It’s much more accessible than the last few Total War games without sacrificing any depth or strategy. If you’ve been holding off on the series due to its complexity, Shogun 2 is a great place to jump right in. Simply put: it’s an awesome game.

Mar 28, 2011

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