(PC Review) Total War: Shogun 2

Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy (Real-Time Combat)
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
Single Core 2.6 GHz / Dual Core 2 GHz, 1GB RAM (XP) / 2GB RAM (Vista/7), 256MB DirectX 9.0c-comp. graphics card

Throughout the years, the Total War series has managed to be both amazing and terrible. Developer Creative Assembly started strong with the original Shogun over a decade ago, and followed up with the excellent Medieval and flawed but addictive Rome. Each had their own lackluster expansion, Mongol Invasion, Viking Invasion, and Barbarian Invasion, respectively; though, Rome would have a last hurrah with a second expansion, Alexander. Unfortunately, the series quickly nosedived with Medieval II, eventually hitting a hard, boring, and buggy bottom with the Kingdoms expansion.

Empire was released nearly two years later and made sweeping changes to the interface, map, and underlying combat and diplomacy mechanics. However, it also featured a mind-bogglingly dense AI, which isn’t too divorced from previous releases with their suicidal generals and erratic ambassadors, but the inability for computer opponents to invade by sea, soldiers to properly respond to attacks from any oblique angle, sieges to go off anywhere close to as intended, and countries to pursue any sort of coherent diplomatic agenda bogged down what could’ve been a phenomenal rebirth. But as with Rome, Empire finished strong with a solid expansion of its own, Napoleon. Napoleon not only fixed many of the minor bugs, but it also included limited versus multiplayer campaigns and drop-in battles, allowing online players to take part in another’s single-player campaign, as well as strong story-driven campaigns.

Shogun 2, while not a heroic victory, manages to eke out a decisive one by improving on many of Napoleon‘s advancements in addition to adding a few interesting elements of its own. Multiplayer has no doubt received the biggest boost, with online co-op campaigns, the return of drop-in battles, and an MMO-lite hybrid mode dubbed Avatar Conquest. But before I get into all of that, it’s time to talk about the single-player experience.

As with previous Total War titles, players are presented with a handful of factions to choose from along with a little history behind their peoples along with their benefits, difficulty level, and starting position. The standard release includes nine clans—a tenth is available in the premium edition—that are spread throughout Japan. The goal of each faction is for their lord, the daimyo, to rise through the ranks and supersede the shogun in preeminence. This is accomplished largely through conflict, which is itself a balancing act between maintaining honor while chipping away at the holdings of the very clans that are ostensibly valuable and trusted allies. However, conflict doesn’t necessarily mean direct action. Now, a conquered territory can be made a vassal, which not only offer trade routes and secure buffer zones but also proxy armies for battling rivals. Vassalage isn’t all gold and soldiers, though, as they will eventually bite back (and hard), but they do make for valuable stepping stones to empire as they add to the objective total while keeping enemies in check and trade goods flowing to the home provinces.

But, of course, the easiest way to victory is through (and on and over) the enemy. To that end, Shogun 2 offers a wide variety of ways in which to dispatch foes. The map and city system is similar to that of Empire, which is confusing to tangle with at first but ends up being a fairly elegant solution once it’s acclimated to. Each city starts off fairly small in the beginning, with a set number of construction slots, free garrisoned units, and avenues of income. As territories are conquered and needs arise, the cities can be improved to include castles and other structures which not only increase the faction’s oppression on that region’s local populace but also offer additional construction slots and a few stacks to the garrison. All of these are important and work in ways that limit overly aggressive expansion, as upgrading a town comes with costs that whose upkeep is vital.

While land- and sea-based units cost gold to maintain, cities require food. The upgrade process takes gold while the expanded structure requires additional food to function properly, but upgrading cities beyond the farms’ capacity to adequately supply the people will result in anger and eventually rebellion. But those stronger structures are also needed to fend off attacks, since their additional walls allow for more ranged troops to be stationed closer to the enemy behind protection and the enlarged garrisons allow the trained mobile troops to go off in conquest or fend off invading forces. Also, failing to upgrade towns will mean less in the way of additional structures and advanced units, which can be devastating whenever a faction’s stack of highly trained squads steamrolls through. Instead, specialized towns are the name of the game, and thanks to the map being limited to Japan, the smaller size allows for administrative and military moves to be properly planned and ramped up as clans start vying for position.

Troops come in a wide variety of types, though often it’s more a case of increased stats and a new skin over a genuinely unique unit. This is actually helpful, as there are fewer fanciful units to keep track of—ninjas are no flaming pigs—and it’s easy to get a general idea of what’s coming when a soldier is packing a spear, sword, bow, or matchlock. That doesn’t mean that upgrading isn’t important because, however similar two unit types may seem, there is a clear difference in terms of basic stats when a cheaper unit is placed against a pricier one: an army of weaker spearmen will crumble under a stronger, more heavily armored spearman type just as much as they will by a katana samurai. Gunpowder doesn’t make itself felt until later in the game, which might not be reached if the shortest campaign is chosen, and it isn’t as devastating as one might assume. Matchlock units have a shorter range than archers, and while they pack a punch, their presence is felt more keenly on a psychological level than a physical one—a few volleys will make even the most hardened katana samurai think twice as he charges in. As troops tend to be broken down into two basic types, cheaper and weaker light soldiers (Ashigaru) and stronger more expensive professionals (Samurai), the real balance comes in trying to maintain a practical level of upkeep while still fielding an effective force. Ignoring one for the other can have serious consequences.

Sea battles are also a little different this time around in that they take into account the ‘sea castle’ build type of Japanese ships. The battles largely revolve around exchanges of arrow fire before closing in for a capture with infantry. If luck strikes early on, a decked-out European trader can be captured and turn around even a fledgling clan’s chances with its larger build and advanced tech devastating opposing fleets. While I didn’t find naval combat terribly exciting, it is done well and offers a nice change of pace. And yes, the enemy will—very rarely, mind you— invade by sea. Small wonders.

Direct contact isn’t necessary to do serious damage, either, as Agents return with a vengeance. They are less numerous than in previous releases but just as, if not more, dangerous. Geishas, Ninjas, Monks, and Metsuke all serve numerous roles that involve more than simply damaging a structure or assassinating a general, though they certainly do that as well. The interplay between the agents is a game unto itself: a Ninja sent to assassinate a general can be arrested (and possibly executed) by a Metsuke while a Monk can confuse both of them with his mind-bending words of wisdom. They each have their own take on how to handle situations, with Metsuke preferring to bribe generals while Ninjas go for the throat. Similarly, a Ninja can weaken an army’s resolve while a Monk can make even the shakiest Ashigaru feel like a daimyo; heck, Monks can even stamp out that nasty Christianity business that’s been making the rounds. For the ultimate assassin, would-be schemers are going to have to gain access to the elite Geisha. While Ninjas can hide on the world map—a skill not to be underestimated—Geisha just run roughshod over everyone they encounter. All of the Agents can be game-changers when used properly, though. On Hard difficulty, I had a computer opponent fight an unnervingly effective guerilla campaign against my marauding forces by unleashing a handful of Ninja who decimated my food stock and economic structures. It was a brutally effective tactic that had me stamping out rebellions and scrambling for cash for repairs while desperately scouring the countryside with my Agents and fighting to maintain an increasingly unstable border.

That scenario also highlights one of the problems with Shogun 2, which is its uneven approach in administration. For instance, a food surplus makes people happy and can also lead to a multi-turn event that allows for the extra to either be kept for harder times or spread out among the people. But there is no true stocking of surplus, which means that it only takes a few sabotaged farms for food to drop to negative and discontent to spread, regardless of how many abundant harvests there have been. The people’s anger rises slowly at first, but within a few turns, there will be rebellions breaking out threatening even the most vital of territories. While Agents charge for their more aggressive actions, having my infrastructure devastated for a fraction of the repair costs lead to a situation that quickly spiraled out of control as I couldn’t afford the huge repair bills (experienced Agents do ridiculous damage to high-end buildings) and the devastation only exacerbated the discontent. There are multiple avenues for income, including tax and two forms of trade, but tax is tied to happiness and had to be kept at a moderate level. Trade is more flexible offering both overland and sea routes, as well as international trade that brought in premium goods. Trade helped pick up the slack to keep happiness up and allow me to maintain my empire in most games, but in the game with the Ninja Squad running around torch happy, no one would trade with me. Despite the fact that I controlled four out of the five international trade nodes, there wasn’t one non-allied faction that wanted what I had. So in a game in which cash was desperately needed, I had a grand total of one faction getting heaps of prime imports. The others could be goaded into a trade agreement with piles of gold, but they would suddenly break off contact after a few turns without rhyme or reason and despite excellent relations. So here I am, facing a handful of units doing an inordinate amount of damage with alarming accuracy, and I’m left cut off from a significant portion of income for no apparent reason. Was I too powerful? There were other clans just as large. Was I dishonorable? No. Was I disliked? On the contrary, I was on great terms with all but two clans. I know what I was, though: frustrated.

While that late game ended up feeling like it soured an otherwise gripping campaign, others have gone off with less troubles—at least in regards to trade. While the chaos Agents can cause might seem terrifying, and it is to some extent, their ferocity is largely mitigated by a much-improved research system. Now new structures, unit upgrades, and Agents are unlocked by studying the Arts of Bushido and Way of Chi. Each topic has a branching research tree that culminate in one final ultimate unlock. Bushido covers the martial side with troop and ship upgrades (experience and stats), type (matchlock), abilities (flaming arrows for archers), and their associated structures. The Way of Chi covers the Agents and the economy. Agents require structures to be unlocked, which restrict just when they come into play as there are so many turns in a game and each Art requires multiple turns, sometimes over a dozen, to fully research. It’s because of this system that I also felt like a dunce by not having my own Ninjas, Monks, and Metsuke stationed in cities, inspiring the citizens, organizing crime networks to spy on enemies, and keeping a watchful eye over any suspicious black-clad gentlemen sneaking around the harbors. But not all problems are caused by player error as sometimes, as happens with the series, the game is simply broken.

One of the biggest chores in Empire was engaging in a siege. Not only were units dumbfounded by how to mount the defensive cannons, but most just ended up being slugfests as enemies were simply let in because fighting them at the walls was pointless. While the AI has been improved in Shogun 2, impressively in some cases, the computer is simply incapable of mounting a large-scale siege. Up to and around 1,500 soldiers, there will be a solid go, but once the unit count reaches the 2,000-plus range, assaults will often stall with soldiers stopping at the walls or grouping together in a corner somewhere. One particular assault was composed of multiple enemy stacks for around 4,000 units, but it only took 600 of them to fall before the computer froze up and left a few thousand stuck in a small area (forming a massive blob of armor and blades) while a handful meandered about before being shot by my archers. While I never used the autoresolve feature in previous Total War titles, thanks to it nearly always decimating my forces in even the most lopsided encounters, I now relied on it heavily to avoid having to sit through a fast-forwarded encounter. Autoresolves are now incredibly forgiving, often greatly favoring me in 50/50 encounters, so I would only take to the battlefield if the enemy was too powerful; while I don’t like wasting my time, I do like whittling down massive armies a stack at a time. But even when the killing is easy, it’s still trying; troops seem surprisingly lethargic during sieges, slowly mounting defensive positions and sometimes not even responding to commands. Upgraded castles now feature gates and towers that can be held by either side, and it’s downright infuriating to tell a squad to go recapture a tower and have it walk a few paces and stop, all while being peppered with arrows. So while sieges are a step up from those in Empire, it’s a (very) modest step.

As mentioned, the AI has been improved throughout all aspects of play. While the computer would still pull some weird moves, such as declaring war for no reason when they’re on the other side of the map, it at least behaved somewhat rationally. Although the other factions did seem almost allergic to contesting the trade nodes, halfheartedly after a golden goose that was often right by their backyard. Granted, not trading with a friendly faction that has the hottest items on the market is odd, but at least they tended to stick with longstanding friendships—which, as it turns out, are also strengthened by trade—when war broke out. The single-unit army being sent against heavily garrisoned castles from previous release has also been all but wiped out, though the computer would take a single unit, either the battered survivors of a fight or a fresh recruit, and send them on a tour of destruction as they scooted about and damaged whatever structures they could get their hands on. Battlefield tactics have also been improved, with the high ground now being taken whenever possible and cavalry flanking attacks common. There will still be the random tactical hiccup, but it’s a far cry from Medieval II‘s masses of missile fodder.

One aspect of combat I would like to see improved is actually on the player’s end, and that being proper descriptions for group formations, the group formation to actually work at all times, and the default hotkeys to not be so convoluted. Once a handful of units are assigned to a group, a set of rather striking icons appear on the right-hand side of the screen, sporting colorful designs of nature and exotic names like Crane’s Wing and Reclining Dragon. The problem is that it’s not entirely clear as to what they actually do. While the game has an impressive Wiki-like built-in encyclopedia that discusses them in detail, the simple descriptive icons found in its predecessors are gone. Custom formations are also susceptible to breaking down if the game’s unspoken rules aren’t followed. I found this out the hard way after several carefully planned, painstakingly tweaked formations broke apart into sprawling lines after the troops were ordered to advance. While units can be laid out in any number of ways, they can’t be too close to each other because the game will automatically spread them apart the second they move. Just remember: space. Lastly, I would like to know why something as simple as ‘defend’ now requires Shift to get involved. Hotkeys had been simple and largely intuitive, but now they are so key-combo heavy that I just opt to pause the game and click on the icons to assign orders. These might sound like minor gripes, but there’s a lot of combat in the game and each issue crops up frequently.

There are some additional tweaks that are seemingly minor but are actually quite significant. Many of the changes are the result of streamlining that was done across the board. For instance, the international trade nodes now only need to be occupied by ships, there is no gallivanting off across the globe as in Empire: if the ships say they are coming from Korea or China, then that’s that, there’s no fussing about in those regions. Troops can now be replenished in the field if they are in friendly territory and are being led by a general; they can also be replenished regardless of whether a general is present if they are garrisoned in a town. The latter is a pretty big change for those who are fans of maneuvering as it opens up a whole host of possibilities. The ability to station troops in an area for prolonged periods of time works with the limited roadways and encounter range, a circle around world units that forces an encounter to ensure armies don’t bypass nearby enemies for vulnerable targets, that requires additional strategic consideration while shifting troops the map. While I can see why some won’t like this, I don’t have a hard time wrapping my brain around a general sending for soldiers to be called up from nearby towns; and if an army is mauled severely enough, they will be sheltered behind a castle’s protective walls anyway. The Arts system also keeps the maps from being too cluttered too quickly, offering for a much more controlled pace that eases the player into empire rather than shoving it at them.

The same branching system found in the Arts is also found for generals and Agents. The level of customization is quite nice, with retainers and skills unlocked as experience is gained. While all units gain experience, the ability to select new abilities and levels of provides for a much more meaningful connection to characters rather than just tossing them on a family tree or roster with some throwaway trait descriptions. Generals can even be told to commit seppuku if their loyalty becomes questionable, which might result in them actually shifting allegiances. Despite the potential for Agent overload, their numbers are restricted by structures, which can also take some time to build, so it’s easy to keep tracking of who’s who. The leveling system manages to strike a balance by adding useful features without it feeling as if an already loaded system is being bogged down.

The most controversial addition to single player is a near-end event called the Realm Divide. Late in the game, as notoriety is built alongside treasure and troops, the shogun decides it’s time to take the upstart down a peg or two and has the entire country declare war against the player. While I did have one—and only one—ally remain by my side one time during a game, everyone, and I mean everyone, went on the warpath. What this means is that those longstanding trading partners and friendships, including those vassal arrangements that had proved so handy for so long, are tossed out the window in one fell swoop, negating hours of play. Depending on how much time and money was spent on nurturing relationships, and especially how many towns were left as vassals and not occupied, this is a discouraging event that borders on enraging. But the best way to put it is that Realm Divide is an inelegant solution to a problem that’s plagued Total War games for years, that being the monotonous endgame. In previous releases, most players had amassed so much wealth and manpower that the last few years, or possibly decades, were spent simply cleaning up what fractioned resistance remained. In order to put a stop to that, Creative Assembly opted to go the other route and have all but the most diehard supporters immediately answer the call to war and attempt to stamp out any potential rival to the shogun. Even if not all of Japan heads to war, the damage done to the player’s economy is substantial, and the massive stacks that seemingly come from everywhere seem insurmountable. Realm Divides are frustrating, exciting, and cheap, but they’re there and a daimyo’s got to do what a daimyo’s got to do.

Some of the most surprising additions are to be found in multiplayer. While full multiplayer campaigns have been eagerly anticipated, the drop-in battles and one-vs.-one campaigns from Napoleon stole a bit of its thunder by easing players into the process. However, now players can join as different clans and work together towards total domination. It can be a bit hard to find a game, especially since multiplayer suffered from some lag issues at launch, but a recent patch has both improved performance and brought a bit more life to the community. Surprisingly, I ended up enjoying Avatar Conquest much more than the campaign. By its very nature, campaign is more for friends to partake in as games are lengthy and battles can be forced rather than autoresolved, though it is quite robust with troop sharing and spectating options, and gentleman’s agreements (of when and how to play) only get so far online.

Avatar Conquest, on the other hand, is an excellent addition that sees an Avatar general join a clan and make their way throughout the territories, earning experience and unlocking troops, troop upgrades, and armor sets. Since Avatars are persistent, that means that their upgrades build upon one another, armies can be saved, and entourages bulk up as retinues are unlocked to offer even more powerful upgrades. Even better, veteran troops also have branching upgrade trees as the general, though upgrades to come at the expensive of higher recruiting cost, and they can even be renamed. Each territory has a special attribute associated with it, whether that’s a bonus for archery accuracy or to unlock matchlock units, that benefits conquering armies. As soon as a territory, or sea region, is decided on, the game then looks for a match (land, sea, or both) and battle type (one on one, siege, or drop-in) and loads the battle. If defeated, experience is gained, wounds are licked, and armies are tinkered; if victorious, experience is gained and the Avatar army piece is set on the destination region, which unlocks the adjacent regions, and benefits are received. The level of customization is really what makes this mode so addictive, with the army’s banner open for tweaking and even numerous armor sets available to unlock through accomplishments in both single- and multiplayer. An army of veterans, each with unique upgrades and names, next to a decked-out general is awesome.

Of course, there are the inevitable balancing issues that arise as the matchmaking just seems to go with whoever is available. Unfortunately, as with campaigns, Avatar battles aren’t as easy to get in as one would imagine; but again, the recent patch has helped inject a bit more life into the player base. Sometimes whoever is available is a demigod with access to elite types and veteran squads. Needless to say, newcomers with a handful of green Ashigaru are going to find themselves on the wrong end of matchlock fire. Speaking of which, generals are so vital to armies that a portion of players simply spam artillery and matchlock units and make a beeline for the general—which is often followed by a beeline towards feeling troops as gunpowder tends to make general-less armies weak in the knees. While such armies can be overcome, it’s those armies that will make fresh generals grit their teeth and mutter under their breath. Hopefully improved matchmaking is in the cards for the future. Or less grenade-wielding ninjas.

As gorgeous as the game looks and sounds—well, save for the overly theatric voiceovers which should’ve just been in Japanese—I did run into some significant performance issues and bugs. I had several instances of the game freezing or crashing to the desktop, though that was throughout dozens of hours of play (approximately 66). To be fair, a crash every six or so hours isn’t too bad, but what was aggravating was the continuous decline in performance. After an hour or so of play, there would be a moment on the campaign map where events would lag for a second, and from then on I would encounter anything from units turning into black squares when zoomed out to units looking like a liquid metal samurai Terminator. That is in addition to general performance lag. Considering that it’s easy to run into the hour wall after just a few turns, this is definitely an annoyance.

Even with the continued AI oddities and handful of technical problems, Shogun 2 is definitely a step in the right direction. Napoleon pulled the series up by its boot straps, and it’s now going in a direction that has me excited again. After the one-two punch of Medieval II and Kingdoms, followed by the salt in the wound that was Empire, I was beginning to think that one of my all-time favorite series had been relegated to bargain bin status for the inevitable game-fixing mods. But with so much positive momentum, and a patch that seemed to come in at the right time to keep things going, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Total War: Shogun 2
is a fantastic return to form for Creative Assembly. Not all of the series’ problems have been stamped out, as the AI will still renege on agreements and declare war without cause, and some of the new features land with a thud (Realm Divide), but the package is such a step up from the last few years that those are small annoyances when compared to the positives of an improved AI, streamlined interface, and character customization options. Multiplayer is equally strong with co-op campaigns that offer a lot to the patient, and the biggest surprise, Avatar Conquest, is as addictive as it is unbalanced. It might not be quite as polished as a daimyo’s set of ancestral armor, but it can certainly hit the spot.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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