Playing Empire: Total War at launch had me thinking: “Does Creative Assembly have any idea just what they’ve got here?”
The potential for something completely amazing was there. Under all the bugs and all the egregious AI problems, there existed a landmark title, where in some alternate universe, Creative Assembly tried to do everything and, man, they pulled it all off. After an extensive line of patches, and the eventual release of Napoleon, I knew those Brits were capable. They just needed time.
The harsh reality of video games being a business, though, means time is a scarce commodity. So, they refocused, magnifying a single era of warfare and making the most out of it, while carrying over everything they've learned since Empire. The result is Total War: Shogun 2. It's a game that could only exist from past mistakes and startling breakthroughs in the code Creative Assembly had used to the build the last two Total War games, and it's magnificent.
It's back to Feudal Japan, where multiple clans fight for the seat of the Shogunate. It has been done before, but after a decade, a lot has changed. If you've played Empire or Napoleon, you'll pick up the basics and most of the intricacies of the campaign map on your first turn. It isn't dramatically different, but the way you build your empire and maintain your economy and your armies has changed enough that the turn-based game of Shogun 2 offers something new if you've kept up with the series for the past three years.
Arguably the biggest change comes in the way of what you can build in any given province. You can build as many structures as you want, as long as you have the appropriate tier of castle to support the building slots. To support bigger castles, you need food, and food comes from farms and better farms are acquired by mastering the civic arts in the game's extensive tech tree, which also covers military arts. It all makes you work within limitations and restrictions, but gives you the flexibility on whether you want a province to be an economic powerhouse, a military station, or a bit of both.
Agents and generals now rank up and level, with skill trees that promote individuality. Generals don't simply become admirals or experts in cavalry; you put them on the path by distributing skill points appropriately. It's a great feature and does a lot to give your agents and generals character and a greater sense of value. There's a tangible sensation that your ninjas are more adept at assassinating key targets or your general becoming a master at ordering cavalry around.
All of this culminates into new strategic layers to the turn-based game, where you're given plenty of options and it's up to you to prioritize just how you want to go about your conquests. It's deeper than either Empire's or Napoleon's turn-based games. Sprinkle in the excellent diplomacy system that Napoleon introduced and, hot damn, I'd be happy even if this were all Shogun 2 had to offer.
That's not the case and never has been, which has always been a Total War quality that's always easy to admire – Creative Assembly's need to always do more. The real-time battles are still exciting and thrilling to watch and take part in. Shogun 2 has been simplified in this aspect, cutting down unit types and focusing on three basic types that work in a rock-paper-scissors design. Battles go by much faster than before, especially when the rock-paper-scissors dynamics come into play, because counters cause massive casualties and morale drops quickly. I've never played a Total War game that has had me pausing so often, micromanaging units to swap out unit positions with other units to counter enemy units. It's a ton of fun, with unit composition, positioning, and flanking still playing key roles.
On the flip side the naval combat has seen drastic simplification, and it's more than likely the consequence of the era. There's not much to it other than just kind of going at it. It's incredibly simple, but for something that makes a third of the game, if even that much, it's a fun diversion.
What makes it all work better than ever before are the improvements to AI for both the campaign map and the real-time battles. You're still going to notice some handicaps and shortcomings. The AI unit compositions tend to consist of spearmen, archers, and little else, and it's not always the best at choosing and utilizing the best structures for their provinces, because they're often undeveloped, even in the late game, when you manage to take over. On the battlefront, cavalry, when they do have some, are overzealous about taking out your archers, making them easy to counter. When in a siege, the AI attacks in waves, making it incredibly easy to defend against most sieges even when vastly outnumbered.
"Glimpses of the AI's true potential could be seen in Napoleon, and that's largely been realized in Shogun 2."
That's where the problems end. Glimpses of the AI's true potential could be seen in Napoleon, and that's largely been realized in Shogun 2. AI moves around its armies intelligently, dividing army stacks when needed and even waiting for reinforcements, if victory looks unlikely. Their usage of agents to constantly harass and pick off my agents of their territory can get so effective, that it's simply frightening. It always seems to know what it's doing and, well, the AI seems human.
The AI loses some of its precision when on the battlefield. It can get caught in some weird decision loops, where it just runs its units back and forth, completely tiring them out, but that's rare. The AI goes about using terrain intelligently, always trying to seek higher ground when it can. More often than not, you're bound to win any evenly matched battle, because the AI just can't compete with the ingenuity of a human player, especially one who has been playing a bunch of Total War games already. Still you'll have to earn your victories, because the AI knows what it's doing, and it'll react to your actions. Victory is almost always a certainty, but it is incredibly satisfying to earn.
It's hard to overstate just how important the AI leap in quality means for Total War and Shogun 2. It has always been about relying on exploits, or relying on certain tendencies the AI tended to stick to, even if it meant death. It's not about gaming it anymore; it's about going against it head-on, and it's just so amazing to see Creative Assembly's AI work gone this far, especially when much of their past efforts have been… admirable at best.
You could just as well disregard it all because of Shogun 2's extensive multiplayer options. XP, leveling, perks, and all that jazz that Call of Duty 4 popularized has bled into Shogun 2, and the results are totally great. Taking a single avatar and moving his army around a Risk-esque boardgame to take provinces and fighting for them in the real-time battles is novel. Connection can drop out every once in awhile, but it's largely stable and a ton of fun. Shogun 2 is the whole package, really.
It looks and sounds fantastic too, but with Total War that's always been a known quantity. The campaign map is given a lot of flourishes and graphical pizzazz. Sun rays cutting through the clouds, waves crashing onto rocky shores, and a strong sense of a Japanese aesthetic permeate throughout the UI. Battles look great and even greater when zoomed in, when all the fine details start showing themselves off – the dense foliage, the details of each individual unit. Jeff van Dyke reprises his role as composer for Shogun 2, and his rhythmic compositions get right to the point. “It's total war, dammit!”, is the general mood here.
It's a Total War game, so this is going to last you for a bit. Shogun 2 represents the culmination of Creative's past experiences. It is refined, lean, smartly designed, and still an epic, where tales of your conquests can be so exciting that that alone could warrant a purchase. The possibilities of where Total War can go from here are exciting, but for now, we'll just have to settle with Shogun 2, which ain't that bad of a game.