Review: Total War: Shogun 2

April 26, 2011, Author: Giuseppe Nelva

This, alongside the restrictive and small-scale map I mentioned above, seriously risks hampering the long-lasting appeal of the single player campaign, as further campaigns with different clans bring very little differences, seriously hampering replayability. Not to mention the fact that the accursed Realm Divide mechanic ensures that campaigns always progress in the same way after the first half, with a rather clumsy dogpile of the AI clans on the player.

Features of the campaign map appear on the battle map as well.

When things move from the campaign map to the actual battlefield, though, the game starts to really shine. Like in Medieval 2 (a feature that was, for some reason, removed from Empire and Napoleon), features on the campaign map are actually reproduced with a certain fidelity on the battle maps you will have to fight on. This means that if you engage an enemy near a mountain, that mountain will be visible during the battle that will partly take place on its side. If you’re near a castle, even if the battle won’t be a siege per se, you will see its towers in the background. This not only improves immersion and variation in terrain types, but it also adds further depth to the strategy aspect of the game, as you can chose the terrain upon which you will fight depending on your strengths and weaknesses.

The quality of the battle maps has also been massively improved with the change on how terrain is modeled. It was extremely easy, in previous Total War games, to find yourself fighting on extremely bumpy terrain that simply hurt the fun of the battle. In Shogun 2 there will still be mountains, hills and valleys, but I still didn’t find a single battle in which they felt “in the way”. They always enrich the gameplay and never (at least so far) take away from it.

Another welcome feature returning from Medieval 2 are the pre-battle general speeches. Before a battle your general will perform a cinematic inspirational speech to address his troops, with several different lines that partly depend on his traits and on the situation of the battle at hand. Maybe many will skip it after hearing all the options, but it’s nice to see this “lost” element back in the Total War series.

The battle gameplay itself has been improved across the board. Units are much more responsive and execute orders with more precision. Melee combat looks extremely satisfying both from close up and from afar, as soldiers actually mix up in a chaotic brawling instead of just having two lines facing each other and fighting in a rather artificial-looking way like in the previous titles. Cavalry charges are also extremely well designed, as well-directed horsemen now literally slice through the enemy ranks. Just don’t use them against spearmen, though, as charging a horse against a long, sharp pole that can be braced has never been a good idea, and isn’t a good idea even in Shogun 2.

The battle AI has also been visibly improved, with the enemy that finally seems to make a decent effort to actually beat the player, often flanking with cavalry, and even reacting to sudden moves that would have decimated its ever-charging troops in Napoleon and Empire. Unfortunately there are still some glaring flaws, like the seemingly immortal problem of the suicide generals. When three generals in a row go to impale themselves on the same unit of Yari Ashigaru in spear wall formation during the same battle, it doesn’t take a modern day Wellington to understand that something is amiss. This is made even more serious by the effects generals have on morale, which seem to be a bit excessive. Kill the enemy general, and their army will instantly collapse. This said, again, things have improved quite a lot on the battle side of the AI, and battles are now more fun and challenging than they have ever been in the Total War series.

Charging into braced spears? Not a good idea...

Unfortunately the same can hardly be said about the campaign AI. Initially you’ll notice that the AI factions are more aggressive then in previous TW games,  and you’ll be tricked into thinking that they simply play better. Then you’ll start asking yourself where they get all those troops from. As soon as you start probing around the front line, you’ll find the answer, the AI clans simply leave their whole territory undefended, including their capital, in order to constantly go on the offensive. This leaves them wide open for devastating counter-attacks that normally result in a very easy win for the player (since the armies of a defeated clan simply disappear into thin air). This kind of behavior borders on the suicidal, as AI clans will often even charge head-first towards an enemy city that they cannot reach in the same turn, with an enemy army right there within walking range from their capital. Obviously this results in that army just waltzing into the castle of the overly aggressive clan, removing it from the map.

Increased aggressiveness could have been a good thing, but the way it’s implemented feels just like a cheap trick to make the AI appear improved, while it actually isn’t. As soon as you learn the pattern, you’ll be able to simply steamroll the enemy clans like you did in previous games of the series, and actually even easier. Add to it the fact that the AI is extremely weak to the use of agents (meaning that you can simply use a ninja to paralyze the enemy army that overextended in its attack), and the scenario is pretty depressing.

The fact that the AI uses further cheap crutches like spawning fully-leveled armies from thin air when out of the line of sight of the player and the aforementioned Realm Divide dogpile mechanic to appear more challenging than it actually is, doesn’t testify positively on its quality.

Naval battles also make a comeback in Shogun 2, but they are quite simplified compared to those present in Empire and Napoleon. This is probably partly because of the period, and partly due to a streamlining effort on Creative Assembly’s part. Now a naval battle is more akin to a land one, you get your units in line, missile units in front, melee-oriented ones in the back, a short slugfest is followed by several boarding actions, that are very impressive to see but you have very little influence, and everything finishes pretty quickly. There’s no more frantic manoeuvring to get the enemy ship lined up for the perfect broadside. The addition of radical speed differences between ships, though, allows for a certain level of tactical depth that’s quite welcome.

Prepare to board!

Personally, I find myself preferring the battles in Napoleon, since I found that aforementioned frantic manoeuvring very entertaining, but I’m quite sure many others will feel the opposite way, so I wouldn’t chalk the change as something negative. It’s pretty much just a matter of taste.

What’s doubtlessly a welcome change is the introduction of land masses in the sea maps, adding a further level to the tactical gameplay, and a very welcome one when you’ll find yourself facing cannons with bows and arrows, as some obstacles may prove the only thing separating your fleet from certain death.

Something I’m on the fence about is the addition of the famous Black Ship as a unit the player can capture. The upkeep cost is high, but it basically works as a tactical nuke that will single-handedly destroy entire fleets with its cannon fire, turning further naval encounters in a trivial exercise of sitting back and firing.

Sieges are a definite improvement over Empire and Napoleon, even if the castles don’t reach the level of detail and complexity present in the old, but still definitely fresh, Medieval 2. The castles themselves are formed by layers of fortifications circling around grassy terraces where fighting is pretty much akin to what happens in the open field, with very few buildings in the way.

This is definitely a good thing gameplay wise, as Total War games are well known to suffer from pathing problems, but the simplicity could prove a bit boring to some, especially considering the lack of siege equipment like stairs and rams, and the fact that the attacking Samurai will simply turn into the Japanese version of Spider-man, free-climbing the walls like little arachnids. Castle gates also seem to serve little purpose, since every unit can destroy one in mere seconds by just throwing torches at it. That said, castles still provide more than enough of an advantage to the defender, proving meaningful, while definitely not the peak of the battle gameplay.

A separate note is deserved for the outer area of the siege maps, that often proves very varied and rich, with gorges, cliffs, bridges and watchtowers, almost tempting the defenders to just come out of the walls and fight a much more fun and engaging battle in the open field. That’s actually even more historically correct, since the Sengoku Jidai warlords normally hated to lock themselves behind walls, and sorties were a very common occurrence.

Sieges tend to be a hairy affair....

The beautiful Geisha with the hideous scar
The first thing you notice when you launch Total War: Shogun 2, is just how beautiful and well designed the UI is. Every single element of the presentation and of the art direction fits the setting perfectly, contributing to making this game one of the most immersive and atmospheric games I ever played in the genre. Everything simply drools delicate Japanese taste, from the elements of the interface, to the loading screens, to the portraits and units cards. The final effect can easily be defined simply as masterful.

The effect persists when you move on to the campaign map, as the beautiful Japanese landscape is rendered with almost poetic beauty (even if heights are intentionally exaggerated), further enriched by the four seasons rotation, that will radically change the looks of the map with every coming turn. The passage between the ancient map look of unexplored areas to the 3D rendition of already visited one is another little masterpiece of art direction.

The graphics of field battles are equally beautiful. As Creative Assembly definitely juiced the engine as much as possible, creating some of the most breathtaking landscapes I ever seen in a RTS game. The addition of lovely particle effects for mist, rain, snow, fire and  leaves (and cherry blossoms) floating in the wind create an extremely atmospheric environment that really fits the setting, even here enriched by the perfect rendition of the rotating four seasons. I have to admit that I rarely saw such a masterful use of the color palette in this genre.

Sea maps definitely don’t fall behind the land-based ones, as the water surface is stunningly beautiful, with 3D waves and lovely colors, broken by islands that seem to come straight from an Ukyo-e painting. The graphical representation of soldiers is just as good, with richly designed armor and weaponry that’s several steps above what we’ve seen in Napoleon: Total War.

A partial flaw is the fact that samurai have unrealistically colored armor reflecting their clan palette, taking away from the variety of armor models, and giving an unpleasant “army of clones” effect that will disappear only when you watch the battle from a fully zoomed-in camera. Unfortunately this is basically impossible during gameplay, so the player will savor the full-blown graphics only while watching replays. To be honest, the presence of the Sashimono (the flag on the back of samurai and soldiers) makes painting all the samurai armor the same color quite redundant, so I would have preferred to see more color variations between single samurai.

A further problem comes with the low polygon models displayed when the camera is even partially zoomed out (which involves the vast majority of a battle for an average player). While we don’t see absolutely unsightly sprites like in previous titles, color tends to almost completely disappear from the units, giving the unpleasant impression of an army of unpainted plastic miniatures.

The "Unpainted Miniatures" effect tends to be rather glaring...

Topping the attractiveness of the models (when the camera is zoomed in) are some really high quality animations, that, thanks to the motion capture technology, seem to be coming straight from a samurai movie. Maybe some of them are a little too clean for a battle setting, as many of the samurai seem to be performing Iaijutsu forms more than cutting bodies in the heat of a battle, but while not completely realistic, the scenic and cinematic effect really cannot be ignored or denied.

The only real flaw is a little lack of variation in some areas, especially in the animation of archers, that notch arrows, aim and fire always in the same way. Due to that they tend to be much less interesting to watch than their melee counterparts. Also, during the general speeches that I mentioned above, ranks upon ranks of troops will perform the “banzai” motion using the same animation for every soldier, with a quite unnatural robotic feeling that’s quite different from what we had in Medieval 2.

Ultimately, the lighting engine is what makes the appearance of Shogun 2 really special, giving the player the impression to be looking at a painting or an illustration, an impression that’s strengthened further by the absolutely beautiful rendition of the sky in any weather condition.

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