Review: Total War: Shogun 2

April 26, 2011, Author: Giuseppe Nelva

Unfortunately not everything is positive about Shogun 2’s graphics. A few months ago Creative Assembly announced triumphantly that DirectX 9 to 11 would be fully supported in the game, taking advantage of advanced shaders and effects. A couple weeks before the release, they announced that DirectX 11 support would not be present in the release, and that DirectX 9 and 10 systems would not support any Anti-aliassing effect, which would be present only for players owning a computer that supports DirectX 10.1 and DirectX 11. While depriving a large percentage of the player base from an effect as basic and important as Anti-aliasing already seemed bad, worse problems were still to come.

When the game was finally released, reports started to come in that Anti-aliasing wasn’t present at all in the game, and that even DirectX 10 support was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that Creative Assembly shipped the game with DirectX 9 only and no Anti-aliasing, and that they decided not to announce it at all. They finally admitted the issue, and said that support for advanced DirectX, shaders and Anti-aliasing (still only for DirectX 10.1 and 11) would be added with a patch coming about a month after release. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case, as when the month passed they came around explaining that the graphical features that were meant to be present at release would be delayed further (at the moment it seems that they will be released in May).

Luckily not all news is bad, as recent interviews revealed that same patch will actually introduce Anti-aliasing even for systems using DirectX 9 and 10, albeit way too late after release.

The graphics are stunning... But those jaggies...

This kind of bait and switch behavior, whether intentional or not, is quite unacceptable by itself, as releasing a game without promised features is bad, doing so without even announcing it is honestly bordering on the slap in the face of the customer (and false advertisement). On top of that, delaying the features further after announcing a rather clear and convenient deadline right after release adds insult to injury, especially considering that the press was, very conveniently, given a build of the game for review purpose that included the full graphical suit; DirectX 9, 10, 11, and Anti-aliasing. Most of the reviews you see around the net and on magazines sport pictures taken from a graphic engine that the average customer won’t be able to enjoy until it’s patched in the future.

While the advanced filters and shaders coming with DirectX 11 support aren’t that indispensable and their absence doesn’t tarnish the overall quality of the graphics too much, Anti-aliasing is a basic effect that changes the look of a game radically. The Jagged edges that plague Shogun 2 at the moment effectively lower the quality of the graphical presentation, and are honestly jarring to anyone used to have Anti-Aliasing in every game since several years ago.

If you want to see a wider variety of pictures of  Total War: Shogun 2, you can visit this extensive flickr gallery.

The poetic sound of a whisper
The audio presentation of Shogun 2 goes hand-in-hand with the graphical presentation for a lovely atmospheric effect. Most tracks chosen as background music are extremely appropriate, mostly on the muted, calming side, contributing to create an almost zen-like atmosphere. Some would have possibly preferred a soundtrack more on the epic side at least for battles, but that’s mostly a matter of taste. Personally, I can’t help being enchanted by the pleasant and relaxing mix of the traditional sounds of Japan.

Voice acting is another spotlight of the game. Creative Assembly did away with the absolutely horrible mock accents of previous games, and hired a full cast of Japanese voice actors, that let us enjoy a realistic Japanese accent, and even full Japanese language when our general addresses his troops before any battle. Some very observant players will probably have noticed that the voice of generals is Togo Igawa, that served as the narrator during the first Shogun: Total War game, and that played General Hasegawa in “the Last Samurai”.

The sound effects, while not exceptional, are definitely adequate, underlining actions well during battles, especially the shouts and cries of soldiers and the clash of weapons. An effect that I find particularly pleasant and realistic is that of the impact between units as they charge at each other on the battlefield. You can almost feel that in your stomach, perfectly paired with the shaking of the camera.

The customization options for the online avatar are great

Cutting your enemies has never been this fun (and a bit broken)
Creative Assembly decided to push a quite a lot on the multiplayer pedal with this new chapter of the Total War series, offering their players two full-fledged gameplay modes.

The multiplayer campaign allows two players to engage in a campaign very similar to the single player one, either in a competitive or cooperative fashion. This game mode is very engaging and fun, as it allows you to enjoy the depth of the campaign alongside a friend, with very little difference from the single player mode of the game.

The two players will alternate turn by turn, with a rather clever system that allows most actions to be actually done while waiting for the other player to complete his own turn, reducing a lot the waiting involved. Unfortunately no more than two players are allowed, as a higher number of participants would have made things even more exciting, but it would definitely increase the waiting times and bog down gameplay down by quite a lot.

The only (rather big) problem is that the multiplayer campaign seems to suffer from the same game-breaking bugs it did in Napoleon: Total War, with frequent losses of synchronization and corruptions of the campaign that cause inevitable crashes to desktop. This can be partly addressed by sending a previous saved game to the opponent/ally, but unfortunately saved games tend to be very big in their file size, making the operation decidedly cumbersome. Hopefully it will be fixed this time around, since these kind of bugs have never been really squashed in Napoleon.

The heart of the Shogun 2 multiplayer is the Avatar conquest mode, that introduces some really interesting MMORPG elements to the franchise. The player will be prompted to create his general from scratch, choosing his looks and his armor and then will be moved to a map of Japan somehow similar to the one featured by the single player campaign.

There he can move his army and fleet, fighting battles against other players set in different regions. Each time a battle is won, the region is considered conquered, and the player can, from then on, benefit for the bonuses it brings (mostly new types of units and new retainers). In the meanwhile, as he fights and wins more and more battles, his general will level up like a MMORPG character and earn points to unlock new skills in a dedicated skill tree. The same will happen with the most heroic units used in the battlefield, which will become “veteran” and access a leveling and skill tree system of their own, allowing the player to field a highly customized army that will grow up with him. During battles it is also possible to unlock new pieces of armor to further customize the avatar, directly showing a player’s power and status directly on his online persona.

Will I manage to conquer Japan?

A further level of depth is provided by clan warfare. Each player will be able to join a multiplayer clan and contribute, with his victories, to the domination of Japan against other clans. While this feature is interesting, at the moment it favors numbers a little too much, allowing clans with a higher number of participants to easily dominate smaller ones. Luckily losing this kind of conflict doesn’t really bring any disadvantage on the practical level, so this tends to be a rather negligible flaw.

Multiplayer battles can be faced both one-on-one or team against team, on land and on sea, including sieges. Unfortunately, though, the battle terrain is not generated according to the map like in single player, but randomly taken from a set of predefined maps, that are well balanced for multiplayer, but lack variety on the long run.

The balancing system itself isn’t free from rather glaring flaws. The matchmaking, at the moment, seems to be quite a bit too elastic. It’s very rare to be pitched against a general of the same level, and I can’t count the time in which I have been confronted by generals of much higher or much lower rank than mine, resulting in quite unbalanced battles that have been less fun for everyone involved.

This tend to be even worse during sea battles, thanks to the presence of massively overpowered units like Cannon Bune. When a novice player is faced by a veteran one that has a couple of those, it’s almost guaranteed that he will lose in a very frustrating way, often without even being able to get a single ship in range of the enemy ones, let alone sinking them.

The point value system could also use some much-needed tweaking, especially on the field of options. At the moment players are offered battles of varying size (5000, 10000 and 14000 points) but they aren’t able to select their preferred size, which is automatically defined by the level of the two players involved. So if you (like me) like one particular battle size and dislike the others, you’ll find yourself playing an engagement of a scope you don’t enjoy during a large percentage of battles.

The implementation of an option to select a preferred battle size and to be matched against players with the same preference would be very much appreciated, especially considering the fact that you only know the size of the next battle when the match has already been decided, and if you prepared your army for a different size, you’ll have to fall back on a saved army (that might not be completely viable because one of your veteran units included in it could be recovering), or hurriedly rebuild your army hoping that your opponent won’t be too much faster than you, because that would bring up a timer that risks cutting off your preparation.

The real problems, though, come with lack of polish and testing, as the whole avatar campaign system is, at the moment, ridden with bugs, glitches and inconsistencies. Players experience frequent crashes to desktop and hiccups during the matchmaking process, resulting in the inability to find an opponent until the game is restarted. I didn’t even manage to get a single match going until four days past release, and some are having a lot of trouble even now.

Online battles are fun, despite a bothering lack of polish...

Another serious problem is the fact that the game doesn’t encourage losing players to fight battles to the end. Due to a fairly nonsensical choice, when one of the players is disconnected from the battle (intentionally or not), the battle ends in a draw, and the remaining player gains nothing. So the whole multiplayer field is now plagued by numerous quitters, that have no qualms forcing the shutdown of the game as soon as they start losing,  resulting in the other player receiving absolutely no reward for the time he invested in the unfinished battle.

Serious balance issues are also present, with certain army compositions that don’t exactly encourage careful and intelligent tactics resulting extremely overpowered against balanced armies. If you encounter an enemy with a massive blob of katana samurai that just charges at you with his whole army without any kind of tactical effort, you know that you’ll most likely lose, and it’s pretty much frustrating.

Despite those unfortunate flaws and bugs, most of which should have honestly been identified during testing (that’s why, when you introduce such an extensive multiplayer mode, you normally issue an open beta phase), the multiplayer aspect of Total War: Shogun 2 features a solid foundation upon which Creative Assembly should definitely build further, adding more polish and options.

The brave Samurai finally rests…
Shogun 2 is clearly a good and enjoyable game, there’s no doubt about that. It’s also the best game of the Total War series out of the box. The problem is that doesn’t really say that much, considering that Total War games have always suffered from a rather rocky launch. The launch of Shogun 2 has been considerably less problematic (partly due to the fact that the game is mostly simpler than its predecessors), but definitely not free of flaws, bugs and inconsistencies, which give solidity to the theory that the game has been rushed to release. Not surprising considering that Creative Assembly is churning out a new title each year, and that the depth of Total War games is definitely higher than a Modern Warfare or Assassin Creed. Still, maybe taking more development time would be in order. Total War games aren’t a short-term affair, and can easily keep dedicated gamers busy way longer than twelve months.

Tokugawa Ieyasu adresses his Samurai before the battle...

As you will probably notice just below, I still gave this game a “Buy it” rating, because it honestly deserves it despite the rushed finish, especially considering that most of what won’t be fixed  by Creative Assembly themselves will most probably be improved tenfold by the extremely active and creative Total War modding community. Unfortunately the small-scale and restrictive map is the only problem that won’t go away, since Creative Assembly decided to restrict any modification to that aspect of the game (which is, by the way, a very bad choice, but that’s just my personal opinion). I have to admit, though, that it somewhat pains me to give a “Buy it” to a game that comes packaged with extreme bait and switch that almost borders on false advertisement.

In any case, the rating comes with a warning. You might probably want to download the demo and check if you can bear the lack of Anti-Aliasing (I can, barely, but I can’t say it’ll be for everyone). If you can’t, then I would advise to wait  for the graphics patch to be released. Due to the smaller scope of the campaign the longevity of Shogun 2 is shorter than that of the previous Total War titles, and might not be measurable in months or years for many. That’s why waiting a bit to purchase the game when the graphics are fully implemented, will allow you not to “burn” it before you can enjoy its full beauty. If you really need some Total War before then, you may want to consider getting the Medieval 2:  Total War and expansion package on steam, and download some incredible mods like Stainless Steel or Third Age. It’s cheap by now, and the breadth and scope of the experience can hardly be matched by any TW game in its original state, especially Shogun 2.

Despite the above warning, Total War: Shogun 2 is an enjoyable game that stops just a couple of steps short of being great due to the maimed graphical options at launch, the lack of multiplayer polish, a few choices that don’t seem to make sense, and the limited scope of the single player campaign. It’s still a bigger, more interesting and immersive game than most the industry can offer, though, so whether you get it now or later, I would definitely advise against missing it.

Full Disclosure: The writer of this review has played the game for 91 hours (as recorded by Steam),  has completed a single player short campaign on normal difficulty with the Tokugawa clan and is well underway towards finishing a long one on hard difficulty with the Takeda clan. He also reached rank 5 in the multiplayer Avatar Conquest mode.

All the pictures included in this article and in the writer’s personal flickr gallery are from the commercial version of the game, and not from the review code that included DirectX 11 and Antialiasing. What you see here is what you’ll get (at least for now).

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