copyright © Jedo Dre 2011

Total War Shogun 2



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Impact: Average

Shogun 2 is the newest installment in the Total War series, which is all about letting you control, develop and militarily expand one of the choosable factions during a historical time period, in the case of Shogun 2 – the turbulent 14th century in Japan.


Gameplay


The gameplay is divided into two main parts: the turn-based campaign map, where you build and move your characters, develop your cities and enter negotiations with other factions, and the real-time battles where you can take control of a relatively large number of various types of soldiers. The more developed your cities are on the campaign map, the stronger your armies are and the more chances you have to defeat your enemy in a real-time battle.


As you capture enemy cities during your campaign, you capture the associated provinces. Many of the provinces have specializations due to a specific building present their territory, which will provide some bonus to the owner. It therefore pays to develop the city in that province to take advantage of that particular bonus. Additionally, some of the trading goods required to build certain buildings can only be acquired from certain parts of the map, therefore making trade and trade routes an important asset to acquire and protect.


Although it is possible to auto-resolve the battles on the campaign map, the real-time battles are the game's marvel. The varying Japanese terrain, the weather, army numbers and skill – everything has an effect on the gameplay and can be used to your advantage or against you. Each unit has a specialty and you feel that when using them. A cavalry charge will send soldiers flying, a shower of arrows decimates a still standing unit and a wall of spearmen can withstand charges and buy valuable time for a flanking maneuver. In addition to the specialization, some units have special abilities some of which last for only a short time but can give a much needed edge over your opponent, such as the battle ninjas' stealth.


The castle siege battles create a whole new gameplay where the sieging army tries to climb the castle walls in order to reach and capture the main building or kill everyone in the castle, while the defending army tries to keep them out, using several levels of walls if available.


Then there are the ship battles. Unlike its cannon carrying European cousins, Japanese vessels of the time are essentially army units enclosed in floating glorified shoe boxes and large sea battles are therefore somewhat similar to land battles. Additionally, the game throws a few islands and shallow waters into the game for added strategic value. This provides for an interesting new type of gameplay where ships of various specialties have to maneuver themselves around to find the best way to be able to take advantage of their specialty.


The enemy AI gets mixed reactions. It is really nice to see the AI send his cavalry around the front line in order to flank the protected archers and occasionally it will pick high ground for advantage, but it is still a far cry from what it could be. For example, forests cover the movement of soldiers, but the AI never tries to send his soldiers in a pattern to use this feature, always simply marching across the battlefield towards your army. On the campaign map the AI will sometimes base his diplomatic decisions with you on the situation at hand, but the same AI will keep many of its cities unprotected and the built in cheating ability of AI to raise full stack armies out of the blue tries to balance out the difficulty level. Sad. In this day and age, we should be able to do more with our AI. Nonetheless the AI will provide a sufficient challenge.


As you fight battles your soldiers and the general leading the battle gain experience. Total War series, it seems, has entered the game industry's recent craze to insert role-playing game element in every type of game. For the uninitiated, this refers to the character development system in which the character controlled by the player becomes more skillful and gains abilities as that character reaches new levels. Different for Shogun 2 is that the Total War series already had role-playing elements for years and the fans have been longing for this system's expansion, which has arrived.


In the previous installments generals would gain traits which had an effect on the gameplay. However the gaining of traits was difficult to control and the generals died of old too fast for players to start caring about them. In Shogun 2 the campaign game time is much slower (4 turns per year) and now, in true RPG style, you are able to develop your characters, such as generals and assassins, by spending the experience points they gain through their actions on various traits in their respective trait trees. As the level of each character progresses, they become more effective at what they do.


One of the interesting character mechanics is that failure in carrying out a mission still brings some experience, since just like in real life, you learn from your mistakes.


Graphics


So…yeah…what can be said of a game that gets released with the anti-aliasing option present but not usable? This has got to be one of the traces of a looming deadline firmly lodged within developers' tortured hearts. Of course, accordingly, a patch was released…and then another patch…and maybe after twenty subsequent patches there will be a patch that will actually enable anti-aliasing.


It feels strange to play a game that from some angles looks worse than Medieval 2 Total War (one of Shogun 2 forefathers from 2006), all because of one important option being unavailable. It is reminiscent of the older 3D consoles in the time when gamers were amazed at the 3D graphics despite that every drawn line in the game was made out of moving seizure-inducing ladders.


When you zoom in however, the bloom, the shaders and the other "New Gen" technology kicks in. The art and the warrior models are all well done, and even overdone in some cases. User-made modifications for the game started popping up in forums to remove the over-exaggerated shine from the samurai armor and to get rid of the tracers from the arrows. Also, the atmospheric mist is prominently present on every type of battlefield and gets a bit old after a while.


The developers took care to create memorable scenery out of cliffs, waterfalls, lakes and forests, which also has great strategic value. You could take your family out for a hike here. However, this prettification comes at a price. Despite there being several different maps available, it still manages to cause a nasty deja vu effect. In previous games in the series the generic scenery could get you through quite a few battles before it started to look repetitive, while in Shogun 2, as you progress though the main campaign, you have to convince yourself that there are a bunch of places throughout Japan that look absolutely the same.


A thing that has been positively mentioned over and over, by both gamers and developers, is the game series' continued evolution of animations. Justified. The fighting animations in Shogun 2 are interesting to watch, even if the briefness of battles doesn't give you much time to enjoy them. The boarding of ships, the climbing of walls, the operation of artillery – all this brings more credibility to the game's advertised realism and authenticity, while at the same time giving you a reason to use the zoom function.


Sound


The music has been brought together by Jeff van Dyck, who has been in charge of soundtrack for previous Total War games as well. The game tries to get as close as possible to the authentic Japanese music, without actually using too much of the authentic Japanese music, most likely because of the simple monophonic nature of the original Japanese tunes. The simpler calmer music is used for menus and to build suspense, while the Taiko drums come in once the armies clash. The result is a well-balanced soundtrack, although it is still surprising not to hear the music switch from calm to action when the archers start firing volleys of arrows upon the enemy – archery is just for recreational purposes, right?


The sounds of battle are all here as you would expect so there is not much to add about the sound effects. You will hear your steel clash and you will hear the enemy die and your men cheer.


Multiplayer


Shogun 2 does a relatively good job at combining single player and multiplayer gameplay. For example, before engaging in a single player battle on the campaign map you can chose to search for a human opponent to command the enemy army that would normally be commanded by the AI – of course this is only recommended if the enemy army is weak, or else you will see your carefully orchestrated attack on the campaign map go down the toilet very quickly.


Apart from that there are two main Multiplayer modes:


The Avatar Conquest mode enables you to create your own general and use him to fight other players on various parts of the Japanese continent in order unlocking the map that way. Winning (and even losing) battles gains you and your soldiers experience, which you can spend on various traits in the trait tree and so make your general stronger and…well, if you have played any of the recently released multiplayer shooter games, you should get the idea - yes, it is the good old role-playing system again.


The game goes further than that. Avatar Conquest mode recognizes clans - groups which you can join on Steam. Once you join you can earn clan points and make use of special clan traits.


The system for finding human opponents to play against is a little confusing because of how well integrated it is. Everything is automatic – you pick the kind of battles you would like to participate in (sea/land, etc.) and click to search for an opponent. The game then pairs you up with a stranger or a team of strangers, who has/have an army that costs about the same amount of game money as yours and then off you go to get your bum handed over to you on a platter because the enemy is much more experienced and has some unlocked vicious weapon, which you do not. An old witch once told me a story about how it may be possible to actually choose your opponent and the map, like old days, in the before time. I have to look into that.


The second mode is a multiplayer campaign mode in which you play out the single player campaign with human opponents, each leading a clan. This is mode for those who have enough time to spend playing the game in one sitting.


Performance


Together with its variety and automation the multiplayer modes also bring the creepy crawlies; yes - the bugs. You wait for a battle with your opponent to load and then the game crashes; you use a wrong button to exit a menu and the game freezes; you look at the screen wrong and a fist comes flying out and punches you in the face…well…something like that. Patches for the game are being served at the rate of dishes being served in a restaurant, so maybe by the time you read this review – the multiplayer is playable.


The single player doesn't have that many bugs, but the ones that are present are quite annoying. You cannot save during real time battles and large battles, especially siege battles, can take a good half an hour to complete. Therefore, when faced by a much stronger opponent, spending much effort to defeat him only for the game to crash in the last 30 seconds of the battle will probably make you want to perform a vivisection on your computer with a bowie knife.


As for the graphic requirements, they are not outrageous, especially since the anti-aliasing (a known frame rate thief) is forced off. The game only starts slowing down when you zoom in during battles to look at a large army, when the game suddenly has to render a whole bunch of highly detailed soldiers at once.


Conclusion


Shogun 2, despite of some technical issued, is a great game that should neither disappoint fans of the genre nor the newer players. It managers to keep its trusty formula while at the same time adding a lot of new interesting content.