Ten years ago, I was sightseeing in Tokyo. I climbed off a train in Yotsuya, a city centre station not far from the reputed grave site of legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo, I saw a geisha waiting on the platform. She was decked out from head to toe in traditional garb, her face powdered chalk-white and her hair immaculately styled, and she was typing furiously on a cutting-edge mobile phone. It was an enduring image, and one which sheds light on modern Japan – a high-tech land steeped in ancient tradition, but perfectly comfortable with the sharp contrast between the two.
Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai fast forwards from the core Sengoku Jidai setting to the mid nineteenth century where Japanese culture is fragmented among three fault lines – modernity versus tradition; Shogunate versus Imperial loyalty; and open foreign trade against isolationism. While this stand-alone DLC focuses on the battle between the fading Shogunate and the resurgent Imperial power, all three of these themes need to be considered to form a viable grand strategy. Keeping the traditional ways severely limits progression through the tech tree and access to the top-flight military units (like Gatling Towers for your castle and carbine-toting cavalry), but populations will be much easier to keep happy, and thus tax rates can be increased and more soldiers supported. Embrace modernization, though, and sophisticated tax reforms will go some way toward fattening your kimono pockets, not to mention foreign trade with the gaijin foreigners, if you choose to go down this road.
The conflict between the Shogun and the Empire takes a similar approach to the warring religions of the original game. Pro-Shogun and Pro-Imperial factions tend to band together, and capturing a territory with 100% support for the opposing ideology inevitably leads to unrest.
The battle between modernization and tradition transcends the game setting, and even pervades the design ethos. See, Creative Assembly have to make a game that moves forward from the original Shogun 2, while retaining enough of the ‘traditional’ gameplay elements to satisfy an audience who loved the core game enough to want to buy DLC. CA are no slouches in this department, having consistently been putting out quality DLC since their earliest game, and they cleverly balance innovation with preservation of the core game by changing just about everything in ways that retains that Shogun 2 feel intact. Pretty much every military unit is new, with the emphasis on firearms and indirect-fire this time around, and the special units are all new or, at the very least, significantly tweaked. The geisha, who had such an ignominious introduction to the Total War series as the game-ruiningly overpowered mega-ninjas from Shogun 1, are much more sedate now, spending their time entertaining your troops or ‘enchanting’ the opposition’s special units over to your side instead of garrotting enemy daimyos.
Each and every special unit has an all-new experience tree, not to mention your officers, and the arts are all-new as well, as you’d expect from a game set over 200 years later than the original. Nevertheless, it’s still the same part of your brain required to play the game. Same castle sieges; same naval battles (although the ship models are much prettier this time), in fact you’ll recognize pretty much all of the core mechanics. Except maybe the addition of railways, which allow instant movement from one station to another for your troops (so long as the line is not threatened by enemies), which really helps get those elite troops from your well-developed home provinces out to the front lines, so long as you have the foresight to plan the infrastructure properly.
The new troop models are all a bit samey, as you’d expect really from a more formalized army where everyone wears uniforms instead of shiny armour. Naval battles are the same clunky, slightly awkward affairs they were in the original game, although the additional of naval bombardment in land battles can really turn the tide, particularly if you’ve employed the awesome, insanely expensive ironclads. The Creative Assembly guys always put a whole ton of work into researching their settings – they have a way of dragging you into their worlds. If I had any complaints at all, I guess I found the timeline on the campaign to be a little short, even in the longer campaign. I would have preferred to approach it with the careful deliberation of a Japanese tea ceremony rather than the decisive focus of a Musashi sword cut, and in fact I’d like to have had the option to switch the time limit off altogether but keep the other victory conditions.
If I was to hazard a guess, I would expect that Fall of the Samurai appropriately enough marks the finale of the Shogun 2 development cycle. It comes bundled with a handful of new multiplayer maps, all of which were kindly given away free to owners of the original Shogun 2, thus proving that Creative Assembly are some very nice people. They’ve taken the existing game engine and setting and re-imagined what could be done with it, while retaining everything that makes it a Total War game. Fall of the Samurai elegantly bridges the gap between Empire and Shogun, and leaves you with a kind of Tom Cruise, Last Samurai-type taste in your mouth. Which isn’t at all as unpalatable as it sounds.