If you know Heaven and Earth, your victory can be complete.
- Sun Tzu
Japan, in the sixteenth century. It must have been awesome being a samurai! Carrying around those cool swords, devoting your life completely to your lord in slavish subservience, constantly preparing yourself to lay down your life at a moment's notice, without even knowing why...
Actually, now that I really stop to think about it, life pretty much sucked for the samurai.
HOWEVER, pretending to be a samurai, or even a whole army of samurai, in a videogame is great fun! You get the swords and the cool, spiritual-poetic quotes and the macho posturing without actually having to worry about all the pointy, sharp stuff everyone in the country wants to forcibly introduce you to. Weirdly, it's a genre which isn't really saturated in the way, say, WW2 or alien invasions have been. Daimyo of the eastern wargames in recent memory has to be Shogun: Total War, and now, the sequel is finally here.
Remember Shogun? No? Well, either way, it was the cheeky wargame that introduced us to the world of Total War games way back in 2000. Epic cavalry charges, sneaky assassinations, hordes of screaming warriors bashing each other's helmeted heads in... it was all good clean fun. Absolutely ruined by game-balance-wrecking geishas that turned a stunning, groundbreaking ripsnorter of a game into an unplayable mess about halfway through.
"You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain"
- Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings
So, then. Shogun 2. Completely ruined by wayward geisha? Well, of course not! Over a decade has passed, and the Creative Assembly boys have smoothed the rough edges off what had the makings of a wonderful game even back then. Does it still taste like Total War? Oh, absolutely. If you've played one, you've played them all, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. That little bloke on a horse logo that appears on all Total War games tells you that give or take a couple of new developments, you're going to be playing the same game. Move your armies on a glorious, beautiful campaign map and go to war on 3D battlefields where units can be easily controlled and commanded to duff each other up. That's what we've come to expect, and that's what we're given.
Trade is a big part of Shogun 2, at least it can be if that's your style. Foreigners can give you mountains of fancy trade goods (most notably GUNS), but they bring with them dirty foreign ways that will upset your warrior monks, not to mention the religious masses. The diplomacy system is robust and imaginative, allowing the exchange of noble hostages in order to keep deals above-board and plenty of wheeler-dealing to help assure your place at the top. The Shogun is this game's equivalent of Medieval Total War's Pope; he'll give you little quests (mostly to protect his primacy) and rewards in the early game, but will unleash all hell against you once you're tough enough to challenge him. Unit types (and leader traits) seem to have been trimmed down from the bewildering level of variety apparent in some of the earlier Total War games, and while this makes it easier to follow, I couldn't help but feel some of what makes Total War games so original had been taken away. True, each clan has its own speciality, be it sneakier ninjas or sharper katanas. And certain provinces create better troops than certain others, due to stables of tough warhorses or advanced forges, but they're still just cavalry or swordsmen, no matter how pimped with experience points.
With martial valor, if one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.
- Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure.
The field of battle is really where it's at, and Shogun 2 gives us a couple of innovations that suggest that the design team have had a jolly good think about stuff before piling in. Now, when units take damage, the banner above their heads grows more ragged. At a glance, you can get a really good idea of who is in trouble and who is doing fine. It's a simple idea but it makes a huge difference in the thick of things. With every Total War game comes further game balance tweaking, and this time round it seems that generals and their bodyguards have been weakened, so they're not the tanks they've always been in the past. They're still no slouches, but even against a smaller foe the survival of the general isn't certain. This really helps to keep players on their toes. Castles have been given a huge overhaul as well, and even the simplest spearmen can climb over the walls of a castle to attack those within. Once inside, though, they're at a huge disadvantage against the defenders until they can capture a few areas of the fortification - perhaps the gates, to let in the cavalry, or perhaps a few towers, to rain arrows down on the defenders. Gone are the days of enjoying a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle for a good five minutes while the trebuchets pound away at the walls dully.
Much fuss was fussed a couple of months ago about the designers' claims that the teachings of Sun Tzu were being incorporated into the development of the AI, but I have to say, I beg to differ. For example, Sun Tzu, says:
"The art of using troops is this:
When ten times the enemy strength, surround him; when five times, attack him; when double, engage him; when you and the enemy are equally matched, be able to divide him; when you are inferior in numbers, be able to take the defensive; and when you are no match for the enemy, be able to avoid him. Thus what serves as secure defense against a small army will only be captured by a large one."
NOW THEN. In the very first battle I played, the enemy general charged four units of my spearmen with one unit of light cavalry, whilst the remainder of his force split into spearmen (miles away) and archers (miles away in another direction, walking slowly away from me). I would have had to be incredibly quick to NOT murder his horsemen without serious loss. Once they were dead, it was a simple task to mop up the oblivious archers, then I could more or less do what I wanted with the spearmen. Not exactly top-notch AI, I'm afraid. Another time, an enemy clan attempted to besiege one of my castles, and after getting soundly repulsed he retreated, licked his wounds, then came back and tried again - with almost the same size army as last time. If it didn't work the first time, what makes them think it'll work next time? Keep doing what you keep doing, and you'll always get what you always got, that's what my katana teacher always says. Later on, another opponent attempted to besiege my huge expeditionary force with a single unit of samurai, once every couple of turns. An exercise in futility. Artless warfare.
But wait! What is better than even the finest AI? That's right, Human Intelligence! Shogun 2 has an amazing, wonderful, and blindingly obvious feature that allows you to invite all comers from the world wide interwebs to drop in to control the enemy force for the duration of a single battle in your single-player campaign. Gone are any woes that I might have with the AI! You can face a different real-life opponent in campaign play whenever you like. It's simple, artful design that will no doubt become the norm in years to come for games of this type.
Speaking of artful design, huge props are due to the art team, who have captured the feudal Japanese art style perfectly. Hokusai-esque backdrops, morbid haikus against a backdrop of songbirds and bamboo for the loading screens, even the individual army unit cards capture the feel of the Sengoku Jidai and effectively immerse the player in the world.
Creative Assembly are not in the habit of putting out anything less than very good games. Despite its significant game-balance issues, even Shogun 1 was a marvellous and ground-breaking belter. I am pleased to announce that Shogun 2 is every bit as good as expected.