A Historic Strategy Experience
The Total War series returns to its roots with the latest entry, a new game using the same setting as the original Total War game in 2000. It's been over a decade since that first release, and the Total War games have exploded in popularity since then. I'm happy to say that not only does the new game live up to modern expectations, but also does great tribute to it's Japanese setting and the original title that started the series.
Like all the Total War games before it, Shogun 2 is really two games in one. Unlike more traditional real-time strategy games, which in actuality are more tactical than strategic, Shogun 2 has both a turn-based element and a real time element. Winning battles is what constitutes the "war" part of Total War. These are the most impressive and exciting parts of Shogun 2 - literally thousands of men will fight and many will die, every battle, requiring careful consideration of tactics and terrain (perhaps a little courage, too) in order to assure victory. Total War is about out-fighting the enemy and making him rout, or flee, from the battlefield. However, there are many different variations and ways to reach this goal; cavalry units have a devastating charge, archers can kill from afar, ashigaru (peasant) soldiers are cheap and plentiful while samurai are more expensive and much better at fighting. There are siege weapons, warrior monks, and even ninjas. The variety of unit types and the scale of the fighting itself make it a rewarding game to play over and over again, trying out new things with different clans.
Your faction, one of many clans vying for the Shogunate in 16th-century Japan, is managed as a whole from a strategic turn-based mode. Building an economy, constructing defenses, recruiting troops, and managing politics with other clans are just a few of the things to consider as you go turn by turn through the game. Moving generals and armies is also handled from this screen. The turn-based strategy portion of these games has become more and more refined over time. In Shogun 2, it's better than ever, finally reaching a degree of ease that makes it a powerful tool that you'll look forward to using between battles. It's important to say that this part of the game is, in many ways, actually more important than the fights themselves. You can always choose to auto-resolve battles if you feel they're too trivial to waste your time, and can even skip bigger battles if you have overwhelming force, but in order to get there you'll need to build a solid economy and recruit plenty of troops. It's a good thing, then, that it shares more with the successful Civilization series in terms of management and opens the game up to it's real draw; the warfare.
You'll be commanding troops on land and ships on the sea in Shogun 2, although most games you'll be spending a lot more time with your army than navy. Both battles have two stages; a set up stage, where you arrange your troops within a deployment area before the fight begins, and then the actual combat. Shogun 2 was clearly designed with land combat first, which is fair since 90% of the game takes place there. It controls fairly well, although some of it takes some getting used to, and holds up well even after the many battles you'll fight on your path to victory. Naval warfare is not quite as good; boarding, the premiere tactic, is frequently hampered by ships that can't maneuver into place and pathfinding that leaves a lot to be desired. Still, you can kind of learn to work with these flaws and the sea battles manage to be a fun, generally infrequent alternative to all the land warfare you'll be doing.
The basic system of warfare in Shogun 2 is sort of a rock-paper-scissors relationship between unit types. In practice this is much more nuanced, with many specific units filling multiple roles on the battlefield and needing good tactical awareness to be used properly. This is compounded by the fact that there will be many sieges over the course of a game, sometimes involving huge castles and fortifications that make matters even more interesting. The weather, which can be (sort of) dictated by the attacker, changes battlefield conditions even further. Unit morale, fatigue, and your General's leadership are all powerful factors that Shogun 2 eloquently makes you understand and (hopefully) use to your benefit as units of hundreds of men clash against one another. Of course, actions on the strategic map can have huge consequences for tactical battles you'll fight... especially if you use ninjas to assassinate enemy generals before combat even begins!
Visually, Shogun 2 can only be described as amazing. In a certain respect, I'd consider this the most impressive looking PC title to date. This is a game with steep system requirements; it offers a ton of graphics options and, if you choose to set them to high, it can very quickly bring a powerful PC to its knees. However, even on medium-high settings it shows off some incredible sights. Literally thousands of men will be on screen, and in battle hundreds of unique animations are playing out as warriors fight one another in combat. Up close the soldiers are convincingly detailed and animated. The battlefields themselves look great, and manage to be quite varied, accounting for all four seasons for any given place you're fighting in. Trees, grass, and foliage are rendered in detail and the backgrounds are often beautiful to look at. On the naval side, the game keeps up appearances with awesome water effects and impressively detailed ships. On land and sea, Shogun 2 is certainly no slouch when it comes to its graphics.
Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, and when large groups of men crash into melee combat there's occasionally a couple hiccups in animation as the troops in the back wait their turn to fight at the front lines. These animation flaws are more than made up with good effects; a special highlight goes to arrows, which feel fantastic when fired in huge volleys. Shogun 2's sound, as well, is a superb part of the game. Audio during battles are convincing and strong - the battle cries of thousands charging at the enemy still invigorates after hearing it for the hundredth time. Music, too, is tastefully done and quite fitting with the traditional, feudal-era Japan setting in the game. In and outside of battle it captures the mood perfectly and stands as an excellent addition to the feel of the game. The art style for the game's images, menus, load screens, and encyclopedia are all drawn in classic Japanese style and lend even further to the powerful feel that Shogun 2 creates for the player.
Unlike more fast-paced strategy games that dominate both casual and competitive circles, Shogun 2 is a much more relaxed and methodical affair that marries strong turn-based strategic gameplay with large scale tactical battles. It includes well-rounded online element with many modes and offerings for the player; avatar development and customization, clan support, competitive and cooperative campaigns, as well as rankings and multiplayer achievements. But the real draw for most players will be the fact that it allows for both truly long-term planning, and strategic decision making, as well as rapid, short term tactical decision making during battles.
The slower pace may not appeal to some, but for those in the market for a long-term title with a lot of depth and variety Shogun 2 manages to deliver pretty much everything. A single campaign can last fifteen-plus hours, and once it's done you'll want to jump right back in and try things as a different clan.
The system requirements are pretty high, but the sheer level of graphical and audio achievement make this one of the most immersing strategy games I've ever played. Nothing's ever truly perfect, but for all that it offers, there's nothing that matches Shogun 2.