Itâ€™s been a long time since the Total War team kicked off the whole series with Shogun: Total War (2000), and now, having delivered strategic and tactical war game titles right up to the Napoleonic era, it is only right that they go back to where it all began more than 10 years ago.
Total War: Shogun 2 once again returns to feudal Japan, an era where clans battle for land, respect, and the title of Shogun of all of Japan. Like the original, the game consists of two distinct levels. There is the tactical game that has you commanding thousands of troops on a 3D battlefield, while the other is a strategic game where you run the economy of your lands and manoeuvre your armies, fleets and diplomats to their best advantage.
In going back to its roots, Creative Assembly have delivered a more immersive and far more detailed game that builds on the PC technologies of today. This is no more evident than in the graphic detail now adorning each of your 3D rendered soldiers. With double the detail and myriads of differing animation captured using motion capture, each soldier now has the look and feel of an individual. Zoom into the battle and you can follow the fortunes of an individual soldier and observe him as he fights, runs and dies. The realism now delivered is streets ahead of the original game. Remembering that in 2000 the original was hailed for its historical accuracy and attention to detail.
The environments have had a significant makeover as well, with a comprehensive set of weather effects and far greater detail to the terrain. The castles are more detailed and buildings can be occupied by units as defensive positions. The terrain changes as the seasons pass and the whole effect has the feel and look of medieval Japan (well, what we imagine it to be).
The real kicker for us is how the AI has been vastly improved, with what seems to be a lot more unpredictability and cunning. It now seeks out and attacks areas where you are weak. It is now not averse to sneak attacks or using concealed troops that will surprise you at a critical moment. During our hands on play test it almost, and we say almost, felt like we were playing against a human opponent.
By way of example, one battle had us assaulting up a hill with our foot troops (yes, not the brightest idea,) and to disguise our advance we moved through a thinly wooded area up onto the brow of the slope. The AI had concealed missile troops in the woods and as we pushed these back out into the open area beyond the ridge we were immediately assaulted by a cavalry and infantry force before we could form any sort of defensive formation. We barely held our own by sheer weight of numbers and the intervention of our general to steady the morale. Meanwhile our sneaky cavalry left hook around their flank was not so sneaky, with the AI placing archers overlooking our line of advance and we were further hammered by a surprise cavalry charge of its own, as we toiled on an uphill slope. With units barely holding on it was only the intervention of our own archers pushing through on the opposite flank, with some veteran samurai in the van, did we finally start to roll up the AI's line. It was a close victory with both sides suffering heavy losses. It certainly brought home to us that the AI was no easy-beat.
The AI is not all aggression, though. When we pushed forward in one battle to establish a river crossing, the AI's missile units stood only long enough to cause casualties, scampering away before we could bring up our own bowman to exact revenge. There is a lot more skill required in how you set up your army and deploy your units. Movement is about maintaining the right force mix at the point of engagement and keeping your reserves close at hand to exploit any success. As an upgrade you can now have fire arrows and their use at the right time when enemy troops are wavering can make or break a defensive line.
Another area that has also seen a major overall has been the campaign and multiplayer aspects of the game. This can be seen in the Ninja character - you can now assassinate your opponentsâ€™ generals with what almost feels like a role playing component in the way the game avatar is handled. Random drops and in-game achievements mean that you can now build your own character by enhancing your avatar and your units. There are armour sets to collect and skills trees to advance as you build a unique character to ultimately be declared Shogun. Multiplayer campaigns include co-op functionality where you can share victories and units. Your generals now take on significantly more influence on the battlefield both with the morale and the fighting abilities of your troops.
In our gameplay we were able hold of and confuse one of the competing factions by assassinating the general of their field army, and as they stalled in confusion in subsequent game turns we were able to build up additional units before undertaking an overwhelming assault into their territory. As in previous games you can upgrade buildings and factories, and these all influence the size and type of the army or navy you can support. A healthy economy is just as important as a strong army.
One fantastic new feature is the 'drop inâ€ť battle in the single player campaign. Bored with fighting the AI (or losing to them)? You can elect to open a battle to a â€śdrop inâ€ť human opponent. By doing this you gain achievements and experience that you can take forward when you enter the multiplayer arena full-on. We particularly like the ability to create veteran units of your own design, right down to their colour and appearance on the battlefield. These personalisation and RPG elements bring a lot more flexibility and play options.
This game is big. Our press copy was a whopping 23 GB download. Not surprisingly the game is full of features. Included is a comprehensive tutorial that will lead you through both the tactical and strategic aspects of the game. Naval battles and trade routes also now take on greater importance as you must defend access to important resources and supplies. The strategic map is gorgeous and slowly reveals itself as you explore and conquer more of Islands of Japan.
Overall this is shaping up to be the new foundation of the Total War series and all we can say, is bring it on!
The Good: An AI that will make sushi out of your troops
The Bad: May seem like more of the same for fans
The Ugly: Being beaten convincingly and regularly by the AI