In Japan the cherry blossoms begin to bloom in January. They are a sight to behold, smothering the senses and boasting subtle magentas, pure whites and sultry pinks. But the blossoms have a more melancholic quality. By symbolising the endless transience of existence, Japan’s cherry blossoms have come to represent the conquest of life, and the inevitability of death.
So it is no surprise that in Creative Assembly’s next iteration of the Total War series – Shogun 2 – cherry blossoms are prominent; on the campaign map, or as stoic sentinels framing the field of battle.
This is Creative Assembly’s second bite. Ten years ago, the original Shogun Total War was Creative Assembly’s breakout title that defined a genre. It was the first to introduce us to Total War’s mix of real time tactical battle simulation, married with complex turn based strategy.
But the studio has decided that the time is right for a return. Last week, I travelled to Auckland and had the chance to sit down and get eyes on with a pre-alpha build. Helping me examine what we can expect to see was Craig Laycock – Creative Assembly’s community manager.
It’s blatantly clear that there is a definitive shift in historical focus here. Creative Assembly has picked their way through a litany of historical time periods, but 16th century Japan is still ripe for the plundering. The title begins in 1545, right at the turning point of Japanese feudalism. There are nine different playable clans on offer, and Craig let it slip that a tenth clan – one run and governed entirely by ninjas – is looking likely. The game’s objective is simple. No longer will players need to traipse around the campaign map mopping up rebels and usurpers. Your goal is to unite Japan under one banner and in doing so, become the Shogun.
Well, that all sounds pretty easy. Just get the boys together and march on Kyoto right? Wrong.
Creative Assembly listened to the community’s response to Napoleon: Total War. One of its major criticisms was the sporadic and slightly tedious end game. In order to fix this, Craig explained that the closer you get to the seat of power, the more suspicious and antagonistic your opponents become. Just getting to Kyoto will be a challenge. Holding it for the requisite amount of turns will be ever more so. It appears that the overall strategic cut and thrust of Shogun 2 is not the imperialist conquest of its peers, but instead it is an inversion of offensive and defensive play. Almost like an eccentric, elongated and complex variant of King of the Hill. As Craig noted, “...you’re going to have a nice, long, backs to the wall kind of experience”.
This isn't the only deviation from the Napoleon mold. The turn length has increased. Instead of the monthly cycles that came before, turns now reflect Japan’s seasons. Climate, weather and temperature all make an impact. And attrition is back with a vengeance. In the campaign map (the size of which is phenomenal – cynical Total War fans wondering aloud if there is enough room to move, put aside your fears) attrition will hurt. There is a lot of ground to cover.
The battle map has had an obvious facelift. Boasting over three hundred light sources at any one time and with over fifty six thousand individually rendered units, the battles are engrossing and incredibly cinematic. Individual soldiers have had an increase in polygon counts, and Creative Assembly has doubled the amount of moveable body parts at play. They even hired the British Kendo Association to do the motion capture animations. That seems a little bit like overkill, but when fifty thousand samurai are going at it katana and kodachi, it’s worth it.
There are noticeable changes to the battle map terrain. First, it’s more rugged. Japan’s valleys, cliffs and plains are well represented. Second, Creative Assembly have reworked the map engine, including the instalment of destructible buildings. If you set fire to them, they will degrade throughout the course of your battle. Craig explained, “...we wanted another kind of dynamic there. We wanted players to be able to force people out into the open.” Arson was the only tactic on offer that I saw and Craig was tight lipped on the future uses of buildings, but he did hint at a wider array of options, “...we are doing some cool stuff with buildings, there is going to be some pretty cool new functional elements.”
Third, it’s still early days, but the AI certainly appeared more responsive. During a battle Craig’s front line was charged by some fearsome looking Samurai, they quickly defeated his troops – and then immediately retreated away from Craig’s reserves – by themselves. I’ve never seen the Total War AI perform an intentional tactical retreat before. It was a heartening observation.
However, the battles do sport fewer unit types. Napoleon had over one hundred and forty different units; Shogun 2 is only sporting thirty. “The reason for that was it was quite confusing in terms of which units beat other units. We wanted to make it nice and simple.”
The weather effects from Napoleon appear smoother and better rendered, probably as a consequence of the higher polygon count. The scene I was presented with was just a tech demo – but it was a good one, and the bruised clouds and lightning was sufficiently atmospheric. But the weather effects aren’t just cosmetic. As is now traditional in Total War games, weather effects affect the troops; as does mud, shallow pools or marshes on the field.
Unfortunately Creative Assembly is not quite ready to show off their naval units in action, but Craig did show me an idyllic scenario which displayed their look and feel. What’s probably the most interesting new change here is that for the first time in a Total War game, the land and sea together comprise the naval battle map. Naval engagements will now be linked to the campaign map and will reflect your positioning. “Instead of feeling like your bobbing around on a big empty ocean you will feel like you are engaged on a coast and in a coastal battle. There are all kinds of interesting tactical opportunities – there might be coves or inlets that you can trap ships within.” I asked Craig if there were any moves to combine land warfare with naval warfare. Surprisingly it was attempted, but unfortunately Creative Assembly have decided not to push forward with it. They did think about it, even testing a prototype – but eventually it was too difficult to pull off. But in saying that, Craig wouldn’t rule out a possible return to it if it could be worked out.
Thankfully the frustrations of sails and wind have been done away with. Japanese ships are oar powered, which Craig assured me was historically accurate. So, gamers who nearly punched their screen thanks to Napoleon’s frustrating wind-based naval combat can breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, Shogun 2 will be focusing much more on close quarters ship combat. Naval fighting will be frighteningly intimate and vicious.
The campaign map has been approached in broadly the same way as Napoleon, with a few key innovations. The first and most obvious is the distinction between the world you have explored and can see (which is rendered in 3D) and the undiscovered – which is displayed as a 2D Japanese parchment. The geography of Japan is not revealed until you explore. Your clan only starts with one or two provinces, and you need to start uncovering the terrain as fast as your army’s legs (or boats oars) will take you.
I was struck by the attention to geographical detail. The art direction is stylised, but it retains iconic familiarity. This has gameplay ramifications, as obvious pathways to key strategic towns and citadels find themselves winding through Japan’s mountainous highlands and along thin coast lines.
The campaign map has a very ‘Japanese’ look. And not just in the menus and characters (who are influenced heavily by traditional woodblock art) but also in the colours and pallets. The coastal shores are rich with deep sea-greens, and cherry blossom trees brighten up peninsulas. It has the impression of creating a very authentic feel. And for the first time ever in a Total War game, the campaign map has a rotating camera. The reason for this is both functional and immersive; Japan is pretty hilly, and sometimes you need to spin behind craggy ranges to get an eye on your rank and file.
I asked Craig about gunpowder. It does feature, but given the historical period it is still in its technological infancy. Interestingly Creative Assembly has chosen to work the discovery of gunpowder into the story. This narrative choice presents a major dilemma to the player. Gunpowder is offered to you by a European faction, who are making themselves known in the Far East. If you accept you will get a significant military advantage – but there is a catch. In order to receive your supply of brutalising bullets you must convert your faction to Christianity. And if you do, you are really going to enrage your indigenous brethren.
Craig was quick to note that spying and assassinations are much more important. Ninja, Geisha, and the Metsuke Secret Police are all out to kill your generals and each other. In addition, your agents and generals have been given a levelling up system, enabling you to specialise them in various acts of nefarious nastiness. Creative Assembly, in a very pleasing move, have brought back agent action videos. Lots of work has been done to these, there are many different cinematics (making it hard to tell whether or not your agent is successful) and these quick clips are selected with both the environment of the action and the skill of your agent in mind. Assassinate a general in the field and your low level Geisha will bumble into his tent. Take him out in a citadel and your six star Ninja will jump from the rooftops before vanishing without a trace.
But generals aren’t just there to be killed by arrows or poisoned blades. They too can be levelled, giving them administrative or combat boosts. As well as this, the Governmental “Cabinet” system from Napoleon is re-imagined through “Commissioners”. By appointing generals with special abilities in warfare, finance, supplies or development, your economy and faction will grow with more vigour. In a further nod to cinema Craig also announced that General’s speeches are back, and that they're in traditional Japanese. The kind of speeches they give will depend on how you’ve chosen to level your general. Just a word of warning, bookish economists don’t tend to be very good at inspiring the troops.
But bookish generals might be just the kind of functionaries you need to manage your family tree. The patriachalism of the original returns and is vital to diplomacy and alliances. The brutal diplomatic measures of the time have been truthfully replicated. Arranged marriages and the kidnapping of heirs as collateral can all be performed in order to seal alliances and ensure they are not broken. It’s a harsh world, but when the life of the only heir to your allies’ faction is all that’s keeping them on your side, you’ll be grateful.
Shogun 2: Total War is shaping up to be a complex, well designed and interesting strategy title. It is early days, and there is a lot of polish, balancing and tweaking left to do. But what I saw looked promising. The art direction of the campaign map and the ambience of the battle map bode well. But this is what we have come to expect from a franchise that mixes political intrigue with cinematic war. The result is a violence that is both complicated and entertaining. And as its backdrop, is the inexorable and disquieting fall of cherry blossoms.
The Good: Much needed attention to the Battle map AI
The Bad: It’s still a little unclear how naval combat will play out
The Ugly: Kidnapping children for alliance collateral. That's rough.