Creative Assembly seem to have a knack when it comes to extending their games. Given the phenomenal size and depth of their strategy titles, it's a testament to their development that they keep churning out new add-ons and additions for strategy buffs to tinker with.
Ealier this year I had a chance to preview one of the studio’s most ambitious expansion projects. Total War Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai is a gargantuan addition to Total War Shogun 2, and for all intents and purposes it's a new title in its own right - which is quite possibly the reason they've elected to release it as a stand-alone expansion, that doesn't require the original game in order to play.
Set in the mid 1800s, Fall of the Samurai lets players loose on a Japan that was going through one of the most tumultuous periods in its chequered history. The 1800s were a time of great upheaval throughout the world, and Japan was no different. Colonialism was in full swing, and the imperial ambitions of the French, the Americans, and the British were letting themselves known on Japan’s home soil.
Those gamers with a sense for the importance of history will be instantly drawn in by the game’s historical setting. The decisions that Japan made during that warlike period would have massive consequences for world history (which is something the World War II genre continues to be thankful for).
Decisions are at the core of Fall of the Samurai’s strategy gameplay. You can chose to play as either an ally of the old Shogunate, who have ruled Japan for two centuries, or you can opt to support the Emperor, who is trying to wrest control. The allies you make, the enemies you force into servitude, and the clans you destroy, will all have an impact on how the game progresses, and how easy it is for you to achieve your goal.
Those familiar with its parent title will see nothing inherently different in the way that the strategic campaign map is presented. Japan is the same, and some of the clans are too. The key strategic zones are all still important, and the need to control both land and sea in the narrow Japanese isles still sits firmly in the centre of any attempt at victory.
What’s different is the impact that the time period has on the way the campaign strategy plays out. Trade is more important this time around, as are controlling railroads - which only travel through certain regions. Unfortunately Fall of the Samurai doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining this to you - but once these new strategic twists are mastered, the Total War series meta-game does become more immersive.
However the jewel in the crown of the Total War series is its full-scale battles. These thousands upon thousands strong firefights are the raison d'etre of the series, and Fall of the Samurai does not disappoint. The addition of gunpowder brings gamers back into the more familiar territory brought about by Napoleon, and the (almost) modern time-period of the game brings with it a host of new toys to play with. Massive pitched land battles with cannon, rifle, and matchlock are every strategy gamer’s dream - and Fall of the Samurai manages to build on the solid foundations laid by other Total War Titles.
In addition, new strategic options have been included that reflect the advancements in wartime technology available at the time. Naval combat has been greatly improved on - and the ability of ships to now engage with enemy armies (both on the campaign map, and impressively during real-time battles) is a fantastic development for the series. These new options can literally be battle winners. There were more than a few engagements that your humble reviewer would have tragically lost, were it not for the timely bombardment of hot ship lead.
Figuring out how all of these new fangled options interact does take some time, as does understanding the strange mix of traditional melee troops with rifle toting conscripts that the title forces you to use. But committed gamers will find value if they take the time to get to grips with the game's (necessarily) intricate tactical gameplay.
But unfortunately, there are still a few flaws that undercut the Total War experience. Most of these are manifestations of age-old problems of the series, but some are more specific to the Fall of the Samurai. The first and most obvious is the tremendous amount of computing power that this game takes to run. The Total War series has always been at the forefront of realistic battle-simulation, but that takes serious hardware to do well. As a result, unless you are right up to speed with your gaming technology, the title will lag and stutter, and its load times will be frustratingly long. I took to bringing a book along with me, just so I had something to do.
The achilles heel of the series, its Artificial Intelligence, also rears its head. Thankfully, this problem is mostly confined to the campaign map , but it is clear that the diplomacy mechanic still needs more work. Dealing with the claims of rival clans is fun and immersive, but Japan’s internal relations should not be a rollercoaster ride between happiness, peace and love on the one hand, and then inexplicable animosity on the other.
Creative Assembly have also not done a particularly good job of making new strategic elements more obvious. It's possible to play through the title with only a passing glance paid to the interests of the foreign powers. Realistically, this just wouldn’t have been possible (especially if you’re going around puppy stomping other clans into sobbing submission). Nor have they done a particularly good job of integrating their audio commentary. Shogun 2 did a good job of bringing in authentic japanese voice acting, but here it's slightly odd to have both American yankees and traditional samurai taking turns to yell at you when your units are routing. A little consistency would have gone a long way.
However, these are ultimately minor quibbles. Just like its parent title, Fall of the Samurai offers a raft of in-depth strategic choices. Its historical setting, attention to detail, and engrossing combat mechanic make it a worthy addition the Total War series. Fans of the series (especially fans on Creative Assembly’s foray into bullets and bombs) should definitely think about picking this up.
Perhaps Creative Assembly should also start pondering about ‘where to from here’. Because I can think of another collection of mountainous islands that experienced years of civil strife, muskets, and violence in the middle of the 19th century. “Total War: The New Zealand Land Wars” has a certain ring to it. Go on Creative Assembly, it’s worth a thought.