Monday, May 2, 2011

Review - Total War : Shogun 2

Review – Total War : Shogun 2

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up to find a copy of Shogun 2 delivered to my doorstep. Forgoing all my routine schedule and obligations I excitedly put the disk into my PC while rubbing my hands in glee – I was already planning how to subjugate Japan to its rightful Shogun.
Fast-forward four hours. Playing confidently at ‘Legendary’, I was  commanding my behemoth of an army, as the skies roared and clouds poured  – I assumed the heavens themselves were mourning the end of a once-great clan as I massacred them today to prove my valour. I couldn’t care less.
Suddenly I spied the enemy general rushing alone towards my line of spearmen, as if embracing his inevitable death. I started in surprise and disbelief. Has all my months of  anticipation meant nothing? Is this how CA repays my faithfulness to the Total War series? Have they truly learnt nothing front the previous disasters? Sighing in disappointment, I ordered my samurai forward.
Cheekily the enemy general turned any started galloping back to his forces – a meagre contigent of archers  . I angrily commanded my cavalry to chase the fool and started distractedly admiring the hats of my samurai. Atleast they nailed the graphics perfectly . . .
Apparently, that’s when the AI decided to show me the middle finger.
As I raised my eyes to the screen I stared in amazement as suddenly enemy troops burst from the forests and attacked my flanks. Panicked by the ambush, I panned the screen towards my archers to find them being slaughtered by the cavalry that had circled to the back of my army when I was focusing on their general. It was a crushing defeat.
Over the course of the next twenty turns, my army was in shambles, my army was in shambles, my trade routes annexed, my clan capital itself conquered.
I rushed outside to get a breathe of air and calmed myself. I returned, humiliated but determined, turned down the difficulty and started again. It was going to be a long nights.
Alright, I admit that was a bit too over-the-top and dramatic. But the mere fact that I can say that for Shogun 2 shows that CA has learnt from the past. Had I dared to say anything even remotely similar for Empires I’d have gamers in nerdrage running after me carrying pitchforks and laser blasters. But I digress.
After the ambitious but flawed products that were Empire and Napoleon, CA took a lot of heat from fans. Although I admit that I loved Empire, it was only DarthVader’s DMUC mod that allowed me to enjoy it. It seems Creative Assembly took the hint and crafted a game worthy of that ‘Total War’ logo . I hereby declare that as the series returns to its roots; we have the best Total War game yet in out hands.
When I first read about CA taking the ‘Zen’ approach with Shogun 2, I was worried that the game would be dumbed down in response to the negative reviews by the fans.  Thankfully, it was not to be so. Yes, the unit count is reduced from 300 to 30, but it allows you to rely on tactics rather than minor difference in statistics. The gameplay, I’m pleased to say, is deeper than ever. In fact, even that unit-count-reduction-thingy is to promote tactical thinking instead of forcing you to memorize the statistics of each damn unit.

The game is set in the ‘Warring-States’ era of Japan. The ruler has become a figure-head & the nine great clans clash for superiority. You take control one of these clans as you fight, negotiate, assassinate and plot your way towards controlling Kyotalo, and the rest of Japan,  by establishing the new all-powerful Shogunate.
The clans are differentiated from each other mainly by their starting positions and perks – one clan may have mighty infantry, another may sport superior navy and a third yet may excel at finance – although they have access to mostly the same units. Playing through each of the clans is a unique experience as all of them are geared towards a certain style of gameplay and strategies. Hell, my experience with the same clan itself was different in two different playthroughs. So, there is a LOT of replayablilty to be had here.
The greater complexity comes through the research choices and the added RPG mechanics to the game. Previously, the game itself appointed traits to your generals. Though you may still get a couple of those, but mostly YOU chose what you want your general to specialize in when you allot points in a branching skill-tree as you level up. The same concept applies to your agents. You level up by using your generals & agents and then assign points in their respective skill trees and choose their retinue which grants them added bonuses.
Speaking of agents, diplomats have been scrapped in Shogun 2. Instead, there is a separate diplomacy tab which pulls up a menu where you can engage in negotiations with any of the clans you have discovered. Instead of the influence rating of your diplomats, the ‘honour’ of your clan leader is considered during negotiations.  This, in my opinion, is a good thing – it was too irritating micromanaging those pesky critters every turn and building up their influence rating before they could be of any use.
The spy and assassin have been unified into the ‘Ninja’ – which is infinitely cooler. The ninjas can spy as well as sabotage building and armies and assassinate characters. Then we have the ‘Metsuke’ – the Japanese secret police – who counteract opposing ninjas and bribe enemy characters to join you. The monks can demoralized enemies, convert characters to your faith and incite rebellion in settlements. Keeping one of the agents with your forces also has benefits – a ninja will give a movement bonus to armies on the campaign-map, Metsukes provide a bonus to the loyalty of your generals and increase repression in settlements and monks increase the morale of your forces. A carefully planned use of diplomacy and agents can go a long way towards crippling powerful foes and grabbing their territory. And its bloody good fun too.
Religion doesn’t play as big a role here as it did before. Since most of the clans follow Buddhism, religion only factors in if you choose to switch to Christianity which grants you access to powerful gunpowder units, superior navy and increases through rate at which you master the Chi (financial) arts; the cost is a  penalty to your daiymo’s honor and inability to recruit powerful monk units.
The research or ‘Arts’ – as they are termed in-game – are divided into two branching pathways: ‘Bushido’ or warfare and ‘Chi’ or finance. You need to decide the sequence in which you research these arts. The ‘Chi’ arts increase your financial output and grant access to upper-tier financial structures while the ‘Bushido’ pathway grants warfare bonuses and access to better units. Balance is necessary as focusing solely on one will inevitable lead to ruin. This adds great strategic depth as the entire strategy of your game may depend on your research choices.
When it comes to land battles, little has changed except in sieges. Instead of the great stone walls and the simple architecture favored by the west, the Japanese walls can be scaled by infantry but the interior of the castle is a maze of interlinked corridors designed to trap and kill invaders. So, instead of mindlessly bombarding enemy walls with siege weapons, siege battles here are tense tactical affairs as you fight to avoid being trapped and surrounded. Whether attacking or defending, seige battles are infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding.
The naval battles, on the other hand, have been completely re-vamped. Instead of the wind-driven ships in Empire, Japanese armies consist of oar-powered floating fortresses. The warfare is more tactical as you move your ships to board those of your opponent;  while archers whittle down enemy troops – all this in contrast to Empire where the navy with the biggest ship with the largest cannons always won. But still, although navigation is easier and the battles are a visual treat, they are not as much fun as those on land. The pace of naval warfare is slow and it is a chore to successfully board ships. You will have fun in the beginning but you probably wont fight out all of them – after some time, the autoresolve button starts to look really attractive.
The AI here is better than ever and will give you a pretty hefty challenge on higher difficulties. It is more aggressive, both in battles as well as with its agents and ruthless in negotiations. But it still is not perfect. Enemy forces may still roam about aimlessly after you repel the initial attack in seige battles and it still doesn’t commit its archers into flank attacks after their ammo is depleted. On the campaign map, the AI sometimes doesn’t defend its settlements properly – repeatedly I saw one of the great clans ‘Oda’ fall in the first turn, which is plain ludicrous. Still, the AI acts sensibly most of the time – it makes good use of terrain, uses spear units against cavalry charges and properly carries out cavalry hit and run tactic. In the end, it surprises you with clever tactics way, way more than it does with occasional stupidity – even though it messes up SOMETIMES, it more than makes up for it most of the time.
Although the changes in gameplay mechanics, as I mention above, are pretty significant, the greatest changes are in the general aesthetics and feel of the games. Everything in the game is designed to reinforce the feeling of an experience set in Japanese era and it is executed flawlessly. The interface has been completely revamped and redesigned and is better looking as well as more user-friendly. Everything from the design of the loading screens, the campaign map & unit-cards to the accent of your advisor & war-cries of your troops to the brilliantly rendered videos of your agents in action scream Japan. For the first time, Total War has an in-game encyclopedia detailing every aspect of the gameplay. Even here, the game exhibits ample character – the descriptions as littered with quotes, verses and haikus taken straight from Japanese culture.
The graphics and sounds in the game are well done and further the immersion. The campaign map is beautifully designed and has the best fog of war in a game yet – Instead of being enshrouded in a  dark or foggy mass, the undiscovered regions are shown as a painted map on parchment. On the battle map, the attention to detail on the models is perfect, down to the armor and face-masks of every soldier. The fighting animations are fluid as soldiers couple off into separate skirmishes instead of poking their weapons in the air. The weather effects are impressive and its especially fun to watch a sieges battle unfold with a rainstorm pouring from above.
The sound effects are, again, awesome and evoke a mood perfect to the context. The campaign has a soothing atmospheric soundtrack while the drums beating during battles evokes a sense of urgency and tension.
The multiplayer features have been greatly overhauled. The drop-in battles and Co-op campaign from Napoleon are back, but the greatest feature is the avatar conquest mode – a sort of campaign where you are dropped on a simplifies version of the campaign map divided into territories. You start with basic troops but with each conquest, the new territories unlock better troops. Warfare also brings experience to your general who can level up to earn abilities, upgrades and retinue. You also unlock armor for your general’s avatar via steam achievements & specific armor sets grant interesting bonuses to your army. Its a simple but brilliant formula – elevating the addictiveness of the game to greater heights.
Whether it is the deep and challenging gameplay or the profoundly immersive experience, the genius of Shogun 2 cannot be over-emphasized. Its a game you will drown yourself into & you won’t care a whit for the number of friends or hours of sleep you have lost when you finally resurface.

Gameplay -                           10
Aesthetics and Interface -   10
AI -                                       8
Graphics -                            9
 Sound -                                10
Value for money -               10
Multiplayer -                       10

OVERALL –                      9.5

1 comment:

  1. Good review man :D very in- depth. I just bought this the other week and have been playing it whenever I need a break from SC2. Coming from Rome TW to this is a nice tranisition and both games are excellent!