Review – Total War: Shogun 2
by Oleg Brodskiy
Having not played any game in the Total War franchise since 2004’s Rome: Total War (back then, “Total War” was the subtitle), I was excited to see how far the series had come. I had missed Medieval II, Empire, and Napoleon, and now as The Creative Assembly returned to the game that had started the Total War madness, I knew I would be in for a treat. And by and large, this RTS/TBS mash-up delivers on its promise of dominating goodness, giving you way more control than I had been used to.
As soon as the in-game tutorials began, I realized that the series had come a long way in the time that I’d been gone. At its core, it’s mostly the same game; you command your culture from the campaign map, making sweeping decisions like setting tax rates, dealing with your family, other clans, and various other important empire-related things. Basically, if you’ve ever played Civilization, you have a good sense of the sort of thing you’re doing here.
The other important aspect is, of course, commanding your military units in battle (the RTS portion). This part has no good analogue (at least in my repertoire of games), but it’s sort of like playing StarCraft and being allowed to ignore base-building, resource-gathering, and scouting (for the most part, anyway). Stripped of all those things, you’re left free to focus on the most important aspect: tactics, which require an explanation on their own.
It’s clear that the folks at The Creative Assembly have improved the battle system a lot since I left. While, as I recall, the most complicated things you could do in Rome were akin to hit and run (massive micromanaging!) and flanking maneuvers, Shogun gives you much more tactical freedom, such as being able to reorganize individual units to deal with certain situations better. More toggles give you more tactical options, which, along with the good assortment of different units, makes your decisions on the campaign map much more important in each individual battle than before.
Unfortunately, this also takes a series that was already incredibly heavy on micromanagement and takes it up a few notches. Various legacy issues are still around, the most noticeable of which is that you’re not informed if your units are able to move but have not been given move orders. This is especially problematic in longer games, as you’ll end up building up lots of units which are excruciatingly easy to lose track of. I found myself using post-its in order to remember where some of my units were (especially naval; the damned geography sucks).
Naval battles, which I believe were added in Empire, are frankly awful. Maybe I’m just not a smart admiral, but all the results I got were strictly based on how many ships I brought to the table, not on any actual skill I may or may not have had. Not even the tutorials (any of them, naval or otherwise) were complete enough to really help understand what the hell was going on here.
One of my disappointments with this game is the graphics. While they are mostly fantastic and those watching me play were sometimes confused if I was using some sort of 3D imaging software, I found a few minor faults. When zooms in on hand to hand combat, for example, you notice a substantial amount of clipping, and sometimes even disappearing units. I once watched a group of five Yari Ashigari spear an empty area as, one by one, they all fell over and died. While I won’t rule out strokes and heart attacks, I think the culprit is probably a dramatic graphics glitch.
Another unfortunate issue is the enemy AI, which is still prone to making huge tactical mistakes. In one instance, I sent some light cavalry around the enemy’s spearmen and straight into their oblivious archer battalions. I managed to plow through three before the AI decided that they should do something about it (and yes, the skirmisher option was on, but come on, the horses easily caught them). This rears its head a lot in sieges too, where you can distract the AI with a few groups through their main gate while the bulk of your army goes ‘round the other way. While it’s fun for a bit, its hard to take yourself seriously when you’re able to capture a keep simply because the AI wasn’t paying attention.
This game also comes with a multiplayer component, which, for reasons that were related to my internet connection, I was not able to fully embrace. However, I’m fearful that those simple tactics that screw over the AI would work just as well on me. This game does a very poor job of giving you information in a digestible fashion, and it’s mostly up to the user to have some sort of system that allows them to keep track of those flanking attacks at the same time as a cavalry charge up the center.
Unfortunately, that information overload is my main problem with the game. This is not a game that you can pick up and learn in an afternoon. If you want to understand how the game really hums (and believe me, it hums), be prepared to invest a significant amount of time. While seasoned veterans of the Total War series will undoubtedly feel comfortable with Shogun II, that’s really because the game is built for them. I’d hesitate to say that I was turned away from this game, but I’d rarely recommend this to anyone that’s never played an RTS or TBS before, and I’d still have concerns for those (like me) that are returning to the series.
For all my criticisms, this game is fantastic when fully understood, and worth the $50 for those with the time and the patience to learn. For everyone else, I’d try out the demo and see if you like it before you buy.
Oleg Brodskiy is a sports fan from the suburbs of Boston who has been playing video games since the rosy age of ten. He hopes you enjoy his articles, even if you don’t agree with him.