Not a Gun Show; Total War: Shogun 2

With Rome 2 looming on the horizon, it’s time to look back at where the last game left us.  Shogun 2 represented a fairly impressive step forward from the previous games (Empire, Medieval 2), offering a slick new heir to the already prestigious line of Total War games.  All of the buzz about Rome 2 suggests that Creative Assembly is ready to do it again.  But how does Shogun 2 really stand up to the previous Total War games?  What should CA look to keep, and what should be revised or removed?

As far as comparisons go, I must admit that they’ll be a little lopsided.  While I’ve played a considerable amount of the original Rome, some of the original Shogun, some Medieval 2 and a little of the original Medieval, I haven’t played much Empire.  It looked neat, and what I’ve heard about it from Mattias was pretty positive, but its release coincided with a time when I had no appropriate gaming computer.  Many of my comparisons will thus dip back to Medieval 2, and the original Rome.  But I did play 100+ hours of Shogun 2.

That should be an indication of how much I enjoyed the game.  And it truly is fun to play.  Yet by having played it for so long I’ve also had my face pressed up against its various flaws, leaving little streaks on the glass.  Let’s talk about the cool things first.

Let’s be clear on this: for a game released in 2011, Shogun 2 is very very pretty.  Without quite shooting for photorealism, Creative Assembly managed to offer a very good looking game.  Some of the close-ups of people suffer a bit, especially around the eyes, but I’m more interested in how well the game renders landscapes and large numbers of figures all operating at once.  And it does that very well.

Better still, Shogun 2 offered a huge improvement in the ease with which you could manage your budding proto-shogunate.  It is far more comprehensible and comprehensive than previous titles, especially in its streamlined interface and campaign map control scheme.  Its straightforward tax and unrest windows were quickly accessible, and the extensive army, navy and agent lists were similarly easy to use, all of which are critically important to running your quickly expanding clan holdings.  As a somewhat deliberate person (tremendous understatement), I like to spend lots of time going over all of my holdings in depth.  In several games, once I had lots of provinces under my control I spent around an hour on each turn.  But after I started playing timed multiplayer games I realized that I could complete those turns to the same exacting level of detail in about 10 minutes.  In conclusion, the campaign map interface is simply several steps better than any of the older Total War games I can compare it to, with fewer clicks needed to reach all the vital information (often only one) and far less screen clutter.

Notice how I mentioned a multiplayer game previously?  Shogun 2 makes multiplayer battles and campaigns incredibly easy.  So long as you have a decent internet connection, Shogun 2 piggybacks on Steam to offer a very simple multiplayer interface.  You’ll do a little poking around at first, but the whole thing is fairly self-explanatory.  In my experience, it’s even quite robust.  You’ll do well to use a separate voice-chat client if you want v-chat though, as Shogun 2 will not transmit audio through its built-in chat function during loading screens (of which there are quite a few).

The battle control interface also received an overhaul from previous generations, making use of varied special unit abilities far more accessible.  Rather than leaving hotkeys strewn across the keyboard as they had done for all of the previous Total War games, Shogun 2 consolidates many of the critical commands into a string of hotkeys which share a visual relation with their actual position on your keyboard: Shift + a number key triggers the appropriate command.  Since you no longer have to hunt for the proper hotkey on your keyboard, and all of the abilities are clearly organized, it is far easier to use these commands rapidly and effectively.  It also makes it easier for CA to introduce more triggered unit abilities, which is another big plus.

My one complaint is that as my units gain further abilities, the positions of some of them shift in the hotkey tableau.  General units are especially vulnerable to this due to their rapid acquisition of nifty new skills.  This would be less frustrating if there were some way to set a particular hotkey to a particular ability for my generals, and have that remain true across all of them.  As it is, I’ve had the terrible experience of switching between generals and watching the battle fall apart because I ordered my general to dismount instead of rally the troops.  So this is a great new feature (and I love it), but it has very frustrating fail-states and could use a little more in the way of customization options.

That brings us to the problematic elements of the game.

CA probably felt that having all of the various announcements and diplomatic interactions in Shogun 2 be performed in strongly accented but still comprehensible English would make the game more accesible.  Maybe they were worried that following in the original Shogun’s footsteps, with Japanese voices and English text both in diplomacy and in battle, would scare off their player base.  But I miss the Japanese voiceovers, and where the first game felt very refined in its presentation, Shogun 2 sometimes drops its attempted refinement in favor of the ridiculous.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the ridiculous as often as not; it’s just that the tone of the game shifts so dramatically when you hear the diplomat on the other end of your negotiation angrily insulting you in strongly accented English.  I feel almost as though the accent that they chose to use is a caricature, and I think I’d take them more seriously if they were speaking Japanese with the various English phrases provided as subtitles (as they already do, despite the fact that the people are speaking English).  I guess what really gets me is that the design choices made here seem to be leaning perilously close to Orientalism, and the accents sometimes leave me a little uncomfortable and radically change the tone of the otherwise serene campaign game.

Unfortunately, Shogun 2 returned to its roots in a different area by reintroducing province-wide battle maps: no matter where in the province you fight, you’ll be fighting on the same terrain.  As someone who loved Rome’s innovation in campaign map / battle map design, I find this tragic.  Shogun 2 gives you very little reason to pay attention to the geographic features of the campaign map, other than to appreciate them as eye-candy and note how and where they restrict army movement.  You’ll find no advantage in seeking higher terrain for your ambush, and if you fight alongside the beautiful cliff faces covered in cherry trees, you’ll find neither cliff faces nor cherry trees on your actual battle map.  I want to force my enemy to find a more advantageous position to engage because they are unwilling to attack me across a bridge.  I want to attack my enemy when they land their troops and fight them on the beaches.  I could have done either of these things in the several Total War titles preceding Shogun 2, so why can’t I do it in Shogun 2?  I can’t see why having the campaign map inform the design of the battle map would be abandoned, and I was pretty disappointed to see that it was.

A slightly more nuanced disappointment lay in the homogeneity of the available units.  I can’t quite lay this at CA’s feet, since the scope of the game is so much smaller than their other games.  When your entire game is set on the islands of Japan, even some impressive creative license won’t stop you from facing the fact that you won’t have that many novel unit types.  Heck, they even do a fairly decent job of stretching things out by offering monks and samurai with a decent variety of special abilities.  But I miss seeing wildly different unit types mixing it up with one another, requiring significantly different tactics in order to really shine.

More to the point, it takes a good long while to actually acquire any of the more interesting unit types in Shogun 2.  You have to research tech by waiting many turns, enlarge your castles so that you can have more buildings in a province, and then specialize in a fairly narrow branch of unit type if you want the units you produce to be much good.  Units with the appropriately advanced buffs are great, but your armies will look like one-trick-ponies until the late mid-game and even then you’ll probably have a fairly narrow selection of unit types.  Developing diversified armies is an exercise in expansion, logistical problem solving, and patience.  There’s a certain point where your steamroller of a clan will most definitely destroy all that face you, but you’ll just have to shuffle everything around for a while until it’s ready to do it.  This means that the rhythm of the late game goes something like this: wait, wait, wait, crush crush, wait, wait, crush.

Maybe this is exacerbated by my tendency to expand relentlessly in the early game and would be resolved by playing on higher difficulties, but it seems to me that ‘normal’ should still be balanced for good play.  Perhaps if I were struggling to hold onto my territory for longer I would spend those turns really appreciating my tech progress, but I often feel like my research is just moving far slower than the rest of my empire, even when I’ve specialized in buildings meant to improve my research rate.

In conclusion?  Despite my grumping, Shogun 2 is an excellent game.  Apart from my quibbles with their design choices, the gameplay has kept me coming back for more.  In fact, I feel quite tempted to play more right now.  But I hope that they don’t keep the province-wide battle maps for Rome 2, and go back to the dynamically generated maps innovated by the original Rome.

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