The global reach of Empire: Total War very nearly exceeded The Creative Assembly’s grasp. Released with a menagerie of outstanding bugs, fans were critical of the decision to release any game in such an unstable condition. Fair enough: the practice of releasing games before they actually work is reprehensible, but it rarely has anything to do with the developer, and The Creative Assembly’s sterling reputation has been tainted by the recriminations. Fortunately, in Total War: Shogun 2, the UK strategy specialist has fashioned the perfect retort.
Remember, this is where it all began. Shogun was the first Total War game, but it also marked the Creative Assembly’s entry into the strategy genre after years of making sports franchises for EA; in a very real sense, the studio’s entire identity stems from that one game, so the pressure was on to get every last detail right. Astonishingly, Shogun 2: Total War very nearly achieves that lofty goal.
The game is set during the Onin Civil War of 1467 to 1477, when the country was in the grip of a power struggle between several families. There are ten playable clans, all of which have specific tactical strengths, and the gameplay is Total War’s usual blend of turn-based strategy and real-time battles.
Seasoned players will notice tiny tweaks and improvements in every aspect of the game’s design, but for those whose knowledge of Total War doesn’t extend as far as the behaviour of individual units, the standard of presentation makes an astounding visual impression. The maps appear like Japanese watercolour paintings, cherry blossoms swirl from the trees in autumn, and when the clouds move in and the rains fall as your intricately detailed soldiers are fighting there can be few more impressive sights in gaming. The Creative Assembly has never done a better job of capturing time and place, and it makes every second of Shogun 2 simply captivating to behold.
In terms of gameplay, much of the information overload of Empire has been exchanged for a deeper, more nuanced experience. Unit types are noticeably fewer, but what’s here is also noticeably smarter, so the challenge posed by the battles never feels unfair. And the fighting begins almost immediately: Japan’s narrow, mountainous landscape leaves the various clans in uncomfortable proximity, so there will be an enemy beating down your door from the very start.
Some will see this as unfair – the fact that every clan starts at war does influence the way the game develops – but it places emphasis on the importance of skilful diplomacy, something that very few strategy games get right. With so little room to manoeuvre you’re bound to ruffle feathers eventually, so who you’re friends with becomes all the more important. And you should think twice before stabbing an ally in the back: that affects your Honour level, and low honour will cause your armies’ performance to slip.
Indeed, anything that weakens performance on the battlefield should be avoided. Shogun 2’s AI can be remarkably responsive and considered, so the frequent scraps are hard-won and intensely rewarding. Siege battles and the ability to move large numbers of troops by sea add some breadth to the strategic options, and by the later stages of the game you’re really going to need them.
Just how difficult Total War: Shogun 2 can be should not be underestimated. If you’re new to strategy there are far better entrance points than this, but there are several new additions that will enthral experienced players. The way units and generals gain experience is now easier to understand, for example, and the generals’ skill trees allow for some fascinating and very useful combinations of abilities.
Even better are the agent units, whose new range of skills broaden your options to include numerous options for sabotage and subterfuge. You can embed a ninja in an enemy’s clan for decades. They can have an assumed identity and a job, and weaken their forces in a variety of ways, from poisoning food to marrying into the family. Or you can have a monk who roams enemy territory spouting anti-Christian doctrine, creating unrest among the masses. It makes the whole experience feel that much more personal and real.
Yet as engaging as the campaign mode can be, Shogun 2 has a generous number of attractive alternatives: a human opponent can replace AI in the campaign mode at any time; there’s a co-op mode that lets one player supervise the entire battle while the other controls smaller skirmishes within the maelstrom.
And there’s Avatar Conquest mode, which, if there’s any justice in the world, will be the most played multiplayer feature in the history of the Total War series. In short, Avatar Conquest allows you to create a general, assign a flag and colour scheme, customise their armour, and then fight your way around a map of Japan, unlocking new customisation options, skills, units and achievements as you win battles and level up.
Your army is constructed using a points system that assigns certain unit types a value, and you have to keep the total under a certain amount. Experienced units become veterans, which gives them new abilities but raises their point value, meaning that you need to constantly change your army based on who and where you’re fighting. It’s a bit like a strategy card game, it even has echoes of Call Of Duty, and it’s nearly worth the price of the game on its own.
The reason why strategy games have remained a largely niche concern in all in the details. Most people are intimidated by the amount of information necessary to master the game, others simply won’t spare the time needed to do so. But if you’re willing to give yourself over to a truly great strategy game, one where the largest systems and smallest details form a rich, cohesive whole, the rewards are without peer.
And that’s what Total War: Shogun 2 is: rich in detail, rich in rewards, and very nearly without peer.
Next page: Our expert verdict