This review is exceptionally late! Even later than my reviews usually are. Shogun 2 was released almost 14 months ago, in March of 2011. I purchased it at that time, and spent several weeks playing it with the intent of writing a review. That review was never published though, and has been sitting on my computer for a whole year. With the recent release of the Fall of the Samurai expansion (full review here!), I decided I'd dust off that year-old review of Shogun 2 and publish it.
So, here it is:
With Shogun 2, the Creative Assembly is taking its Total War franchise back to its roots by revisiting feudal Japan (the first game in the series was Total War: Shogun). Unfortunately, I never played the original Shogun. I started playing Total War when Empire was released, and subsequently played Napoleon and Rome. I consider myself a fan of the series now, as it makes for a great change of pace when I need a break from Sid Meier’s Civilization.
Shogun 2 blows the previous Total War games out of the water in almost every conceivable way!
Table of Contents:
Back to top
A step back in time is a huge step forward for gameplay
As much as I enjoyed Empire and Napoleon, I have to admit that the gun-based battles of those games were a bit lacking in terms of keeping the player actively engaged. A lot of my battles in those games came down to just lining up my infantry, marching them towards the enemy, and then letting them shoot at each other. Every now and then, I’d take advantage of vulnerable flank to send cavalry on a charge of the enemy back-field, or run some grenadiers up to lay some bombs down on some unsuspecting enemy riflemen, but a lot of time was spent just sitting back and watching.
Bringing the focus back to sword, spear, and bow units really helps to make Shogun 2 a much more engaging experience for the player. There’s a lot more depth and nuance to the tactics when you have to combine dedicated ranged units with dedicated melee all in close proximity. This particular style of play just seems more natural for the series! You have to move units to reinforce each other, charge your melee infantry at the right time to do maximum damage, protect your vulnerable ranged units, and know when and how to best utilize your units’ special abilities.
And this is where Shogun 2’s tactical battles really shine! There’s a much greater variety of special abilities for units and generals this time around that goes well beyond the simple alternate formations presented for most units in Empire. Archers can be upgraded with fire arrows. Generals have new abilities that improve the performance of nearby units (in addition to being able to rally units). Even defensive structures such as arrow towers have special abilities!
Sieging the impenetrable fortresses of the Shogunate
One wall stormed; one to go.
Capturing territories is also much more interesting this time around, as you’ll be required to capture the city castle in order to assume control of a region. Castles can be upgraded (more on this later) with various defenses and grow to have up to three tiers of walls that must be stormed in order to capture the HQ. Once again, sieging a castle requires a lot more engagement from the player than simply marching your troops into town and shooting at the defending army.
It’s just too bad that castle-sieging doesn’t seem to be particularly well-balanced. It seems that the scales are tipped a bit too much in the defender’s favor. Since there’s a unit cap for both armies, it is very common (especially late in the game) for a maximum-sized army (20 units) to be sitting in a castle defending the territory. If this is the case, it is almost impossible to capture the castle, since you can’t possibly field more units on the battlefield than the defender has.
You can bring in reinforcing armies, but they only enter the field of battle in piecemeal as your initial units are routed or destroyed. This means that even if you have three full armies (60 units) sieging a castle with one full army (20 units) defending (a 3-to-1 advantage), you’ll have to throw at least the first 20 units at the castle’s defenses as cannon fodder in order to bring in reinforcements. Hope you brought lots of expendable infantry! Where’s some red shirts when you need them?
You can besiege the city for several turns in an attempt to force the defending army out to fight you on your terms before they starve, and I guess the intent was to force the player into having to do this (and the campaign length definitely accommodates this). But when you’re getting towards the end of the game and trying to push for those last few (heavily-defended) territories before the time expires, you really don’t have time to wait 3 to 5 turns for a prolonged besiegement. But I guess that’s your fault for not planning ahead…
Despite having an overwhelming advantage in numbers, seizing that castle town is going to cost a lot casualties simply because I can't bring in reinforcements until my initial units are killed or routed.
Turning the tables around though, it’s also ridiculously easy to defend your castles from invading enemies. I can routinely rout an enemy force that is over twice my size when defending even a level 1 castle town, and it’s always a little annoying to see the AI just throw its armies at my castles when I know I’m going to have a 2-to-1 kill ratio against them.
The battle on the sea
I’m glad to see that naval battles were retained for Shogun 2. Sadly, the execution in this game leaves a little to be desired. There’s a healthy variety of naval units to choose from, with some dedicated ranged boats as well as dedicated boarding vessels. Like land units, the naval units come with some fun and interesting abilities that are unlocked by researching various technologies.
Being outnumbered, my fleet would stand little chance in open battle. Fortunately, I'm defending, so the enemy has to come after me, and I can use this little island to help keep my weaker ships out of the range of the enemy's arrows.
The naval battle maps themselves are also a bit more interesting. Naval battles don’t always happen in vast stretches of open sea any more (Empire’s naval battles distinctly lacked any scenery). Naval maps can now come cluttered with small islands, shallow water, and coastal features. These features can even be taken advantage of in battle (and even the AI is occasionally smart enough to use the geography to its advantage). You can funnel the enemy through a mined bay, or even run circles around a small island shooting arrows at a pursuing boarding vessel. And yes, sometimes these tactics can be a bit exploitative.
The real drawback to naval battles for me was how awkwardly-balanced they tended to be. I have a lot of trouble with naval engagements in this game because almost every battle begins with the enemy charging my boats, boarding them, forcing a surrender, the rest of my ships flee, and the AI wins.
Like it or not, boarding and capturing enemy ships is the end-all-be-all of naval battles.
Also, many of the same problems with naval combat have been retained from Empire and Napoleon. Ships still have trouble staying and moving in formation, don’t always go where you want them to, and die or give up way too easily.
Back to top
Grand strategy at its finest
The thing that really makes Shogun 2 stand out above Empire and Napoleon is its campaign.
Better paced and better scaled campaign
Empire’s “Grand Campaign” just felt cluttered and clumsy because the scope was just too large. Territories were the size of countries, a single turn took place over half a year, units could move halfway across Europe in a single turn, and there just wasn’t much room on the map to maneuver your armies.
Napoleon’s campaign did a much better job of scaling and were much more fun to play, but suffered from excessively rushed pacing. You had no time to replenish your forces or sit through prolonged city sieges or develop your industrial and commercial base before the timer expired. The campaigns also tended to be too linear and didn't offer very much freedom or replayability.
An artistic hand-drawn map of Japan replaces the campaign map graphics in areas that are still obscured by the "fog of war".
Shogun 2, on the other hand, has an exceptionally well-paced campaign. The size and scale of Japan seems to be perfectly suited to this style of gameplay. Territories seem appropriately-sized, providing multiple turns for each season of the year makes for much better pacing, unit movement rates seem much more comfortable, and the geography of the map terrain adds some interesting strategic options and challenges.
You’ll actually have time to build and develop trade relations and alliances, as well as build up your own infrastructure. And speaking of infrastructure: managing your territories is so much easier and more enjoyable this time around. Territories can now have multiple buildings and resources within then, and all buildings and resources are shown on the info panel in the bottom of the screen. You don’t have to scroll across the map clicking on every building in a territory to upgrade them anymore. Click on any building, an you'll see all of the infrastructure in the province in the same panel! Every time you upgrade your castle, you’ll open a new building slot in your city, giving you tons more options and flexibility in managing your resources. My only complaint is that you still need to click on your port in order to recruit naval units, since there’s no “Naval recruitment” tab on the city panel. Maybe that’s something they’ll fix in an expansion?
Family is everything
As if fighting battles across Japan were not fun enough, the campaign also brings back some much deeper family and clan management options that were sorely missing from Empire and Napoleon.
Pre-battle prep speeches from your generals return to add som extra flair to the campaign battles. They're fun to watch the first few times with each given clan, but get repetitive after a while.
Each clan has a leader (called a “Daimyo”) who is represented on the map by a general character. The Daimyo can have children, the males of which can become generals when they come of age. You can also have the Daimyo’s brothers act as generals (if applicable). Each family member can be married off to eligible mates from other clans to solidify diplomatic alliances between different clans, as well as provide those characters an opportunity to have children of their own. Wives can also provide their husband with various perks, such as making him braver in combat or more fiscally-sound.
In addition to family members, new generals can be recruited or unlocked by completing quests. If these generals perform well enough in battle, you can even adopt them into your family.
Each of your generals can be given one of several titles. The most prestigious of the titles (besides Daimyo) is the “Heir”. Should the Daimyo die, an heir can take over the clan, but the title doesn’t really have any other benefits. Other titles can be given to other characters (no character may hold more than one title), including “Commissioner of Supply”, “Commissioner of Development”, etc. Each title grants special empire-wide perks as well as bonuses to the general character himself (such as improving the combat potential of his units or increasing the happiness of the province that he’s located in).
Even more depth!
But the buck doesn’t stop there! Other non-general characters (called “agents”) can also be recruited. These characters range from spies to religious missionaries and each has various abilities and perks.
As your generals engage in battle, and as your agents conduct missions, they will gain experience and can level up to earn new skills. Each character type has a deep skill tree with most skills having multiple levels to further specialize the character. There are dozens of possible permutations of skills and abilities that each character can learn that can allow you to customize and specialize that character for specific tasks.
A Daimyo's character sheet, loaded with abilities.
In addition, characters can randomly gain “traits” which can provide various positive or negative effects. Examples of effects include a general becoming “brave” (which gives him combat bonuses) or earning an “eye for the ladies” (which slows down his campaign movement speed, because he’s too busy checking out chicks).
Through character development, you can turn your clan into an exceptionally well-tuned machine!
Forging alliances will also be an integral part of your success in the campaign. No clan will survive very long without at least a few loyal trade partners. Diplomacy in Shogun 2 is a bit of a mixed bag. You have some nice options, such as the ability to arrange political marriages or offer a young son as a hostage pending the successful completion of a long-term deal. But AI players are rather fickle, and can turn on you rather suddenly and without provocation. They can also be notoriously unwilling to agree to any deals you try to propose, even if you’re not enemies.
I was also very disappointed by the lack of any meaningful strategic options in diplomacy. You can sign alliances and grant military access to other clans, but there’s no way to coordinate your strategy with the AI players. Civ V already dropped the ball in this department by shifting focus towards tactical combat while not providing sufficient diplomatic options to make military alliances work. Now Total War continues to not offer any method of doing so either. This is inexcusable! Games as old as Pacific Theater of Operations on the SNES have had the ability to coordinate unit movement and attack plans with A.I. allies.
It’s incredibly annoying when I move my army to one front so that I can capture some castle towns, and then see an ally sneak attack me once my borders become undefended. It’s even doubly annoying when I have other allies nearby with massive armies that don’t do anything to help defend my cities or support my offenses.
What's even more annoying is when, near the end of the game, every clan (friends and allies included) suddenly turn on you. Trade and diplomacy are a necessary part of war, and the fact that you are forced into situations in which your diplomatic relations become arbitrarily unsustainable is inexcusable. It's incredibly frustrating to devote 20 hours into a campaign, and then suddenly have all your allies turn on you, crippling your economy and hitting you with unstoppable forces on all your borders. I'd much rather have a more consistently-difficult game, rather than one that is easy for the first 70 turns, then becomes impossible in the home stretch!
But, in a game called “Total War”, I guess I can’t be too upset that there aren’t enough ways to peacefully cooperate with other players. At least, I won't let myself be as upset as I am with Civilization V's lack of similar options...
Back to top
A heroic victory!
For the most part, I don’t miss anything that was offered in Empire or Napoleon. Well, I do miss the ability to combine depleted units of the same type into a single unit in the campaign map. That was a really useful ability (especially considering how many expendable units you'll need in order to capture a castle), but it seems to have been removed in Shogun 2. Maybe it will be added in later?
I also wish the Creative Assembly could have done something to help alleviate the brutally-long load times when booting up the game and going in and out of the tactical battles.
But in the end, despite a few minor balance and AI issues, Shogun 2 is an incredibly well-polished and well-designed game. Amost every component of the game - from combat mechanics, to campaign interface, to management options, to graphics and sound - have been streamlined and improved, making this quite probably the best Total War game since Rome and one of the best strategy games available on the market now!
Back to top
Shogun 2 showcases some pretty new weather effects to augment the already spectacular-looking battles. Rain, snow, and fog can all have an impact on both land and sea battles, and wind also plays into sea battles.