I finally published my full review of Total War: Shogun 2 recently in preparation for writing this review of that game’s second expansion: Fall of the Samurai. Fall of the Samurai is the second expansion for Shogun 2; the first being a “prequel” Rise of the Samurai. I skipped Rise, but when I saw the trailers for Fall, I just had to hop onto Steam and download it.
This expansion is the most contemporary Total War game to date, taking place during the same time period as the American Civil War. We’ve already had two Total War games that utilized rifles and cannons. I started my fandom of the series with Empire and went on to play Napoleon. I enjoyed both games, but eventually started to find the battles became very automatic and mechanical. There just wasn’t too much tactics beyond just lining your infantry up and shooting at the other guys.
Having not played the earlier games very much, like Rome, Medieval, and the original Shogun, I was really impressed with how fun Shogun 2 was. The traditional melee units made the battles much more engaging and fun, and really made me realize just how bland Empire actually was.
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Gunpowder makes a triumphant return
The prospect of bringing guns and cannons back into the mix with an expansion to Shogun 2 - while still keeping them complimentary to the existing sword, spear, and bow units - piqued my interest.
Guns are back, but they don't immediately obsolete your Samurai
I’m pleased to say that the mixture works brilliantly. The gunpowder units are very powerful, but they have limited ammunition and are very vulnerable to flanking assaults by melee units (such as katana samurai). You still need to build melee units as defenders for your riflemen, much like you needed swords and spears to protect your archers in the base Shogun 2. Gunpowder units can hold their own in melee, and can still act as front-line infantry, but you probably won’t want to count on them to do so.
The proliferation of industrial rifle units with the existing sword, spear, and bow units adds a lot of strategic and tactical variety.
As the campaign goes on, you can research new technologies that give you access to new units, abilities for units (particularly the gunpowder ones), and new combat techniques. These abilities and techniques will make those units more and more potent as the game goes on. By the end of the campaign, your riflemen will be mowing through any traditional units that your enemies care to throw at you. You will have access to cannons, and possibly even gatling guns! This gives a real sense of forward progress to the game’s campaign, but more on this later.
You’ll never quite get up to the point where you’re using hand-held machine guns, tanks, or air planes, but the sheer variety of types of units that you can build is fun!
Navies have bigger guns, but aren't much more fun to play
Sea warfare has been updated considerably!
The traditional kobaya and bune units have been completely replaced with industrial-era sailing ships armed with cannons. This is a little bit of a shame, as those traditional naval units could sometimes be very fun to play and added variety to naval battles (since you had dedicated ranged units and boarding units). You also never get the satisfaction of bringing a cannon-armed corvette into a battle to decimate a fleet of bow-wielding kobaya. Cannons have much greater range, and are (obviously) more destructive than the arrows of the older units. This change-up makes boarding and capturing naval units much less important, and actually sinking or routing enemy ships is now your primary goal.
Naval battles in Fall of the Samurai now play much more like a combination of the battles in Empire and Napoleon with the battles from Shogun 2. Most ships are driven by steam-powered engines, which makes wind speed and direction much less important (or completely irrelevant) similar to the oar-driven boats of the base Shogun 2. There’s a wide variety of naval units, but most of them are just reskins of the same units with different armor plating and stats, and don’t have any major functional differences.
The “explosive shell” ability for naval units may be a bit overpowered. One or two volleys is enough to set an enemy ship on fire and cause it to route or surrender - sometimes without that ship ever having an opportunity to fire back.
Once again, I don’t feel like navies are particularly well-balanced. There’s an ability about half-way through the tech tree, called “explosive shells” that seems to be hugely overpowered. The ability fires exploding firebombs at enemy ships that explode on contact and set the ship on fire. The ability has a cool down, but a ship can get off two or three volleys with a single activation. This one or two volleys, irritatingly, is enough to set just about any enemy ship (even ones armored with fire-resistance copper or iron plating) on fire and cause it to route or surrender. If the unit using this ability is a particularly advanced unit or highly-promoted unit, then this ability can often act as a one-hit-kill that can be used at maximum cannon range before the enemy even has an opportunity to fire back.
Finally, most of the same problems from the previous games return in naval combat. Ship formations are clumsy and unwieldy, ships don’t always follow directions properly, and the AI isn’t particularly good.
At least my navies are useful for something!
Despite being somewhat underwhelming in the tactical battles, naval units have finally been given some real game-changing usefulness in the campaign.
In Empire, Napoleon, and Shogun 2, navies were pretty much only useful for three things: defending your trade routes, harassing enemy trade routes, and transporting land units across sea. And they weren't particularly effective in any of those, since you had to routinely call them back to a home harbor to repair and replenish their supply of sailors. There was also no integration between your naval operations and your primary conquests (amphibious invasions were rare in Shogun 2).
[LEFT] Artillery bombardment from your navies can damage structures or units directly from the campaign map.
[RIGHT] It can also be called in during the battles, and can devastate your enemy. In this particular battle, I was able to annihilate the enemy and capture this fort without even needing to put my infantry in harm's way.
But that has finally changed! Naval units near the coast can now be used to fire on enemy armies and buildings directly on the campaign map, causing damage or killing units. In addition, they can provide devastating artillery bombardment when in the tactical battles. These bombardments can be called in by your general, and the potency of the bombardment is dependent on the size of your fleet. The ships don’t actually appear on the battle map (which is a bit of a shame), so the bombardment is handled pretty much exactly as air strikes are handled in other RTS games.
This is a welcome addition to the game formula that helps make owning the sea a much more valuable part of your overall campaign. Quite frankly, though, it’s a long-overdue addition. This is a feature that should have been in Empire – or at least in Napoleon.
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Grand Strategy at its finest-er
Speaking of the campaign, when I reviewed Shogun 2 base game, I said that its campaigns were “grand strategy at its finest”. But then I went on to complain about balance issues and arbitrarily fickle diplomatic AI. So I guess I bullshitted a little.
The campaigns in Fall of the Samurai, however, fix almost every complaint that I had with Shogun 2’s campaigns. First of all, the campaign retains the pacing and scope that made Shogun 2’s campaigns so good; although, these new campaigns take place over a shorter period of time. The length of each season has been increased to make up the difference, so the campaign still has a relaxed enough pace that you don’t feel like you’re racing to complete the objectives like in Napoleon’s campaigns.
I already mentioned how navies were given a boost in their overall utility on the campaign map, but other significant (and game-changing) changes have been made as well.
Marching on Kyoto, and bringing some backup
One of my core complaints with Shogun 2’s campaigns was the slight imbalance in castle sieges. It was annoying having to build a massive army of expendable reinforcements (especially since you couldn’t combine depleted units after the battle). Now, with the “Control large army” option, you can bring double the number of units into battle. This allows you to bring a full-size army and a full-size reinforcement army into battle at the same time. You’ll still have to wait a little while for the reinforcements to show up, but once they get there, they appear in full, rather than in piecemeal as your initial units are killed or routed.
Basically, they just doubled the unit cap for the tactical battles, but still left the army size on the campaign the same as it was before. It’s kind of a sneaky little trick, but it works well, and really helps to balance out castle sieges. Now, if you bring an overwhelming force, you’ll actually be able to fight with that entire force. It makes a huge difference, especially in those late-game battles in which you don’t have time for prolonged sieges.
For the first time in Total War, you can now start the battle with reinforcing armies on the field.
Finally some honorable (non-backstabbing) allies!
Augmenting the larger army size is a new diplomatic system that doesn’t arbitrarily force your AI allies to turn on you in the late game. Instead of an “every clan for themselves” configuration, the campaign now has a more relaxed, cooperative victory condition. The basic premise is that the Emperor is attempting to dissolve the Shogunate and restore the himself as the true source of power in Japan (rather than a figurehead-of-state). This starts a civil war between the clans, half of which are loyal to the Shogunate, and the other half are loyal to the emperor. This splits the clans into two factions: pro-Shogunate and pro-Emperor. The victory condition simply requires that any clan in your faction must control two key cities (the opposing factions' capitals), and that you must have a minimum number of territories. So unlike the base Shogun 2 campaign, you do not have to capture the capital yourself. You can let your allies do it.
You won’t have as much freedom to trade and ally with clans loyal to the opposing faction, but at least this time around, your allies won’t arbitrarily turn on you late in the game (unless you do something to make them mad). This allows you to expand in a much more natural manner, as well as forge long-lasting alliances to help secure your borders.
Industrialization and game-mechanic synergy
Over the course of the campaign, you’ll witness Japan go through the process of industrialization. Old fashioned samurai will slowly be replaced by riflemen and cannons. The old dojos will give way to smoke-spewing factories and barracks, and the map itself will begin to change.
The industrialization era setting adds a significant new component that is debuting in the franchise: railroads. Previous games had upgradable roads that improved the movement speed of units, but this time, you have trains to do that job. Railroads act as a hub-based transport system, providing instantaneous movement from any rail station in the network to any other rail station.
You'll witness the industrialization of Japan over the course of the game, with factory smokestacks, telegraph lines, and railroads popping up as the seasons go by.
The railroads are kind of a give and take mechanic though. They are laid out in predetermined paths on the game map, so you don’t have the freedom to build them where they are most useful to you. If you don’t expand parallel to the railroad lines, then you won’t see any use for them.
They are also very expensive to build, and require you to have reached a certain level of industrialization before they are even unlocked. It would be nice if you could help your allies invest in their railroad infrastructure, but if they don’t build them, then you won’t be able to travel through their territory. If you do have long lines of railroad, and your allies actually do build them as well, then you can use them to very easily transport troops all the way through allied territory to the more volatile fronts. This means that even if you box yourself in with allies early on, then railroads and navy-supported amphibious assaults offer practical methods for invading non-adjacent enemy territory.
It really is impressive how The Creative Assembly managed to address pretty much all of my complaints with the base game, while still creating a set of new features that synergize exceptionally well with each other. Every new feature and mechanic augments the other, and they all work together to create a much more cohesive and thoughtful package, rather than just feeling like a hodgepodge of “neat ideas”.
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More or less depth
The expansion isn’t perfect though. Despite the exceptionally-well-executed new features, I am a little disappointed that some of the more interesting aspects of the base game were removed or rendered irrelevant in the expansion.
Family isn't everything anymore
Since the scope of the game was reigned back (covering only 4 or 5 years instead of 50 in the base game), the family and clan management elements have been effectively neutralized as a useful game mechanic. It’s still there. You still have family and generals, you can still arrange marriages, and they can still have kids. But unless your clan starts with eligible daughters or sons, you’re not going to have enough time to give birth to a new baby and let him or her grow up to marrying age in order to forge an alliance with another clan.
There’s also not quite as much depth in terms of the research and skill trees for characters. Each character skill now only has one level that can be attained, making them slightly less specialized. The shorter scope of the campaign also means there’s less time to actually make it through the skill and tech trees in a single campaign (but that was hard to do in the base game too). I do like that they added more passive experience gains for agents and generals (so they don’t have to be constantly fighting battles or performing missions), but the lack of depth is still a little disappointing. Characters also gain more skill points at later levels, which allows you to quickly power through the tree with your advanced characters.
There’s a few new agent types, but they are pretty much just faction-specific replacements for the Monk characters from the base game. The Geisha, though, is one new agent that I found particularly useful. She is primarily used as a distraction for enemy armies (cuz, you know, hot Asian chicks are distracting), but she has one ability in particular that I really liked. Geisha have the ability to distract city garrisons. If successful, this prevents the castle-generated garrison units from being added to the city defender’s pool of units, and is one more element that helps to make castle sieging a little bit easier (particularly for inland cities that are ineligible for naval bombardment).
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One of the biggest and best expansions I've ever played
Fall of the Samurai is a stand-alone expansion with its own independent campaign. You do not need the base Shogun 2 game installed in order to play.
Despite having an independent campaign and being a completely stand-alone game (it does not require Shogun 2 to be installed), if you do have Shogun 2 installed, then some of the new features and mechanics will be added to the base game as well. The expansion doesn’t fix any of the diplomacy backstabbing issues with the base campaign, and the naval bombardment isn’t allowed (at least not with the bow-firing boats; not sure about the later units). But, the expansion does enable the new reinforcement mechanics and 40-unit cap to be used in the base game, which is a pretty big change and can completely change the way you approach the base game’s campaign.
Improvements to overall AI and UI have also been added. There’s now an “Attack this location” and “Defend this location” button on the battle UI (very useful), and the user can now target specific enemies with tower defenses. Performance has also been slightly improved, with battle load times being cut down a bit and AI turns being sped up considerably.
The bottom line is that the setting of the new campaign is a lot of fun to play! The game feels much more balanced (but maybe a little on the easy side), addresses practically every criticism that I had of the base game, and the mix of old and new units gives the game a lot of variety.
If you’re a strategy fan, then you should definitely pick this game up – regardless of whether you already have Shogun 2 or not.
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A little bit of speculation
I really hope that this expansion is an indicator that The Creative Assembly’s next Total War project will be a game about the American Civil War! I’ve been hoping for such a game since Empire: Total War was released, and I think “America: Total War” might finally be coming up on the horizon! Fall of the Samurai created an excellent foundation for such a game. I look forward to any announcement from The Creative Assembly regarding their next game.
I’m in no rush though. It doesn’t have to be next year. If they want to take two or three years and rebuild things from the ground up, that’s OK with me too.
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