Eleven years ago, Creative Assembly released their first in the Total War series of games. That game, Shogun: Total War, was a cult hit and the beginning of a franchise which has become one of the recurring high points in a PC gamer’s calendar. This year, Creative Assembly brought their franchise full circle with the direct sequel to that first game in the series: Total War: Shogun 2.
Up to this point there have been six games in the series, each with their own expansions. There was also a console action game spin-off called Spartan: Total Warrior (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox – 2005) but for the purposes of this article, we’ll ignore that one and stick to the pure tactical bloodline of the PC games.
The Total War series is a tricky one to categorise. The everyday machinations of the game revolve around a turn-based mechanic whereby you must guide your chosen nation’s growth via exploration, diplomacy and research. It’s a style of gameplay that, when done well, is incredibly popular among PC gamers (Civilization is another example).
That’s the more serene aspect of the gameplay. The Total War series, as the name suggests, is not simply about forging relationships and trade deals with neighbouring states. It’s about forging war, too.[drop]When one of your units, represented by an oversized figure striding across the landscape, meets with a hostile force, it’s time to fight. This is where the Total War series, and Shogun 2 as much as any before it, really shows how expertly tuned it is. The real time battles play out like a totally separate game to the turn based exploration, both elements existing in almost perfect symbiosis with each other. Without the turn based exploration and research, you wouldn’t have the wealth or advancements to effectively wage war. Without the real time battles, you wouldn’t have the land or people to fuel that wealth and advance.
Shogun 2 is an almost inexplicably deep game. Far deeper and more intricate than I feel comfortable explaining here. I’ve played well over ten hours of the single player campaign and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many options, so many routes to victory (and many more to defeat) that to pretend I’m able to adequately review such a mammoth proposition would be doing my audience a disservice.
It would be easy to fill half a dozen articles of this length with discussions about the new units, systems and upgrade paths available in Shogun 2 and for those dedicated fans of the series that would be largely futile. The Total War series has always been something that fans have submerged themselves in, each new title or expansion bringing new wonders to grow accustomed to.
If you’re an old master with this franchise then you will pick over the intricacies in your own time and in your own way. You will know that my clumsy words cannot adequately express the delicate balance differences and how they have real game changing effects on each play through of the game. For newcomers, I will attempt to briefly encapsulate what makes the Total War games, and Shogun 2 in particular, so enticing.
This mid 16th century representation of Japan features ten clans (one was a limited edition bonus), spread across the island nation. Your goal, as with the previous games in the series, is to guide your chosen clan (each has their own strengths and weaknesses) to dominance. You will engage in tense political disputes with other clans and, interestingly, within your own clan. You must struggle to maintain the loyalty of your family members and avoid attracting the attention of the Shogun until you’re strong enough to challenge for real power yourself.[drop2]The real time battles (sea battles are back too) are devastatingly tricky to master and require true knowledge of your units’ strengths and weaknesses. The trick is to use the unique charismatic abilities of your generals to keep the armies as happy as any group of men at the wrong end of twenty thousand katana can be. It’s not easy but when things do start falling into place and you begin to turn the tide of battle in your favour, there’s no greater sense of accomplishment in gaming.
Strategy is something that is only done this well on PC (although Rome: Total War Gold Edition did get a Mac release…) It’s something that consoles have yet to master and it’s something that won’t appeal to everyone. The prospect of spending ten to fifteen hours learning how to get through a battle without being completely routed will sound somewhat alien to many console gamers whose biggest hits have single player campaigns less than half that length.
Total War has always offered a much more involved, encompassing style of gameplay and Shogun 2 continues that tradition, in many ways improving upon it. I can’t, with a clear conscience, tell you how this game rates with simple numbers. At least, not until I’ve lived with it for many more hours. I don’t even really understand how all those reviews were published elsewhere so soon after release. This game needs to be savoured for much longer than the average review requires. Put simply, there’s too much to consider and distilling the vast expanses of all this game has to offer into a couple of thousand words and a number would require much more time than I have been able to afford the task thus far.
What I can tell you is that it is a thoroughly compelling experience that is quite simply without adequate comparison. It won’t be for everyone but if you’ve ever enjoyed strategy in any form then there’s a strong possibility that this will become one of your favourites. It’s a game that I am completely enraptured with and one which I have strong desires to return to. If I had to be stranded on a desert island with one game from the past year, it would be this one and I’d probably resent the rescue team when they came to take me home.
Total War: Shogun 2 is comfortably able to sit shoulder to shoulder with other recent PC strategy hits, Civilization V and Starcraft II. In some ways it feels like Shogun 2 takes the best gameplay elements of those two games and combines them like a medieval alchemist in feudal Japan. But claiming that Shogun 2 is not unique would be foolish, there’s simply nothing that does the same thing anywhere near as successfully. Ultimately, I suppose the only games that can compare are the previous games in the Total War series.