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Total War: Shogun 2 Review

Shogun 2 is the best Total War game that I’ve ever played.  “Total War” has always meant a non-linear single-player campaign that’s split between a turn-based strategy shell and real time tactical battles. The series’ selling point has always been the scale of it’s tactical battles, while the strategic shell provides basic context; no other game puts as many troops at your fingertips, in as gorgeous graphical style, as Total War. It’s about the sublime drama of raw scale. It’s never been about rigorous realism, but it has just enough realism to feel more convincing, more massive, and ultimately more dramatic than its competitors. Back when the original Shogun was released in 2000, the scale blew everyone away. Even now, when real-time games still trend towards giving you control of a few dozen soldiers at most, the thousands of troops at your fingertips in a large Total War battle inherently invokes awe.  Now, in Shogun 2, the entire package has been refined to near perfection.

Ever since the original Shogun, the gameplay balance and technical refinement has steadily declined in favor of continually pushing the envelope on scale and variety. Empire: Total War was the epitome of this, and its blatant bugginess embittered many fans of the series so badly that they completely skipped the expandalone sequel, Napoleon: Total War. I never played Empire, since my hardware was inadequate at the time, but I did read about its failures in detail. The accelerating trend of sacrificing quality and refinement was deeply disappointing.

Shogun 2 banishes that trend, hopefully forever. Unlike Empire’s sprawling and unpolished scale, Shogun 2 focuses on representing one specific setting with sparkling polish. It almost accomplishes the level of polish that it’s trying for, though it falls slightly short, and that change is deeply welcome. In fact, Shogun 2 substantially expands the very core of Total War without compromising its classic features.

Shogun 2 differs from the Total War formula because Shogun 2 is about multiplayer. The single player campaign is better than ever with the massive improvements to AI and the new RPG mechanics for generals and agents, but it isn’t the campaign that keeps me firing up the game day after day. It’s all about Avatar Conquest. You have an avatar, a general, whose appearance you customize and whose growth you shape over the course of your multiplayer career. As you play matches you accumulate experience and abilities, and unlock new troops, new retainers, and new avatar equipment around which to shape your battle strategy (and visa versa). Even better, the game stays relatively balanced: every new ability and upgrade increases the cost of your general, meaning that the game never a matter of grinding for raw power and destroying newbies. The abilities do give you an advantage, but they also require a concession in return. This philosophy continues into your army itself – as you play, you accumulate and level up veteran units that follow you from battle to battle. Upgrading them can give them powerful abilities of their own – and increase the unit’s cost as well! Veteran units can be terrifying, but a green unit is much better than a veteran without synergy. Avatar Conquest is a matter of continually opening new possibilities, not just increasing raw power.

Even Avatar Conquest would become lackluster over time if not for the sheer quality of the battles themselves. The drama and spectacle of massive tactical battles are better than ever, but this time the gameplay is superbly balanced. Every unit and every army composition has a counter, but utilizing those counters (and compensating for your army’s vulnerabilities) requires tactical judgment. I’ve used superior cavalry handling to mitigate a disadvantage in matchlocks, which would normally counter my army. I’ve also mishandled my spearmen and been routed by a cavalry-heavy army that my army theoretically countered. This subtle complexity results in a slowly shifting metagame that slowly draws players towards various balanced armies that avoid putting all of their eggs in one basket. Good play can always compensate for minor weaknesses in army composition.

It also doesn’t hurt that Shogun 2 introduces a new key building system, where capturing certain structures on the tactical map will provide bonuses to your army. This massively reduces the number of “hill campers” who park themselves on advantageous terrain (usually with artillery support) and never move. Now camping is a trade-off rather than a boring no-brainer for the ruthless gamer. This dramatically reduces the number of lengthy and boring battles.

However, all is not well in paradise. Though land battles are fantastic in multiplayer, and have always been the meat of the franchise, sea battles and siege battles are both horribly unbalanced at the moment. There are a few issues in land battles as well. Sometimes the matchmaking games occur with key buildings turned off (and you can’t change match settings in ranked matchmaking games), with predictably annoying consequences. If a player disconnects, there’s only a fifty-fifty chance that he’ll receive a loss – which leads some players to disconnect whenever they’re losing. On the other hand, patches have addressed the vast majority of the multiplayer bugs (you don’t want to know what multiplayer matchmaking was like on release day). I have confidence that the remaining issues will be resolved in time, and even in it’s current state the compelling gameplay outweighs the remaining bugs in the shell.

This is a strategy game worthy of your attention. If you play Total War for the campaign, there are only a couple of bugs and a couple of potentially irritating design choices that might get in the way of your fun (and there are already mods that reverse the latter). The remaining multiplayer glitches are irritating, but their presence contrasts with how Shogun 2’s multiplayer gameplay went above and beyond all expectations. Not only is Shogun 2 the best Total War game that I’ve played, it’s also become my favorite real time tactical game of all time.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2011 11:41 pm (UTC)
Beneficial info and excellent design you got here! I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and putting the time into the stuff you publish! Great work!

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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