Monday, March 21, 2011

Total War: Shogun 2 Review

Total War: Shogun 2, developed by The Creative Assembly and published by SEGA.
The Good: Large tactical battles, persistent multiplayer supporting strategic campaigns and clan competitions with new items and abilities unlocked through quick tactical battles, online human players can replace AI opponents in single player campaigns, ten clans with varied bonuses and difficulties, comprehensive selection of province improvements, agents and units gain experience and unlock new skills, delegate family members to specific roles, conduct believable diplomacy and trade with other clans, intermediate missions give subtle direction, AI not completely terrible, interactive tutorial, looks very nice
The Not So Good: Simple chaotic combat, one campaign objective, superficial economics and province morale calculations, only four historical battles, recycled tactical maps, all clans forced to declare war on you when victory is near, multiplayer connections can't be canceled once established as you wait for more players, no earned experience if opponent quits while losing
What say you? Enhanced multiplayer accompanies the usual mix of strategic and tactical gaming with streamlined gameplay and usually interesting decisions: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Partial war is for weaklings. What we need is TOTAL WAR. Thankfully, the very British folks at The Creative Assembly have provided exactly that over the past ten years, visiting such exotic locations as Japan, Europe, Rome, Europe again, the World (but mostly Europe), and France, and allowing you to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them. Now it’s time for the Total War series to go back to its roots (because, frankly, there are only so many countries in Europe), Japan, accompanied by flashier graphics, more robust multiplayer, and an inane name change. Has the series run its course, or is there still some strategic and tactical life left in the aged carcass of Total War?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Total War: Shogun 2 features some impressive graphics, starting with the massive battles the series is famous for. The individual units have a remarkable level of detail, with distinctive armor and period-appropriate clothing that firmly establishes the setting for the game. The game takes advantage of motion-captured combat animations produce a dynamic, fluid battlefield that looks great up close. Particularly notable are the close-to-death animations for defeated units as they roll around on the ground in agonizing pain: pretty cool/disturbing. Total War: Shogun 2 also features good effects for flaming arrows, gunpowder weapons, and catapult impacts. The environments are mountainous vistas with authentic architecture that, along with the distinctive Japanese art style incorporated into the game, definitely feels like medieval Japan. The strategic map isn’t too shabby either: there are some nice textures and small details on the large map of Japan, and unexplored areas reek of Elemental (using a cloth map for fogged regions). Plus, you can now rotate your view of the map...yay, I guess. The sound design is pleasant as well: chaotic battle effects, fine voice acting, and suitable background music to accompany your bloody campaigns. Overall, Total War: Shogun 2 looks and sounds great.

ET AL.
The Shogun needs to be replaced. Vote him out? No, kill everyone instead! That’s how they do things in medieval Japan. Your objective: slash and burn your way across the islands of Japan and take the city of Kyoto. You can choose between ten clans with different trails (like more income from farms, increased trade income, or reduced upkeep for specific units) that alter your general strategy slightly. Each clan offers a different difficulty based on where they are located, and the victory conditions are also changed slightly based on who you choose, taking different provinces on your way to Kyoto. Total War: Shogun 2 starts with the tutorial, which offers a campaign that walks you through the basics of the strategic mode and tactical battles. There are also three standalone tutorial battles plus two naval encounters that are incorporated into the campaign. The game features a comprehensive HTML encyclopedia that offers much more information than the trite, useless manual. In addition to the single player campaign and multiplayer options (which will be discussed at length shortly), Total War: Shogun 2 features historical battles (only four, disappointingly) and a custom battle mode that takes place across eleven maps against the AI, where you can specify size, season, time limit, and army composition.

The strategic campaign is a turn-based affair, where each season you can move troops, construct buildings, and accomplish all the varied tasks the leader of a medieval Japanese clan must undertake. Total War: Shogun 2 gives you short, long, and “domination” length campaigns that change the number of provinces you must conquer in addition to taking Kyoto. Because of the sheer number of AI-controlled clans, turn resolution takes a while, and you can’t do anything while you watch the colorful logos pass by, as the task does not run in the background. Total War: Shogun 2 gives you a grand selection of buildings to construct; they generally allow you to recruit troops or special units, collect resources (food, gold, iron, timber), put up defenses, or affect trade and movement. Once certain technologies are researched, you can upgrade your structures to better versions. Each city has only a limited number of slots available for structures, which makes you specialize in each community and think about your choices, a far better alternative than being able to build everything everywhere. This also tends to lengthen the campaign as you wait for reinforcements to make their way from your rear, established cities with the advanced buildings. Taxes are collected from each province and used (primarily) for military upkeep. You aren’t given very many options for tax rates: there’s a level that makes everyone happy, most people happy, some people happy, and nobody happy. Keeping your constituents content is easy: choose the “most people” setting and garrison troops at the trouble spots, which are color-coded on the clan management map. Trouble usually takes the form of religious differences (assuming you keep tax levels reasonable) that can result in riots and rebellions, but generally keeping everyone satisfied is trivial.

Total War: Shogun 2 comes with an extensive technology tree consisting of over forty “arts” you can study, divided into military and domestic fields of study. These unlock new buildings and offer small national or unit-specific bonuses. Usually you have a number of options to choose from, letting you pick the most appropriate art for your current strategy. You will also spawn family members: sons that can become generals commissioned to a specific role (warfare for reduced recruitment costs, supply for a higher replenishment rate, development for lowered construction costs, and finance for increased tax income) and daughters that can be married off for diplomatic purposes (just like real life!). You can also recruit special agents that will gain experience and earn upgrades: the ninja and geisha (assassin and spy), monk and missionary (religious conversions), and metsuke (eliminate enemy agents) are available for covert operations that cost gold on top of the unit’s initial price.

Honor is important: every time you violate an alliance, lose a battle badly, or become (gasp!) Christian, relationships with your generals and other clans will deteriorate. Speaking of other clans, diplomatic options in Total War: Shogun 2 are comprehensive. You can choose from trade agreements, military alliances, vassals (50% of income in exchange for mandatory military protection), war, peace, hostages, and marriage. The AI does a good job with reasonable counter-offers (best I’ve seen in a game in a long time). Unfortunately, diplomacy becomes a non-issue when the current shogun decides you are too much of a threat and unites all of the remaining clans against you. I actually wish that you could attain an alliance victory, and it's sad when all of your former friends and trading partners are forced to rally against you. Overall, I was pleased with the competency of the AI, moving armies around in a plausible manner, engaging adjacent enemies intelligently, and amassing balanced force counts in relation to human players. Finally (whew!), there are dilemmas, events, and missions to decide on and undertake that add a bit more flavor to the campaign. While there are certainly a lot of choices to make (force composition, unit upgrades, character traits, et cetera), with a focus on all-out war, the campaign mode can get repetitive as you slowly march across Japan, waging war against most you encounter.

Multiplayer has gotten renewed emphasis in Total War: Shogun 2. Now, several of these features were apparently in Empire and/or Napoleon, but they are new to me! First, you’ll start by creating an avatar: your in-game general who will lead your forces to utter defeat (at least in my case). With battle experience comes points you can spend on new skills (melee combat, leadership), which will in turn activate new traits to define your character. You can also collect armor that, when all the pieces for a set are earned, rewards a retainer, a small bonus in the form of an advisor or item. You can then decorate your avatar with armor and clothes to look like a total dweeb. You can select several veteran units to carry over from battle to battle, who will also earn skill upgrades over time. Total War: Shogun 2 features interesting clan support: using Steam groups (meaning any existing Steam group take part in the game: neat), whichever clan earns the most victories in a particular province claims it, earning the participants special skills for their units. Clans are organized in a pyramid league with promotions (like soccer), so it’s an interesting diversion. Matches can be found browsing for opponents, supporting up to eight combatants. Once a connection to an opponent is made, you can't cancel or exit the game while you wait for other players that may not even show up: I have sat at the matching screen for upwards of five minutes simply staring at the screen, not able to do anything. At first I though it was connection problems, but I'm pretty sure the matchmaking system is waiting for four players before starting the game, which sometimes is not a good idea. In addition, players can freely quit right in the middle of the battle without any repercussions, robbing you of experience points that you should have earned: this is really annoying, and the game should automatically award you with victory when this occurs. You can also drop-in to other player’s single player campaigns, taking the role of the AI during tactical battles; I think that’s really cool (and fun to ruin other people's campaigns), although it looks like you don't gain any experience this way (sad). Finally (whew!), you can start two-player cooperative or competitive online campaigns, saving and resuming your progress at a later time, although the popularity of this feature seems to be quite low.

Tactical battles use where armies on the campaign map meet to determine the layout of the battlefield; the maps do not seem to be randomly generated (I played the same map twice in a row), but I can’t find a map count because all of the files are zipped up together (plans foiled!). The first step is to deploy your forces, and then march across the field of battle. Even though the battles are pretty quick (less than fifteen minutes, I’d say), you can adjust the game speed to make time pass even faster (or slower, if you choose). Each army should have a general, who can use several special abilities to inspire and rally their troops. Units in Total War: Shogun 2 include swords (katana, samurai) for close-quarters combat, cavalry (sword and bow) for charging, spears (yari, Britney) for cavalry, bows and rifles for ranged attacks, and siege weapons for really far ranged attacks against castles. Each unit has several attributes and may have special abilities like stealth, mines, rapid volleys, or unique formations that can be triggered during combat. Experienced gained on the battlefield will improve attack, reload time, accuracy, morale, and fatigue. Ordering units is easy: Total War: Shogun 2 uses a right-click-on-the-left-and-drag-across method to specifying your troops facing and spacing, which works well. There are a number of pre-defined starting formations for all of your units with fancy (crane’s wing, reclining dragon, bark of the pine tree) but very vague names. Grouped units will retain their relative spacing when issued orders (instead of simply going in one long line). While sometimes this is useful, it can be annoying when starting a new battle and your units begin in weird, nonsensical arrangements that must be manually sorted.

The combat is relatively simplistic, thanks to the decreased unit count of the period. In general, swords beat spears beats cavalry beats swords, plus ranged units. This means that your tactical options are pretty limited: just make the right troops attack the right enemies without allowing them to do the same. Things are a bit more varied with veteran units and special abilities, but the general guidelines still apply. You must be wary of unit morale (clearly displayed above the unit flag) and fatigue, and take weather effects (reduced range and movement during rain or night) into consideration. Forested areas can be used to hide units, and river crossings and fortifications tend to funnel units. Total War: Shogun 2 makes it almost impossible to retreat units once they are committed to battle, so must be careful or throw more troops into the fray. This results in messy, chaotic combat that lacks the subtle adjustments present in more contemporary war games. Battles are over quite quickly thanks to fast movement speed and small battlefields that don’t add empty space just for dramatic effect.

Battlefield engagements aren’t the only warfare you can engage in. Sieges against enemy fortifications are interesting because of the design of Japanese castles: they are a series of large battlegrounds separated by walls that allow for successive engagements against the defending forces. You don’t need artillery to break down the walls, however, as most units can scale or burn down gates on their own. The result is something you won’t necessarily want to auto-resolve each time. Naval battles are less interesting, involving light, medium, and heavy ships that rotate slowly around each other until they get close enough to board. Since the ships use rowers and not wind, boats can become tired over time (though battles rarely last long enough for that to occur). Naval units are used to pirate trade routes and speedy unit transport, and a single ship can transport an army of any size: not exactly realistic, but an OK simplification. Finally (whew!), the battle AI in Total War: Shogun 2 is decent, and provides a challenge on “hard.” As a defender, the AI will simply stay put on advantageous terrain, a smart strategy but something I found kind of annoying in quick battles but realistic nonetheless. I guess that’s why the defenders have the advantage. The AI uses their units well: pulling cavalry for flanking maneuvers, engaging your units with the appropriate counters, and keeping ranged units out of harms way. At least on hard, they do; I wish there was an option to play the campaign and tactical battles on different difficulty settings (medium, hard would be my choice).

IN CLOSING
Total War: Shogun 2 features an effective combination of strategic planning and tactical battles. While this is (obviously) very similar to every other game in the series, this time around the expanded multiplayer features and streamlined gameplay make Total War: Shogun 2 a recommended title. Multiplayer gives you a persistent character that earns new skills and items with every battle you win, outfitting him with armor and sidekicks for minor bonuses. The online aspect also includes clan competitions using Steam groups: whichever group wins the most battles in each territory claims it. You can play others in quick battles, supporting up to eight combatants, or online campaigns for two players in competitive or cooperative modes. Because of the setting, the tactical battles lack some depth, as the unit relationships are quite straightforward (swords beat spears beat cavalry beat swords). Still, there are some considerations to be made regarding veteran units and special abilities, but generally combat eventually devolves into a gigantic mass of humanity, but you can decide which units to throw into the mix. Sieges are appealing, alternating between taking down fortifications with catapults and open field engagements. The AI seems to be more competent this time around, especially when playing it on high difficulty. The strategic campaign features a number of interesting decisions regarding the research tree, diplomacy and trade (infinitely more enjoyable thanks to good negotiating AI, at least until all-out war erupts), and jobs for family members. Your clan choice also grants a number of minor bonuses. Solving unrest is too straightforward (lower taxes, garrison more troops, or send in a missionary), but intermediate missions and events mix things up a bit. I like how the limited number of buildings allowed in each province allows for specialization, not simple spamming of every structure in every city. However, because of the combat-only overall objectives of the campaign, each game plays out generally the same, despite variety in clan abilities and other choices. What really spices up the campaign, however, is the ability for other human players to “drop in” and take command of the opposing army, another fine multiplayer feature. Other auxiliary features disappoint, however, as there are only a few historical battles and eleven maps for custom battles. In the end, a revisit to Japan works well, retaining the solid tactical and strategy components and offering plenty of decisions to make along the way towards shogun. While Total War: Shogun 2 lacks the depth desired by strategy veterans, there is enough here to interest most gamers.