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[LTTP Review] Total War: Shogun 2

Total War: Shogun 2 is a modern installment in the Total War series, a series known for its fusion of Real-Time Strategy and Real-Time Tactics. A beautiful game set in 16th century Japan during the Sengoku Period, Total War: Shogun 2 seamlessly integrates empire building with military tactics, resulting in an excellent strategy game that is rich in strategic depth.


Feudal Japan is a setting rife with conflict and rich in culture. In the age of the samurai, numerous clans battle for territorial control, as well as the coveted position of Shogun, the military ruler of all Japan. The player acts as the strategic mastermind behind their clan, managing military forces, financial resources, diplomatic relations, and military tactics to control as much land as possible and to attain the position of shogun. Although the game follows the familiar RTS model of building up a strong economy, raising a powerful army, and crushing your enemies, the context is not of a simple battle but a large scale war.

A single player game starts with the selection of a clan, each with its own specialty , backstory, and starting area. The varied range of clans allows for player preference, whether they prefer cheaper archers or an advantage in diplomacy. Their starting areas also can set the stage for the rest of the campaign, since some are in an isolated area of Japan, others in the thick of many other neighboring clans. In addition to the strategic factors available in clan selection, players less concerned with practicality may choose based on their historical background, which the game is full of. As a side note, Shogun II even has its own encyclopedia containing historical information about various units and buildings in the game, which is sure to please history buffs.

Players move their units, construct their buildings, and oversee their political relations on the campaign map which encompasses the whole island of Japan. Lands are divided into territories, each containing a castle town which can recruit units and be captured for its surroundings lands. Careful planning is required to a successful conqueror, as everything from the production of units to the creation of buildings takes a certain number of seasons (or turns). Often a plan to take an enemy city or produce a large army take a few seasons of time, requiring preparation. Since every turn carries so much weight, players have to plan carefully or they will be left far behind. The interweaving of the various aspects the player has to manage as well as the structured time frame opens up many strategic possibilities, as every turn provides the player with many decisions that can be a major factor in the success or ruin of the clan.

Important decisions are available from the start, foremost of which involves the economy, the base on which the clan prospers and expands. Most income is generated by taxing your peasants throughout your provinces. However, the more you tax, the less happy your peasants become, and the less your provinces grow. An unhappy populace can lead to revolt, and a negative growth will lead to less taxes in the long run. However, happiness can be improved not only by controlling your taxes, but also by spending money on buildings to keep the population satisfied. Infrastructure incurs significant costs to one’s treasury and food supplies, but bring important benefits, such as quickening research, upgrading units, or increasing movement speed in the province. Military units can be expensive as well, each unit having an upfront cost as well as an upkeep cost that can quickly evaporate income. Since units and buildings incur significant costs and benefits, one cannot expand without careful consideration, bringing significance to economic decisions in the game.

The economy allows the player to build up their military- the device behind conquering more land and accruing more power. There is enough variety in the type of units to keep structuring of forces simple, but enough to provide tough decisions on how many to recruit. Calvary units such as the speedy yari calvary allow for devastating charges, flanking opportunities, and the sadistic chasing of fleeing opponents, but are fragile, especially against spear units. The fierce samurai are hardy and cut down your enemies into a pulp, but are slow and can be easily outflanked. Archers can decimate your enemies from afar with flaming arrows, and the elusive kisho ninja can toss grenades to destroy and terrify the enemy, or stealth around the battlefield to assassinate a unit. As they become more battle-worn, your units gain experience and become more powerful, bringing a small sense of importance to each.

Although Shogun 2 attempts to simplify army composition over the previous games, a little more unit and clan diversity could help. Every clan can produce every type of unit, which results in starting position and special traits being the only differentiating factor. The lack of unit diversity can make the player feel as if they are fighting the same army over and over again, causing battles to feel slightly repetitive.

Family members can lead your armies into battle, effectively making each of them generals. Family members are organized into a family tree, allowing the player to observe the passing of generations and assign each member to specific positions. For example, a player can assign one family member to be the head of supply, increasing unit replenishment in any army he’s in, or the head of development, decreasing unrest in the castle towns he conquers. Family members also gain traits and skill points as his prowess in battle increases. A trait gained through a particularly arduous battle can gain him the trait of Bravery, which increases the morale of their armies in battle. Each general also gets points in a skill tree as they level up, and can spend those points on things such as increased movement range or defense.

The fact that the player is allowed to customize their generals is great since it builds a sense of personal significance for the guy that is leading your armies on the screen. However, in previous games, generals gained traits naturally and randomly, such as being born ugly or becoming a drunkard because he stayed in a city that contained a tavern too long. This system of gaining traits not only was more entertaining, it gave generals a unique personality, making them seem more human therefore more likable. Generals in previous games could also specialize in overseeing cities through their traits. There were also more generals overall at any given time. In Shogun 2, generals are not only few in number and often very much alike, they are akin to robots with only practical traits for prowess in fighting.  They are merely an aggrandized military unit. The system of traits in Shogun II sacrificed the “humanity” of generals for customization, which wasn’t a particularly good choice.

Special agents also have their own skill trees and special functions, namely the ninja, metsuke, and monk. Ninjas can perform incredible acts of subterfuge, serving as a spy and assassin. Besides being able to infiltrate enemy territory, bringing valuable information such as the enemy’s military strength, assassinating generals is a way to cripple enemy forces before they even meet you in battle. They can also destroy enemy gates before a pivotal siege, and establish spy networks to see enemies more easily before they arrive. Metsuke (secret police) and monks can calm down an unhappy town and eliminate other agents through conversion and bribery. These agents offer a myriad of fun options to use noncombative methods of harming your enemies and gaining intelligence, ensuring victory before the fight even happens.

Diplomacy is a more relevant factor in the planning of a campaign than ever, more so than it was in previous games such as Medieval II and Rome. Alliances, trade agreements, and rivalry between clans can be the deciding factor of whether a clan flourishes or gets destroyed. An alliance can bring you security and prosperity, but can limit your expansion if you are neighbors with them. Breaking off an alliance can lead to serious consequences by diminishing your Honor, leading clans to be distrustful of you from the beginning of all other diplomatic talks. Making enemies can be advantageous for expansion, but having too much can prevent you from making new alliances when needed. Managing diplomatic relations can be a tricky experience, since clans take factors like your specific allies and enemies, personal honor, past agreements, and size of empire into consideration. Not only that, friends and enemies are in constant flux as the lust for land takes precedence over peace. However, diplomacy brings a new level of depth by giving smart players the power to manipulate where, when, and who they fight.

When they command an army to attack, the player is transported to the battlefield where the tactical battles take place. Being both a challenge and a visual feast, the ability to lead your soldiers in battle is what makes the Total War series special, differentiating it from other turn-based strategy games such as Civilization. The infinite combination of units and tactics on the battlefield makes each battle a unique experience in which critical and creative thinking are rewarded. Placing archers in the perfect position or finding the right time for your samurai to charge is difficult and thus very satisfying if executed right. Battles can be won not only by killing off the opposing armies’ forces, but also by sapping their morale, whether through the killing of their general or by terrifying force such as a calvary charge or a volley of bullets. Visually, the battlefield is bloody and chaotic, with heads being severed and bodies impaled amidst a din of whistling arrows and war cries. There is no sweetness in victory like watching your calvary cut down the routing enemy after a devastating envelopment. Each battle feels like a fresh challenge, as the player has complete freedom over their units and that there is no one way to win a battle. To mix it up, weather, elevation, and forestry are also factors on the battlefield, deepening the strategic experience and widening the options to attain victory. The fact that units can hide in forests and that fog causes archers to be less accurate adds realism as well as strategic depth.

The capture of castle towns through siege battles are also a spectacle. The unique terraced design of Japanese castles as opposed to the stone walls and iron gates of the West not only provides an exotic look, but also a different way of siege fighting. Gone are the street fighting and wall fighting of previous Total War games. That also means saying goodbye to battering rams and catapults. Instead, your soldiers throw torches at gates to burn them down, or climb up the hill and over the walls to breach the castle. Then they fight in an open area which allows for maneuverability and various options to reach the goal of capturing the central flag. Although it may more be due to the particular historical period instead of the game’s design, the different, more open way of siege fighting in Shogun 2 is a welcome change from the stagnant and constricted street fighting in Rome or Medieval II.

There are a few quirks in this part of the game, however. Although the AI is thankfully improved from the previous Total War games, it is not perfect. On the battlefield, enemies will reposition themselves based on the formation of your own units, and will oftentimes seek positions to their advantage, such as atop a hill. However, enemy units rarely strike aggressively at the beginning of the battle, posing a problem since the player almost always has to go on the offensive at the start of a battle. The AI is reckless with their calvary, sometimes even sending their generals into a bristle of spears. Getting units into formation can be problematic for the inexperienced player, as it is more complicated than it should be. There are nine formations available with fancy names, which is unnecessary. Only one of them sets your units into a line (is not the default formation, by the way), which should be most of what you need. Sometimes simply trying to line up your units can result in complications, such as accidentally merging a group with another.

Everything visual in Shogun II is fantastic aesthetically and formidable graphically. Thousands of soldiers can be shown on the battlefield at once, showing epic battles at a grand scale. Each individual unit is rendered with attention to detail, complete with facial expressions and various armors. The visual aesthetic of Shogun 2 is even more impressive than its graphical fidelity. Every piece of art shown in loading screens and map notifications look like it was straight out of a Japanese painting. This authentic style is embedded into every little detail, down to circles and lines used to mark things, which look like brush strokes. The campaign map transforms according to the season, conveying moods of spring with lush greenery and cherry blossoms, and winter with a darkened, chilly look. The battlefields are hauntingly beautiful for such a place of violence, whether it is demonstrated through the mysterious mountains on the horizon, birds and cherry blossoms floating in the air, or a foreboding fog obscuring the enemy force. The respect paid to authenticity as well as the effort to make every part of the game look like a work of art speaks to the visual masterpiece Shogun 2 is.

The same can be said about the music in Shogun 2. Whether the player is musing over their diplomatic alliances or circling their cavalry around for a vital flanking maneuver, the music sounds perfect for each occasion they are heard. Whereas on the campaign map you hear the serene, calming pluckings of a koto to accompany your meditations of your diplomatic decisions, you hear rumbling, heart pounding tanko drums and war chants when slaughtering the enemy. It is also notable that the music is dynamic, changing according to the season on the campaign map, and changing naturally according to the action on the battlefield. You barely notice when the drums give way to a koto at the exact time your calvary pulls out of a charge, which is exactly how it should be. The music is a very significant factor in immersion in Shogun 2, fitting the mood of the season and actions of the player. This is especially impressive since immersion isn’t something typically addressed in a strategy game. Furthermore, the music also sounds suitably authentic, having that Japanese sound which can only be created through Japanese instruments. The music in Shogun 2 is immersive and authentic in both the extremes of calmness and intensity, and is by far the best soundtrack of any Total war game.

A significant aspect of the game that deserves to be mentioned is the Shogunate. One of the campaign’s goals is to become shogun by holding Kyoto for four seasons. However, if one becomes too bent on conquering land instead of acquiring the Shogunate, the clan’s notoriety will steadily increase until they are declared an enemy of the state, which is called Realm Divide. This causes most clans to declare war on it, unraveling a lot of the diplomatic work put into maintaining goodwill, as well as making the game much more difficult suddenly and unexpectedly. Although it can be said this would make realistic sense as a clan gets large and threatening, this can be seen as too harsh a punishment against players who are expanding massively, which is the point of the game. Rendering all previous diplomatic work futile is also unnecessary. The Shogunate adds an interesting historical aspect to the gameplay, but Realm Divide adds unneeded limitations by stifling the objective of conquering as many territories as possible and maintaining diplomatic relations.

Although the single player campaign is the main focus of the game, multiplayer is also an option in Shogun 2. A player can fight in skirmishes by dropping into other player’s campaign battles, or wage war on a campaign map with clans controlled by other players. Customization is incorporated into the multiplayer through the use of an avatar, whom you can dress up in various armors and symbols won through multiplayer. Multiplayer is a welcome addition to the series, creating more replay value if players ever pit their armies against a human opponent.

Shogun 2’s depth and beauty overshadows its quirks with AI and simplication. Not only is this masterpiece that filled with little details that make each decision important, increasing the strategic thinking required to succeed, it also delivers an authentic, immersive experience that is easy on the eyes and and ears. Its artistic excellence and deep strategic gameplay secures Total War: Shogun 2 as one of the best strategy games of all time.

[Final breakdown]

[+Strategic possibilities down to the smallest decision] [+Visual feast] [+Authentic] [+Excellent, dynamic sound design] [+Tons of replay value] [-A few AI quirks] [-Realm Divide is not balanced well] 

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