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We go hands on with some siege battles in Shogun 2 and hear from Creative Assembly about a new multiplayer co-op mode...
We've always admired the Total War games here at TVG. With a masterful blend of historical battle simulation and strategic empire building, the series has gone from strength to strength in the ten years since its inception, depicting the warfare of a succession of turbulent periods in human history with obsessive accuracy and ever increasing scale. It's a game series that easily ranks up there amongst the Civlizations and Age of Empires as strategy games that have not only been a partial schooling in history, but a master class in strategy at the same time. We could probably have written a book in the many hours we've spent beavering away at games of this ilk over the years, so imagine our excitement at being invited by SEGA to a hands on session with Total War: Shogun 2...
Sitting down for a siege battle in Shogun 2 we immediately feel that familiar tingle; hands trembling just a little as we click through our rows of bowmen, samurai and cavalry. Japanese castles are more delicate than their hulking European counterparts; a succession of low-walled courtyards lead up to a central keep like a plate of loosely stacked pancakes, each area sealed off by a gate to quarantine it from potential invasion. Rather than the simple brute force required to breach the elephantine constructs of earlier games, intruders must carefully plan their progress through these labyrinthine, lotus-like lairs to avoid falling foul of their complex interior structure.
Spreading bowmen evenly across the outer walls of our lower courtyards, we strike the gong to begin battle. Our fortress sits astride the crest of a hill, a precipitous impasse guarding its rear. Swathes of forest line either side of the snow-covered slope ahead, a central stripe of frosty woodland delineating the two paths up which the enemy forces now approach. Suddenly, a stream of fire arcs up and crashes into an outer wall, scattering bowmen across the courtyard like broken skittles. Anachronistic 'rocket launcher' samurai pound the walls as enemy archers trudge into range of the castle. Bizarrely, these troops are historically accurate; the Japanese had access to ancient Chinese gunpowder technology during this era, and each soldier is wielding the offensive equivalent of a firework in a drainpipe.
The enemy forces are focussed on either side of our castle in a pincer movement, but we're spread too thinly across the front, and before long, katana-wielding warriors scale the walls and make mincemeat of our bowmen off to the right. We desperately send in ground troops to save them but it's too late - the enemy have secured the gate, and cavalry pour in and carve a path through our reinforcements. Forces decimated, we retreat the remaining stragglers deep into the compound, setting fire to the gate as the last few enter the inner courtyard. Enemy cavalry can't advance with the gate ablaze, but hostile bowmen already line the castle walls, and nimble samurai climb into the area under a shield of arrows. As our general falls, the last of our bloodied troops panic and flee; it's a massacre. The enemy forces secure the flag in the central keep, winning the game.
Electricity flickers across our skin and we click to restart the match. This time, the AI forces are concentrated mostly on the right, so we move the bulk of our troops there and leave a few bowmen behind to deal with the lonely enemy melee unit off to the left. Wiser for our defeat, we click and drag archers into a tighter formation away from the walls, shielding them from the concussive blast of incoming rocket fire. Enemy samurai are shredded by our arrows, and as the weakened force scales our outer wall, we send out the cavalry to finish them off. With the attack held at bay, we check on the left flank of the castle. Disaster - noting our lopsided defences, the AI concealed a huge army in the forest which is now tearing through the castle. All is lost. We struggle to rebalance our forces and manage to hold off the invaders for a while, but defeat is inevitable.
Perhaps if we were to station all of our troops in the central area and let the enemy come to us...? We scrabble to click restart again, but the PR on guard has started to introduce the multiplayer presentation; there isn't time for another attempt.
"One thing we really wanted to do for Shogun 2 - that our fans have been requesting for a long time - is a full co-operative gameplay mode," lead Multiplayer Designer, Ian Roxburgh says. "Now you can play a co-op game with a friend and play against the AI together."
In co-op you have shared line of sight and objectives, and can also share units between each other - one person could take care of just the cavalry for example, or a player who loses their units early in the match can be given a few to take care of so they still have something to do. Also new to multiplayer are 'key buildings'. All the maps have one or two buildings that give a buff to your troops if you capture them.
"They're implemented subtly, because we didn't want to make the battles all about having to run around capturing capture points - it's just really to stop corner camping ... You get enough of a buff that if your opponent was sitting on top of a hill, it would even the odds again," Roxburgh explains.
But these additions are incidental compared to the main new features; the big change is that Shogun 2 completely reframes online competitive multiplayer for the Total War series.
"In Total War you've got this concept of a campaign game, and when you fight a battle, that battle has a meaning in the context of the overall story in the campaign; what we wanted to do is take this idea online - so that when you finish a battle you've got something you're gaining, something you're progressing with. This is really a shell around the concept of battling a person online," says Roxburgh.
This "shell" consists of a map of Japan which depicts all 65 provinces. Your avatar is placed in a province on the map and can fight online battles in adjacent territories to conquer them. Winning a battle in a province unlocks its bonus: such as access to advanced troops, or a new retainer - a sort of perk that you can equip before battle. The idea is that you choose where you want to go based on what you want to unlock next.
In a series first, there are now online leaderboards for multiplayer, with separate boards for land and sea battles, each with its own subdivisions for 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 matches. Once you eventually conquer all provinces on the map, you gain a place on the 'Shogun Ladder'; an elite league which takes an aggregate of your positions across all of the leaderboards. The player who reaches the top of the Shogun Ladder gains the title of Shogun, along with various aesthetic markers as bragging rights (a unique helmet for your avatar, a special forum tag etc.)
Tying into all of this is the 'clan competition', which has a two week season. Players can join clans (in the traditional gaming sense of the word) very easily via steam groups - there's no need to go on forums and interact with the community to get involved. Once in a clan, each battle a player wins in a province adds points to their team's total for that territory; the clan with the most points owns a province, and the one with the most provinces wins the clan competition. The top clans get promoted up to the next league, while the worst performers are relegated. Clan leaders and officers can place a sword marker in a territory to encourage their members to attack it, and when players win a battle in one of these provinces they gain a 'clan token' for their troubles. Roxburgh hopes to foster an environment in which active diplomacy occurs between clan leaders, with allied clans making pacts to avoid each other's territories for example.
As it stands, players won't lose points for their team if defeated in battle - the developers are understandably reticent to penalise clans for taking on new players because they want to keep the system as accessible as possible. Clearly there is a danger that the size of a clan may ultimately be a more important factor than its skill, although Roxburgh says they may address this for the elite tiers of competition.
"At the moment you will be able to have a bigger clan and therefore get more points, but that's something we may cap at the top level."
Customization options are weaved throughout the new gameplay systems; players can choose the colours and emblem of their army and unlock armour for their avatar by completing achievements. Obtaining complete armour sets unlocks new retainers - perks which endow stat bonuses and other effects. There are over seventy retainers in the game of which up to five can be taken into battle at one time. Retainers are also sometimes won as a result of capturing territories, and some armour appears as a random drop.
Fighting battles wins you experience; you can upgrade your avatar and its associated bodyguard unit (which protects it in battle) twice per level, across ten levels. The avatar skill tree has four main branches: Physical, Leadership, Melee, and Bow Mastery, and players are free to specialise their general as they see fit, creating for instance an inspirational character with morale boosting charm, or a formidable warrior that deals damage on the front lines. The online matchmaking system pairs up opponents of similar ranks, and a list of traits (e.g. 'prefers cavalry', 'strong leadership' etc.) gives you a sense of who you're up against and allows you to tailor your troop list accordingly. Players will want to avoid 'rage quitting' in ranked matches, as this will earn them the accolade of 'dishonourable coward' in their traits list (although this can be erased by playing fairly for a few games).
In another series first, normal units that distinguish themselves in battle can be upgraded to Veteran status, at which point they gain access to their own skills tree with a unique set of upgrades for their class. While basic upgrades can be unlocked for any Veteran unit, the very best abilities can only be accessed by contributing clan tokens at higher levels; these include 'sniping' for bowmen, which allows them to remain hidden while attacking from forests; and 'bonzai' for cavalry, which removes the penalty they suffer against spearmen.
Veteran units can be customised with their own colour scheme to mark them out as the elite units in your army. To keep the game balanced, their unit cost increases as you upgrade them, so a player with only normal units would have a larger force on the field than a Veteran unit user. Should Veterans take casualties in battle it's necessary to rest them for a few matches until they replenish their numbers, but they're never completely destroyed as a result, even if every soldier is killed.
There's so much more to say about Shogun 2; we could go on for another 2000 words about the improved naval battles and enemy AI, early gunpowder units, geisha assassins, and deadly ninjas, without even touching on the stunning environments and traditional brush and ink inspired artwork that adorns the game. 'Depth over breadth' is the phrase the developers are using to describe their approach to Shogun 2; by scaling back the unit count and concentrating on a single geographical region, they've managed to create a far richer and more densely detailed world than the colossal scale of Empire ever permitted. We didn't get to see a naval battle, or witness the improved gunpowder unit AI in play, and so can't confirm whether those issues that irked the previous Total War iteration have been substantially ameliorated, but if the overall improvements and additions are anything to go by then we'll bet Creative Assembly is doing a grand job smoothing everything out.
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