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As Creative Assembly's latest opus gets set to deploy its units, we take one final look at its battle formation...
Despite the fact that the Total War series has been around for over a decade now (this sequel revisits the first ever Total War game, Shogun: Total War, which released in 2000), there are still no other developers creating games that are quite like it. And it's not as if this is a series that's existed on the fringe for all of that time. When Empire: Total War was released in 2009, it went straight in at number one on the UK charts and that success wasn't limited to our green and pleasant land either - it was also the top-selling PC game in the US for the month of its release as well. At a time when the PC platform is struggling to the particular detriment of RTS games, Creative Assembly appears to be one of the few remaining developers that are actually capable of keeping the genre alive.
While Empire: Total War was something of a revolution in the Total War series though, Shogun 2 returns it to familiar territory. The focus on ranged combat that was Empire's 'Age of Gunpowder' theme has been replaced by good old-fashioned melee combat - with the setting of 16th century Japan, it's back to the humble swords and spears more synonymous with Medieval and Rome: Total Wars. If you were one of those gamers left a touch confused by Creative Assembly's decision to have you kneeling 50 metres away from your enemy for the duration of a battle firing muskets at each other all day, then Shogun 2 understands your confusion. While Empire was an intriguing project in the Total War series that greatly expanded its potential horizons, we must admit that it's somewhat grounding to see the series going back to normal again.
The legacy left by Empire hasn't been entirely forgotten though. Naval combat, one of the game selling back-of-the-box features for Empire, makes a return in Shogun 2 but from a different kilter this time around. Unlike the complex ballet of port and starboard cannon duels, about turns, and changing wind directions that left Napoleonic sea-warfare somewhat adrift from a gameplay perspective, the nature of Feudal Japanese naval combat translates itself to a game much more amicably. Its reliance on ores takes the complexities of wind-powered sailing out of the equation, while the combat itself relies on a more straightforward bring-alongside and board dynamic. Flaming arrows can be dispensed at range to strike fear into the heart of your enemy, before getting in close to board their vessel and kill-off any remaining stragglers. The whole setup is based around more accessible principles that can be explained in a quick tutorial, thereby encouraging players to take sea-faring battles on rather than clicking the 'Auto-Resolve' button all the time to avoid the hassle (a tactic that we regrettably found ourselves resorting to in Empire ).
Shogun 2 also feels like a more tightly focused campaign than its immediate predecessor. While Empire was set on a map that effectively stretched from continental America all the way across northern Africa to the Indian sub-continent, Shogun 2 is afforded the liberty of focusing-in on Feudal Japan exclusively. As a result, there's a more believable scale to the whole experience than in any previous Total War game. There's also a more endearing art style to the campaign map as well, evident in touches such as replacing the standard fog-of-war void with an overlay of Japanese parchment paper that's then annotated with ink brush writing (the style is referred to as suibokuga, we believe) to signpost each region.
In fact, the campaign map is peppered with fitting overtones of Far-Eastern culture and mysticism throughout. The typical technology tree of previous Total War games is replaced by a 'Mastery of the Arts' tree, which is almost Bonsai-like in its appearance across two separate disciplines of 'Bushido' and 'Way of Chi'. Each technology or advancement is then delivered in its wording as some kind of philosophical self-betterment, which certainly makes archery perks sound a lot more interesting. From Haikus during the loading screens to methods of diplomacy such as offering children from your clan as hostages and bartering tools with other factions (should you go back on an agreement, then the child will be killed), this is yet another Total War game that's steeped in its history, embracing the subject matter to a peerless extent. On a lighter note, we particularly enjoyed the fact that the stuffy Spy and Agent units of previous Total Wars have been replaced by seductive Geishas and sake-drinking Ninjas in Shogun 2, which are just infinitely cooler through the many context-driven cut-scenes that Creative Assembly has in store for them.
This culturally-immersed design philosophy that the developer has adopted also seeps through into the battle engine. Prior to each confrontation, generals will give a Braveheart-esque speech to their troops through a lavish cut-scene - entirely in Japanese with sub-titles - where they speak with the kind of maxims you'd find a Sun Tzu excerpt. The battlefield environments themselves appear with all the synonymously Japanese vistas of a Hokusai print, through snow covered mountain peaks, autumn pagodas, and cherry-pink spring blossoms. Truly, if you're a fan of Japanese culture and Creative Assembly's Total War games in equal measures, then you'll fall in love with Shogun 2.
We do have one cautionary note on the AI though: in the preview code we played through, which was quite a way off final we might add, the AI was as smart throughout as it was perplexing on occasions. It's a difficulty that the Total War team has struggled with throughout the series and it comes from the unparalleled level of scope, depth, and realism that the battles in these games exhibit. At one moment the AI will be surprising you with an ingenious flanking manoeuvre using its cavalry units while, later in the battle, it'll leave its archery units indolently dawdling on the periphery of your stronghold once the battle is all but over (the only solution being to send out some infantry to cull them like diseased sheep). As ever, Shogun 2 will exhibit some of the most advanced AI in any RTS game and there will be marked improvements over Empire - just don't expect it to be perfect, yet...
Following the vast, Modernist approach of Empire: Total War comes a game that seems altogether more content with its almost microcosmic focus on Feudal Japan. Shogun 2 will undoubtedly be yet another RTS master-class of historical battle re-enactment from the folks at Creative Assembly.
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