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The Creative Assembly returns to Feudal Japan, the spawning ground of its Total War series...
History teachers are a bit like job opportunities: we all get at least one really good one during our lifetime. In my case it was Mr. Martin, a reassuringly bespectacled and balding man whose choice phrases included, "War today is really much more of a push button thing. It's very different from the abundant close-quarters disembowelling of centuries past." He was my type of guy; much better than my teacher in a subsequent year, Mr. Walker, who actually managed to appal my parents by telling them that there was no hope for their son and he'd given up on me - not exactly what mummy and daddy wanted to hear at the parents' evening of an education they were paying large sums of money for. But enough of my personal issues - I'm getting around to making a point here, which is that the developer of the Total War series, Creative Assembly is very much like that really good history teacher that we all had. It brings vividly to life and makes copiously fascinating, subject matter that can be incredibly droll and inert in the wrong hands (not mentioning any names, ahem! Mr. Walker).
Like the Rome, Medieval, and Empire games before it, Shogun 2 is as much an education of the time period as it is a game. The level of historical research on display is quite staggering, putting the vast majority of its competitors to shame, and it's in the little details that this really shines through: the costume designs of each unit, the suibokuga inspired campaign map, or the 'Bushido' and 'Way of Chi' branches to the technology tree. It'll come as no surprise that Creative Assembly has been employing the services of experts in Japanese history (such as Dr. Stephen Turnbull) in creating Shogun 2, ensuring that as fun as the game is to play throughout, it's also just as much a journey of self-improvement. You do get the sense that you've learnt a little bit more about Japanese culture after a few hours with Shogun 2, which is no doubt why the Creative Assembly team has received letters from fans in the past crediting their decision to read Japanese Studies at university having originally been inspired by the first Shogun game over 10 years ago.
Like most worthy and noble pursuits though, the decade-long Total War series has been fostered through a process of gradual evolution rather than revolutionary new ideas, each new instalment building carefully on its predecessor to refine and expand the main principles but not radically redefine them. Shogun 2 is no exception in this regard as it once again strives to tease out an increasingly accessible game through more streamlined tutorials and user-interface tweaks, but there are some major mechanical changes afoot from the Empire and Napoleon games too. Battles, in particular, return to the series' more familiar stomping ground of melee combat, replacing the muskets and cannons of the last two games with some good old fashioned swords and spears. This decision to revert back to the same kind of gameplay mechanics of Rome and Medieval Total Wars is a welcome one as well - despite the novel appeal of Empire's combat, feudal and ancient warfare is where Creative Assembly originally cut its teeth and where it continues to excel most comfortably.
We do have one cautionary note on the AI though: it's much improved, but it's still not perfect. The Total War series has built up a fan-base of hardcore perfectionists over the years who, at times, have expressed discontent at some of the game's AI routines. These players will still notice the occasional anomaly, be it a seemingly idle unit of cavalry right next to a heaving infantry battle or a unit of archers that runs out of ammo and just mills around aimlessly at the end of a battle waiting to be slaughtered like a Turkey at Christmas. For every one anomaly like this though, Shogun 2 will surprise you with clever AI routines that you hadn't expected or accounted for on ten other occasions. It's much more fiendishly bright than it is inexplicably dim.
Naval combat, one of the big new features for Empire: Total War, makes a return in Shogun 2 without all the fussiness that dogged Empire's previous model. Ore-powered ships certainly make the action that bit more responsive, while combat that's based on archery from range and boarding parties up close is a lot easier to handle than complex port and starboard cannon duels. That said, managing to successfully land a boarding party on an enemy vessel is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. Due to a system that gauges your unit's confidence and determines whether they're pumped up enough to make the boarding jump and risk falling overboard, naval battles can become drawn out if the relevant units show reluctance. At times it does feel a bit like you're trying to convince a depressive agoraphobe to go outside, but then perhaps there wouldn't have been enough of a challenge if this confidence system wasn't in place. Either way, even if the naval battles are an improvement over Empire's they still don't manage to grab you in quite the same way as the land battles, which makes the auto-resolve button a pretty tempting prospect at times.
The turn-based campaign map retains a similar foundation to the Empire games, albeit with a setting that couldn't be more different. While Empire journeyed far and wide from Europe to America and North Africa to the Indian subcontinent, Shogun 2 has been afforded the luxury of focusing-in tightly on Japan, making for a much more believable scale to the map. Instead of warring nations you'll find warring factions instead, each with their own intriguing motivations and back-story as they vie for control of Feudal Japan to become the one and only Shogun. It's a more beautiful looking map as well, adorned with synonymous Japanese landscapes such as jagged, snow-covered mountain peaks in the winter, cherry-pink tree blossoms in the spring, and copper-coloured pagodas in the autumn. All of these changes in the weather and seasons are permissive through the battle maps as well, making for some truly stunning backdrops to the new Braveheart-esque pre-battle speeches from your general. We already mentioned the suibokuga style that Creative Assembly has used as a replacement for a traditional fog of war, but this Japanese brush ink and parchment paper style for unexplored areas of the map is one of the little things that helps to make the overall presentation very easy on the eye.
Delving deeper into the campaign map's innards you'll find new features such as the ability to upgrade generals with modifying 'Retainers' as well as through a comprehensive tree of abilities and traits. Similar abilities run through all of the game's nine clans as well (although they're fixed rather than upgradeable), allowing players to choose between civil and military perks when choosing sides. Ninjas and Geishas replace the Agents and Spies of previous Total Wars and are infinitely cooler for the simple reason that they're ninjas, and geishas (everybody knows that Ryu Hayabusa is infinitely cooler and deadlier than James Bond, and that's the end of it). It seems in very poor taste to talk at any length about the map's new natural disasters feature on a tragic day like today, so we'll just leave it at the fact that they're in there. All in all, it's not a widely expanded turn-based layout by any stretch of the imagination but Creative Assembly has done a great job of differentiating it from its predecessors with an art style and dedication to the culture that manages to surpass the already lofty heights of previous Total Wars.
However, multiplayer is where Shogun 2 goes all-out with new features following the addition of a multiplayer campaign with Empire: Total War. Dedicated co-op now allows users to play through a multiplayer campaign of up to 4 vs. 4 players, while there's also an option to open up your single-player campaign so that other users can drop-in and assume the role of an opposing army during real-time battles. A separate 'Avatar Conquest' mode then brings elements of levelling-up and customisation into Shogun 2, allowing you to deck out a general with bespoke armour and a unique flag icon before rolling your army out onto a purpose-built Conquest map where each territory (both naval and land) represents a battle against online opponents. Persistence brings rewards as ranking up through the tiers unlocks skills and 'Retainers' for your general as well as new armour and perks, while specific units can become 'Veteran' through continued use and assigned unique colours on the battlefield to denote their experience. An elaborate system of leaderboards and clans also gives players something to fight for, with the top user in the world receiving the title 'Shogun'. It's certainly a multiplayer offering that's chockfull of content and long-term appeal, adding considerably to the existing single-player setup and providing a vast amount of potential game time that's hard to better elsewhere in gaming as a whole, let alone the strategy genre.
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