The Total War series has spanned the globe, bringing conflict on an epic scale that no other series truly can. The series began with Shogun: Total War, which was released in 2000 and though it boasted hundreds of Warriors on screen at once, it wasn’t a glowing success – however it did have a dedicated following. 11 years later and a slew of different Total War games taking place across different time periods and lands, the cycle has finally come full circle. The Creative Assembly have come back to their roots with Total War: Shogun 2, revisiting the war-torn land of Japan with new-found technology and development skills.  However, is it more memorable then the original title?

With 11 years of Total War titles, you’d expect each game to be a little more complicated than the last.  Now, while this remains true in most cases, the tutorials that Shogun 2 provides are among the best I’ve ever used.

The Tutorials Will Make You Wise

Whether you’re familiar with the way Total War titles play or not, it’s really worth going through said tutorials to really come to grips with the changes in Shogun. The Tutorials range from basic land battles, to Campaign map strategy and Naval Battles. Each of them plays significantly different to the last, and the Creative Assembly have designed fantastic scenarios which really flesh out the features and deep thinking required to be successful in Shogun. That is, of course if you can get over the Engrish speaking advisors.

Also, a plus for newer players is the UI and the “Art of War” feature. The User Interface is clean, with minimal clutter, so selecting different units and actions takes minimal time and it’s easier to understand what each special ability does. The “Art of War” allows players to easily group units and automatically reform their positions into different animal/beast based formations, such as Cloud Dragon, War of the Tiger and Crane’s Wing. It’s a superb feature for those who aren’t skilled at positioning units in effective ways.  But it’s not just new players that will benefit from the changes however, the cleaner interface and design make it more efficient for veterans of the series to arrange and execute battles the way they want.

Minimum Clutter, Maximum Strategy

Of course, this being a Total War game, there’s a fair amount of planning and production to do on the Campaign map, and Shogun 2 is no exception to this tried and true formula. Personally, I’ve always found the campaign map a complete drag in the Total War franchise, however just like the Battles, The Creative Assembly have really overhauled this section of the game. The hassles of Population happiness, Taxes and managing agents such as the Ninja are no longer a mundane chore. Statistics like Tax and Happiness can be managed through a core menu, letting you adjust set values across every province, instead of just one at a time.

For those who don’t get a kick out of managing, you can now set the AI to do it for you, and it works fairly well.

Not once did I have an unhappy populace or was I short on funds. The Agents are now a ton of fun to use, especially the Ninja. The Ninja has an increased line of sight, as well as the ability to travel immense distances quickly – but he can also sabotage gates, assassinate enemy leaders or perform subterfuge on an opposing army. After every mission you send the Ninja on, he will earn experience points to help specialize him in roles. For example, My Ninja was leveled in the path of Assassination, armed with special weaponry and trained specifically to kill Generals. Instead of the usual 25% chance to kill, The Ninja now had around 60%, and in-turn he was slaughtering every General he could get his hands on.

Your Ninja Is Quick and Deadly, He Will Hardly Fail If Trained Properly

Generals, Ninjas and other Agents can all be leveled in specific trees, similar to that of your typical RPG. It works well and helps differentiate the game, as well as tailoring your units for your individual play-style. Want a general who can perform better Cavalry charges? Or perhaps you’d like one who can lead men around Japan quicker than others, it’s all possible and really helps you feel as if your men are battle-hardened and experienced.

The Ultimate goal of the Campaign is to rise to the status of Shogun – Warlord of Japan. The deeds you do on the battlefield will help your clan gain notoriety but eventually the Shogunate will call upon the Clans to destroy you.  It’s often wise not to spread too far, and save some men for the inevitable battle to come.

Depending on which Clan you decide to take leadership of, the game will put you in a different starting zone throughout Japan.  Japan as a whole is widely varied in aesthetic and The Creative Assembly have obviously put passion into making a beautiful landscape, while keeping it accurate to the time period. The landscapes will change throughout seasons, but this will not only effect the visuals, it also has a dramatic impact on how battles can play out.

Prepare For War

Leave your army behind enemy lines during Winter? You will suffer losses from attrition, as you have limited food and no help in foreign lands. It brings another level of thinking to game… it may not be the best idea to attack during the snowy seasons. However, picking your clan shouldn’t be about starting positions, it should be about your specializations.. As with all Total War games, each clan (or country in other TW titles ) have different racial units and specializations, such as the Chosokabe who are masters of the Bow, thus they have access to stronger Samurai Archers.  Or Clans like the Uesugi who can train powerful Warrior Monks, who are arguably the strongest Melee unit in the game. Though each Clan has it’s unique soldiers, the early game units don’t differ as much as other Total War titles. Every clan will have it’s share of “Ashigaru” units, until everyone upgrades their buildings and further increases their mastery of the arts. It can get a little boring in spots seeing the same units with different color schemes, but it’s not long before you really see some varied action on the field.

Though earlier I mentioned that starting positions should be neglected when picking a Clan, this doesn’t hold true for the Co-operative Campaign.

Oh yes, Shogun 2 has a multiplayer Campaign mode that can be played competitively and via Co-op.

When playing Co-Op, it’s useful to pick clans that start near each other, as coming to your allies aid can be a chore if he’s halfway across Japan. The racial should also come to mind when selecting your respective clans, as the game is immensely fun when one player charges the front-lines with his superior Melee warriors, whilst the other can rain death upon the battlefield with Elite Samurai Archers. Shogun 2 is a slower paced game than it’s predecessors, as it takes a lot of planning to execute battle plans and manage your various provinces. So, if you’re going to play Co-Op, make sure you have a partner who will go the distance with you, though the option for shorter campaigns is present.

Cooperate Or Be Killed!

Though the improvements throughout the campaign mode are vast and commendable, you don’t come to a Total War game expecting to play it like Civilization. Sooner or later, you will undoubtedly make enemies and goto War.  Luckily,

The battles in Shogun 2 are an absolute marvel to behold, but more importantly, play.

If you have a Rig capable of playing Shogun 2 on it’s more extreme settings, you’ll have a theater of war that’s hard to compare. Thousands of units litter the battlefield fighting with lifelike animations and the environments look convincingly real with heat glare while bladed grass and beautiful shadows coat every corner of the battlefield. With that many men on the field, it may seem a little overwhelming, but thankfully the battle system is smartly designed, giving you access to different units with their respective abilities immediately.

One of the more notable UI features are the aura’s that certain units will display. Such as the Archer line of sight cone, or the General’s circular aura, indicating which units around him have increased Morale due to his presence. The battles work the same way as previous Total War titles, like dragging while right clicking to set formations, double right clicking on enemy units to charge and so forth. During some of the siege battles however, it seems the AI has some problem particularly with firing arrows at units inside fortresses. During my play, I frequently experienced my archers running blindly toward fortresses and not stopping to fire arrows, though the Creative Assembly are constantly cooking up patches for issues like this – so it’s only a matter of time until issues like this are likely addressed.

The Battles in Shogun Look and Play Brilliantly

Besides some weird hitches here and there, the AI is also generally solid. The combat between units is exciting to watch and they feel responsive when you give them orders.  The constant feedback when hovering over different units such as “winded” or “nervous from suffering casualties” adds to the experience. The Naval combat is more of the same, formations, attacking and boarding – though that’s not an understatement. The Naval battles are easily the most cinematic in the game. Watching your Samurai board another boat and take it over is one of the most satisfying feelings a commander can have. Though if taking to the sea is not your cup of tea, Shogun can be played mostly on dry land.

Now, once the single-player portion is out of the way, Shogun 2 has a deep online mode for you to sink hours into. You can customize your general’s appearance as well as skills, once again furthering the player driven Total War experience. The “Avatar Conquest” brings much more to the table then selecting a lobby and pitting your skills against another player – It has a deep meta-game, allowing you to fight over different sections of land akin to a RISK board, which in turn reaps new benefits for your commander, like new units or bonuses. The matchmaking works surprisingly well, and the net code is really well written – In my experience I had little to no lag, even with distant opponents.

Battle For Glory, Alone or Online

That’s the beauty of Shogun 2.  With the constant leveling of units, planning between seasons for optimum efficiency and using Diplomacy and Agents to your advantage, it’s truly a customizable experience. Though the landmass is smaller, it leaves a more focused feeling for the series. The game can be painfully slow in certain spots (even for a Total War game) and the AI sometimes has a mind of it’s own, but Total War fans will feel satisfied with Shogun 2 and then some. It retains all the hallmarks of the series like interesting Historical moments, precise tactical gameplay and battles of a grand scale, but improves upon subtle things like managing your populace and making your Generals feel more unique and hardened.

So study up Sun Tzu’s art of war, strap on your helmet and get ready to storm the cherry blossom littered grounds of Japan – Just don’t expect to see any shields.

Here’s The Rundown:

+ Most refined Total War game to date

+ Co-Operative Campaign is a blast, provided you have a patient friend

-  Can be painfully slow, especially with the multitude of Clans/Factions taking turns

- Not as much variation in unit types, especially early on

Total War: Shogun 2 was developed by The Creative Assembly and published by SEGA.  It was released for the PC on March 15th, 2011 for $49.99.  Aaron played it for over three weeks before writing this review.  If you doubt him, prepare to face the might of his armies.