I’m in no mood for pleasantries this morning. For the past two years, Okabayashi Michitane has led our clan to glorious victory over our honourable, departed adversaries.
He is a master strategist, an aspiring poet and a cavalry commander of the highest order; strong in defence, stronger still when attacking. In battle, his hand rests with ease on the pommel of Amaterasu’s sword: “Only the very greatest would consider drawing the sword of a goddess. Only a fool would stand against it.”
In autumn, I heard rumour that Okabayashi-san’s loyalties were in question. This is not the first time. On that prior occasion I had given him the benefit of the doubt – his unparalleled expertise was necessary in my conquest of the Urakami’s provinces. But with the Urakami disposed of this summer past, I could no longer ignore the whispers that impugned my honour as Daimyo of the Chosokabe clan. Doubtless, his conniving wife was pouring poison in his ear and fuelling his delusions of grandeur. I signed the order that my general commit seppuku.
Today, I received word that Okabayashi-san dutifully plunged his own blade into his belly and disembowelled himself in accordance with my will. It’s a shame that he has retained his family’s honour: I had a mind to make his wife a consort to the unwashed Nanban traders that run a district in the former Urakami capital, Bizen, and to make his infant son sport for my finest hunting falcons.
Until I can overcome the disappointment of this missed opportunity, my retainers will have to endure my barbed tongue.
Such are the decisions aspiring Daimyo must make in Shogun 2, a re-imagining that brings a decade of technological advances to bear on a game that launched a minor revolution in the real-time strategy genre. Like the original, Shogun 2 transports armchair generals to the high tide of feudal Japan. On a campaign map, players administrate one of ten powerful warring clans, constructing pastoral, economical, ecumenical and military buildings. They must enter into the niceties of diplomacy and secure trade. They’ll seek strategic advantage by enlisting the skills of metsuke, geisha, ninja and more; agents who deal in espionage, intrigue, subterfuge and assassination. They’ll manoeuvre mighty armies across 60 provinces before engaging in spectacular real-time battles featuring thousands of Samurai.
After the continent spanning maps of more recent Total War instalments, Shogun 2’s much tighter parameters and vast character customisation options create an experience that is far richer and more deeply immersive. It’s worth noting that I’m not easily given over to role-playing but it’s almost impossible not to wrap yourself up in the detailed silk kimono the team at the Creative Assembly obligingly proffer. If the speculative fates of Okabayashi’s wife and son are one writer’s flight of fancy, all the other details from the scenario outlined above are indeed true to the game.
All agents and generals have access to large class-specific skill trees, and each can be moulded to excel in particular areas. General Okabayashi, for example, had been built to lead my offensive forces in expeditions into neighbouring territories. His skill points were invested to reflect that role. Shame about the loyalty penalty caused by his wife, really – perhaps I should have married him to my daughter?
These characters can also collect items and retainers. Another of my generals, who patrols a hostile border, has in his retinue a surgeon, granting a bonus to unit replenishment rate under his command. Elsewhere, my primary assassination-focused ninja keeps a geisha costume handy in order make a clean exit after a kill. Then there is – was – Okabayashi’s supposedly-legendary sword, an item that inspired his forces and caused despair amongst his enemy.
Clans, too, have traits. Some of these are predefined. The Chosokabe have unmatched archers, while other clans boast prodigious farmers or are masters of intrigue. Once on the campaign map, however, clans can research Chi and Bushido skills that grant select passive bonuses to the two core elements of the game, campaign strategy and real-time warfare.
Campaign AI feels natural and is occasionally brushed with a genuine tinge of humanity: rival Daimyo will bluster and connive, become haughty or desperate. Your AI opponents rarely perform in a manner so unfathomable that you get a glimpse of the machine behind their actions.
On the battlefield, AI is somewhat improved. The Creative Assembly have dramatically reduced the available unit types in the game to 60 from the dizzying heights of more than 300 in Napoleon. The objective is to turn each unit into either “rock”, “paper”, or “scissors” thus making tactical decisions a less fraught process: you’ll know the principle functions and strengths of opposing units.
AI armies are also less prone to being broken up and consumed piecemeal. That said, with a little micromanagement, spear units, the excitable rocks, can be coerced out of rank with a feint by scissor-like cavalry only to get whittled down by volleys from paper archers. Similarly, skirmishing archers can bait an ill-considered cavalry charge onto the tips of nearby spears. And on.
Siege warfare is also a more attractive proposition as all units are now able to scale walls, but naval battles featuring box-like ships powered by oars lack some of the majesty or mystique of the Napoleonic and Imperial entries in the Total War series.
As with the more recent Total War games, any misgivings about the battle AI can be put aside by checking the drop-in battle box before an engagement. This finds a human opponent online to control the opposing army. It’s an acceptable stop-gap, but anonymous strangers sometimes feel like unwelcome guests in your singleplayer campaign.
Online campaigns also return. Like Napoleon, these can be played either cooperatively or competitively. When playing cooperatively, the player controlling a battle can gift units to their ally in battle, meaning they’re no longer merely spectators. If both players have armies represented in a battle, they are no longer auto-resolved.
These are necessary, iterative improvements for the series. But where Shogun 2 seeks to make its mark is with the new Avatar Conquest mode. In essence, it adds character levelling to the standard skirmish mode. You build a persistent character by investing experience points gained in online battle. Each province on the campaign map confers a bonus and after setting your sights on one, you’re matched against another force.
As with standard skirmishes from earlier entries in the series, units cost money to field so generals with veteran or powerful units will not have an advantage. Avatar Conquest mode is sure to add longevity to Shogun 2 well after the polish of the singleplayer campaign has faded.
That’s unlikely to be any time soon. When announcing this game last year, the Creative Assembly stated they’d set out to create what they called “the Zen of the Total War series” – a title with none of the superfluous or poorly implemented features that have put just the slightest limp in the franchise’s indomitable march. Shogun 2 is a tour de force, plunging even the most detached and practical of real-time strategy fans into the heady waters of the Shengoku Jidai.