Japan, winter 1864.
No longer immune to gaijin influence, the various factions controlling the country have redrawn the battle lines along the ever-competing interests of progress and tradition. The crows don’t know it yet, but they’re going to do very well over the next few years.
Set in the twilight of the 19th Century, Total War: Shogun 2 Fall of the Samurai is the most modern beast in the Creative Assembly’s stables, and it shows in the updated roster of over 50 new land and sea units set to witness the final curtain call of the noble warriors. Forested hillsides once studded with arrows now ring out to the sound of volleyed rifle fire, and steam-powered ships prowl the coast which slowly but surely begins to bear the taint of industry.
Taking place over the course of a few short years, a single year in Fall of the Samurai is now divided into 24 turns, giving greater emphasis to the tactical significance of seasonal warfare. Winter, which lasts an inhospitable six turns, is a good time to lay low and replenish battle weary soldiers before the spring thaw. When the warmer months finally swing around, it’s time to put down recalcitrant rivals, but be aware that the campaign map has been expanded to include the northern island of Ezo. If the thought of such a long march has the troops grumbling, keep in mind that fancy new spangled technology such as railroad dramatically shortens the time it takes to bring the fight to the enemy.
Whether riding under the banner of the pragmatic Shogunate or the obstinate ways of the Imperial faction when the Boshin War kicks off, the degree to which a faction embraces the influx of new technology is left up to the player. Lightly armoured riflemen are still as susceptible to sharpened steel as any, so victory in the early stages of the campaign requires a nuanced approach to the old and new ways of waging war, although traditional units will find it harder to compete as training and the quality of new weapons advances.
When the screech of the Iron Horse finally begins to drown out the sound of pounding hoof beats left behind in its hazy wake, it’s worth noting that for all the prosperity and near-unmatched advantages brought by modern technology, the humble peasantry may be less hospitable to such rapid change. A tactful hand and a watchful eye is necessary when it comes to equipping the latest Western arms, lest the people voice their concerns with open dissent. If repression isn’t maintained, revolting armies of traditional Samurai can quickly upend sleepy home provinces into chaos, which doesn’t bode well for campaigns further afield.
Additionally, railroad stations and other costly key pieces of infrastructure are just as vulnerable to the wanton attention of new agents. The Ishen-Shishi and Shinsengumi of the Imperial and Shogunate factions can be used alongside ninja and geisha to delay army movements and subtlety confound other factions’ progress behind enemy lines. Their inclusion adds to the prevailing mood of the conflict, but there’s nothing particularly different about their abilities.
Along with foreign mercenary units such as United States Marines and French infanterie de marine, the clash of East versus West is further intensified by the new Foreign Veteran agents. Like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, these guys are qualified killers with ostensibly chequered histories. Aside from reduced unit training times, they offer serious experience bonuses when attached to armies, and are extremely efficient when it comes to challenging rival daimyo.
In keeping with the times, naval power is now more important than ever. Trade with neighbours and the outside world is the lifeblood of a faction, bringing in riches required to sustain standing armies and the lockstep march of conquest and modernisation. Hence the need for fancy new Ironclads to patrol the coasts whilst preventing economy-crippling blockades.
Aside from looking totally badass, these sombre knights of the sea are also capable of laying down a beating savage enough to put any sake hangover to shame. When the fleet is in range, generals have the ability to call down fire support on the opposition. Ten seconds is all it takes for hell to be unleashed, and if the accuracy of a 19th century beat down leaves a little to be desired, even the effect of a near-miss can be decisive.
Though bombardment can also be used to harry armies and settlements near the coast, the introduction of port sieges gives naval units even more use. Attackers sailing into harbour must contend with defending fleets and on-shore cannon emplacements. It’s a small, possibly overdue addition to naval gameplay in the Total War series, but one that’s all the more relevant for the time period.
Torpedoes are another useful newcomer. Despite their relative primitiveness, the horrific sight of several streaking their way toward the fleet ought to take the wind out of any admiral’s sails as he frantically tries to manoeuvre out of their path.
Another new feature is the ability to directly control artillery pieces and gatling guns via the H key. This first-person view may seem heretical to diehard Total War veterans, particularly as it requires taking eyes off the battlefield, but there’s a real novelty in watching charging soldiers fall like cut grass, or following a cannonball as it careens into enemy ranks.
All in all, there isn’t too much to dislike here. The AI is still a little off from perfection, but allies are conspicuously proactive on the campaign map and on the battlefield enemy generals seem smarter than ever when it comes to keeping their forces marshalled. Avatar Conquest mode in multiplayer has also been given a complete 19th Century refurbishment, with new retainers, specialist skill-trees and modern accessories for the discerning general.
In developing Fall of the Samurai, the Creative Assembly have balanced the introduction of new units and technology against the pared-back, wholesome simplicity of Shogun 2, avoiding the gaudy complexity of previous instalments. At the same time, it has accurately captured the decidedly ungraceful decline of the Samurai in the fast times of the late 19th Century, which is evident not only in the compacted campaign and transport improvements, but also in smaller touches such as the music which echoes the player’s efforts toward modernisation or reticence to change.
After a decade of development, and thousands of years of bloodshed and territorial domination, it seems the Total War series has come full circle. Fall of the Samurai is the resounding conclusion, a well-thought out, well-crafted game that puts comparable expansions to shame.