There’s a change in the wind blowing over the misty isles and tiered rice paddies of Japan, and it’s coming at roughly 200 rounds per minute.
The Creative Assembly has taken a 300 year leap forward to the 1860s for its standalone expansion to Shogun 2: Total War, and whilst the Samurai remain reluctant to part with their honourable traditions in the name of barbarian progress, some of their fellow countrymen have since traded up for fancy Western threads and ordnance, redefining battlefield dynamics for the stoic warriors of yesteryear.
2012 is the Year of the Dragon, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to see that The Creative Assembly has conveniently based its latest Total War iteration around a bloody ten-year conflict known as the Boshin War, or the War of the Year of the Dragon. The first major growing pains for a nation struggling to come to terms with the past and the future see the Western-aligned Shogunate come to blows with the traditionalist Imperials, while years have been squeezed into 24 turns in order to compensate for the compressed timeframe.
Whether players decide to attempt to restore the Emperor to his former glory, to throw their lot in with the Shogunate or opt to go it alone, social and political tensions in the land of the Chrysanthemum are being inflamed by the encroach of Western interests. The effects of modernisation are a double-edged sword, as factories and railroads are researched and constructed across the provinces to move troops further and faster to the fore, the abilities of the Samurai will suffer and the common citizenry will grow uneasy as the old ways are forcefully swept aside by the dastardly duo of steam and gunpowder.
Fall of the Samurai introduces 40 new units to crush the opposition with, though both factions will have to carefully balance the old with the new if they’re to toast the fallen once the smoke clears from the field. Traditional units such as archers, spearmen and the mighty Samurai may find themselves outgunned by devastating volleys of smoothbore rifle fire, but slow moving artillery units and infantry remain just as vulnerable to deadly katana charges that haven’t lost their edge in spite of their age.
The potential unit roster has also been bumped up to 40, making for some epically scaled battles when supporting armies jump in on the melee.
Along with steam ships and early torpedo boats, Ironclad ships make a striking debut with their impressive firepower, but more notable is the fact that naval units can bombard land units from offshore with their heavy cannons when positioned near the battlefield. These guns are by no means accurate, but the withering fire they produce may provide players with a crucial edge when they need it the most, especially during difficult sieges.
In accordance with the politics of this unstable era there are new agents to contend with, as Ishen-Shishi agitators of the Imperial faction face off against the Shinsengumi special warrior police of the Shogunate forces. Both factions can also hire Captain Nathan Algren-esque foreign veterans as a means of enhancing experience gains and reducing unit training times. Courting foreign powers such as the British and French brings trade and technological advantages to the table, alongside foreign units such as the Royal Marines to spice things up a little.
As the action begins to really heat up later in the game, the foreboding Gatling gun takes centre-stage. Aside from its imposing ability to rout battle-hardened warriors with just a few swift turns of the crank, players will also be able to take direct control of the gun via the ‘H’ key for that “whites of their eyes” feel, or “limb-rending gore” as it were. This first-person feature carries on to certain artillery units, offering a new level of control and just a little bit of cinematic flair to the franchise.
From the battlefield to the updated campaign map, it’s clear that life in Japan is about to enter a brave new era, even if the old guard aren’t going to take outsider interference lightly. As always, it’s the subtle touches that help to bring the Total War series to life. The northern island of Ezo has been included this time around, expanding the campaign’s strategic scope, and the map design itself has taken on a suitably more ordered, Western form of cartography.
Eventually steam trains begin weaving their way through clusters of soot-streaked smokestacks, while the in-game music will in time come to reflect how closely players align their interests to the forces of change.
Fall of the Samurai may be the most recent period of history that The Creative Assembly has dared to capture with its franchise, but at this point it looks to be shaping up as a worthy heir to its parent title.
Keep your blades sharpened and your pistols polished for March 23rd.