The Total War games are my single favourite game series of the last decade. That is saying something considering I wasn’t crazy about Rome (which is the last thing you’d say to TW diehards, but hey), and I’ve never even played Napoleon. Below I’m going to express my heartfelt views on Shogun 2 thus far, in light of its older siblings.
It can be agreed, I daresay, that the weakest entry in the Total War series was Empire, a game set over the 18th century and spanning continents. I’m inclined to ignore Napoleon entirely for this article, if only because I cannot speak with any authority on it. Empire left me with a sour taste, and it turned me off the series even if it was eventually de-bugged a few months after going gold. Through all this, one can usually rely on wily little modders to bring out the best in the game, but support from Creative Assembly for modders for Empire was almost non-existent. Even at the time it was pretty clear why, and it’s also partly the reason Empire felt so incomplete.
For a game set in the sprawling 18th century, Empire seemed curiously distracted. The new gun-based combat and gunboat diplomacy was there, but the context felt half-hearted. Info boxes that popped up each turn anachronistically featured figures in top hats and 19th century garb. The tech tree seemed preoccupied with steam power, and sidled quietly past the great advances of the Age of Reason. Blurbs from the developer mentioned being able to get Napoleon as a junior officer and play out the French revolution. In short, the game resembled a beta for some Napoleonic-themed game that CA were still making. And then, barely months after Empire appeared, they announced not an expansion, but a whole new title, and everything made sense: Empire, for all its ambition, was Napoleon‘s failed older brother, and here was the game CA had been making all along.
It’s perhaps unfair to judge Empire‘s veracity against something as hard-edged as history itself, but I love the 1700s, or at least I love how the 1700s have been portrayed and celebrated previously in popular culture, and there was so much colour and character that the game seemingly overlooked in its haste to get to 1776. Where were the flouncy costumes and perukes of Louis XIV’s court? The jaunty typefaces? The baroque music? The soundtrack sought to be more, well, soundtrack-y than historic, which is fine, but here is where Empire‘s other failing comes in. It’s not something fanboys on forums fumed over (that was the lack of AI sea invasions, FYI). It was, for me, the GUI.
I was forwarded an advert for a GUI artist at CA a couple of weeks ago, and the thought actually struck me that “here’s my chance to get in there and show them how they got it wrong”*. You see, the TW games are filmic. We can assume that this has been their aim from day one, because Shogun came with a ‘make wide-screen’ option which letterboxed the view and seemed to say “yes, we’re thinking of Ran too”. As Jim Rossignol says over at RPS, there are a lot of reasons why TW games aren’t interesting. But one reason they are is because you can see your wall of steel crashing into the enemy’s, and for a few seconds, forget you’re commanding a digital army of wee men and enjoy the spectacle.
I could write a whole other article (and I probably will) on why I love and still play Shogun 1. But when you compare a game as late as Medieval 2 with Empire, you see a worrying sea change. The UI in Empire is everywhere, inescapable and overbearing; you now have arcs of fire helpfully showing exactly where your men can shoot their men; all 200 or so soldiers in each unit light up like fucking Christmas trees when your cursor passes over them. All manner of graphics and imagery are flung at you when before a couple of simple words sufficed.
Ultimately much of it is superfluous and in short, you are constantly aware of the artificial machinery governing the combat; you can no longer lose yourself in the game as easily. Compare the behemoth that is Third Age: Total War (frankly a triumph of user-made entertainment) to Empire and it’s not only the former’s movie heritage that makes it so welcoming to the strategy escapist. M2TW’s front-end doesn’t do fire arcs, or highlight bullets as white streaks in flight. The cursor goes green when it hovers within your missile range, and that’s all we need. Players aren’t morons, and missile troops fire automatically anyway so what’s the deal?
Shogun 2 is, certainly, a masterclass of compromise. It has shaved off much of the scale and size of its predecessors and gone back to the rock-paper-scissors dynamic that made the original so streamlined. This will definitely feel like a regression to players of Empire and Napoleon, but bare with it – it’s for the best. Gone are the hundreds (and hundreds) of units which made up Empire‘s arsenal (and were, honestly, samey). Now we have spearmen, archers and cavalry. That’s pretty much it- one is effective against another, and vulnerable to attack from the other. CA have added a bunch of special units and abilities to the game, like Monkz with Gunz, which seem fresh and arcade-y but are in reality the natural culmination of tweaks and ideas ventured in the previous games.
The campaign map is again a coup in the name of compromise. The original game took place not on a living world a la Empire, but a hand-drawn paper map, presumably in your clan stronghold, where you moved figures that made satisfying plonk sounds when you set them in an enemy province. This was more immersive than later games, but also hamstrung by the tropes of any Risk-based system. The drawbacks were finally remedied with Empire in which aggressive defence was preferable over waiting inside your castle, and an army could no longer bypass an enemy, with the introduction of zones of influence.
Shogun 2‘s diplomatic machinery has benefited from the advances made in Empire. The key to success now is honour. In Shogun 1 treaties and alliances, what few there were, were simply opportunities to delay war with one faction while conquering another, at which point you would turn on your unsuspecting neighbour and butcher them also, at no detriment to your standing amongst the other clans. Now, such ‘dishonourable’ behaviour, (which also includes getting caught using ninjas, becoming Christian and being too soft on your underlings) directly affects how other daimyos see you and treat you. A very similar system was present in Empire and rightfully punished the expansionist player by withering diplomatic relations with competing powers. The idea, again, didn’t truly blossom until modders fine-tuned it.
Shogun 2 also brings back the ninja videos in force, which were immensely entertaining and cranked up the tension by cleverly featuring several videos which were almost identical save for a missed dart or a suspicious guard in the last few seconds. I have to admit that so far I haven’t played multiplayer, but if I’m being honest I’ve never played multiplayer in TW, so I have little to compare it to. The sea battles have also seen a sensible revamping which pays tribute to the era while also making them a lot less boring, more rewarding and more fun, even if they still come down to a matter of quantity over generalship.
The music has gone back to the original’s dynamic scoring, which is welcome but certainly no deal-breaker. The voice acting is strong and varied. The fact that the units yell in Japanese reduces the chance of it becoming grating than the voices of previous games. I sense attention spans waning so I’m going to save the rest for part 2, which probably won’t appear until Shogun 2 is actually out. Until keep your eyes right here for other stuff and tings.
*That’s assuming I have enough UI work in my folio, which is unlikely…