Shogun 2 impressions: THIS is a difficulty spike

EDIT: I’ve since won the Shogun 2 campaign! You can find my updated views on diplomacy here, and my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

 

 

A while back I declared that I’d hold off buying Shogun 2, but in the end, positive reviews and word of mouth, even from skeptics of the series, were enough to change my mind. I’ve now played an abortive campaign as the Oda on Normal, and I’m in the early-to-midgame of a Shimazu campaign on Hard. What are my impressions the game now that I’ve had the chance to play the full version?

 

For starters, two points were quick to jump out at me:

 

1. Shogun 2 is much more user-friendly than its predecessors: Compared to the earlier games, Shogun 2’s interface makes it much easier to keep track of your empire. In Shogun 2, a handy panel on the right-hand side of the screen that allows you to quickly jump to any army, province, fleet, and so on (a little bit like the information panel in Europa Universalis III). Previously, you had to open up separate menus to access this information; now, not only is it more convenient to access, it makes it much easier to hop between locations on the map. And Shogun 2 also makes an effort to better document itself: the various unit blurbs and statistics are now collated in the in-game encyclopaedia.

 

2. The diplomatic AI lives on the same planet as the player (on Normal difficulty): One issue endemic to strategy games is computer players that just will not say die. Their armies can be shattered, their homelands aflame; no matter, when you drag them to the negotiating table, they’ll demand your firstborn. But my Oda game was an overdue exception – if I beat a rival clan badly enough, they’d come to me begging for peace, and once I was even able to use diplomacy to demand a beaten clan become my vassal. I am not sure, however, whether the diplomatic AI is always sensible on the higher difficulty levels; in my Hard Shimazu game, AI players have a stubborn tendency to outright refuse (without even making counter-offers!) to sign trade agreements with me. (That said, even on Hard, the AI will surrender when it knows it’s beaten.)

 

And as I played more of the game, a more fundamental difference jumped out at me. My standard gripe with the Total War games – again, as with many other strategy games – is that they’re challenging for a few turns, then I break out of my starting position and snowball until I grow bored and quit.  Shogun 2 changes this formula in two ways: it’s both shorter and sharper.

 

3. In Shogun 2, the short campaign really does seem short: The short campaign requires the player to conquer 25 provinces, including Kyoto – and in about five or six hours of play as the Oda (and auto-resolving trivial battles), I wasn’t far off from the 20-province mark. I think that a skilful player, on Normal, could finish the short campaign over a single weekend, which is a pleasant change from long slogfests. However, in order to finish, you’d have to survive the endgame. And that leads me to my next point….

 

4. This game is the textbook example of a “difficulty spike”: All too rare in grand strategy games, Shogun 2 finishes with a bang rather than a fizzle. This is how my Oda campaign, on normal, compares to the other Total War games I’ve played:

 

Shogun 2 - the difficulty spike is not an exaggeration
Shogun 2 - the difficulty spike is not an exaggeration

 

Remember the win condition in the short campaign is to capture 25 provinces including Kyoto? Well, when you draw too near to victory by capturing 20-odd provinces (the precise number can vary) or Kyoto, that is Shogun 2’s “crossing the Rubicon” moment. This triggers a “realm divide” event that will make almost every single computer player in the game declare war on you. Allies, trade partners, neutrals, formerly subservient vassals, even clans all the way on the other end of Japan – all of them will soon be at your throat. UPDATE – I have corrected this observation; refer to my post on the game’s diplomacy.

Now, from a thematic perspective, I like this a lot, for the same reason that I liked the noble lords dashing for the capital at the end of an old strategy game, Emperor of the Fading Suns. From a game structure perspective, I like this, too – I’ve argued before that games should build to a climax, and showdowns don’t come much more climactic than Player vs Everyone Else.

But a clever difficulty spike is still a difficulty spike. My Oda game went from “pushover” to “unwinnable” in the blink of an eye, as armies attacked me on every front. I had been able to coast up until that point; my fortifications were pretty minimal and my armies largely consisted of ashigaru zerg swarms, but they worked. By the time realm divide rolled around, I was complacent. Boy, did the actual endgame come as a nasty shock after that. Given that I did complain about the series’ tendency to have “a drawn-out, grindy and ultimately boring late game”, maybe this was a case of “be careful what you wish for”…

 

So far, the game is promising enough for me to keep playing. This time, with the Shimazu, I intend to dig in and tech up as much as I can before realm divide sets in. I’ve set the campaign length to “short”, this time, so the game should end on a high note with the realm divide showdown. And I’m looking forward to that, even after the hammering I took the first time. Finally, a challenge worthy of the name “Total War”!

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