Shogun 2 impressions: THIS is a difficulty spike

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

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”!

Total War? Only for the undiplomatic: the lessons of Shogun 2

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Update: You can find my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

Total War: Shogun 2: A diplomatic victory, but not in the way you’d think

I’ve now finished the Total War: Shogun 2 campaign (short length, Hard campaign difficulty and Normal battle difficulty, playing as the Shimazu), and I can update one of my earlier impressions. In my previous post, I mentioned that getting too close to the finish line would trigger “realm divide” – a final showdown, with “almost every single computer player in the game [declaring] war” on the human.  It turns out this is not quite correct: even after realm divide I was able to stay on good terms with several allies both large and small. How did I pull this off?

You see, realm divide’s effect is indirect – it works by lowering the human player’s relationship with the AI  players. This negative modifier is big to begin with, and grows turn after turn after turn (there is a cap, but it’s ridiculously large). When that relationship becomes sufficiently negative, the computer will declare war1.

The trick, then, is to pile on every positive modifier possible. Research techs (such as the tea ceremony) that grant a bonus to diplomacy, and keep your daimyo’s honour high so everyone will be more fond of you. Then bribe your chosen buddies to get the ball rolling. Once they’ll agree to it, wed their daughters (or vice-versa) for another, large positive modifier. Strike an alliance for a further boost to relations. Exchange hostages – in my case, an eight-year-old grandson – for yet another boost. And for good measure, declare war on their current enemies (you’ll fight them anyway once the realm divides) for a final bonus.

The net effect: I never had to take on more than a handful of enemy factions, and the ones I did fight were usually busy with wars on other fronts as well! Good relationships bought me the time to win the game before my allies, too, turned on me.  In other words, diplomacy made the final war manageable before I fired the first shot. That is how it should work in a game like this.

How Shogun 2’s diplomacy stacks up to other games

Seeing diplomacy done properly in Shogun 2 underscores how weak it was in the previous Total War games. Afterwards, I loaded up Empire: Total War – from 2009, just two years ago – to compare the available diplomatic options, and boy, has Shogun 2 come a long way since then. Empire has barely any tools I can use to influence a relationship – I can give gifts, I can return land, and, uh, that’s about it – and the options which are there, in my experience, do not work nearly so well as they do in Shogun 2. Suicidal computer players, ahoy!

Shogun 2 also showed up the weakness in the diplomatic system of another game, one you might not immediately think of: Civilization V. Its predecessor, Civ IV, is much like Shogun 2 in that it provides plenty of ways to butter up a computer player, from trade to missionaries and shared faith to open borders. Civ V is a big step back from that. It offers a bare handful of ways to influence a relationship (I can sign “declarations of friendship”, denounce people I don’t like, and… what else?); those features present are poorly documented; and the computer’s attitude can feel infuriatingly random. This was not helped by a design decision to make diplomacy feel more like interacting with other humans – who are explicitly out to win, who are harder to read, and who are more prone to treachery – and less like the application of a game system. Firaxis undid some of the damage in a patch that allowed you to see some of the factors underlying the computer’s attitude, but the lack of diplomatic tools remains. The overall result, as I wrote around Christmas 2010, is an unpleasant throwback to Civ I, a game that’s 20 years old this year.

In contrast, Shogun 2 does appear to owe something to another game renowned for its diplomacy: Galactic Civilizations II, the 2006 4X game from Stardock. I only played a moderate amount of GalCiv2, but I did observe that like Civ IV and Shogun 2, it offered plenty of tools to influence relationships – including techs that conferred a bonus to diplomacy, an idea that Shogun 2 may well have picked up from here.

What makes Shogun 2’s diplomacy work – lessons for other strategy games

What underpins the successful diplomacy in Shogun 2 is the clear link between investment and payoff. In an RPG, if I spend points on my speech skill, that visibly pays off when I unlock new dialogue options. In Shogun 2, if I spend my money raising an army, that visibly pays off when I take my new recruits and use them to conquer my neighbour. And in Shogun 2, if I spend my money on bribes/gifts to other factions, my in-game time researching the tea ceremony when I could be researching gunpowder, and my real-world time messing around in diplomacy screens, that visibly pays off in a secure border and healthy profits from trade.

In turn, this is the result of both successful design and execution. From a design perspective, Shogun 2 provides players with a whole menu of options, most of which involve a tradeoff of some kind (the “investment” part of the equation), while making it very difficult to take on everyone at once in the endgame, especially in the absence of trade income (the “payoff” part of the equation). And from an execution standpoint, these tools work because the diplomatic AI in Shogun 2 is not – at least, in my experience so far – the spiteful and bloody-minded brute that it is in so many other games. Offer a good enough deal, and it will accept. Treat it well enough, and it will be your staunch ally for years.

The benefits to gameplay are real. Good in-game diplomacy means less whack-a-mole, more choices, more strategy. More intangibly, it contributes to immersion and suspension of disbelief. RPGs have party members and non-violent quest solutions, adventure games and shooters have sidekicks and snappy dialogue, Gondor had Rohan, and strategy games should have proper alliances. If even so martial a game as Shogun 2 can succeed here, then other strategy games should follow suit and offer us the rewards of jaw-jaw.

  1. I believe, but do not know for a fact, that realm divide makes the computer more willing to go to war when the relationship is negative (whereas pre-realm divide, a computer player that hates my guts may be more willing to keep the peace). This is conjecture, though, based on how quickly the computer is willing to attack, post realm-divide, once the relationship becomes low enough.

Total War: Shogun 2 – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

This is the third post in my series on Shogun 2. You can find my early impressions here and my write-up of the game’s diplomacy here.

 

 

Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in Creative Assembly’s grand strategy, conquer-all-before-you franchise, and its core strengths are those of the series as a whole. Play Shogun 2 for making you feel a master strategist as you build cities; develop farms and mines; raise armies and march them across a beautifully drawn map of Sengoku Japan. When those armies meet, play Shogun 2 for making you feel a natural general as your samurai flow across the battlefield with an easy click of the mouse. Play Shogun 2 for the tension as you wonder how long your beleaguered men can hold, and for the thrill of triumph as you tilt the balance with one well-timed charge.

 

But unlike its predecessors, Shogun 2 offers more than that, for this is the game where Creative Assembly applied the lessons learned from earlier missteps. Where previous Total War titles started strong but wore out their welcomes with boring late games, Shogun 2 is about planning and preparing and gathering momentum for a decisive endgame showdown. Where previous Total War titles were aptly named because diplomacy was so dysfunctional, Shogun 2 makes diplomacy not only viable, but a vital part of the preparation for that showdown. Where previous Total War titles were buggy and often crash-prone, Shogun 2 seems much more stable. Where previous Total War titles suffered from risibly inept AI, Shogun 2’s computer opponent appears more capable (though it still sends generals on suicidal cavalry charges, while failing to repair ships). Last but not least, where it was painful to keep track of a growing empire in previous Total War titles, Shogun 2 offers a far more user-friendly and better-documented experience.

 

In technical terms, then, Shogun 2 is a very good strategy game, one from which other developers could learn, and one that benefits from being built upon the foundations of previous mistakes. It even nails pacing and diplomacy, two elements that strategy games struggle to get right. The question of whether it is a great game is more subjective. As a game, Shogun 2 is so much better implemented than Empire: Total War that it makes me sad for the wasted potential in the latter, but I will still cherish how Empire brought to life a pivotal historical period and the real-world importance of seapower. Shogun 2 sheds no such light for me, but this is more a function of my own interests* rather than being any fault of the game’s. All in all, I would recommend Shogun 2 to any strategy gamer (especially one interested in the Sengoku era!) who would like to see the series’ core mechanics at their most refined.

 

*  While I am interested in Shogun 2’s subject matter, the Sengoku era in Japan, I am even more interested in Empire: Total War’s scope and subject matter: the Enlightenment, the wars of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the modern world.

 

You can buy Total War: Shogun 2 from Amazon here.

 

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

 

The basis of my review

 

 

Length of time spent with Shogun 2: Roughly 29-30 hours’ playtime (adjusted for time spent away from the keyboard).

 

What I have played: Two short campaigns (one aborted as the Oda, one won as the Shimazu), two historical battles, several custom battles, several “classic mode” multiplayer battles.

 

What I haven’t played: The avatar conquest multiplayer mode, the multiplayer campaign.

Ninja FAIL

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Fresh from winning every* battle in a Shogun 2: Rise of the Samurai campaign and still losing the war, I found some much-needed comic relief in the following video.

 

 

My favourite segment is the one beginning at 0:18, but it wasn’t an easy pick!

 

Separately, Matchsticks for my Eyes wishes you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Thanks for reading, and may you experience many wonderful stories in the years to come!

 

* Okay, almost every.

Postcards from Sengoku Japan: The Mori’s Last Stand

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Making a game’s visuals spectacular is a technical achievement. Making them beautiful is an artistic one, and at its best, Shogun 2 delivers both. Here, as a vastly superior enemy army marches out of the fog, the Mori clan prepares to make its last stand. (To be precise, my last stand. This is what happens when I attempt an econ strategy before securing my borders.)

Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai first impressions

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
"The Battle of Hakodate", c. 1880. Artist unknown. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Note: my final review can be found here.

 

With its promise of firearms, ironclads, and railroads, I was eager to leap into Fall of the Samurai, the nineteenth century-themed expansion to Shogun 2. After getting ~70-80 turns (up to 1867) in my abortive first campaign on “hard” difficulty, starting a second hard campaign, and then reaching the mid/late game (1866) of a third campaign on “normal” (all three times as the Nagaoka clan), here are my early thoughts:

 

I like the balance between firearm and traditional units. At first, cheap spear levies should remain the core of any army – early muskets are inaccurate and slow-firing, which makes levy musketeers better suited to manning fortress walls than to the open field. However, it doesn’t take long (~12 turns) to unlock modern rifles, which shoot much faster and more accurately than the muskets. Train up a decent force of riflemen (again, this doesn’t take long; they’re not too expensive, and they only take a single turn to recruit), and you can safely relegate the spearmen to anti-cavalry support or castle wall fodder. And not only does better technology unlock new units, it also grants bonuses to the basic ones, so those basic riflemen remain useful later on. In my first game, it was a delight to give a whole army of charging samurai a lesson in modern warfare.

 

Fortress assaults are even more lethal, due to the ubiquity of guns. Against well-defended castles, artillery seems to be essential.

 

I have yet to get the hang of naval warfare. Unlike Empire and Napoleon: Total War, all the ships are steam-powered, so the wind doesn’t play as big a role as it did in those games. For now, it seems to be a matter of bringing the most (and the most technologically advanced) cannon, engaging broadside to broadside, and praying one of your ships doesn’t blow up to a lucky hit. I have not yet unlocked the high-end naval units (ironclads and torpedo boats), so these might shake up the equation.

 

Naval bombardments are cool without unbalancing the game. If a land battle takes place near a friendly fleet, you can call in up to two barrages. While powerful, they have a very long cooldown and aren’t especially precise, so navies aren’t the “I win” button.

 

Money is harder to come by. There are no more trade nodes, so to obtain goods for export (silk, tea, etc), you have to seize the provinces where they’re produced. As such, resource-producing provinces are now far more valuable than in the base game. This is even more pronounced when playing on “hard” difficulty, in which everything is more expensive.

 

On “hard”, the AI loves to dogpile you – especially if you’re at war with its allies. You do get significant diplomatic bonuses with clans that share your allegiance (pro-shogun or pro-imperial), but that, by itself, is no guarantee of your safety. In this regard, Fall feels similar to the previous expansion pack, Rise of the Samurai.

 

The in-battle voices have deteriorated. No more Japanese voice acting from your units, no more “yari ashigaru de gozaimasu!”, and no more advisor yelling, “shameful display!” Instead units acknowledge orders in accented English a la Rome: Total War, and the battle commentary now comes from a hammy, booming-voiced, all-American sort (“The enemies’ allies run like he-eathens from a preacher, sir!”). I liked things better in the original. Still, this is a relatively minor problem for me.

 

The “hard” difficulty setting lives up to its name – after a while, I found it more frustrating than fun. “Hard equates to more demands on less money (costlier buildings + more enemy armies to fight), and the overall difficulty is closer to Rise of the Samurai than to the base game. Unless you’re a lot better than me at Shogun 2, I don’t recommend Hard for your first game.

 

Meanwhile, “normal” turned out to be pretty easy once I  hit the midgame. It would be nice if there were a difficulty setting in between. (Of course, realm divide could shake me out of my complacency!)

 

Apart from the difficulty, though, so far so good. I missed Empire’s gunpowder warfare, and I’m glad to see it back in Shogun’s more polished form. Watch this space for more!

 

UPDATE: So as of late 1867, I can state that on “normal”, the short campaign is quick enough to finish in a single day. I haven’t finished… yet. But I’m two provinces away from fulfilling the victory condition (14 provinces, plus Kyoto and Edo in the hands of Shogunate-aligned clans), and standing on the cusp of realm divide. I could easily have won the game any time in the last hour and a half; I’ve just been holding off so I can unlock the endgame units (Gatling guns!).

 

UPDATE 2:  Went back to an earlier save and won the campaign, on “normal”, in one day! Hurray!

 

UPDATE 3: Reflecting on my campaigns as Nagaoka, I feel disappointed with Fall. While as noted above, I really like Fall‘s basic building blocks, the difficulty and pacing have prevented my early experiences from becoming the sum of their parts. I’ve described above my problems with the “hard” campaign, and “normal” turned into a pushover once I got past the early game — all the nearby clans were either friendly, too small to be a threat, or both. And since I was playing the short campaign, realm divide wasn’t a serious danger: this only kicked in after I took 13 provinces, and only needed one province more to win! (The victory thresholds, at 14 provinces for the short campaign and 26 for the long, are far lower than for the base game.) However, I’m willing to give Fall another chance: it’s possible I was (A) unlucky*, (B) playing a less fun faction, (C) unwise to play a short campaign, (D) not experienced enough for my first, “hard” campaign (when I was still learning how Fall worked) and too experienced for the later, “normal” campaign, or (E) some/all of the above. I look forward to reporting back once I’ve tried another campaign.

Matchlocks for my Eyes, or Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai – The Verdict

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
The Fall of the Samurai

 

Set during the sixteenth-century zenith of the samurai, Creative Assembly’s Total War: Shogun 2 (2011) was one of the best strategy game in years. CA soon followed it up with a first expansion, Rise of the Samurai¸ which wound the clock back to the Gempei War of the twelfth century. Now the latest, stand-alone expansion, Fall of the Samurai, wraps up almost a millennium of Japanese civil strife by moving forward to the nineteenth-century Boshin War. How does it compare to its illustrious parent?

 

The promise

 

Fall’s greatest strength is the clarity of its theme: this is a game about change, in a way that no other Total War game has been. In fifty years, Japan went from a land of shogun and samurai to a power that could beat a Western empire; and from look to feel to mechanics, that wrenching transformation is written all over Fall.

 

You’ll notice the game’s new aesthetic straight away: riflemen face samurai in the game’s loading screens, the new map looks like a nineteenth-century atlas rather than a Japanese scroll, most of the playable daimyo are dressed in Western uniforms.  As you build up your empire, you’ll see more wonderful touches in the graphics and flavour text. Trains puff smoke and chug through little tunnels. Generals receive stat boosts by picking up Western knick-knacks: pianos, penny-dreadfuls  and more. New technologies are accompanied by poetic blurbs, running the gamut from bleak to resigned to hopeful. (Compare the descriptions for six techs: “arms deals”, “modern army”, “cordial relations”, “gold standard”, “capitalist production”, and “charter oath”.)

 

But text is only part of the story. Gameplay mechanics are another vital way to communicate theme, and this is where Fall shines. As you fight your way across Japan, you’ll witness the end of an era, or more precisely, the transition through several eras, compressed into a single frantic period. Within the span of a single campaign, you’ll go from the shock-dominated battlefield of the Middle Ages, through the pike-and-shot era, to the fire-dominated age of industrial war. At the start of the game, samurai and even levy spearmen will roll right over peasant musketeers, but soon enough, trained soldiers with modern rifles will take their toll on anyone who approaches on foot. As firearms get better and better, riflemen more and more skilful, and artillery more abundant, modern armies will eventually massacre hordes of samurai or peasants with barely a scratch.

 

A bang, not a whimper: the power of modern weaponry

 

As such, modern weaponry is a literal game-changer. But not just due to its lethality. Riflemen do what bowmen have always done in the Total War games, just much, much better. Even greater transformations are visible in the other arms, cavalry and artillery, and what they do to the overall feel of combat. Traditionally, battles in the Total War series were about pinning the enemy’s infantry in melee with your own, preferably heavier infantry, then swinging around with cavalry to roll up the enemy from behind. Heavy infantry beat spearmen, spearmen beat cavalry, and cavalry beat anything if it attacked from behind. Even in the gunpowder-era games (Empire and Napoleon: Total War), battles were decided after the armies were close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes. Not so in Fall. Spearmen still counter cavalry if they catch them in hand-to-hand… but now the cavalry have guns aplenty, and they need them. The best counter to a charging lancer is no longer a man with a pike; it’s another horseman with a gun, or perhaps even a well-trained rifleman. And woe betide the spearman who tries chasing a revolver-armed horseman. That is, if that spearman survives artillery that long. The inaccurate cannon of Empire and Napoleon are gone: American Civil War-era Parrott guns unlock early on, and they will rack up hundreds of kills per battle. Massed Parrotts will knock out even elite regiments long before they enter the fray, and later artillery is even more lethal. You will see the death of chivalry in this game, and you will see the road towards the slaughter of the Great War.

 

The failings

 

At their best, Fall’s battles might just be the finest in the entire series. The key phrase is “at their best”. All too often, the battles are not at their best, due to problems with the campaign AI. And that sums up Fall’s greatest weakness: it all too rarely fires on every cylinder. Here are some examples:

 

1. Land combat. Battles at the start of the game, when both the player and the AI rely on levies backed by a handful of samurai and modern riflemen, are tense and fun. The problems come later: the computer just doesn’t understand how badly quality eventually beats quantity. Even in the endgame, I’ve only seen the AI use high-end modern infantry once. I see rather more regular modern infantry (especially after installing an AI mod), but I also see lots of samurai and peasants  – by this stage, target practice. All too often, the game serves up fodder instead of challenge.

 

This becomes repetitive after a while

 

2. Sea combat. The war at sea is meant to take a similar course to the war on land. Wooden ships burn en masse once explosive shells show up, and ironclads sound their final death knell. Pitched fleet battles, especially in the presence of coastal defences, can be spectacular. Unfortunately, the designers evidently thought it was fun to make the player play whack-a-mole against constant, small raiding fleets (especially on “Hard” difficulty). It’s not. The problem is exacerbated by naval zones of control that are too small; and puny coastal defences. I alleviated this with a homebrew naval mod, but I shouldn’t have to fix games myself.

 

Wooden ships: all too vulnerable

 

3. Diplomacy. In the base game, diplomacy was “every man for himself”, but Fall divides Japan into two broad camps (based on the way religion worked in the original game): pro-Imperial and pro-Shogunate. Players of the same allegiance enjoy a healthy bonus to diplomacy; players of opposing allegiances take a serious penalty. The victory conditions reflect this: your camp has to take X number of provinces and both Edo and Kyoto, but you personally have to take far fewer provinces (14 in the short campaign, rather than the base game’s 25). And rather than “you vs the world”, realm divide now functions as the final Shogunate/Imperial showdown: only the opposing camp will attack you, while clans of the same allegiance will rally behind you instead.

 

On paper, this is a great idea. And when it works (i.e. when the war between the two factions hangs in the balance), it works well. It’s very cool to be part of, as opposed to the focus of, a greater conflict – especially after realm divide. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work: the course of the broader war is a crapshoot. If your faction does too well, the game is boringly easy. If your faction does too badly, then the game turns into a grinding slog. It’s aggravating when such a key part of the overall experience comes down to luck of the draw.

 

4. Difficulty and balance. More broadly, Fall’s campaign feels as though the developers didn’t have the time to properly tune the game’s balance. It shows up in the difficulty settings: on “Normal”, the campaign is often rather easy. “Hard” is a different story, but not because the computer is cleverer. No: everything costs roughly 15%-20% more, and the computer players team up for a game of kick-the-human. It shows in the victory conditions: requiring that your camp hold Edo and Kyoto might be historically accurate, but it skews the game, since both (particularly Edo) are within Shogunate territory. As a result, my Normal Shogunate campaign felt much shorter and more anticlimactic than my Imperialist campaigns. (Compare the base game, in which you fought your way towards Kyoto, in the centre of the map.) It shows in the game’s economy. The developers clearly intended money to be scarcer: trade nodes have been removed, most farmland is poorer than in the base game, and everything costs more. But they went too far: now money is artificially, annoyingly scarce unless you beeline for “fertile” and “very fertile” lands (especially bad on “Hard”). And it shows in the issues I described above. Given time, surely the developers would have fixed the AI issues, the ship spam, and so forth.

 

As such, my playthroughs of Fall have been a decidedly mixed bag. Playing on “Hard”, my campaigns began promisingly, with plenty of challenge and thrills, before eventually degenerating into frustration. Playing on “Normal”, one game I spent fighting small, weak clans was dead boring. One game in which the opposing faction took over most of Japan started well, but turned into a slogfest. And my final, most rewarding playthrough delivered the experience that Fall should have been from the start. I played differently that last time – by then I knew the “optimal” path to take, and I didn’t turtle (which I think helped the game’s pacing). But I also had to apply the AI and naval mods mentioned above, and I benefited from luck (e.g. with the progress of the Imperial/Shogunate war).

 

Conclusions

 

The Twilight Samurai

 

Ultimately, Fall of the Samurai didn’t live up to my hopes. Fall brings together theme and mechanics with a superb battle system, only to hamstring itself with a wildly inconsistent campaign. Its highs are higher than the base game’s – but its lows are just too frequent, and too annoying, for it to fill its predecessor’s shoes.

 

At the end of the day, I have to formulate my recommendation based on one wonderful campaign –and five (!) that were love-hate. And that is: wait for patches, mods, and/or a bargain sale. Buy Fall of the Samurai then. But don’t buy it now.

 

You can buy Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai from Amazon (US).

 

We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Resources

 

Province fertility/specialty map, updated for Fall of the Samurai.

 

Radious’ AI mod. It’s hard to unpick the difference made by a mod, but I do think this helped the AI recruit better armies.

 

My homebrew naval mod. To install, simply unzip and place in the \data folder in the game’s Steam directory. Its key features are:

 

  1. Bombardment range is still 8 (or 10 for Tosa, which gets a +2 bonus).
  2. The Tier 1 harbour (“If this is a port, then one wall is a house!”) remains defenceless.
  3. The Tier 2 port now has level 1 defences (equal to the base game’s trade ports) with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 70% health.
  4. The Tier 3 trade port now has level 2 defences (equal to the base game’s military ports) with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 50% health (again, equal to the base game’s military ports).
  5. Tier 3 military ports and the foreign (British/French/American) tier 4 trade ports now have Level 3 defences (equal to the base game’s drydocks), with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 30% (again, equal to drydocks).
  6. Drydocks, whose defences were already maxed out, have received no boost.
  7. The naval intercept radius is now 12.
  8. These changes will be reflected in the tooltips when you mouse over the buildings, but not in the in-game encyclopaedia.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: I estimate at least 20 or 30 hours.

 

What I have played: Two campaigns won (Nagaoka/Normal/Short, Tosa/Normal/Short). Four campaigns aborted: two as Nagaoka/Hard, one as Tosa/Hard, and one as Tosa/Normal. Briefly, the cooperative multiplayer campaign (Choshu/Hard, with a friend playing Tosa). A couple of multiplayer battles.

 

What I haven’t played: The PvP multiplayer campaign.

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Introduction

Hello, and welcome to my Let’s Play of Total War: Shogun 2.

Shogun 2 casts players as a daimyo, one of the regional warlords of sixteenth-century Japan. The ultimate goal is to march on Kyoto, at the centre of the map, and enthrone oneself as shogun. Along the way, the player must manage a realm, raise armies, and command them in battle. The game triumphs on every level — as an exercise in strategic decision-making; as an epic come to life; and as an aesthetic treat. It is my favourite strategy game of all time.

For this run, I have opted to play as the Takeda clan, led by one of the most renowned warlords of the period — Takeda Shingen. This is, in fact, my second Takeda attempt — I abandoned the first after painting myself into a corner. I turn the game’s difficulty up to “Hard”, which affects both the strategic map and the tactical battles. My intent is to turn down the battles to “Normal” — the computer cheats on higher battle difficulties. Instead, I forget. As a result, the game so far has been entirely played on Hard.

I’ve chosen the Takeda for two reasons. First, their location in central Japan will make for a nice change — I won my last Shogun 2 campaign (using the Fall of the Samurai expansion pack) as an outlying island clan. Second, I’ve been meaning to make more extensive use of cavalry in Total War games, a job for which the Takeda are well-suited — all their horsemen receive a bonus.

Here is the opening cinematic for the Takeda:

And here is the situation at the beginning of the game:

S2 Takeda startThe Takeda start in Kai province, a landlocked mountain pass that runs north/south. All cavalry trained in Kai will receive a bonus, courtesy of the province’s superior horse pastures; this stacks with the innate Takeda bonus to cavalry.

To the north of Kai is North Shinano, also landlocked. It is home to the Murakami clan, who begin at war with me — you can see a small Murakami army near the border. To the south are Musashi province, home to modern-day Tokyo, and Suruga province, home to the allied Imagawa clan.

To win the game, I have to hold 25 provinces, including Kai, Kyoto, North Shinano, and three other provinces all to the north of Shinano. Before then, I must face one of Shogun 2’s most distinctive challenges — realm divide. When I draw close to victory, most of the remaining computer players will declare war on me; I’ll need to build my empire around surviving that final difficulty spike.

Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger”

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome back to my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

When we left off, my Takeda clan controlled a modest slice of Japan, to the north and west of modern Tokyo. To the east were my enemies: the Satake and Satomi clans. Further north were my old foes, the Uesugi clan; an uneasy peace prevailed between us, ever since I crushed their last invasion attempt.

My previous victory against the Satomi in Part 1 gave me a window of opportunity. and so, my first order of business is to march east. Takeda Shingen, lord of the clan, is off on another frontier. Command falls to his two brothers: Takeda Nobushige in the north, leading his army out of North Shinano province, and Takeda Nobukado in the south, crossing the river from Musashi.

S2 pt1 end North S2 pt1 end SE Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation”

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome to the final instalment of my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

Previously, I stood on the verge of Shogun 2’s endgame — “realm divide”, in which most of Japan joins forces to stop the player. My armies were ready. My treasury was bursting. And so, I resumed the offensive after a long period of peace. Here is the situation, shortly before the end of Part 2:

S2 power blocs

In the east, my armies had just won their first victory against the Hatekayama clan (green). In the west, I was at peace; I shared my border with an allied clan, the Imagawa (grey), and a former ally, the Jinbo (light blue). Further west, past the Jinbo and Imagawa, was the single largest computer player: the Otomo clan (blue, also my ally).

Once I resume the game, Takeda Shingen and his son Nobushige lead my eastern armies against the Hatekeyama’s remaining force.

Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously”