Friday, February 3, 2012

My Total War: Shogun 2 Impressions: Epically Beautiful, Japanese, Awesomeness!

With gaming, I’m kind of behind the curve. I am still working through Morrowind, I haven’t finished the original Bioshock, I still haven’t been through all the campaigns in Left 4 Dead 2…and I can’t imagine how many more miles of African savannah I have yet to drive in the beautiful but limited Far Cry 2…so it is with this foreword that I give my late, very late review of the amazing Total War: Shogun 2.

 Not that I’m not aware of what I’m missing, mind you. I keep up daily with all the latest releases, the current favorite ‘it’ games, and the industry ups and downs. I’ve watched in awe at the newest Bioshock: Infinite that will no doubt be their next work of art, and keep a hopeful eye on the newest XCOM game to come out in many years…also [Someday, I WILL enjoy Skyrim…I will...] But being such a busy parent, and working and generally being tired at any of the 20 hours of the day I’m not ‘sleeping’ has kept me from finishing anything in my ever growing PC game library. It doesn’t help that the holiday season on STEAM for gamers on a budget is similar to what crack is to Whitney Houston….er…yeah.

So I took advantage and picked up the latest Total War game I had my eye on for months, as it was on sale for some crazy 50% off. I also took advantage of all the add-on clans that were fairly cheap at the time. After all, assuming someday I would get to play it, I’d have all the little toys to play with, all the factions in the deck. It’s the completionist in me that keeps the money flowing to Creative Assembly.

I was hooked on Rome, with its massive real-time armies engaged in epic battle, AND it’s Risk/Civilization-style campaign map intrigue. Many, many nights I had to work though ‘just one more turn’. I gasped at the beauty of ‘Empire’ with its authentic looking [but hard to micro-manage] boat warfare and revamped graphics on the battlefield. I merely tasted victory with the introductory revolutionary campaign before getting my ass handed to me in a feathered hat by the Prussians as I attempted a Germanic faction campaign. And again, as I tried to expand westward to the trading fields of America in my lowly, underpowered boats by the Brits AND Spanish Armada’s. Perhaps I’ll get back to this one.
The many unique war-boats of Shogun 2, engaged in high-seas battle!
So it is with great anxiousness and trepidation that I attempt the newest, most beautiful and far-east arena of the Japanese conflicts. After all, this is the setting I know least about, having taken much more European history classes than Asian. My first encounter, after the menu screen pops up, oooh, pretty. This game is beautiful, and polished. It is obvious that real thought went into the design of each and every bit of menu/interface. And the music is peaceful, and everything you expect of epic Japanese traditional music. Quiet and Zen-like on the campaign map, and swelling and ambitious when engaged in battle. With either surround sound or quality headphones, all this sounds pure, raw, and uniquely recorded just for the game. Then, the intro campaign. Even though it’s mostly annoying to be retold the same basic advice I’ve mastered since ‘Rome’, I keep the tutorial chatter flowing in hopes to glean some new and unique feature of the game, or strategy that this version has that the previous did not.

There is a lot to appreciate in this, newest iteration. Perhaps this is Creative Assembly’s crowning achievement. They have perfected the formula, improved the A.I. [for the most part] of not only the naval warfare, but also of the enemy land battle movements, and the graphics are simply stunning. I am a sucker for great graphics, more than other important features sometimes, and there are endless moments when I simply pan around at the sky, what looks like a painting of the Japanese red sun setting over smoky mountains and rolling hills. I track like Francis Coppola himself, alongside a formation of Katana Samurai units, marching not quite in unison, from the side, looking down the ranks as if I were marching alongside next to them…admiring the power and majesty of their intent, as well as their amazingly detailed and colorful uniforms.

We've come for Dragon Warrior IX, Shogun! Give it up!
To top it all off, we have the pre-battle ‘pep rally’s’ that were missing for a few of the games. This was one of those great features of ‘Rome’. No matter how many times I’ve heard the various configurations of speech parts, strung together…they still served a small but important role to let you know the conditions of the battle as it may play out. Hey, every little clue is important when the numbers are stacked against you! Are there reinforcements falling in behind? Does the enemy have to march to me? Or do I need to make the first moves as fast as possible. It’s all very stirring, providing a little emotional involvement in the battle, your General and men’s survival, and gives a lot of character to game. I’ve read that there are over 100,000 possible speeches based on the character, their location, and their relationship to the enemy, etc. Wow. It’s all here, though spoken in the native Japanese, of course, so read along with the captions to glorious battle!
Back off spearmen! My horse spits upon your helmuts!
Though the formula is roughly unchanged, there are still plenty of new units to master, such as the Metsuke, who act like the town sheriff while also repelling most monk and ninja attacks. I also love the new ‘hero’ units that each town may possess. Think of them as your go-to ass-kickers that may single-handedly turn the tide of battle, if called upon. Hopefully, these are balanced enough that they aren’t TOO ridiculously powerful, but this seems to be a controversial subject already. There is also an upgrade path for generals in your armies. These units gain extra buff’s and war abilities as they win and survive each battle. It’s like another mini tech-tree, bidding you to take great care in not losing your generals.

Epic Seige battles await!
There is a much more robust multiplayer element here, which you may find yourself playing more than the single player campaign! Shogun 2 features multiplayer battles with up to 8 players as well as multiplayer campaigns involving competitive or cooperative play with 2 players. In a multiplayer campaign, players can be grouped into different clans, so that for each clan, one player assumes the role of clan leader and others take command of armies. The clan leader has the ability to direct other players and assign rewards based on loyalty and performance, introducing clan politics into multiplayer. As a player's army invades an enemy territory or is attacked by enemy armies, the online matchmaker finds a suitable opponent and initiates a multiplayer battle. When a player defeats enemy armies and conquers territories, the player will gain points and other bonuses for the clan. In addition to all this, an achievement system is designed to provide adhering players with unique abilities and cosmetic upgrades.

My favorite new feature? The Avatar conquest mode, of course! Avatar Conquest is a brand new addition to the Total War franchise. It allows you, the player, to create your own Avatar by customizing its uniform, color scheme, clan banner and more. You are then dropped onto the map of Japan, where you move your avatar around the map into different territories and engage in live land and sea battles via matchmaking. Before engaging in battle, it is wise to create and customize your army and navy via the army management button. You'll have a choice between small, medium, large and huge ’funds’ battles. Warning- large and huge battles are better suited for those with more powerful computers.

That's right...I'm a baaaad mutha "shut yer mouth!"...
Once your Avatar has been customized to your liking, and you've put together an army and navy, you can then drop into the battle map and attempt to smash your opponent. Depending on whether you won or lost, you'll receive skill points, which you can use to upgrade both your Avatar and units stats. Some units will gain veterancy if you use them enough in battle.
A major part of Avatar Conquest is also the Clan system. The Clan system features various user-created Steam Groups battling it out to control parts of Japan. The clan with the most victories in a particular territory will control it. There are many territories for clans to battle it out over and various tier's for clans of varying sizes to fight in.

I’m also impressed by a simple, yet genius ‘drop-in’ feature that allows you to let a real human drop into your campaign battle to fight against you, in real-time. Great idea! Though, I’m weary about the possibility of being spanked by every single ‘pro’ player out there invading my game, I’ll have to experiment with this. I don’t like the idea of losing every battle if i’m only an armchair general.

The campaign map is as gorgeous as ever, introducing a 360 degree rotation view option!
Overwhelmed yet? A beginner to the Total War series just might be, but there are helpful tips abound, and if you crave more there is plenty of online help via fan forums and the like at your fingertips. Don’t be afraid to read up on tactics and strategy, there is always much to learn when attempting to master the Art of War. Here is one excellent and extremely well-made guide to get you on your way. HERE

All in all, this is easily the most polished, graphically beautiful, accessible, and involving of all Total War games, and certainly one of the best PC games you can get, period. For anyone interested in history, strategy and empire building, it’s a must-have. Will you be the next Shogun sitting in Kyoto? Go ahead…give it your best shot!

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