Total War: Shogun 2 Review

By Bryan Stratton - Posted Mar 31, 2011

By trimming the fat of its bloated forerunners, Shogun 2 reinvents the Total War franchise as a lean, mean, utterly gorgeous and extremely accessible RTS, without sacrificing an inch of depth. Seamless multiplayer integration and robust AI create infinitely compelling adversaries that will make you never want to lay down your arms.

The Pros
  • Focused gameplay and sharp AI eliminates the sloppiness of its predecessors
  • Innovative multiplayer provides compelling carrots and sticks
  • Tremendous attention to even the smallest details of the setting and period
The Cons
  • Gets somewhat bogged down near the end of complex campaigns
  • Online servers can be a bit dodgy with some machines
  • Very occasional AI glitches during battles

Total War: Shogun 2 Review:

Generally, historical strategy games have long been the province of bearded men who spend weekends painting leaden regiments of tiny British soldiers and frequently have to repress the urge to cover any table greater than six feet in length with hex paper.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that—quite the opposite, in fact. Few possess the mental agility to follow the flow of a good wargame, and fewer still can run the internal calculus required to plan and execute a successful strategy. Half of the deep strategy games that wind up written off as “boring” or “tedious” are saddled with those slurs by critics who can’t appreciate their quirks and subtlety.

But Total War: Shogun 2 just might change that. It’s a beautiful, accessible historical strategy game with a phenomenally addictive multiplayer mode that will hook any gamer who lost more than a few hours to Starcraft II. Impossibly, it also retains virtually all of the depth and complexity that has made the Total War series the darling of the beards-and-basements set.

Crush Your Enemies

Shogun 2
is set in the 16th century during Japan’s Sengoku period, when the ruling shogun was beset on all sides by stronger rival clans that sensed an opportunity to seize power for themselves. You select one of those clans, earning unique bonuses depending on which one you choose, and start your ambitious journey toward Kyoto.

Initially, you control only a ragtag army, a bit of farmland and a tiny settlement, but that all changes quickly as you establish yourself as a military and civic presence in Japan. The Total War franchise is known for its extremely elaborate empire management, and Shogun 2 is no exception. As the ruler of your clan, it’s up to you to conduct trade with other clans, research technologies, upgrade your infrastructure, set a tax rate that won’t send your subjects into revolt and walk the fine line of diplomacy.

But unlike some of the earlier iterations of the series (particularly Empire: Total War), it never feels overwhelming, thanks to a streamlined strategic interface that keeps the most important information front and center and leaves the fiddly bits buried for the true strategy geeks to suss out.

Yes, there’s a lot to learn, but Shogun 2 makes frog soup of you. It slowly warms the pot with helpful advisors over the course of an extended tutorial. And by the time the water’s boiling, you don’t even realize that you’re about to be devoured by a game that’s nearly impossible to walk away from once you understand its intricacies. 

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See Them Driven Before You

The same deeper-than-it-seems gameplay applies to combat as well. At its most fundamental level, it’s a game of rock-paper-scissors: spearmen beat horsemen, swordsmen beat spearmen, horsemen beat swordsmen. All of them beat archers in melee combat, but archers can pick them off from range. Each warrior type comes in a lighter and cheaper Ashigaru version or the much more robust Samurai model.

The goal of every battle is for the attacker to pound away at the defender and demoralize them to the point of surrender or retreat. The defender needs to hold out against the attacker and use their city’s defenses to their advantage. Each side seeks to exploit the vulnerable flank of the other and use terrain and unit abilities to their fullest advantage.

Simple enough, but that’s not all. You can also recruit volatile fire-wielding warriors to immolate your adversaries—and any other flammable objects that they happen to be near. Or you can tap geisha spies, ninja saboteurs or other specialty units to conduct a bit of asymmetrical warfare against your foes.

Oh, and then there’s naval combat, which (like everything else about Shogun 2) is not only streamlined and improved from Empire: Total War, it’s also perhaps the most intuitive and functional naval combat component in a strategy game, ever.

Best of all, Shogun 2 constrains the action to 60 provinces spread across three of Japan’s islands (sorry, Hokkaido). Hacking down the size of the game world doesn’t usually earn a sequel a gold star, but in Shogun 2’s case, less really is more. Empire: Total War was too damn big, and the further you got into a campaign, the more unmanageable it became. Shogun 2 still suffers from a bit of that end-of-campaign bloat, but it’s a dramatic improvement over its predecessor.

Hear the Lamentations Of Their Women

In addition to cooperative and head-to-head, drop-in/drop-out online campaign modes, Shogun 2 also boasts an innovative and incredibly addictive Avatar Conquest multiplayer mode that will keep you online hours after you should have been in bed. Essentially, Avatar Conquest is an all-action mode, with no city management. You start by creating an avatar, selecting a province to attack and choosing to join or host a game.

Conquering the province establishes your foothold, and success in battle levels up your avatar’s skills and transforms individual units into veterans. And because high-ranking avatars and veteran units are more expensive to bring into combat, the battle map is balanced nicely between established players and newcomers. But since successful generals also capture new units and obtain new abilities, a savvy warrior will build momentum quickly.

In a way, it’s kind of like Call of Duty multiplayer, where you unlock additional options and features as you win battles and level up. And yes, it’s a bit ironic that one of the most cerebral game franchises out there seems to have lifted a page from the dominant action series of its day, but embracing contradiction without selling out its core gameplay is what Shogun 2 is all about.

And to top it all off, Shogun 2 is also absolutely gorgeous, from the delicate beauty of springtime cherry blossoms to the awful majesty of thousands of warriors trampling the field as they rush headlong into battle. Even on a low-end gaming rig, you get a sense of Shogun 2’s visual splendor. On a robust system, it’s nothing short of epic.

In any review of an RTS not developed by Blizzard, this is typically the point where, after extolling all of the virtues of the game for a dozen paragraphs, the writer says something like, “With all of that said, it’s not the sort of title that will appeal to most gamers, but the faithful will really love it.” Not this time. Shogun 2 is a real-time strategy game that not only deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Starcraft II, it’s earned a spot on the pedestal next to it.