I’m just going to let that word hang for moment. As a kid… alright dammit I admit, even as an adult, I can’t think of anything cooler. Except maybe cyber ninjas. But I digress. Total War: Shogun 2, makes it possible to recruit and command an ARMY of ninjas. That’s like, a whole army of nothing but pure awesomeness. This was one of the first goals I had going into the game. It took a while, but I finally had me an army of nothing but “shadow hugging-smoke bomb throwing- stab you in the face and disappear” dudes. Snickering with glee, I watched as an enemy force of mixed, cheaper and technically inferior (albeit numerically superior) troops wandered right into the path of my death dealers. With a mouse click, I unleashed hell.

And had my ass handed to me.

Let’s recap shall we? The Total War franchise has been a favorite of mine ever since the first Shogun came crashing into the RTS scene way back in 2000. With its mix of turn based grand strategy coupled with real time battles that allowed players to control massive armies in a glorious spectacle of virtual carnage, it quickly wowed the gaming community. Over time, developers Creative Assembly have taken the series from strength to strength. The historical settings have changed of course; Total War fans have waged wars across the Roman Empire, medieval Europe, colonial Americas and rubbed shoulders with Napoleon. For its latest release, Creative Assembly has come full circle to their roots and brings the messy era of 16th century Japan back to glorious life. Its a bloody chapter in Japanese history, rife with political intrigue, religious unrest, bloody wars and yes, ninjas.

If you have never played any game in the series before because, you know, that rock you were living under was too hard to move, here’s the skinny:

Every total war title is essentially two games rolled into one. The first part is akin to the popular board game “Risk” where players look upon the entire map that covered all regions of the “world” available in the campaign. This is the grand strategy bit. Special emphasis on “grand”. The sheer number of things that go into one single turn can be mind boggling but extremely satisfying.

The second part is all about real time battles. This is where players get to command their armies/navies in massive areas or engage in siege warfare. Total War battles have always been visually spectacular with hundreds of units going at each other at once. The action here is hectic and will tax a players tactical prowess.

As far as presentation goes, visual fidelity has always been one of the franchise’s strong points. With Shogun 2, the devs have upped the ante. To be honest, there is nothing in the strategy genre, real time or otherwise, that comes even remotely close to this. The game is stunningly beautiful. Everything from the loading screen, to the tactical maps, right down to the level of detail on a single soldier’s armor is rendered exquisitely. Shogun 2 has an artistic style that permeates through every aspect of the game. Even the heavily Japanese accented English spoken by the advisers add to the atmosphere. Every battle commanded by a general starts with a rousing speech (another staple of the series). Only in this case, the speech is not translated from its original Japanese. It is subtitled of course, but the force of your katana wielding badass’s words comes through without losing anything in translation. The music only adds to this. The title score in particular, is one of my favorites. No doubt about it, with respect to presentation, there is now a new benchmark for strategy titles everywhere.  Expect your system to get a good workout.

In terms of game mechanics, not much has changed. Just like the older games, the overall goal here is to occupy key cities and control enough territory to secure your position as supreme leader (Shogun in this case). This is nothing like the usual “build your base, raise an army and rush em” strategy that most RTS games are like. If anything, it’s very similar to the “Civilization” series. Anyone with even a passing interest in turn based strategy will feel right at home here. It brings home the fact that managing an empire of any sort in real life must have been a logistical nightmare.

The sheer amount of information the game hits you with can be overwhelming at first but a little patience will go a long way. I daresay games like this cater well to a certain type of gamer, i.e., the one that likes to take his/her time. The ability to see things a few turns in advance is easy at first with a handful of cities but the more your empire grows, the more complicated things become. There is tremendous depth here if you are willing to learn the ins and outs. The fact that Shogun 2 has its own built in encyclopedia to help players should give you a good idea of how much there is do.

There are cities to develop, treaties to sign, trade routes to secure, assassinations to conduct and counter spying to initiate. Religion is a huge part of this, adopting Christianity for instance, may get you access to guns but pisses off the local populace resulting in revolts. It also makes you a hated enemy of every neighbor within range of a yari thrust. On the flip side, you could always use religion as a weapon by spreading your faith to those outside your borders. Do this long enough and the people will “see the light” and overthrow their rulers, making your job so much more easier. I have literally spent an hour on some turns although most will be resolved in a few minutes. Wars are expensive, maintaining a decent city is even more so and taxing your populace can only take you so far. Trade routes are things to be protected and diplomacy is key to victory. In short, this is where the meat of the game really is.

Even managing your family is a game in itself. The bloodline needs to be kept strong and protected. Enemy ninjas will undoubtedly be looking for ways to dispose of the player’s most promising heirs. Marriage is an excellent political tool and crafty individuals will quickly realize that having a bunch of women of marriageable age can be an excellent resource used to garner support from that nasty clan that’s got a military machine twice your size and is breathing down your neck. Like everything else though, this too can backfire, any rejected offer will lower your Daimyo’s honor which adversely affects the whole clan. Armies, generals and even family members of a Daimyo with poor honor can easily be bribed over to the enemies’ side.

Unlike the previous games, the map here is a lot smaller, this focused on Japan after all. So there is only so much land to fight over. It is still an epic campaign (expect 50 hrs plus at least) but this focus comes at a cost, since all the clans are Japanese and share the same cultural roots, there is not a lot to distinguish one form the other. Unlike Rome for example, where a Germanic barbarian horde functioned, looked and played completely different from a “civilized” nation like Carthage, there is little to distinguish the Shimazu clan from the Chosokabe. Sure one may train better archers and prefer the color green but that’s about it. In terms of variety Shogun 2 is found wanting against older games in its own franchise. This is not huge deal for someone new, but for old hands like me, it will seriously affect replay value.

When all the planning is done, when all the pieces are in place, it time to unsheathe your sword, get on your trusty steed and take to the field of battle. Regardless of good your political strategy is, war is inevitable. Thankfully, in Shogun 2 war is also a whole lot of fun.  And in this respect, it is the best game in the series. It’s hard to get a sense of how stunning the game looks via screenshots. One really has to see in engine in motion to appreciate just how good it is. Horses stomp the ground restlessly, no daichi samurai shrug and adjust their armor while the general waits, and all the while, birds fly overhead as cherry blossoms waft over the armies. My first few minutes were spent just admiring the astonishing level of detail.

Though it is viable to play out a battle in real time, there is an active pause system that allows one to pause the action at any time and queue up commands. This is a very handy feature as battles can be very chaotic affairs. If you are a control freak like me, you will probably end up using it every few seconds although this is admittedly, overkill.

The kind of units engaged in battle, their gear and level of experience, topography of the battlefield, skill of the generals and even the weather, all have a role to play. So it was no surprise to see my army of ninjas decimated by a force that was much more balanced. Speaking of which, combat and the way it plays out is a lot more believable this time around. Previous Total War games though always fun, were frequently capable of being unbalanced. Rome Total War especially, had me often best a force 3 times my size. Technically superior troops almost always trumped a larger inferior force. In Shogun, being out numbered is a serious handicap. Superior troops will still need numbers on their side and a large force of technologically inferior forces with competent leadership will usually win. Another notable difference is how devastating archers are. Heavy armor was an unusual sight during the Sengoku jidia period and as a result, a melee heavy force will need to move quickly to close the gap between it and any enemy ranged forces. Even cavalry can be decimated by a few accurate volleys. One thing that I did notice was that having the advantage of higher ground did not give much of a range bonus to archers. The fact that the opposite holds true for every game before this seems to suggest this may be a bug which may be patched out. That being said, the AI in Shogun 2 is the best I have seen in the franchise so far. Though not completely immune to stupidity, it usually presents a good challenge in most battles.

There is an “auto resolve” option for people who do not wish to bother with the real time aspect of the game though the results here tend to be hit and miss.

Two things have changed dramatically. First off, generals are a lot more hands on. There is direct control of how the player decides to improve them. This brings in a RPG flavor which I absolutely loved. Where they were little more than portraits and no personality in previous titles, here, I knew each one of my favorites my name. Suddenly, the idea of losing one in battle became a scary prospect. This is made even more interesting when you consider how their presence affects the outcome of an engagement. Depending on how they were leveled, generals get special abilities that can be used in the thick of a scrap. Having a competent general makes for some exciting “victory from the jaws of defeat” scenarios but this almost always involving putting him at risk. Make no mistake; losing a good general comes as huge strategic and personal loss.

Secondly, siege warfare has completely changed. Unlike the castles and fortresses of Europe that were designed to keep the enemy out at all costs, Japanese structures were built with the idea of funneling enemy troops into killing grounds. The theory was to make the idea of gaining every inch of ground a very costly affair. Defenders do have an advantage but only with comparable numbers on their side. Defensive or not, castles can be easily swarmed by a numerically superior force especially if they are quick. This is another example of where having a competent general makes all the difference.

What has not changed unfortunately is the boredom of naval battles. Though more refined from previous iterations, it still remains a weak spot in the Total War arsenal. Expect to use the “auto resolve” feature a lot with them.

Things have also been taken to a whole new level with multiplayer. Players now have a persistent avatar. Winning battles and gaining experience will unlock new abilities for your general and cosmetic upgrades. Match making seems to work for the most part but I have had some laggy games. No surprise given how few people play this in my part of the world. To be honest I have not spent enough time online to give an unbiased opinion but for what it’s worth, what little time I did spend was enjoyable.

At its core, Shogun 2 is a balancing act. All aspects of 16th century Japan need to be catered to. It is a game that is easy to play, but hard to master. On default difficulty settings, Total War vets will likely tear through the campaign like a hot katana through sushi. Bump it up however, and its whole new game. I have been playing Rome Total War (still my favorite in the series) since its release in 2004 and have yet to beat it on the highest difficulty. Shogun 2 will undoubtedly pose the same challenge. But yes, the polish that comes with such a focused approach has come at the cost of variety in both number of units and type of factions. If you are new to the series, this is an excellent place to start. If you are a fan of the series, there is enough different here to make it seem fresh for at least another few months. And besides…..