Jarrod Mawson
04 Feb, 2011

Shogun 2: Total War Preview

PC Preview | PALGN goes hands-on with seven thousand samurai.
The Creative Assembly sure have been around. They’ve been to feudal Japan and the Middle Ages, taken a trip to the Roman Empire, and even stopped for tea with the East India Company during the 18th Century. With each iteration of the Total War series we’ve seen new gameplay elements, powerful graphical engines, and new time periods to strive and conquer. But now it’s time for The Creative Assembly to come full circle, returning to the game that started it all with Shogun 2: Total War. For many Total War fans it is an exciting time, to see how The Creative Assembly will update the founding Total War game with modern mechanics. For the Total War fans who read PALGN, do we have a treat for you. SEGA generously gave us some hands-on time with some Shogun 2 single player content, and after a good few hours of playtime we’re reading to give you the scoop.

Jumping straight into the thick of it, we found ourselves caught up in a mini-campaign playing as the Chōsokabe clan. Set during 16th Century feudal Japan, the goal was a typical Total War goal; to conquer and hold a set number of regions owned by rival clans. Functioning as a tutorial, we were helpfully guided through the first series of events, and then given freedom to conquer the rest of the campaign as we saw fit.

There can be only one!

There can be only one!

The game formula was predictably Total War, and shared many similarities to previous entries. With experience playing the franchise, we quickly adapted to the game’s mechanics, and were building armies of Samurai and peasants in no time. The campaign map and army building construction remains very similar to past games, with the same fundamentals of town upgrades and building construction, army recruitment, and town management that fans will be well used to. During our playtime we experienced the typical hurdles of town management, from increasing town moral through lowering taxes, to building and establishing a valuable oceanic trade rout.

Two noteworthy difference on the campaign map between Shogun 2 and the last game Empire were the size and accessibility. Shogun 2 takes place just on the islands of Japan, as opposed to Empire’s global map. Menu navigation and information seems to be far more accessible, with quicker and more informative pop-ups regarding unit information and town details that allow for easy management of your empire without having to dig through menu after menu. Many gamers felt that Empire was a far too cumbersome and overwhelming game, and these two elements look to be steering Shogun 2 towards something much more manageable.

Even with its similarities, Shogun 2 does make an effort to introduce new empire management mechanics. There is a stronger emphasis on individual clan and military general personality and traits this time around, with clans gaining infamy with the empire and other clans based on how they play, and generals earning experience points from battle which can then be used to upgrade skills and abilities. This allows for multiple playstyles and management of your clans and armies, and in our playthrough we took great pride in focusing on military training and upgrades for our generals, becoming a powerful military force at the expense of better town management, the latter of which is possible should the player chose upgrades along the path of Chi.

Shut up shogun get on my horse.

Shut up shogun get on my horse.

Empire management is only half the Total War experience though, and after establishing our armies and training our generals we were ready to sink our teeth into combat. During our play test we tried a number of battles, from basic clashes between opposing forces and the sieging of enemy villages, to the more recent Total War addition of naval battles.

Foot battles were, much like the town management, very similar to what can be found in other Total War games. There’s somewhat of a rock/scissors/paper balance between unit types, with the expected formations and clashes working where appropriate, the most basic of examples being spear wielding troops guarding against charging cavalry. A welcome change from Empire was the focus on tighter management of fewer unit types. The overwhelming amount of recruitable units in Empire has been minimised here, and as expected from the time period there are far fewer ranged units. The focus is instead on manipulating melee warfare in your favour, positioning troops in advantageous positions, and keeping moral high. Low moral can cause troops to scatter and disobey orders, so it is important to keep troops on high ground and away from enemies that can exploit their weaknesses.

Returning from Empire are the naval battles, a relatively new addition to the franchise. Naval battles felt somewhat less engaging and tactical over foot battles in Empire, and it doesn’t seem like Shogun 2 is doing too much to change this. Naval battles are again focused on using the right naval unit at the right time, and avoiding putting weaker units up against the strongest enemies. Even though they shared the simplicity of those in Empire, they seem to fit much nicer into the overall combat package, thanks to the more refined and minimised foot soldier management.

There was nothing in Shogun 2’s combat that stood out as particularly different from other Total War games, but it was undeniably fun and well polished, especially since the game appears to have trimmed much of the fat that was present in Empire.

Come sail away with me.

Come sail away with me.

The Total War franchise is often considered one of the greatest graphical benchmarking franchise out there, and Shogun 2 makes no effort to buck the trend. At its highest settings the game is jaw dropping in its beauty. Highly detailed textures are painted over geometrically detailed models, and a wealth of modern shading effects take the image quality even further. Particle effects are rich and detailed, and beautiful lighting and shadow effects relative larger light sources such as the sun and fire add a great sense of depth to the battlefield. Animations are of typical Total War standard, though the transition between animations, such as during combat and movement, appear to be at their most fluid yet.

While Shogun 2 is certainly going to be a powerful technical benchmark, especially for what is capable on a high end PC platform, it’s not just the technical prowess that impresses. Taking cues from the era, the developers have made sure to stylise all menus, notes, and overall presentation to match traditional Japanese art and calligraphy. One particularly impressive effect that combined technical accomplishments and the art took place on the campaign map. As with most strategy games, a ‘fog of war’ is present over unexplored terrain. Unlike most strategy games, which usually black out undiscovered areas, Shogun 2 replaces blank areas with a traditional 2D Japanese map painting, complete with simplistically drawn mountains and other landmarks. As the player explores the campaign map, areas of the 2D painting shift to full 3D modeling similar to the campaign maps of recent Total War titles. It’s a simple effect, but goes a long in seamlessly blending a convincing historic art style with modern rendering technology.

However, much like past Total War games the best visuals and rendering will come at a price, requiring some relatively high end computer hardware to truly push the game to its limits. We spent some time tweaking the various graphical options, of which there are many, and were pleased to discover that the graphical scaling is quite flexible, allowing numerous effects and details to be tweaked for optimal performance on weaker system, all the while retaining impressive graphical fidelity, but players who are eager to push maximum anisotropic filtering, screen space ambient occlusions, and HDR lighting with high resolution shadows, textures, and shaders might want to look into upgrading their hardware sooner rather than later.

The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

As a whole, Shogun 2 is shaping up exactly as expected, for better or worse. Staying true to the classic Total War mechanics, it seems to be on the right path in order to deliver an updated, modern version of the game that put Creative Assembly on the map, while still throwing in some new ideas to help keep the franchise fresh as well as take advantage of modern technical achievements and franchise developments that helped expand the many Total War games that have been released since.

Will this be enough to sway those who are not intrigued by the Total War franchise? At this point it’s impossible to tell. There’s no denying the quality and polish present in Shogun 2, but it’s still a by-the-books outing of the Total War franchise. For the rabid armchair generals, this is hardly a bad thing, as they all know what to expect from the franchise by now. But for those who have perhaps grown weary of the formulaic design, and have little interest in exploring 16th century Japan all over again, there might not be enough originality and innovation here to keep them interested.

But this is all speculation and assumptions, and while our playtime with Shogun 2 was more than generous, there’s still plenty more to discover about Shogun 2 that we’re yet to go hands-on with. The true depth of the campaign and variety in historic battles, as well as the newly fleshed out multiplayer, will have to wait until our review before they’re explored in-depth. Regardless of how the final product turns out, fans of the Total War franchise have good things to look forward to.
An updated blast from the past, the path of the samurai is shaping up to be quite a bit of fun in this distinctly Total War experience.

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3 years ago
I'm glad the series is returning to its roots. It sounds much more compelling than the last couple of games. Swords/archers/cavalry are much more interesting to me than rifles/cannons.
3 years ago
Do you have any "new" screenshots to show?

I refer you back to the "Preview" of 12th October 2010: http://palgn.com.au/pc-gaming/17496/shogun-2-total-war-preview/
3 years ago
Have pre-ordered the limited edition. It's a nice break to go back to melee orientated warfare.
3 years ago
I'm happy that they are not changing the formula of the Total War games. I always believe 'if it's broken don't fix it' and would rather have the same game mechanics with a few tweaks and add ons than changing it altogether.
Heck, I still choose to play Civ IV any day over it's sequel
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