Monday, 5 September 2011

Playing 'Shogun 2'

Back in August last year I outlined my ongoing relationship with the 'Total War' series of computer games which have been released over the past twelve years.  Then I was looking forward to playing 'Total War: Shogun 2' the update of the original Total War game released back in 1999.  As I outlined last year, for many reasons I, and I am sure many other players, still view the original 'Shogun Total War' with affection even though elements of it now appear dated.  The limited parameters of the game confined to the islands of Japan combined with a really evocative style combining graphics and music make a pleasure to play.  Consequently I was both interested and a little concerned to see what the update was like when it was released in March this year.  I had to wait until I got a job and was able to afford to buy a computer with sufficient specification to run it, because, as with all the Total War games they tend to be produced at the top end of the specifications current at the time.

Was 'Shogun 2' worth the wait?  Given that it pushed aside all the other games I have been playing for about a fortnight suggests that it is certainly incredibly engaging.  As before the interface is easy to use which has always been a winning point over rivals to the Total War series.  The game balances complexity with playability.  In addition, unlike some of the titles, notably 'Rome Total War' there has been an adherence to what happened historically.  Far more clans are involved not just the 'big 7': Hojo, Imagawa, Mori, Oda, Shimazu, Takeda and Uesugi that appeared in original game but a whole range of smaller historic clans.  You can play one of nine clans with the Chosokabe, Date and Tokugawa clans added and the Imagawa clan removed.  If you buy the limited edition version you also get the Hattori clan of ninjas and you can buy the Ikko-ikki Buddhist heretic faction as a downloadable update.  However, once you start playing, history can go down interesting paths and you find that in place of the clans we are pretty familiar with less common names, such as the Amato or the Besso or the Yamana, start coming to the fore, building up sizeable realms which makes the game very interesting. 

If you take a clan's last province you can make them a vassal which means they pay you a fee each year, give you one unit and fight for you.  The vassals can often start building a large realm of their own that may lead them to break free of you at some time in the future.  They can be useful, however, for supplementing your armies and pushing back your opponents on different fronts.  It is best not to make one of the nine/ten playable clans one of your vassals as they tend to be very ambitious and will run off creating their own kingdom without you and become hard to manage very quickly.

Each of the starting clans, as in the original, has a particular strength in the type of troops that they can recruit.  However, this is less important as you can choose how your clan develops by specialising in different military and civic skills as the game progresse.  Combined with this you can shape the skills that your daimyo, his brothers and sons, plus your other generals adopt, both to their individual benefit and to the benefit of the clan.  Honour is important for relations with other clans and relations with them are now far more important as they affect trade which can become a vital source of income.  Your daimyo can also make any sons who are not your nominated heir, any brothers he has and any generals, hold various commissioner positions controlling things like supply or military matters to boost actions they carry out and the welfare of the clan as a whole.


Further specialisation comes from the buildings you construct and what you can build, in contrast to the original game, is often shaped by the civil or military skills you choose to develop.  In addition, sometime certain materials like stone or incense are required in order to construct certain buildings. In addition some buildings use up food in a way that was never the case with the original game, so you have to balance building up larger castles or markets with ensuring you have sufficiently developed agriculture to feed them.  Even cultural developments such as holding sumo wrestling events which pleases the public, consumes food.  With such variables, you can can easily play the same clan twice and have them developing in different ways.  There are all the familiar troop types with spear, naginata (polearm), katana and no-dachi (sword), bow and matchlock firearm forces with their horseback equivalents, there are the ashigaru (commoner) versions and the tougher samurai versions, plus ninjas, geishas, metsuke (spies) and Buddhist and Christian priests.

In terms of graphics, things have come a long way since 1999 and the seasons are shown very well, with not only rain, sun and snow, but now clouds drifting across the sky.  The attention to detail is immense and it is fun to zoom in pick out individual soldiers as they march through grass wafting in the wind.  The big innovation that came with 'Empire Total War' (2009) is the ability to have proper naval warfare.  It is interesting to see the difference between European and Japanese vessels of the period, the mid to late 16th century.  If you make friends with European traders you can buy European cannon equipped ships but generally you have boxy ships firing arrows and closing so samurai can board.  The portrayal of the battles especially if you are among small islands is very picturesque and dealing with ships and the wind conditions is a very different challenge to fighting on land.

Castles appear on the battlefield in greater complexity as you build them up on the strategic map, reflecting the multi-tiered nature of Japanese castles.  However, there is one disappointment as when there is a  fighting in the open field the terrain is very much geared to where your army has advanced into a region, however all the castles seem to come from a limited number of settings, one on a hill, one on a river island and one by the coast.  They get larger as the castle is developed, but the location is pretty much the same.  This contrasts with what appears to happen in 'Medieval Total War' (2002) and 'Medieval II Total War' (2006) with their European and North African settings.

One frustrating thing on when in battle mode is trying to move large groups of units around.  The facility to widen or narrow the breadth of the units is a lot easier than it has been on some of the Total War games, as is changing the way the unit is pointing.  However, for some reason if you try to move a neat group of different units forward rather than going in a straight line they spread out in a fan shape, utterly breaking up the strong form you have.  If you are not careful not only do you quickly find that your unit is standing side on to your opponents, but that they have wandered off far from where the bulk of your units are, in both cases they simply get cut down.  You have to really send each unit singly, which is not ideal when trying to maintain the coherence of your army.

As has occurred with others in the Total War series, the AI (artificial intelligence) playing your opponent is very precise, never making a mistake which can be difficult to oppose, though the geography of Japan with restricted routes down which armies can go, to a great degree avoids the chance of you going just slightly the wrong way so that your reinforcements do not enter a battle whereas the computer's always do.  Perhaps I should do more online play, but given how unpleasant the online players are I have encountered playing 'World of Warcraft', I am loath to mix with online wargamers.  Anyway, conversely to the AI controlling your opponents, you find that your own soldiers often behave very stupidly.  They seem to have reined in the generals' units from charging up to the enemy, out of your control, simply to be cut down as happened too often in previous games.  However, you do find units standing by, idly watching while their comrades bare metres away are cut down.  You can set units to 'guard' mode, which means they do not move off their designated location to attack, but I have this disabled and yet, often in a castle, especially the large ones like Kyoto, where you have to be jumping from one side to another to cover the multiple attacks, you find one or two units of spearmen or swordsmen have simply stood by while their enemies have scaled the walls and cut all the archers to pieces even though they are only a spear's reach away from where they are standing.  You cannot be everywhere on a battlefield at once and the units lacking any common sense make it hard to keep them alive and your carefully constructed defensive position can simply count for nothing as units let themselves be cut up one-by-one.

Ironically it is far easier to defend a small fort than a major castle and despite the gains in tax raising you can disadvantage yourself by building large castle structures especially in a frontline area.  The length of walls and the distance between points of attack means that you can neither spread your troops effectively nor concentrate them for attack as they get exhausted running around the castle.  This is in contrast to real castle fighting in medieval Japan which less than western castles, depended far more on the soldiers defending it than on the built defences.  The self-sustaining towers are far too few once you build a large castle.  I would rather be defending a three-tier castle in 'Medieval II Total War' and stick to small forts for this game.

Missile troops are far more effective than in 'Shogun Total War'.  In the original game, there was really no point in recruiting matchlock firearm troops as typically a barrage of shots from them would only kill one or two of the attacking unit, if you were lucky.  Now a barrage of shots and, even more, fire from archers really makes an impact on attackers, as it should do, especially aganist densely packed ranks of soldiers marching forwards as is often the case.  The strength of general's units is also much more realistic.  In the past, in most of the Total War games, a single general had no trouble fighting off 200 spearmen jabbing at him and his horse.  Now in such a circumstance he is killed as he would be in reality.  If you select particular development for your generals his strength and that of his bodyguard unit do increase but never to the extent that they become virtually indestructable and can hold up an entire battalion on their own.


In terms of the ambiance most of the tunes have been copied over from the original game.  I do miss the zither-like sound effect when you advance a season and the call of the birds when you look at the map of Japan.  However, the Japanese pictures, the various death poems and the animated movies about different units or particular developments or attacks in the game are well done, without being excessive.  I used to like rival daimyo or Spanish or Dutch emissaries bowling into your audience chamber but I know people found these and all the movies around attempted assassinations too much.  I feel the right balance has now been struck.  I am pleased that they have reinstated the movie at the end when you win the game to see a statue of your winning daimyo in a modern day Tokyo square.

There is no distinction between various European emissaries.  In the past you only accepted Christianity if you went with the Portuguese and could simply buy guns of the Dutch.  Now you can adopt Catholicism as a faction or not even if trading with the Europeans.  Religious difference between your clan and the provinces you hold is far more important than in the original game.  The largest benefit contact with the Europeans can bring is cannon-armed ships which have a far superior range than Japanese ships and make a large difference in naval battles.  If you are lucky you can capture the Black Ship and even more heavily armed European vessel, but I have not managed to to this.

In the past in the Total War games there has often not been any point in trying to engage in diplomacy with other factions.  What they want of you, even when you are more powerful of them is usually excessive.  This is most prominent in 'Empire Total War' when even small factions demand all your American colonies or ten different technologies and a large sum of money in exchange for a single simple technology, let alone an alliance.  Throughout the Total War games, if an ally (faction B) of one of your allies (faction A), attacks you, then invariably faction A breaks with you and often a string of others and you can turn in an instant to facing a whole continent of enemies, no matter what you do.  In 'Total War Shogun 2', it is easier to develop trade treaties with even factions which are indifferent to you.  This is in contrast to the previous games and is necessary because, as it is, as in many of the games, you battle to get enough money ever to build any of the interesting buildings or units, even with rebellion-risking tax levels and sustained looting.  However, even your vassals have a negative view towards you, no matter what you do in terms of paying them, supporting them in wars, making sure you have the same religion as them and having a high level of honour for your daimyo.  It is inevitable on this basis that they turn against you.  The long memories of factions makes it difficult for some factions in particular.  The Tokugawa clan begins as a vassal of the Imawaga clan and unless you are lucky you cannot expand and have to wait for them to tire of you.  If you attack first all your subsequent relationships with all clans, even your vassals, will be damaged by you breaking your vassalage.

In 'Total War Shogun 2', you being alone against everyone else is even easier than in the previous games because as you advance you finally attract attention of the Shogun who will then unleash every faction on you. All your allies desert you and soon after all your vassals too.  However, it does not work in reverse.  Once you capture Kyoto and are named Shogun, you find no factions coming over to your camp, in contrast to what happened in history.  This even applies to factions which are down to one province, who you might think might choose to swear fealty to the new Shogun rather than battle on against him.  However, this is not the case.  The loyalty to the Ashikaga Shogunate lingers on even after that faction has been eliminated.  I can imagine some clans would remain hostile, especially the more powerful ones, but in fact the universal coalition against you persists with even new clans appearing, deciding to attack you straight off rather than seek to make a compromise.  In previous games you often had a sudden collapse when everyone turned against you.  It is a pity that with a slightly more sophisticated diplomacy system you cannot have something more subtle.  Even ten years after becoming Shogun you will find the whole country against you and your vassals regularly defecting no matter what you do.  The Tokugawa regime would never have survived if they had faced such conditions.

Overall the game is engaging and the variety of ways you can develop a clan and individual generals means that you can have a very varied game even if you were to play the same faction again and again.  There remain niggles, things around how the AI operates your troops and the other factions, which have not been resolved for them to function in a logical or even worthwhile way.  It was like the merchants in the 'Medieval II Total War' there was no point recruiting them as they are eliminated far too quickly by your opponents; fortunately they do not appear in this game and are replaced with province wide trade.  Similarly, there is no point in 'Total War Shogun 2' trying to form alliances as they quickly crumble.  The game is visually stunning, with most of the atmosphere that made the original such a delight to play.  I certainly anticipate coming back to this game over the next decade. 

Now I wonder what the next Total War game is, and I guess that signals that this one has succeeded in me still wanting more.  There is a lot of online speculation at one set in the late 19th century and as yet as happened with the Napoleonic Wars, as yet no-one has really created the defining strategic wargame of the late colonial era and the Scramble for Africa might be one option, perhaps with the battles for independence in South America as a supplement.  Then we reach the First World War, which is always difficult to replicate as no-one wants a game in which there is minimal action for four years, so it might have to focus on the more fluid Eastern Front.  The Second World War is more feasible, but we come to some very sticky political issues.   Consequently I think scenarios set in India before the arrival of Europeans or China in one of any number of eras from the 3rd century CE right up to the 1918-50 CE would be interesting.  For now, though, I am in 16th century Japan once more.

P.P. 09/01/2012
I have continued playing 'Shogun 2' and have found a few more irritating things.  First that when you are on the top of a hill your archers do minimal damage to your opponents clambering up the hill, often inflicting no casualties despite pouring hundreds of arrows into the air.  In contrast, the opposing archers down the hill slaughter tens of your men even while marching up the hill seems the kind of flaw that you would have found in 'Medieval Total War' and has not been resolved.
Another problem is the zone of control of armies on the strategic map of Japan.  Japan, especially in the medieval period, had strictly limited routes that it was possible to march down so the opportunity to block opposing armies is a valuable one, especially as this game unlike 'Rome Total War' or 'Medieval II Total War' does not allow the construction of forts on the roads.  You find that it pretty difficult to skirt opposing armies without being drawn into a battle with them.  However, the same does not apply to your own armies.  I have had a large army and its reserve standing in a narrow valley in theory blocking the route only to have my opponents walk right past without triggering a battle and then them wandering from farmland to workshop destroying them with impunity as my armies simply stand there as if frozen.  This imbalance between the zones of control of the human and computer characters spoils a lot of plans you may lay and makes it very difficult to defend your economic structures.

Another problem is how easily huge armies disappear.  Even with metsuke or ninja agents out and about in your provinces you find that an army marches into a province and simply disappears from view.  This is particularly an issue in large or oddly-shaped provinces as you can have your army wandering around trying to track down your opponents who then simply pop out of the woods near your castle.  I do not think this reflects reality very well as whilst small units perhaps could proceed unnoticed, unless your villagers were really hostile to you I am sure someone would alert you to the fact that a large hostile army was camped in your province.

The imbalance between you and the computer-run opponents brings me back to a problem that has plagued the total war games right back to 'Rome Total War' this is the ability of enemy fleets to be able to track down your ships right across hundreds of kilometres to arrive at precisely the right time and place with just the right amount of force to attack you.  Even in the Second World War with far more advanced technology, radio communication, aircraft, etc., it proved challenging to track down fleets and certainly was impossible in 16th century Japan.  I accept that given the more limited space around Japan's coast that it is more feasible than in 'Medieval II Total War' and certainly 'Empire Total War', but the fact that your opponents will get you precisely every single time seems unrealistic especially as when you are pursuing their fleets you find suddenly that they disappear from sight.  I find this particularly the case when chasing pirates.  It does not matter how advanced you are in naval skills or how experienced your admirals are.  The pirates are incredibly strong and will easily overcome one of your ships even if it has more troops on board, e.g. a medium bute for a clan has 55 soldiers whereas a pirate ship of the same size has 35, and they are experienced troops.

I have found a bug in the construction of certain castles.  These get more complex in a way which is difficult to handle, especially as your troops have a tendency to walk outside the castle into the spears of your waiting opponents, simply when you want to move them from one part of your castle to the other.  On one castle I found that two gaps appeared, one at either end of the castle.  I assume these are supposed to be gateways, but the structures are missing.  Your troops can easily slide down and clamber up the brown cliff that forms in the gap.  Whilst this is a bug, it makes the castle with this bug easier to defend than other large castles which have been formed properly as your opponents will naturally attack the two gaps and so ride or run right into your waiting spearmen with archers positioned behind them firing over the invaders heads to their comrades waiting below.

I have enjoyed the 'Rise of the Samurai' downloadable upgrade.  Rather than covering the mid- to late 16th century and early 17th century, this scenario covers the period of the Gempei War of the 12th and early 13th centuries.  You play one of two branches of three leading families.  As the name suggests this was an era in which the standard samurai units were being formed so you find quite different units which are interesting to play with, certainly more flexible.  The Foot Samurai decent melee and bow-armed soldiers are very useful.  There is almost a different 'evolutionary path' for units, following the older style and you can concentrate on this line instead if you prefer which enables you to gain Attendant troops and particularly Warrior Monks, always a favourite of mine.  The naval units and the various agents are all different to the standard 'Shogun 2' game.  I found myself enjoying this era more but could not escape a bug which meant the game crashed when I reached the year 1200.  Again, with Sega running shy after cyber attacks on them I do not know how long it will be until there is an appropriate patch to fix this.

The latest product in the 'Shogun 2' stable is a stand-alone scenario is 'Fall of the Samurai' for which you do not need the original game in order to play.  I like the fact that they have taken a bold step and feature the Boshin War which started in 1864 and ultimately led to the overthrow of the Shogunate and the return of the Emperor's power with the Meiji Restoration of 1868; the period featured in the movie 'The Last Samurai' (2003).  You can play one of three clans that supported the Shogun or one of three that supported the Emperor.  Britain, France and the USA also get involved and there is the chance to use the technology of the times in terms of artillery, guns and iron-clad ships alongside the traditional samurai weaponry.  There are railways and battleships can both shell shore-based units and be shelled by them.  Whilst I would liked to have seen the Mongol invasion scenario brought up-to-date for use on 'Shogun 2', this is an interesting step to take and I look forward to playing it.  It may suggest, with late 19th century technology appearing that there may one day be a 'Great War: Total War', certainly on more fluid fronts such as the Eastern Front or in the Ottoman Empire as a game of the stagnation of the Western Front or Italian Front would hardly appeal.  Given Sega have been bold with this latest step, maybe something set in India will be seen as worth the risk, that theatre is an interesting one to play on 'Empire Total War' after all.

P.P. 30/01/2012
Another flaw that I have recognised in previous Total War games but seems even more apparent in 'Shogun 2' is the different impact of running short of funds between you and the computer opponents.  In all of the games if you build large armies without sufficient tax revenue coming in or suddenly find that a trade route is cut or your trade ships sunk, you quickly find you run out of funds, it is possible to go bankrupt in a single term.  Generally you have raise taxes (often not possible given that the citizens in the Total War series, like most computer games, seem hostile to even moderate tax and quickly rebel) or cut back on the size of your armies or fleets or cancel some building projects.  You would anticipate that as you reduced the territory that your opponents controlled that they would face similar difficulties, but that is not the case.  You find that they are able to maintain much larger armies or fleets than you are even though you have many times their number of provinces.  A recent example had my faction with 16 provinces struggling to keep open any trade routes because five large and well equipped fleets kept simply sinking my ships as fast as I produced them.  I could imagine that if I was facing a far larger faction (especially as their ships have that 'radar' tracking) but I was fighting a faction with only two landlocked provinces remaining.  I could imagine that they could keep the armies and fleets sustained for a short time, but after five or six turns they were still there.  The financial implications do not seem to apply to the computer-run factions which is another factor in making the game so imbalanced.

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