As regular readers of this blog will know I have long been a fan of the 'Total War' series of games which I have been playing since 1999: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/me-and-total-war-series-of-computer.html While I have been fascinated by the games I have often been exasperated by the game mechanics especially the imbalance between what the troops of you as the player can do in contrast to the greater abilities of your opponents run by the computer: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2008/04/dead-in-seconds-frustrations-of.html I have also been frustrated by the difficulties of accessing the games now that you have to go via the online Steam portal: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/trouble-with-steam.html The fact that since January I had been unable to access the bulk of the games that I used via Steam meant I went back to playing 'Medieval II Total War' for which you only need the disk. Being attacked up a mountain slope by catapults firing uphill and being rolled into position so that they could hit my troops on the first shot better than modern day artillery could, reminded me of some of the most grave game imbalances that the series has suffered.
This month I was finally able to access 'Total War: Shogun 2' for the first time in three months; logging on actually let me back into the game rather than crashing while one of the wait screens was displayed. I was heartened as there was also a major patch from Steam as over Christmas I kept on getting to a stage when the game would simply halt and crash, typically when I was winning. I was also eager to play 'Fall of the Samurai' a standalone addition to the game covering the period 1864-76 when Japan was effectively at civil war between forces loyal to the Shogun and the eventual victors who wanted to restore the Emperor to the role he had held in the early middle ages. The two sides had fluctuating relationships with the Americans, British and French. This meant that modern weaponry came into the country used to a greater or lesser extent by different clans so swords and spears were used alongside rifles and artillery. The period is reasonably well illustrated by the movie 'The Last Samurai' (2003).
In the new game you can play one of six clans, Aizu, Nagaoka or Jozai supporting the Shogun and Choshu, Satsuma or Tosa supporting the Emperor. If you pre-ordered as I did you get a neutral seventh clan, the Tsu, to play as well. The styling of the game with all the maps, buildings, characters, etc. is well done, fitting in with mid-nineteeth century styles. You can develop a range of buildings and can emphasise traditional or modern forces or even mix the two though this can hamper your overall development. In theory you should be able to get to the stage with you clan having iron clad battleships and gatling guns mounted in castle towers, if you want that is. Alternatively you can continue with swords, spears and cavalry. As in the games since 'Empire Total War' you can follow different paths in development as well. Thus, in theory you can play the game very differently again and again even if you choose to play the same clan. You can develop relations with the Americans, British or French or ignore them as you wish.
Overall I was looking forward to a great new gaming experience over the Easter period wargaming in a fascinating slice of history. However, this hope was soon wrecked. On my fourth failed attempt trying to escape from my start province, playing on 'Easy' level with a clan that was supposedly 'Easy' to play, I realised I was never going to recruit an iron clad battleship or in fact very many soldiers at all. In addition, even with a sizeable army, well armed, I was not going to be able to beat even the first of the opponents I had to face. The game is terribly begrudging. After winning my first victory with 1000 soldiers surviving compared to my opponent's 19 troops left, I was told this was only a 'close victory'. Besieging a town proved utterly futile as all my soldiers were cut down before they even got close to the walls, despite me having more than double the number of defenders. I am used to being defeated but being wiped out so thoroughly within the first few game months of play was utterly disheartening. As in previous 'Total War' games, when it comes to the tally of the casualties you find you have only killed a fraction of those troops you saw shot dead when in the battle.
As in all previous 'Total War' games, bar perhaps 'Empire Total War', troops armed with guns no matter whether they are one of the more skilled or even elite units you can recruit are underpowered and can be cut through by a levy force armed with spears in a matter of seconds. There is no point in building up better buildings that allow these more skilled firearm troops as all you need is one group of samurai on horseback to appear and they will be slaughtered. The game seems heavily weighted to those clans which stick to traditional samurai weapons.
Another problem brought over from previous 'Total War' games is the fact that long before radar was invented you find your opponent's ships turning up in precisely the right place and precisely the right strength to destroy you. They seem to have longer range on their guns even when you have equivalent or better ships and they can hit you perfectly even through the thickest fog. I know you can improve the weapons on your ships but right from the start you will find your opponents are able to hit you spot on immediately and you cannot get the range or the target at all. This is no different to catapults in 'Medieval II Total War' you found yours always fired short or long over the target whereas your opponent's catapults would hit your troops from the first shot even if your troops and the catapult was moving at the same time.
A particular problem which appeared in 'Total War: Shogun 2' is the imbalance in areas of control between you and your opponents. In theory each army has an area of control around it which if an enemy army enters a battle must ensue. This is certainly the case if you advance into an opponent's area of control and both on land and at sea it can be difficult to bring two armies or navies to bear on your opponent as the moment one enters the zone the battle starts before you have brought the other force close enough. The reverse does not apply to your armies or navies. As I have noted before, Japan has few routes across the country and is known from historical battles and is actually discussed in the game information there are 'choke points' that can be blocked by an army. However, in this game that does not work. An enemy simply walks passed you without triggering a battle and usually wanders around your province with impunity smashing up farms, factories, ports, etc. This zone of control problem makes it very difficult to defend your developed buildings and facilities. You find yourself chasing around trying to catch the raiders who even if they have an army of many hundreds of men 'disappear', literally no longer appearing on the map, even when in sight of a town. If you could do the same it would not be such a problem but there is one rule for the human player and one for the computer.
As for all the wonderful buildings I might liked to have built, there was no chance. My province at full tax was at best turning in 1000 koku per month compared to 4500 koku I needed to build a castle. At that level of taxation you cannot continue without uprisings. Given that in battles where I had 700 more troops than my opponent I was still bound to lose, I had also to spend a lot of money trying to build up armies strong enough to defend my single province. If this was what I was experiencing at such an early stage on Easy/Easy setting with an Easy clan, how did I stand any chance of anything more challenging. I guess I would be eliminated within the first turn rather than the first ten.
It took me so long to hold on to my own start province that I realised that there was insufficient time left to conquer the 24 other provinces I need to win, let alone to ensure that in total 50 provinces were supporting the faction I was playing as. Progress can be slow in 'Total War' games and you sometimes realise you have had to fight so hard and long that you are already running out of time, but in this scenario it is far, far worse and if you get to see anywhere beyond the boundaries of your starting province then you are lucky. If it is this hard on the Easy setting, how short must the games be on Normal setting, you must just start and be eliminated. It is very disheartening.
I know there has been much discussion around the debate of the balance between realism and game play in terms of the 'Total War' games, but now it seems that that is the wrong focus. The game play has always been imbalanced. The computer always recruits the correct troops and moves them perfectly to where they need to be in a way few humans could ever match. Thus, further imbalance in terms of how feeble your soldiers are, even when they outnumber their opponents two or three times, makes the game unplayable. Setting the cost of even starter-level buildings so far above the revenue that you can raise from a province similarly means you are stuck with low level soldiers or better buildings and too few soldiers to defend them; either way you lose the game quickly.
It is such a pity that so much effort has gone into making an interesting game and then rendering it unplayable. Given the extended difficulties I have had in using Steam and now the massive disappointment of playing 'Fall of the Samurai', I will have to start breaking my habit of buying 'Total War' games and look to something which is challenging but actually feasible to play.