The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day One

By RPS on December 1st, 2011 at 1:04 pm.


What kind of game would be appropriate for the first day of Christmas on a gaming site dedicated to PC gaming? Something intelligent. Something with a modicum of resource management? Perhaps! But certainly something with a sense of history. Let’s peek behind the first door on our Amazing™ Advent Calendar and found out what the first of our favourite games of 2011 actually is…

It’s…

TOTAL WAR: SHOGUN 2!

Adam: There was a time when historical strategy meant Civilisation, Civilisation and more Civilisation. During the great schism, when the Call To Power series attempted to assault Sid Meier’s asymmetrical throne room, I’m fairly sure that at one point I had three ‘civ’ games installed at one time. I’d switch between them, sometimes enjoying the abundance of features in one, sometimes craving the nigh perfect balance of another.

I still play Civ but in recent years it has been eclipsed by two dominant strategy flavours: the Total War series and Paradox’s multitude of grand strategy offerings. This year, both took me to Japan and, overturning the natural order of things, I’ve found myself preferring the Total War version of events.

I’ve always loved Medieval 2, to the extent that I didn’t bother with Shogun 2 until late in the year, and I’ll admit that a huge part of that is my interest in the period and people. Events among my neighbours, allies and friends have extra meaning because of their deviations from or adherence to history’s own stories. However, as a framework for alternate historical narratives, I’ve always found the complexity, personalities and simulation model of Crusader Kings a much more giving companion.

With Paradox’s Sengoku, I found myself at something of a loss. The game was built around stories I had little knowledge of and I was taking a role in proceedings that I didn’t fully understand. At first I thought the solution was to educate myself, to learn my place in the feudal world, and there may be some truth to that, but the game itself wasn’t accommodating. Not enough control, not enough feedback.

Total War: Shogun 2 is happy to present a simplified version of history. As always, there are purists who frown at alterations to uniform, weaponry and tactics, and often it is those same devotees who work on mods that better reflect the realities of the period. There is merit in that but there is also a great deal of merit in what The Creative Assembly have accomplished with their second foray to Japan. Simplification and refinement seems to have been the goal, when the opposite path is so often taken with a strategy sequel.


At their best, the Total War games aren’t attempting to recreate historical realities at all; they are creating an IDEA of history, using broad themes and as many borrowings from popular culture as from the past and its students. Their centurions are instantly recognisable, as are their samurai and various castles, and in all cases it’s clear what needs to be done with them. Shogun 2 isn’t a simple game but it contains very little that doesn’t swiftly make sense.

There is a romanticism to the series’ take on events, even at their bloodiest, with an emphasis on the heroic. Whether it be the actions of an individual whose command is so resolute that he crushes all before him or the doomed last stand of a hundred desperate men, Shogun 2 is designed to create memorable moments out of almost every encounter.

I often enjoy being swept along by the tide of events beyond my control when playing with history, admiring the ability of the world to change itself and me, but that’s not why I play Shogun, Rome and Medieval. Total War is where I send great men into the hell of battle, see their deeds played out and, eventually, see them die honourably and well.

More than almost any other game this year, and certainly more than any other strategy game in recent times, Shogun 2 makes me feel like I have heroes ready to do my bidding, and it brings to life a time and place I’ve rarely experienced outside cinema. Sure, it’s not real history, but it’s a brilliant, dramatic approximation.

Jim: Shogun 2 felt somewhat like the Total War series taking a step forward and a step back at the same time. Despite this it didn’t quite end up in the same place. Perhaps it was a step sideways? Anyway, the success of Shogun 2 was in refining parts of the Total War model. This process started off with remembering to put the series name at the start of the title (Total War: Shogun 2 vs Shogun: Total War) and then worked on more substantial things from there.

In building on some elements of the game that the series had mastered – the armies of tiny men with swords or bows, the enriched strategy map, the careful abstraction of a Medieval war scenario – while carefully rejecting or diminishing the complexity of the things that hadn’t worked – naval combat, firearms – The Creative Assembly created one of the most enticing and strategy games we’ve ever seen. After Empire it was easy to speculate that the company must be heading towards the logical apex of 20th Century Total War (Total War: World War?) and indeed the Horsham-based gang even dropped a few clues in that direction, but it was not to be, and I think it was the right choice.

Returning to the scene of the original victory – the feudally squabbling islands of Japan – gave us a comprehensible, tactically interesting scenario which was easy to understand at a glance, without losing too much of the complexity of the game. While the UI wasn’t anywhere near as good as it might have been, it was never tricky to get a grasp on what you were supposed to be doing (although I struggled with and was disappointed by the general building and region-upgrading process). Shogun 2 created as slick a version of a monstrously piled-up feature set as you are likely to see in 2011.


Of course it’s this piled up feature set that matters so much. What is always most exciting about Total War games – and what worked so well with Shogun 2 – is the way in which the game is so variable, and so freeform. Any single campaign can end up playing out in a hundred different ways, with single moves on the map resonating across time. It is, in strategy terms, pretty much the antithesis of something like Starcraft II. While the ‘craft is about precision and mathematically perfect alignment of units, factions, and maps, the Total War games are far more indistinct and rambling. Even the best TW player is often just guessing, and the real-time maps can often go bizarrely awry, especially if you are facing a peculiar situation, like a clash of hugely asymmetrical forces across a siege scenario.

What I love about the Total War games, I think, is that messiness, that idea that every game is a bit exploratory; that the ruleset is so branched and complicated that this is a sort of chaotic simulation to the rule-driven boardgame of other strategies. Shogun 2 got that just right. And for whatever else it got wrong, and for whatever meaningless DLCs it attempted to foist on us after its release, it nevertheless produced a classic Total War experience. And perhaps, with that out of their systems, CA will now look to do something a little different.

But then again, perhaps not.

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72 Comments »

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  1. Timberfox says:

    a shuriken in a pear tree

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      thekeats1999 says:

      How about a ninja in a cherry blossom tree?

    • Jams O'Donnell says:

      Wrong number of syllables!

      A daimyo in a pear tree
      A ronin in a pear tree
      A taisho in a pear tree
      A daikon in a pear tree
      A geisha in a pear tree
      A ninja in a pear tree

    • thegooseking says:

      A mini ninja in a bonsai.

    • CMaster says:

      “a cherry blossom tree”

      Round here, we tend to just call ‘em “Cherry trees”

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      Buzko says:

      @Jams, ‘partridge’ is sung ‘par-tri-idge’ (three syllables), so ‘shuriken’ could work.

      ‘Cherry blossom’ isn’t cooperating tho. Closest I’ve managed is “A flow’r from a che-er-ry tree”. Can’t say the full word ‘flower’ or it doesn’t scan.

      Then again, if you chuck out the articles (which apparently Japanese doesn’t use anyway) as well as the first beat, you have “Blossom from cherry tree”.

    • kael13 says:

      Dammit, Buzko, you’re making me sing Christmas songs out loud. I still can’t make “partridge” sound like three syllables, though.

    • Jams O'Donnell says:

      That might be a regionalism. It’s definitely a two-syllable partridge in my neck of the woods.

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      Keymonk says:

      Isn’t it like par-tri-idge? It’s how it sounds to me. It’s -barely- there, though. Shu-ri-ken works too.

    • JuJuCam says:

      It depends on the musical arrangement. You’re hearing a three syllable partridge when you’re hearing a three note partridge. Some people sing a higher note for the middle ‘tri’ then resolve to a lower note for the remaining ‘idge’. Others maintain one note for the whole second syllable. The crazy thing is, either way I hear it in my minds ear sounds fine to me.

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      phuzz says:

      Cherry blossom tree != Cherry tree.
      The Cherry blossom tree is a group of very pretty trees that produce flowers, but no fruit (or at least, not the large edible fruit we think of as cherrys). They belong to the same genus (Prunus) as the tree which produces cherrys (the fruit), but are not the same species.

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    Makariel says:

    One of the games on my to-do-list. Only 5 more games to play through before it.

    • Sic says:

      Same here, bought it at release, it has patiently been waiting in my Steam list. I might get to it before the year is over, but don’t count on it.

  3. Meat Circus says:

    War is confusing.

  4. mentor07825 says:

    Good article. When I build my gaming PC I shall definately get this. Alas, my current laptop is incapable of playing this game, and most modern games.

    I am now stuck playing indie games and games of old -.- But it’s not so bad, the first Thief game is pure bouss.

    • jimmm25 says:

      You would be surprised how well shogun 2 runs on low end systems. I can run it on my laptop that only has an integrated graphics card and it doesn’t just run well, but looks good too, as the auto-detect always prioritises the useful settings, like unit detail.

    • mentor07825 says:

      Now that I didn’t know. Now if I have the money :P But alas, I think I shall hold off until I build the PC anyway. Want to be able to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution someday and if I start saving up that day may happen.

  5. Mirqy says:

    My girlfriend calls this the ‘Welcome friend! Let us seek an honourable outcome to our discussion’ game.

  6. Njordsk says:

    Internet bears never get old.

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    Rinox says:

    I have to say that while it wasn’t a bad game by any means, I was disappointed by Shogun 2. The battle AI was better, but the diplomatic AI was still as retarded as ever. For example, the almost inevitable turning against you of all other factions in the game because the Shogunate says so when you become too big and/or powerful. I had tiny factions that lay entirely within my own territories and that I shared a long-time alliance with (marriages, gifts, trade agreements, for decades and decades on end) suddenly rise up against me for no sane reason at all. It made no sense.

    Surely, if you are entirely surrounded and dependent of a behemoth of a kingdom, you’ll just side with them in the war instead of obeying some distant central administration that’s not doing anything for you?

    Other highlight was the one little island kingdom to the North of Japan. I’d conquered ALL of Japan, was the Shogun, and I figured I’d be benevolent and offer them a ludicrous sum of money to become my ally (or vassal, forgot), figuring they’d prefer a large sum of money and their own rule instead of me having to annihilate them with the 6-7 elite unit full army stacks that just landed on their island. Well, they accepted. And a turn later they broke the alliance and declared war on me. Um? Shades of Rome: Total War AI.

    • The Pink Ninja says:

      That’s always pissed me off about the Total War series. It really came home for me in the first Medieval Total war. I was England and I allied with France. At various points the HRE, Spain and some other fuckers declared war on them and I intervened. I controlled a 3rd of Europe, had a huge army and fleet and surrounded them on all sides, not to mention helping anf defending them for years.

      And then they declared war on me : /

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      Rinox says:

      Haha, yeah. I have an old screenshot somewhere of an Old RTW game (Barbarian Invasion) where I played the Western Roman Empire and conquered the entire ‘world’. I left one tiny province in France in the hands of the Eastern Roman Empire. Magnanimous ruler that I am, I offered them to become a vassal and threw in shitloads of cash.

      The entire map was a red swat with one purple spot in it. Their answer? “We do not take kindly to your idle threats. We will take our chances.”

    • WoundedBum says:

      Sounds like you guys need to try out some of the mods! Realm Divide has been fixed in Shogun and is much more sensible now. Same with the other ones too.

    • The Pink Ninja says:

      Eh, I have real trouble installing mods and getting them to work :(

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      Aninhumer says:

      @Rinox
      So you’re saying all of Gaul is conquered except for one village?

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      Rinox says:

      :-D

      I doubt these guys had a magical potion though!

  8. Ginger Yellow says:

    Of course it’s this piled up feature set that matters so much. What is always most exciting about Total War games – and what worked so well with Shogun 2 – is the way in which the game is so variable, and so freeform. Any single campaign can end up playing out in a hundred different ways, with single moves on the map resonating across time

    Huh. I have completely the opposite reaction to Shogun 2, even though I loved it as much as any TW game since Rome. The thing I dislike the most about it was the way every campaign had more or less the same trajectory, no matter which faction you chose. It’s partly a function of the more linear map compared to Mediaeval, Rome or Empire, but mostly because of Realm Divide.

    • Minigrinch says:

      There is no other way to play it other than inevitable conquering. It doesn’t help that all unit rosters are practically the same except for minor statistical differences.

    • Chris D says:

      I’ve seen campaigns played out many different ways. With the Date it was an slow march towards Kyoto, having to keep pressing on to prevent my opponents regrouping while desperately trying to maintain order in the provinces behind me while a plague of ninja did their best to wreck my economy.

      With the Ikko Ikki I built chains of fortress-monasteries and held them against a tide of invaders until the surrounding provinces were converted to the true faith and ripe for taking.

      With the Hattori I adopted a scorched earth policy, looting surrounding provinces to fund strategically placed castles while the other clans assaulted me from all sides.

      For the Mori I used my Navy to take control of all foreign trade ports and became rich beyond my wildest dreams.

      According to Steam I have over 600 hours on this one now and I’m still learning new tricks and new strategies. It’s only the same each time if you choose to play it the same. Pick one aspect of the game, or one brach of the tech tree and build your strategy around that and you can get a different experience each time. That’s why Shogun 2 is my game of 2011

    • Dreamhacker says:

      As for me, I realized 1 general and 19 stacks of yari ashigaru is THE golden hammer, silver bullet. You can take on ANYTHING with a full spearman army, even Kyoto.

  9. Commander Gun says:

    I’m praying for Total War: Rome 2!

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      Man Raised by Puffins says:

      The same, I’d really like to see the improvements of Shogun 2 applied to a revisit of the Classical setting. I’m rather hoping Fall of the Samurai proves to be a one off and not a sign of things to come.

    • michaelar says:

      Dear God, yes. Every TW discussion comes back to Rome. CA, if you’re reading this, Rome 2 would be a license to print money.

  10. GenBanks says:

    I’m glad that Adam Smith finally played Shogun 2!

    Now with the bizarre ‘Blood Pack’ DLC that came out yesterday, which introduces decapitations and gore for 99p.

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      Keymonk says:

      I love that pack far too much. I don’t actually have the game, but if I did, I’d be all over that pack, purely because it’s so silly. Ketchup-blood all over!

  11. McCool says:

    If you take a step forward and a step back at the same time you spin a little, on the spot (assuming you don’t fall over). So Shogun 2 is Creative Assembly taking a turn in a new direction?

    • Soon says:

      “If you take a step forward and a step back at the same time you spin a little, on the spot (assuming you don’t fall over).”

      Well, that’s the AI for you. Ah Ah.

  12. The Pink Ninja says:

    I’m considering getting it but I feel really burned after how little progress was made from Rome to Medieval 2 and how Empire was really a step backwards :(

  13. frenz0rz says:

    I never bothered with Shogun 2 despite having purchased every Total War game since Shogun 1, right up until Empire. Soured by the experience of the latter (particularly in comparison with EU3, which I suppose is really a different sort of strategy altogether), I turned my back on the series and never returned. Perhaps its time for a revisit though, particularly if it involves a Steam Christmas deal…

    Also, note to self: buy Crusader Kings.

    • WoundedBum says:

      Shogun 2 is well worth your money. I haven’t yet managed to get into Empire, but Shogun is awesome!

    • Zenicetus says:

      Shogun 2 is much better than Empire. The reduced scale, and what is effectively a Risk-style map (due to restricted movement paths), means the AI can handle the strategy side much better now.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I held off for a long time for similar reasons, frenz0rz, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

    • The Pink Ninja says:

      Yeah, after EU3 a lot of TW looks a bit sloppy. In EU3 I have to be calculating about who I fight, how when and where.

      In TW I just make a maxed stack army and I’m pretty much unstoppable.

      Not that EU3 doesn’t have it flaws, not least of which is seeing which side will win a battle is usually pretty unpredictable, chasing down fleeing armies and rebels is tedious and there are too many flash up choices that are too hard to turn off.

  14. Temple says:

    Total War: Total War is the next one out?

  15. Wooly Wugga Wugga says:

    A quick question, as someone who has grown to dislike the Total War series more and more because it has gotten ridiculously complex and clunky will I enjoy this? I’m looking for the simplicity but depth of the original Shogun, not the micro-management panic inducing clutter of Medieval Total War 2 and Napolean Total War.

    • lunarplasma says:

      WELL… it’s simpler in that there are overall fewer unit types. Reinforcement is simplified by making it automatic. Unit recruitment is simplified (by enabling you to recruit by army, and automagically having the recruits move to said army). If you want to diplomacize with someone, you don’t need to send a diplomat unit over there yourself.

      Yeah, it’s simpler than M2TW, but about the same as NTW.

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    Man Raised by Puffins says:

    So… Number one is best, yes? Good good.

    Shogun 2 is probably the most fun I’ve had with the Total War series to date, and that mostly seems to be down to its retreat back in time away from the gunpowder dominated armies of Empire and Napoleon and towards more robust sword and spear formations of the Warring States which the oft-shonky battle AI can actually halfway manage (not broken siege battles being a further bonus). Couple that with the well-paced (be it the sprint to the realm divide of the short campaign or the more considered long campaign) grand strategy layer, with a more directed map that the strat AI can actually get to grips with, and the result is probably the closest CA have come to achieving the potential of the Total War format yet.

    meaningless DLCs

    Is probably being a little bit uncharitable. Granted some of the offerings do tug at the eyebrow strings (notably the ‘blood pack’), but the vast peasant armies of the Ikko Ikki are a pleasant addition (though perhaps only worth a punt during a Steam sale) and there is much to be said for the meatiness of Rise of the Samurai (rich in Warrior Monk jelly!).

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    Monchberter says:

    The first of many 2011 games with incongruous Team Fortress 2 hats!

  18. Vinraith says:

    I haven’t really enjoyed a TW since Rome, but I keep compulsively buying them because the concept is so good, despite the execution. Empire finally stopped that behavior, and I’ve not played one since. Is this really any better? Are the mods back? Can the AI actually play it?

    • Soon says:

      The AI is probably adequate for many gamers. If you’re a strategy gamer, you’ll probably destroy it on the hardest setting. Not because strategy gamers are necessarily smarter, but there’s more of a tendency to pick things apart and play to meta-game strategies instead of just, uh, strategies.

      It’d be like setting up a game of chess, the AI moves his pawn, sits back. Then you pick up your queen, proceed to sweep it through his pieces knocking most flying from from the board, placing down your piece and declaring checkmate. And the AI can only watch, stunned.

  19. Minigrinch says:

    I havn’t really understood the building system in total war since Napoleon, I mean in Empire small cities became either military or economic, but in Napoleon and to a slightly lesser extent Shogun 2?

    MILORD, our town has a barracks, a stable and a smith, WE ARE OUT OF ROOM FOR NEW BUILDINGS.

    It just doesn’t make sense, at least in large cities like Paris or Kyoto, and even though you got much more slots at the higher castle levels in shogun 2, the costs of the castles were cripplingly high.

  20. Griddle Octopus says:

    I suspect that, like Medieval II, fully 50% of what Creative release now is dictated by the need to keep the Australian B-studio busy. IIRC the Ozzies do half of the games, like the Treyarchs of Total War.

  21. qplazm says:

    Of course, both Sengoku and Shogun 2 pale in comparison to the most enjoyable and historically accurate Sengoku period strategy game around: The 2006 masterpiece Sengoku Rance.

  22. qplazm says:

    [accidental doublepost removed]

  23. TooNu says:

    My norwegian freind has played lot’s of this and assures me it is great. I enjoyed the PCG podcast where they talk about this with great enthusiasm. Despite both of these assurances, I didn’t bother with it. Feudal Japan, too many feuds.

  24. DigitalSignalX says:

    Been holding off on this, but I think it’s time to add it to ever-growing pile of “get around to playing this game” list.

  25. Navagon says:

    Hell yeah, Shogun 2!

    Oh and RPS: needs moar Horrace! Look at how confused these n00bs are by His Endlessness.

  26. plavski says:

    ‘Meaningless DLC’?

    Rise of the Samurai was incredible, to the point where it is potentially better than the main game itself. Fall of the Samurai looks to be even better. I agree with everything that’s been said but to dismiss TotS out of hand is a foolish mistake to make.

  27. Meneldil says:

    I’ve played Shogun: Total War and Medieval Total: War for hundreds of hours. Then R:TW was released, and I found it terrible. Fights lasted 5 seconds, most units would get trampled by a rearback cavalry charge, most battle had casualtie rates in the order of 70% (more like 95% for the AI army), diplomacy was even more retard than before.

    Since then, I couldn’t really get into the series again. I modded R:TW for hours, played a couple mods for M2:TW and then N:TW, but it just didn’t work.