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...
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.