There are certain games at my house which are quite literally “top shelf.” While most games stay on my bookshelf until I need to make room for lots of shiny, new games, the very top shelf is reserved for games that I know I will want to play long after their minimum hardware requirements have been surpassed by the latest smart phone. On this shelf you’ll find games like X-COM, Baldur’s Gate, Pirates, TIE Fighter, and of course, the games in Creative Assembly’s Total War series. Combining Civ-style grand strategy with cinematic real-time battles in compelling historical settings, Creative Assembly’s series is, even with all its many faults, one of the best things to happen to the entire industry.

It should come as no surprise then that I love Shogun 2. It has all that I expect from a Total War game: a great setting, a fantastic strategic focus, loads of style and atmosphere, and the best historical tactical battles around. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t exhibit all the shortcomings the series has been known for. From inconsistent performance to terrible pathfinding to late-game overload, Shogun 2 won’t win over the series’ harshest critics. Fans who are able to focus on the game’s strengths will find it to be one of the series’ best entries.

In case you don’t know anything about it, Shogun 2 puts players in the role of a daimyo, or clan leader, in feudal Japan. As clan leader, you’ll be in charge of a single province, complete with farms, castles, and if you’re lucky, one of a number of other advantages. You might, for instance, have a natural harbor or a stone quarry which you can use to your benefit. Of course, owning only one province kind of limits your options, and since there happen to be loads of other provinces right next door…well, you get the idea. The other clan leaders are no doubt thinking the same thing, so really, you’re only just being responsible in invading them before they get a chance to invade you. As your clan’s holdings grow, you’ll gain access to more money, more farms, more special resources, and more hostility from your less fortunate rivals.

If you do it right, it all culminates in your taking Kyoto and declaring yourself Shogun. Along the way you’ll need to manage your taxes, keep your people fed, negotiate alliances and trade agreements, and generally provide for the health and prosperity of your own family. Despite its epic nature, Shogun 2 is a much more personal experience than Creative Assembly’s last effort, Empire: Total War. The powers and locations have been scaled down, but the action is still utterly compelling. Sending ninjas to assassinate a rival general or converting your people to Christianity to gain access to European guns are balanced by more prosaic tasks like recruiting a poet to write haikus in praise of your general’s honor or deciding whether a surplus harvest should be stored for the future or distributed among your people.

The strategic layer may be where you plan your victories, but the battlefield is where you claim them. Total War has always set a high bar for historical real-time 3D battles and Shogun 2 takes things to an entirely new level. In their better moments, the battles are as good as anything offered by Hollywood. The sights and sounds of battle are not only convincing but downright arresting. Ranks of spearmen climb up the walls of enemy fortress in the middle of the night as fire arrows arc over their heads setting the gatehouse ablaze. Meanwhile enemy musketeers scatter into the snowy forests as katana-waving samurai run them down on horseback. Oared warships inch along the coastlines, lumbering towards the enemy ships as the marines on deck prepare for boarding. Shogun 2 delivers all these moments with an incredible attention to detail.

Details extend to every aspect of the battles, from the animations to the weapons. Putting your spearmen into a wall formation will fend off cavalry charges and you’ll actually see each and every unit engage in realistic combat with another. The horses will crash into the wall of spears, falling as they’re pierced and crushing the ranks of spearmen with their momentum. With fewer overall types of units than previous Total War games, Shogun 2 gives players a chance to focus on tactics rather than worrying about the slight variations in units. The AI also seems to be a bit better this time around and knows how to use every asset on the battlefield to its best advantage.

There are, sadly, some serious problems, which should surprise no fan of the series. First, the game’s management tasks soon become a huge burden, forcing the player to spend too much time with busy work and inconvenient searching. Yes, the series has included some small conveniences, like allowing generals to recruit units from nearby towns, or having a single tax slider for the whole empire, but even as you ease into the mid-game, the game begins to throw numerous distractions your way.

The pathfinding and formation controls are also still unreliable. Issuing movement orders to individual units is okay, but it’s nearly impossible to give a single order to an entire army without the individual units rearranging themselves for no clear purpose. This isn’t as big a problem in single player where you can pause the game, but woe betide the multiplayer general who must wheel his entire force around to face a threat from an unexpected direction. Things are even worse at sea where fleets interpret your orders in ways that make absolutely no sense. Sending an order to a friendly ship and then watching as it goes in the opposite direction? That’s not fun ever. It’s particularly annoying since the rest of the battlefield controls are so convenient.

Some fans feel that these faults can be forgiven for the sake of everything the game does right, while other fans feel that we’ve been too forgiving of the series’ persistent problems. Personally, I’m in the first group and, while this game is less problematic than Empire, it will still frustrate gamers who are expecting a flawless experience.

Finally, Total War usually takes a lot of knocks for overall performance and stability. Without bragging too much, I’ve been largely immune to the crashes that plagued previous versions, and that holds true for Shogun 2. Even after several hours, I’ve yet to have a single crash and, apart from the pathfinding problems, I’ve yet to encounter any game-killing bugs. Performance is still a bit of a problem, but I was happy to see that I could get the game running at a pretty good framerate on a high-end laptop.

Bottom Line: The series has scaled down from Empire but lost none of the drama or excitement. The smaller scale makes it easier to appreciate all the things the game does right.

Recommendation: If you like strategy games (and have a PC that can run it), you need this game.

[rating=5]

This review is based on the PC version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Total War: Shogun 2
Genre: Grand Strategy
Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: March 15th, 2011
Platform: PC
Available from: Amazon, Gamestop

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