Total War: Shogun 2 – Fall of the Samurai Review «
I’ve never controlled this kind of firepower in a Total War game before. I could feel it when delivering a point-blank broadside with a Warrior-class ironclad, all 20 guns reducing an enemy corvette to a fireball, while hostile return fire plinks harmlessly off my ship’s armored hull. I see it when I take direct, first-person control of an artillery battery and start arcing shells into the midst of dense formations of enemy troops, the explosive shells wiping out 20 men at a time. And I know it when I check the post-battle report and see that my unit of 90 veteran marksmen quietly murdered over 400 of the enemy from the trees where I hid them. Total War: Shogun 2 – Fall of the Samurai takes the Total War series to a whole new setting with an arsenal of amazing new killing machines, and the result is some of the most awe-inspiring combat in the series’ long history.
Fall of the Samurai (FotS) takes place at a fascinating intersection between Japan’s feudal, samurai past and its future as a modern industrial power. Its most powerful clans are picking sides between the old shogunate and the Emperor of Japan, who has become the focal point of resistance to both the shogunate and Western imperialism. Your goal is to once again expand your clan’s holdings amidst this chaos, supporting either Emperor or Shogun, but this time you’re going to see battles between samurai, riflemen, and terrifying new weapons like breech-loading artillery, steam-powered warships, and the mighty Gatling gun. The most impressive thing about this clash of technology and tactics is that it all works really well together: modern weapons and units feel incredibly powerful, but traditional sword-and-spear units still have advantages that give them a huge edge on the battlefield, if used wisely.
At the strategic level, FotS follows a faster-paced rhythm that gives rise to great new strategic dilemmas and interesting opportunities. Each turn is a half-month instead of an entire season, so winter attrition and autumn rains are huge obstacles to campaigning. That makes your job as a general more interesting: if you don’t destroy an enemy before the snows fall, you’ll either have to fight a costly winter campaign or give them a six-turn respite in which they can recover. It’s a small change that adds a major dimension to campaign gameplay.
Pick a Side, We’re at War
More importantly, the campaign is a challenging twist on the standard Total War free-for-all. Every clan is aligned with either the shogunate or the Emperor, and those allegiances gradually harden into an epic two-sided conflict. While pro-Shogun factions and pro-Emperor factions may not start out as bitter enemies, the overarching conflict slowly worsens their relations while improving relations between clans that serve the same cause. The early game features all of Shogun’s classic twists and turns: frantic diplomacy, sudden betrayals, and uneasy alliances. The tension increases in the mid-game as hostility deepens between the Imperial and Shogun factions, and small wars explode into brawls as more allies join the fray.
It’s a great arc, from early positioning and preparation to titanic clashes on the battlefield, but that arc also gives the campaign a rigid structure that may diminish its replay value. By the end, diplomacy is a memory, since clans from the “enemy” faction all hate you, and the clans that share your alignment probably love you. This makes the final act a bit grindy, since you end up with a two-sided war where everyone just flings huge armies and fleets at one another until somebody runs out of warm bodies.
Still, even if you get tired of Fall of the Samurai after three or four campaigns, that’s still over 60 hours of warfare. I lost my first campaign in just a few hours, and my second “short” campaign took almost 20, and I still didn’t win.
They were all good hours, though. Each of Fall of the Samurai’s novel new pieces imposes tough choices. Take the clever tension between the need to update and upgrade your military and economic infrastructure. You’re probably going to need ironclads and heavy artillery to win the war, and you’ll need factories to build and pay for all that, but here is the kicker: all this modern stuff upsets your population. So even the simple act of unlocking new tech creates a new set of problems that you have to solve throughout your empire. These trade-offs make governance really interesting, as you have to plan your upgrades around what you need, and how angry they will make people.
Eventually, however, Fall of the Samurai comes down to the battlefield, and you have even more interesting options available there. Shogun 2 encourages balanced armies, with a nice mix of available unit types. In Fall of the Samurai, you have much more freedom about what constitutes a good army. I used army builds that ran the gamut from all-samurai to all-modern, and victory was possible with each variation, although the tactics changed a great deal. These possibilities go a long way to keeping the battles fresh.
Better Slaughter Through Chemistry
Artillery is better than ever, both as a toy and a tactical asset. This is the age of the rifled cannon and the breech-loader, which means they shoot farther, more accurately, and faster than ever before. You even have an option to take over and fire each battery yourself (a silly, but fun, touch). With explosive shells and air-burst shrapnel rounds, artillery can drastically swing the tide of battle. When you fight near the coast you have the option of calling in off-shore naval bombardment, which gives the navy a much-needed new role to play.
The AI mostly does a good job, but there are some noticeable problems. First, it does not use artillery wisely, basically parking it at the start of a battle and just shelling whatever comes into range, with no real thought to using it to support its infantry and cavalry. The battle is going on, and the AI’s artillery just happens to be nearby. This is fatal in fortress assaults, where the AI rushes its troops forward immediately, usually resulting in a slaughter as they try to scale the walls or force the gates. It’s also not sure what to do with cavalry, often throwing them away in suicide charges.
Still, the AI largely does its job: providing a decent opponent that will make you feel like Robert E. Lee for beating it. It’s even more effective on the strategic levels, using agents to entice your generals, stymie your armies, and incite rebellions. Even more gratifying, it uses naval invasions all the time, so you always have to keep an eye on the seas.
That’s not to say the naval battles themselves are very good. I had more fun with them than in any other Total War, but I’m still not sure they need to be there. There’s not enough tactical depth to the battles to make it worth taking command of big fleet engagements. Ships steam toward each other and blast away, and the biggest ships usually win. I treated them like an optional minigame, good for nothing more than occasional, simple fun.
Fall of the Samurai changes Shogun 2 in just about every possible way, and gives an already superb game an even more extended life. It also shows that the Shogun 2 system is good for more than just medieval warfare, and that Total War has almost figured out how to handle Industrial Age warfare. Fall of the Samurai isn’t just a new Shogun experience, it’s a new Total War experience, and one that every fan of the series should check out.
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