Total War: Shogun 2 – Review

Title   Total War Shogun 2
Developer  Creative Assembly
Publisher  SEGA
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Turn Based/Real Time Strategy with RPG elements
Release Date  15th March 2011

War... war never changes... sorry, wrong game!

I’ll be honest with you… since Rome: Total War, my love for Creative Assembly’s ground breaking strategy series cooled off a bit. I’ve not played Medieval 2, Empire or Napoleon because, personally speaking, I just didn’t like the sound of the time periods involved and so decided not to bother with them. The original Shogun, however, is my all time favourite Total War title out of those that I’ve played so my expectations for the game were undoubtedly high. Despite not playing the last few Total War games I had heard about their problems, with the AI in particular being a major sticking point for many fans, and over-complexity being another downfall. However, I’ll cut to the chase and say that the AI is, for the most part, very good, and while there is certainly a level of complexity to the game, I never found myself struggling excessively to work out what I needed to do, so any problems I did come across were quickly resolved by using the brilliant in-game encyclopaedia.

Although Shogun 2 is obviously a sequel, the setting is exactly the same as the first game. Once again you take the role of a Daimyo to one of Japan’s clans during the “Sengoku Jidai” or the Warring States period of Japan’s history. Your ultimate goal is to become the new Shogun of Japan by taking control of the country’s then capital, Kyoto, and holding it for four turns along with a pre-determined number of other provinces. The number of provinces is determined on whether you want to play a short, normal or long game. As well as the single player campaign there is the Historical Battle mode which lets you fight famous battles from the period as well as a well thought out Multiplayer portion that gives players a number of options for how to kick each other’s arses.

I’ll come on to the multiplayer later, but it’s the single player campaign where most of the meat to the game is. As with the original, the game begins with you choosing which clan you want to control. This time there are nine clans in total to choose from, with each clan having a different starting point on the map along with a particular strength. The Shimazu Clan, for example, have superior bowmen while the Takeda Clan have better Cavalry and so on. Once you have chosen your clan, you are shown to the main overview map of Japan and the game begins. The map itself is gorgeous and full of little touches such as birds flying overhead and the sea gently lapping up against the rocks on the coastline while unexplored areas are depicted by an old hand-drawn style map that acts as a fog of war until you manage to send your armies marching off into the distance. To begin with you’ll start off with control of one or two provinces, depending on which clan you choose, and a few units of troops garrisoned within your fort town.

Clicking on your fort brings up the options available to you within that particular town, with these options coming in three flavours: Construction, Recruitment and Army. All three are relatively self explanatory but there are restrictions as to what you can build and where. For example, clicking on the construction tab will show you what you can build in that province, however each province can only support a limited number of buildings, which directly correlates to the size of your fort. Upgrade your fort, however, and the province can support more buildings. In addition to this, certain buildings can only be built in specific provinces; for instance, stables can only be built in areas where there are horses nearby. The buildings themselves can also be upgraded, and doing so will allow you to train more powerful units as well as providing bonuses that will improve the more basic, cheaper units. Once you have built the top tier of any building type, Hero units can be trained and these guys are basically the ultimate badasses of their particular unit type. Naturally, you can only train units in a province if you have that unit’s corresponding building, so you can’t train Katana Samurai if you don’t have a sword school, and if you want Heroic units they can only be built in the province that has the top tier building. You’ll eventually work out that it makes sense to concentrate on building a different top tier building type in each of your provinces and thus only training that particular unit type there and, as if constructing buildings and training units wasn’t enough, you also have to keep your people happy through a population happiness rating. This is rating is affected by a number of variables such as number of troops in the area, religion, taxation levels and food supply. Generally you can simply leave the provinces to look after themselves; it’s only when something is upsetting the locals that you need to do anything. You will be warned by your advisor if there is mounting unrest within a province, and it then becomes your role to try and fix it. Usually lowering the tax rate within that province will do the trick, however from time to time you will need to upgrade your farms to provide more food or even attempt to convert the population over to your religion. If you do nothing your people will eventually revolt and a rather large rebel army will pop up from nowhere within the province to give you a good kicking.

All this might seem a little bit complicated if you are new to the Total War series and, to be honest, it is. It doesn’t help that there are a metric fuck tonne of different units to choose from; I won’t list them all but a quick look through the encyclopaedia tells me that there are eighteen different infantry units alone and that doesn’t include the Clan-specific variations. When you add these to all the cavalry type and siege units, you end up having a small headache just trying to build a balanced army never mind managing everything else. Don’t panic though; in the end it does make some sort of sense and the handy encyclopaedia is always there to help when you become stuck.

Armies are moved around the map very simply with animated soldier avatars, each carrying a banner that allows you to, at a glance, determine the size and strength of the army within that “stack” of units. This is done very simply with a number of stripes on the banner; the more stripes there are, the more units within that army. The strength and condition of the army is given away by how tattered the banner is; for example, if the banner is severely ripped and damaged then it has recently suffered heavy casualties. Armies will replenish men providing they are within friendly territory, with the rate of recovery depending on a number of factors such as replenishment bonuses from generals and whether or not you have upgraded the roads within that particular province.

In addition to armies moving around the map, clan agents also make a return. This time they come in three guises: Ninjas, Metsuke and, depending on your clan’s religion, Buddhist Monks/Christian Priests. Ninja do most of your dirty work like assassinating generals, sabotaging buildings or fort gates and generally being cool. Your Metsuke, a new agent type, can capture enemy ninjas, attempt to imprison or execute other enemy agents and bribe enemy towns and armies to join your side. Your holy men can inspire or demoralise armies, instigate rebellions within enemy provinces and convert the population from one religion to another. There are also reportedly Geishas however I’ve yet to see one in the game and I have no idea how to train one. Compared to the last game, the agents are now actually very useful with tangible effects to the game. Each Agent action does have a monetary cost, however, and an agent can only perform one action per turn. This time around, the game is a lot more lenient when it comes to agents failing; in the previous game, if your ninja failed he would die but this time if he fails his mission he is much more likely to get away with his life to try again later.

To get your armies to attack another army or province, simply select one of your stacks and right click on the destination. If they can reach their destination within that turn you’ll asked whether you want to take command of the battle manually or get the CPU to auto-resolve for you. I found that I only ever used the auto resolve button when I massively outnumbered the enemy, whereas the rest of the time I controlled the battle myself but this was a personal choice rather than any lack of confidence in the auto-resolve ability. Movement for the agents is carried out in the same manner as armies, so when you select an agent and order it to carry out a task you’ll get a list of available options along with their cost before he sets on his way to carry out the deed. Once the deed is done you’ll be presented with a pop-up letting you know the outcome from that action. For ninja actions, however, you are also treated to a short video showing you what happened, as with the first game. The failures can also be funny at times and are definitely worth watching. The only minor gripe I had with the videos was that sometimes after clearly showing your unit kill the assassination target, the results pop-up afterwards would occasionally tell you that your target was only injured. After successful battles or agent actions, your General or Agent will gain experience points and ultimately level up. Skill points are awarded for each level up which can be spent to give bonuses or powers which, in the case of Generals, can be used in battle.

Diplomacy has also received a major shake up since the last Shogun game and, from what I’ve heard on the grapevine, the later games too. The clans you have already come into contact with on the overview map can be contacted at any time and once you have their attention you are given a multitude of options on the left hand side; the standard options are there such as trade agreements and military alliances, but there are also a few others such as exchange hostages or marry daughter. Multiple options can be selected at once and you can even make demands in a threatening manner. I could, for example, threaten a clan into marrying one of my daughters and even throw in a bit of money for their trouble.

Diplomacy also plays a bigger role than it did in the last game, so no longer can you just steamroll everybody on the map. Trade routes and military alliances are vital if you are to win and your past actions can also come back to haunt you. Going back on alliances and other deals will make you lose honour in the eyes of the other clans, making them less likely to trust you if it transpires that you’ve been breaking your word. Similarly, you will find that clans are more willing to accommodate you if you have been honourable in the past. The system isn’t perfect though, and there have been times where I have been forced to choose between two allies after they’ve both decided to start a scrap with each other. An option to remain neutral in the conflict would have been nice but, alas, you can’t win them all. Once your Clan’s fame has reached Legendary, Realm Divide is triggered. This basically means that you have become so powerful that everybody decides to turn against you. Your long term allies won’t turn against you straight away but, one by one, they will turn on you. This feature was put in as it was found in the previous Shogun game that as soon as a player reached a certain mass in terms of clan size, they became more or less unstoppable and just flattened anybody in their way. The Realm Divide scenario is designed to put a stop to this and opens up wars on multiple fronts in order to keep the player busy. It’s a good concept and I can just imagine the panic it will cause on the higher difficulty levels. In the games that I played, I once managed to take Kyoto before even reaching Legendary fame and triggering a Realm Divide, resulting in my punching the air in victory thinking that I had managed to avoid everyone declaring war on me now that I was Shogun… only for everyone to suddenly decide that they didn’t want me as Shogun and declare war on me anyway! Well played, AI…

Now for the interesting part – the actual battles! The Total War games have long been known for their brilliantly realistic battles, and the AI has always been pretty decent but never great. Fortunately, Shogun 2 does not disappoint. The siege battles are greatly improved and naval battles also make an appearance. First thing I noticed was that the graphics looked amazing, especially on a mid to high end machine, and the siege maps are particularly impressive, especially for those towns which have upgraded their fort into one of the larger castles. It is possible to have a ninja sneak in and destroy the castle gates before you start the battle, and this example of ninja sneakiness is translated on to the battle map for you to take advantage of. Furthermore, the map you spawn on will also have some correlation to where the battle was instigated on the overview map. If, for example, you are near the coastline then the battle map will be set near the sea, or if you are positioned by a river with a bridge then the map will be split in two by the river and, lo and behold, there will be a bridge over it. It’s a nice touch that makes a lot of sense and also makes you think more about where to engage your enemies.

At the start of every battle you are treated to a cut scene, rendered with the game engine, of a speech being given to your troops by your General in Japanese. There are quite a few different speeches knocking around, some tailored to specific situations such as castle sieges and the like, so as long as you don’t get bored reading the subtitles they add a nice little touch to the proceedings and if, like me, you’re impatient then you have the option to skip them. After this speech, you are asked to position your troops anywhere you wish within the deployment area along with any siege weapons if you have them but it’s important to remember that siege units can not be repositioned once the battle begins. During all of this you have no idea where the enemy is positioning his troops, adding another layer of tactics into the mix. It is also possible to hide troops in the woods, which can be very useful for setting up ambushes and the like for the enemy.

As I mentioned earlier, the battle AI has been improved over the previous games, so the enemy won’t always come running blindly towards your archers any more. They will also try to gain the high ground where possible in order to gain a tactical advantage, make good use of the General abilities and even hide units in the woods from time to time. There was also an occasion in one particular battle where I had attacked an army near a river which had a bridge crossing it but the enemy refused to move and waited for me to approach the bridge to start crossing my men over it. As I was the attacker I had to attack and defeat the enemy before the time ran out, so I started to take my men across the bridge which, of course, created a choke point for my men. It was at this point that the enemy rushed forward with their archers and proceeded to butcher my bunched up troops crossing the bridge. Needless to say I lost a fair few men before I realised there was a fording point further up the river. I went on to win the battle but the AI had me on the ropes for a while.

Despite the AI being a massive improvement, it still doesn’t really know how to handle siege defenses very well. This is especially true if the AI defender has little or no archers within his walls, allowing me to simply march my own archers to the walls and proceed to murder his men. The AI will not come outside to try and get rid of my archers and will simply run the men around the fort while my archers reposition to compensate. Even when the AI does have archers on the walls I can just move my archers to another area and fire from there while the AI quite often leaves his archers in their original position and makes no attempt to move them. This small oversight makes for capturing castles in the early game quite easy and there were often times where I managed to win siege battles without ever losing a soldier. It’s not a game breaker but it is slightly disappointing. I also found that if an AI did manage to take a town from me they would quite often move their army out of the newly captured town, back to their own territory and leave me free to retake it a few turns later at my leisure. Regardless of whether this behaviour is related to the difficulty level I was playing at (normal) or whether it is mirrored at higher difficulties, it’s still a bit daft of the AI and needs fixing. If you wish to remove the AI element altogether, players can opt to have a human opponent “drop in” and fight against you in place of the AI. Random opponents are selected for you from players playing the multiplayer game who have opted to find a drop in match instead of using the usual matchmaking process; it’s a decent enough feature but it does require players to be available to fight at that particular moment in time. At the moment this is not a problem as the game is still new, with thousands of people playing it, and it’s fair to bet that a decent number of people would be around to battle at any given time, however there is no guarantee that this is always going to be the case in the future.

Naval battles, whilst not new to the Total War series, are new to Shogun and make for a nice change in pace from the land battles however they can take a bit of getting used to before you realise what you have to do. The start of the battle has you positioning your ships in the same manner as the land battles. Unfortunately you don’t get a General’s speech but I suppose that makes sense considering it would be hard for all your ships to hear when you’re out at sea. The positioning of your ships is quite important for these battles, especially as most of the Japanese ships have rather large turning cycles. Each ship has two types of crew: archers and marines. The archers are self explanatory while it is the marines’ job to board ships and, in turn, fend off enemy marines. It’s a lot of fun, but battles usually just come down to whoever has the most ships. This changes, however, if a clan agrees to trade with a group of Portuguese traders known as the Nanban. Upon agreeing to trade with the “Foreign Devils”, that clan will have the ability to build European style sail ships with cannons, capable of blasting the traditional Japanese ships to pieces even when vastly outnumbered. It’s a bit unbalanced, I suppose, but I guess it’s bloody realistic.

Moving on to multiplayer, the game has two different modes: Avatar Conquest and Multiplayer Campaign, with the latter being the campaign but with your mates, while the former is where all the grindy competition is at. You start with a level one General with a limited number of troop types at his disposal, along with some basic skill types. Your Avatar’s appearance is fully customisable, from the design and colour of your banners all the way to the colour and type of armour with new armour being unlocked as you progress. All pretty standard fare so far. After this, however, it all gets a little bit more interesting; the conquest game is played out from the conquest map which is basically a zoomed out and scaled back version of the overview map from the single player campaign. As before, it is broken up into the sixty provinces and the object of the mode is for players to move their Avatar’s icon around the map and attempt to control the highest number of provinces or areas of sea within a set period of time. Once you have moved your Avatar into a province, you use the matchmaking system to find a match or invite along a friend to fight against. A clan will control a province if they have the most wins on that particular province and this is then translated into a league where clans are positioned according to the number of provinces they control. In addition to earning a point for your clan winning battles, on some provinces it awards the player new units or bonuses to take advantage of; these are clearly identified on the conquest map by various icons within the provinces themselves.

The multiplayer battles themselves play out exactly the same as battles in the single player campaign but with one minor difference: if selected, the map can be loaded with a number of strategic buildings placed in predetermined locations and these buildings, when captured by infantry or demounted cavalry units, give useful bonuses to troops. For example capturing a sword dojo will give the player a melee bonus for the duration of the battle or until the enemy captures the building back from him. These buildings add a further layer of strategy to matches and can even change the outcome of a battle.

At the end of a season, clans can be demoted or promoted to other leagues with those clans around mid table staying where they were. On the face of it, this feature does sound quite beneficial however the system is seriously skewered in favour of clans with a large number of players. Large clans can simply spam provinces and take control of them quite easily. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there is currently no upper limit on clan size. Fortunately, controlling provinces only affects your overall clan position within the league so those not in a clan, or who aren’t particularly fussed about this, can still level up from battling others. Players should be warned, however, as I have come across numerous players who will simply rage quit rather than accept defeat. When an opponent does this, a loss is not recorded for the sore loser and the player who was about to triumph will not have their win recorded. This is made more maddening by the fact that neither player earns any experience points for their troubles either. It’s seriously soul crushing to have spent a good 30-45 minutes struggling with someone on the battlefield, only for them to quit at the last moment. The only repercussion of this action seems to be nothing more than receiving a trait on your Avatar that labels you as a Dishonourable Coward. This trait has no effect in-game however, and there isn’t an option within the matchmaking system that allows you to filter these players out. Hopefully a fix will be forthcoming.

  • Excellent RTS element with more units than you can shake a stick at
  • Brilliant visuals, especially on higher end systems
  • RPG elements for Generals and Agents that have tangible effects
  • Solid campaign and multiplayer elements
  • Built-in encyclopaedia is a lifesaver
  • Ninjas FTW
  • Can be overwhelming for the new players
  • Naval Battles are too easy once you get cannon ships
  • AI is rubbish at defending towns
  • Rage quitters are bastards

In my opinion, Shogun 2 is the best Total War title to date, excluding the odd AI hiccup and rage quitter problem. If you are after a highly engrossing strategy title then you can’t go wrong with this game. Be warned, however, Shogun is not the simplest game in the world, although it is not too complicated that it scares some of the more casual strategy players away. Both single and multiplayer modes are excellent despite the grindy nature and bias towards large clans in the conquest game.

Last five articles by Ste



  1. Edward Edward says:

    Brilliant and in-depth review, Ste!

    I remember when they used to have Time Commanders on the TV which was apparently run on the Rome: Total War engine, if I recall, and I think I have Rome Total War in my room somewhere, but I’ve never had the time to sit down and play an RTS since I was little and would play Red Alert obsessively.
    Hope it does well, though :)

  2. Samuel Samuel says:

    Really good review this, Ste.

    I can see how your interest in the series waxes and wanes in accordance to your interest in the time periods involved, I myself only bothered with the original Shogun and Napoleon, as Rome has been done to death and I have plenty of other medieval age strategy games already, and considering these games are all pretty much the same but with different units and settings and updated graphics… it makes sense.

    I have this sitting on my shelf as yet unopened. I was busy when it came out and I just forgot about it, rather embarrassingly. I need to rectify that because I loved the original game. However in terms of pure gameplay it doesn’t honestly seem too far removed from Napoleon. That’s not a bad thing, Napoleon was my shout for game of the year last year. But it would have been nice to see them really tinker with the gameplay mechanics for this one, try something new. Napoleon greatly expanded naval combat, which Shogun 2 seems to take advantage of, if somewhat restricted by the nature of the ships of the period, but Shogun doesn’t seem to add too much new of its own.

    I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m still going to enjoy it when I finally get around to installing it.

  3. Ste says:

    @Ed – Thanks Ed, that means alot. Time commanders was awesome. Super geeky but still awesome. I enjoyed that show, would be good to see it come back on TV. There’s nothing wrong with playing Red Alert obessively, I did it myself back in the day. Shogun however is in a different league strategically but I highly recommend it.

    @Sam – Thanks Sam, that’s high praise indeed coming from you. I agree the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” anology fits perfectly for Shogun. As for time periods, I prefer the games with plenty of swords and bows rather than guns and cannons. Without taking away from the strategy involved in modern types of warfare I think any old idiot can be taught to fire a gun in a relatively straight line. However the skill required to wield a weapon such as a katana or a bow effectively is something that I admire personally which is why I prefer games set in the pre modern era.

    When I pre ordered Shogun I did actually buy the Total War Pack on Steam which included Empire and Napoleon so I will get around to playing them one day and I’m sure I will enjoy them it’s just not my prefered era for war games. Also, hurry up and get it involved, I want you in the GamingLives Clan!

    For anyone else reading this the GamingLives Clan is recruiting so send either myself (Blinky82) or ZeroMark a message on Steam for an invite if you are interested!

  4. Mark mark_s says:

    Great review Ste. Really covered everything in the game really well.

    The multiplayer has been the best bit for me I think. As much as I love that single player conquest map and all the running around you have to do, the battles are really the only reason to play the game. If you don’t like massive strategic battles then give it a miss. A lot of fun was had battling Ste, matching wits and tactics to try and come out on top. Luckly Ste likes to charge his general into the middle of every fight so I just wait till he does that and win :D

    Awesome job man

  5. Adam Adam says:

    We’re one and the same Ste. I started with Shogun (although quickly moved to Medieval) and became a huge fan of the games and played Rome till I started to contemplate going to work in a Toga and then somehow let it fall off the face of my earth.

    I’ve watched each iteration of the game come out since then and always wanted to go back to it, especially after many aspects of the game have slowly been refined to create such an ultimate experience, perhaps Shogun is my call back.

    Love the review Ste.

  6. Ste says:

    @Mark – Since writing the review I’ve more or less finished with the campaign now and I’m playing the multiplayer abit more. I agree the fighting is the main draw and it’s good to be able to just jump into a fight wheneve I want. There’s also more of a buzz fighting against real opponents. And as for my general getting stuck in, yes he often dies unnecessarily sometimes but what would you prefer a leader who just sits there and watches you die or a leader who gets involved and kicks some arse… sometimes..

    @Adam I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Shogun is definately worth reigniting your man love for the Total War series. Like you I kept an eye on all the recent games but was never convinced enough to take the plunge again until this came along. Really glad I did in the end.

  7. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I dunno if I’d get on with this one to be honest. I love the strategy and management side of it but I can’t really remember ever controlling that many units at once, except for when I’ve gone a bit mental with Command And Conquer and built several hundred infantry before using the “select across map” option to move them all as one, but that’s more of a horde attack than actual strategy.

    I like the idea of it, and adore the time period, so that alone has got my interest sparked. I just think, with the limited amount of time I get these days and the lack of brain power that I seem to have because of it, that I’d make a complete arse of it and end up being stomped into the earth immediately.

    Really in depth review though mate; I love when people go in to this much detail. Awesome!

  8. Lorna Lorna says:

    Finally got to settle down and read this beast! Very in depth review and the game sounds like strategy heaven. Maybe not my cup of tea, but like you, Ste, it depends on the time period for me. It seems that the Total War series has a strong core game and gameplay which gets tweaked between releases, with a different time period laid on, but it is a solid heart, so that is still a great thing. I also agree with your take on swords and bows and the skill required to wield them, as opposed to firearms – I much prefer historical weaponry, has more soul somehow. The game may not quite be my thing, sicne I prefer playing around in sandbox ancient cities, building stuff and pandering to an ungrateful populace, but I very much enjoyed the coverage.

  9. Ste says:

    @Mark – Thanks mate! Controlling thousands of troops isn’t as difficult as it sounds as the troops are placed into units which act as one. It only really gets messy once everyone is fighting in one giant ball of blood and guts at which point all you can really do is have your General nearby to inspire your men and give them a morale buff then simply hoping for the best!

    Glad you liked the review, I love the time period also and it’s one of the main reasons I want to play the game. Since writing this review I’ve put in around 70 hours of play time and I’m still going strong. The difficulty levels really crank up on anything above Normal and I’ve only really dipped my toe into the online portion of it. Would really love to try an online campaign with a few people I know.

    @Lorna – Sorry about that, I honestly didn’t mean for it to get so big (behave) but I’m glad you enjoyed it. I agree that this game is probably not for you, it does have some element of city management but it’s very broad brushed in its approach. So in that respect it wouldn’t give you the level of detail you enjoy. As for historical weaponry, I couldnt agree more with you, in modern warfare you can die like a dog for no good reason by a pleb with a gun whereas back then your life was pretty much in your own hands and whether or not you were skillfull enough with your weapon. That’s providing you don’t get picked off by an archer of course!

Leave a Comment