Okay, I admit it. I may have been a little too hard on Shogun 2.
A little under a year ago I wrote a little 2,500 word review of Shogun 2. While I recognised that it was the CA’s best game since Rome — achieved in part through taking all the good ideas they’d had in Napoleon and putting them in a game that went back to the series’ melee-based roots — this was mentioned in maybe a paragraph or two while the rest of the piece was spent laying into it because of its difficulty. I found playing the campaign on Normal to be something of a pushover, and so when I started my second one I bumped it up to Hard hoping for a bit more of a challenge, this being the setting where, in the past, I’ve found the ideal balance between “AI nations being more than bumps in the road” and “Hardcoded bonuses ensuring they can spawn terrifying doomstacks of elite troops on my borders every two turns”. What I wasn’t expecting was for the game to hit me with the kitchen sink.
Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. Every other clan hated my guts, with the inbuilt diplomatic penalties for being a human who dared to fight back when an AI clan attacked me making me think this was a tad unfair. I spent all fifty-seven turns at war. I was never fighting less than two clans at once. Single province clans would assault me with huge stacks of samurai, while I was stuck in a position where I couldn’t rebuild or upgrade or consolidate my position in any way but instead had to invest all my cash into never-ending waves of ashigaru to be thrown into the meat grinder. At first I actually enjoyed it. The tactical AI had raised its game and several battles came down to a knife-edge; it actually forced me to think about what I was doing for the first time rather than doing the old spearmen-into-centre-and-smash-everything-else-into-flanks trick. For the first time since Medieval 1 I felt like I deserved the victories I won.
Unfortunately this euphoria soon wore off to be replaced by a grinding sense of despondence. I’d been doing nothing but fight uneven battles with crappy soldiers for what seemed like forever. Surely I was going to run out of clans to fight soon. Surely. But every time I killed off a clan, two more declared war on me and assaulted me with fresh stacks of troops. Even worse, I couldn’t rely on some of the old Total War solutions to an unexpected war declaration. Relentless targeting of clan family members in an attempt to decapitate them and turn them into a rebel clan no longer worked; instead, the clans seemed to spawn an unlimited supply of new family members on demand. They also didn’t seem to have to run a functioning economy either, with ninja revealing clans that were running the maximum level of castle with only level 2 farms — not to mention the murky question of how they were actually paying for all those samurai that kept throwing themselves at my fortress walls. Eventually I realised that this state of eternal war would never end; the AI would just keep coming at me until I was dead, until I’d killed them all, or until I gave up. I didn’t fancy spending another thirty hours grinding my way down the length of Japan in the face of what I felt to be a deeply unfair setup, and so I gave up.
Rise of the Samurai tempted me back at the end of the year. The CA have an unusually good track record of making DLC campaigns that are genuinely different and fun and reasonably priced, for all that they’re also guilty of gouging players with two-quid-for-a-unit-reskin shenanigans as well. I didn’t get too far into it at the time (although I got far enough to realise it’s well worth playing all the way through, and I’ll be doing that later), but I did notice a distinct reduction in the amount of bullshit I had to deal with. Was it just the DLC scenario, or had the CA actually toned things down and made their game playable on the harder difficulty settings? I thought about giving the main campaign another crack, but even though months had passed my original experience still left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t particularly want to go back.
Then, a couple of days ago, I read this insanely in-depth breakdown of how the strategic layer worked, and it completely changed my opinion of the game. It was much, much deeper than I’d given it credit for, and I realised that my Oda campaign had at least partly been a misery of my own making. I’d been doing the usual laissez-faire province management that Total War has — until now — let me get away with, and I’d completely misunderstood several critical aspects of the economy. Things like the correct use of agents, the distribution of economy buildings, fine-tuning the growth of a province’s wealth, the benefits of adopting Christianity — all of these were things I had pretty much ignored*. The guide convinced me to give the campaign another shot, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the CA genuinely had toned down the amount of bullshit I had to deal with. (Or maybe it was just because I wasn’t playing as the Oda this time). The AI still fields unusually good troops but a middling-size clan will have a couple of stacks of them at most. It doesn’t seem to get the troop building bonuses it did before, either, which gives decisive battles that shatter a clan’s military strength the kind of impact that they should have. And I’ve yet to see a single-province clan running a level four castle off of a level two farm. In short, the challenge — and there is still a significant amount of challenge, which goes to show how unnecessary all that stuff was in the first place — now stems almost entirely from the quality of the fearsome AI rather than a bunch of artificial handicaps fettering the player, which in my opinion makes the campaign a far more worthwhile experience.
In fact I might go as far to say Shogun 2 is the best title in the series now — not to take anything away from the original Shogun and Medieval, but Shogun 2 has a decade of technical and mechanical advances to draw on that make it a genuine improvement. And it’s the first game since those two that feels like it’s a complete, well-rounded experience. It didn’t ship with any particularly crippling bugs that I experienced (unlike certain other AAA titles I could mention) and so the CA have been able to spend their time improving the actual gameplay, something that’s almost unheard of outside of indie gaming today. So well done, CA. I was wrong about your game, and the things I was right about you made an effort to fix. If it makes you feel any better, I’m definitely going to be buying Fall of the Samurai now.
*Except for using ninja in the aforementioned decapitation strike attempts.