Shogun 2: Total War – Fall of the Samurai Review: A Fantastic Clash of Old and New
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Genre: Turn-Based Historical Strategy
Release Date: March 22nd 2012
ESRB: T – Teen
Without a doubt The Creative Assembly’s newest addition to their Total War series, Shogun 2, is one of the best historical strategy games out there right now. On top of that Shogun 2 itself also happens to be the most polished and well crafted installment in the long-running franchise to date which speaks novels when looking at past titles like Rome and Medieval 2 – both of which are still enjoyed by PC gamers today thanks to an active, hard working modding community.
Since its release in 2011, Shogun 2 has seen two significant releases: the mini-campaign Rise of the Samurai which threw players into the Genpei War of the 12th century and the new Fall of the Samurai expansion that follows the tumultuous period leading up to and including the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century. The latter of the two is what we’re going to specifically be looking at today.
Fall of the Samurai throws the player right into the battle for Japan’s very own soul. By opening up her ports to foreign dignitaries and Western influences, the islands of Nippon have once again become a breeding ground for civil strife. Modern monstrosities such as French Ironclad naval vessels, English artillery pieces, and American Gatling Guns are fast becoming a common sight on the islands as clans slowly bring their military forces up to speed with the rest of the world. In stark contrast, others have refused to let their tradition and history be erased by outsiders and instead have continued to keep to the ways of the feudal samurai – fighting with bow, sword, and spear.
At the heart of all this lies the true conflict – the final battle for complete control over Japan – an inevitable clash between the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun. Taking control of one of six clans: Satsuma, Choshu, or Tosa for the Empire and Aizu, Nagaoka, or Jozai for the Shogunate the player embarks on a bloody path of conquest as this conflict finally turns into all-out war.
As with Shogun 2 each of the six playable clans has their own strengths and weaknesses which cater to a various number of play styles including both military-centric types and those that wish to rely more on the efforts of diplomacy and administration and/or the actions of agents. While it may seem a bit silly to go with anything other than warfare, Fall of the Samurai sports a diplomacy system that’s received a couple of tweaks from the base game. Rival clans are more inclined to make alliances, trade, and open borders if you share similar sympathies with the Shogun or Emperor. Clans are also more prone to accept becoming a vassal state or simply accepting peace when you’ve put the screws to them – a consistent issue in past Total War titles which saw nearly all factions fight to the bitter end and nothing less. Perhaps the only instance where diplomacy is about as effective as speaking to a brick wall is when dealing with enemy clans later in the game. Those that don’t share your support for either the Emperor or Shogun will never negotiate with you – forcing you to deal with them through sheer conquest.
In addition, the agent system is stronger than ever. Shogun 2 itself sported an entirely new take on agents and made them vastly more important and useful. Fall of the Samurai is no different in this regard. In all, the expansion features three new and two returning ones. The Foreign Veteran acts as a booster for a clan’s military forces – increasing the rate of recruitment in settlements and the rate of experience gained in armies as well as being able to duel enemy agents and sabotage buildings. The Imperial Ishin Shishi and the Shogunate’s Shinsengumi are more-or-less shadows of one another that deal with combating unrest in provinces (and inciting it in enemy territories), apprehending and assassinating foes, bribing enemy soldiers, and boosting the morale of armies. The two returning agents, the Geisha and the Ninja, act in the same degrees as they have before but both feature re-designed skill trees. Overall, agents once again prove their fantastic worth in this expansion when used intelligently – and ignoring the kinds of unique effects they can have on the outcome of the game would be a grave mistake.
Tweaks to diplomacy and agents aside, there’s no way to talk about Fall of the Samurai without acknowledging the immense game-changers which late 19th century technology bring to the battlefield in this expansion. Being The Creative Assembly’s most “modern” game yet, fans of the series were certainly more than intrigued (and maybe a little worrisome) of how the developer was going to integrate high-caliber artillery, steam-powered warships, and modern firearms (rifles, repeating, breach-loading, etc) into a franchise that was still, in some ways, perfecting its melee-based battle system.
Thankfully, everything turned out great. In some ways playing Fall of the Samurai is like bouncing back and forth between Empire: Total War and Shogun 2. When two armies who’ve modernized themselves meet on the field you can expect a battle with firing-lines, artillery support, and the occasional flanking maneuver or desperate cavalry charge. Likewise, two armies choosing to hold onto the traditional samurai ways feels like you’re back in the times of the Sengoku Jidai – devising strategies to take full advantage of your swords, spears, bows, and cavalry. However the most thrilling of engagements is certainly when new meets old – when modernization meets tradition. In the most simplistic of terms modern forces excel at range while traditional ones are superior in close combat – thus the player has to deal with the advantages and disadvantages that their chosen style grants them. For someone choosing the samurai route the challenge revolves around closing on the enemy before losing too many men – forcing rifle-bearing troops into a melee and negating any kind of assistance artillery could provide. That being said, those going to war with modern weaponry must keep samurai forces at arms length lest you wish to witness them slaughtered by katana and spear. Obviously, as both history and common sense dictate, it would seem as though modernizing your military is the key to victory. However make no mistake – it’s entirely possible to win with samurai forces. It just requires the command of a player with strategic prowess who can use his own men and the world around them to achieve the unthinkable.
Where the new era-technology shines brightest though isn’t solely on land. For the first time in a Total War game navies play a dramatically important role that goes above and beyond merely transporting troops and engaging other enemy vessels. Warships can now bombard land units and settlements from offshore on the campaign map – introducing yet another way in which to harass the enemy and whittle away their forces and defenses. Naval artillery can now also be called in during a land battle if the given fleet is close enough. Doing so results in a massive bombardment the likes of which has never been seen in a Total War game and calling one in can greatly shift the tide of battle. To counter-act these new abilities ports can be upgraded with coastal defenses that cause attrition damage when an enemy navy ends its turn within the appropriate radius. Ports also act as the only area in which to make land-fall when transporting armies by sea. If an enemy’s port is not damaged or attacked landing an invasion force is impossible. This new layer of strategy is a welcome addition. Too long has the naval aspect of Total War games been sub-par. Now players will have to show as much care and attention to their navies as they’ve shown their armies.
In the end Fall of Samurai is an amazing addition to an already fabulous game. While there certainly are some shortcomings such as the inconsistent campaign and battle AI (which CA has butted heads with since the beginning) the positives greatly outweigh the impressively few negatives. This expansion is a must have for all Total War fans and the series in general is a great choice for those looking for an immensely fun but challenging historical strategy game. Fall of the Samurai is a great swan song for a historical narrative that took us from the humble beginnings of the samurai to the heroic height of their power and finally to their blood-soaked downfall.
+ Modern technology adds new multiple layers of strategy (naval, administrative, etc)
+ Fantastic looking campaign map, animations, and battlefield terrain/unit textures
+ Six different clans (plus any picked up via pre-order), two sides to support, and two vastly different style choices (modern vs traditional) adds plenty of replay-ability
- Campaign and battle AI still not perfect (but much better than past Total War games)
- Some agent retainer bonuses are mixed up
- Samurai revolts attacking modernized settlements is completely one-sided and provides no threat