The game is Shogun 2: Total War, the next hybrid real-time and turn-based strategy from UK-based developer Creative Assembly. It is the middle of the 16th century and Japan is locked in the age of Sengoku jidai, or "the age of the country at war." We have been given the opportunity to get our hands on Shogun 2's campaign as Chosokabe Motochika, current daimyo of the Chosokabe clan, in lands of the Tosa Province on the island of Shikoku. Our homeland is at the crossroads of a new age. All across Japan great leaders are rising up, each casting his bid for the ultimate position of shogun--ruler over all. The years to come are to be filled with blood and violence, but our resolution is firm and our armies are strong. However, before we enter this conflict, we must first unite our rebellious neighbors under one banner--the Chosokabe banner--in the opening acts of our clan's campaign. Yes, we've finally gotten our hands on the single-player campaign mode in this epic strategy sequel, and this is our story.
Shogun 2 makes a strong first impression with beautiful graphics and authentic Japanese artwork. Creative Assembly has clearly put great effort into capturing the artistic style of 16-century Japan. Unit cards, icons, menus displayed as war banners--all these little things come together to set the perfect tone for this time and place. In keeping with this sense of design, uncharted areas on Shogun 2's world map are represented as traditional Japanese-style brush paintings, while known areas, such as the lone province of Tosa, are rendered in full 3D. After we took a moment to appreciate the game's impressive artwork, we proceeded to our first task--recruiting some yari ashigaru, trained peasant spearmen, to defend our boarders. Queuing them up showed how many turns they would take to field, and mousing over their unit card revealed a breakdown of their strengths, weaknesses, and current level.
With our troops set to cook, we ended our first turn. Each turn marks the passing of one season to the next; in our case, the passing from the green fields of summer to the amber hues of fall. We now had a unit of yari ashigaru, but it alone wouldn't win us this war. The Chosokabe clan is renowned for its legendary archers, so we constructed an archery dojo from the drop-down building menus in our city, which then granted us access to the skillful Chosokabe bow samurai. As we entered the new year, our citizens suddenly lapsed into riots and unrest. After reviewing the city overview and finance screens, we discovered that their complaints were well founded because we had been taxing them at full blast. While heavy taxation does provide more cash on hand in the short term, it will stunt overall economic growth--in addition to making everyone hate you. A simple slider let us turn down the economic pressure on our subjects, represented by a color-coded map of the province shifting from angry red to happy green.
With the troubles at home under control, we turned our attention to the troubles abroad. These manifested as a visiting monk from the neighboring Kono clan who, despite his peaceful demeanor, promptly incited a rebellion in our province. We responded quickly to quell this insurrection, leading to our first taste of combat. On the field of battle, Shogun 2 once again looks stunning. Our soldiers were immaculately detailed, and in the distance, the sun's rays peeked out from behind a cloud of dirt and ash rising from a distant clash with the rebels. The battle itself was a simple affair. Armies were manipulated through point-and-click commands, and each unit generally had a few special abilities at its disposal. Our trusty yari ashigaru, for example, had the ability to form up in a defensive square, which crushed the enemy's heavy cavalry. Later in the battle, our samurai archers employed their highly demoralizing flaming arrows to soften up some enemy warriors before retreating behind our spearmen, who then made quick work of the weakened foe.
The battle was easily won, but we were not happy with having to slay our kin. We marched into Kono territory flush with vengeance and in search of blood. As we traveled beyond our borders the simple 2D map bloomed into beautiful 3D all along our path. After we arrived at the Kono stronghold in Iyo province, we discovered that this particular clan must have put all of its resources into monk technology because its military was almost nonexistent. From such an overwhelming position, we decided to auto-resolve this engagement rather than command the battle personally or starve our enemies out. After winning yet another victory, we had the option to either loot the city, resulting in a quick payout at the cost of its destruction, or instate a peaceful occupation, yielding less money upfront but retaining the city's facilities. We sided with the latter.
This proved to be a wise choice because this new city housed a sake den that, like all great sake dens, was the perfect hangout for ninjas. For a modest fee, we recruited one of these killers and sent him out to poison the food supplies of our next victim: the Sogo clan. Ninjas have a variety of nasty abilities at their disposal depending on the unfortunate target, but their chance of success varies with each task. Once our ninja had successfully undermined the enemy forces--forcing them to retreat back into their keep--we moved him up to sabotage the keep's gates. This let our troops pass through them unhindered during the inevitable battle to come.
But, before we could draw steel against the Sogo, our army needed to be resolute in spirit. Mastery of the Arts is Shogun 2's tech tree for your entire empire. It is divided into two branches: Bushido, which improves your military might, and the Way of Chi, which improves your finances and government. With so much bloodshed in our immediate future, we decided to start down the Bushido research tree. This afforded us improved troop morale and the ability to construct a sword school, which was essential for training the iconic katana samurai. Once this research option was completed, the game automatically selected a new option within that tree--or we could change it to whatever we saw fit. Mastery of the Arts requires no resources, only time, and it is the backbone of a successful empire. With our armies rested and our minds at ease, it was time to take the fight to the villainous Sogo clan.
Unlike the Kono, the Sogo were out in full force. This was it: our first major battle, the siege of Takamatsu, which we decided to command personally. Our objective here was to take the Sogo's stronghold either by capturing the inner keep or annihilating all of the enemy's troops. As the attackers, we had the advantage of choosing when to strike, and because a sudden downpour greeted us on the battlefield, we decided to wait for better conditions. Once the rain let up, a thick bank of fog rolled in, and we decided to capitalize on it. Our general delivered an inspiring speech lambasting the Sogo troops as we deployed under the cover of fog. Before we could march on the enemy, we had to select a formation for our troops. We could either choose from a list of formations with names like Flying Geese and War of the Tiger, or we could build our own. We decided to go with formation Cloud Dragon, described as a missile-heavy attack formation, to make the best use of our unique samurai archer units.
Our target, the Sogo's castle, was built on a hillside, surrounded by walls, and it sat at the far end of an open field. To get inside and capture the inner keep, we would have to scale the walls and either gain access to or destroy one of the three gates. The efforts of our cunning ninja had ensured easy access to the gates, but we had long since forgotten this while laying out our strategy. Scaling the high frontal wall would be suicide, so we decided to hit the eastern side of the keep where the walls were shallowest. Our troops had to weather a barrage of enemy arrows as they moved into position, so we ordered them to run, instead of walk, to minimize our losses at the risk of tiring them out. Once at the eastern side, we paused the action to issue individual orders. Our yari samurai, a step up from the yari ashigaru, would scale the walls and engage the forces within while our samurai archers would lay down covering fire. While the enemy was distracted, our lone squads of naginata samurai and heavy cavalry would hit the single gate on its side, destroy it, and rush in to relieve our melee troops. Finally, our commander unit would linger just outside the gate and improve the fighting abilities of surrounding troops. With all the orders locked in, we resumed the action.
Our yari samurai began the short and terrifying ascent up the wall, each unit praying the spray of arrows screaming down its ranks wouldn't find purchase on its armor. The samurai archers fired high over the walls to provide what cover they could until the yari units crested the top and spilled over into the killing fields inside. Meanwhile, with the enemy distracted, our naginata samurai (needlessly) decimated the enemy's gate with a healthy application of fire. After a brief confrontation with an interception force, we cleared a path for our cavalry to charge in and hit the enemy's archer squads unhindered. Across from the gate sat an enemy guard tower, which rained down arrows on our troops. Each major structure inside a keep has a small flag next to it. Stationing units near one of these flags let us take control of the structure after a set amount of time, not unlike the capture-and-hold mechanic of conquest mode in first-person shooters such as the Battlefield series. Our naginata were perfect for the task and set up at the enemy's castle after converting the guard tower. This initiated a countdown timer at the top of our screen, letting us know how long we needed to hold the position to achieve victory. After roughly a minute, the battle was over.
This conflict felt true to form for a Total War game. Clearly, Shogun 2 expected us to do a great deal of planning before entering this fight, and even though we did lay out a plan, it all exploded into one desperate struggle on the battlefield. We actually had to run the above scenario a number of times before achieving success. Each failure, however, reinforced the importance of preparation. Without a cohesive strategy, no number of special unit abilities or bonuses from our general could win us the day. Second chances were a rarity on the battlefield, and conceding defeat meant surrendering precious time and resources to prepare for the next assault. Capturing Takamatsu put us in possession of a naval port and, subsequently, a meager navy. Naturally, some of our less-than-friendly neighbors from the mainland took notice and attacked.
Unlike European naval warfare, Japanese vessels aren't wholly dependent on the whims of the wind to be successful. Instead, they use brute force to make their way through the water via massive rowing crews. These giant warships--which looked like nothing short of a floating fortress--subsequently moved more slowly and deliberately than our land troops. We were in command of a bow Kobaya (a small assault ship), a medium Bune (a significantly larger siege vessel), and a heavy Bune (an even larger version of the previous one) and turned loose against an enemy of similar makeup. On the open sea, there are two ways to achieve victory: Successfully ignite the enemy's ship because ships are all made of wood or pull up next to the enemy, board the ship, and kick everyone out. The former proved to be the more successful tactic after our heavy Bune, loaded to the brim with troops eager to take control of an enemy's vessel, had the proverbial rug pulled from under it at the last moment. After it had locked in with an enemy vessel, a trick of the tide ripped the opposing ship away just as our troops took the plunge--sending them all crashing into the sea and, thus, incapacitating the ship.
Our time with the Chosokabe came to a close after we conquered the province of Awa from the Miyoshi clan and, finally, succeeded in unifying the island. But this was just a taste of the full Shogun 2 experience. Diplomacy, kinship, economic trading, and more all felt harmoniously integrated under one stunning artistic vision. We're very eager to get our hands on the full retail release of this strategy giant come March 15.