Despite the apparent success of the strategy-game genre, there has been a pronounced lack of quality games that offer more deliberate, strategic gameplay in addition to action-packed combat. Thus, the arrival of Shogun is an especially welcome addition to the genre: Not only is Shogun a challenging and engrossing 3D real-time tactical combat game, but it also features a great turn-based strategy component that complements the combat wonderfully.
The goal of Shogun is for you to unify a fractured Japan. In the Sengoku Jidai, or warring-states period of the 16th century, Japan is nominally under the rulership of an emperor who commands the entire Japanese nation. In reality, powerful warlords, or daimyo, control their own regions of a divided Japan, and each hopes to become the shogun, the ultimate warlord who would unite Japan under his military banner. Historically, the time period was one of great warfare and strife, which makes it well suited for a strategy game.
The main component of Shogun: Total War is the campaign mode, which simulates the course of the Sengoku Jidai period. There is also a historical battle mode, which lets you replay five historical battles from the 16th century; as well as a custom battle mode, where you can cull your own armies and game-world variables to create a battle to your liking.
In the campaign mode, you begin as the leader of one of seven rival clans of Japan. Each clan has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each starts out in a different area of the map. All of the seven clans have unique benefits and geographic advantages or disadvantages, which lend the game greater replay value. Regardless of which clan you choose, war is the focus of Shogun. The game's research model is very simple, and there is a paltry diplomacy model and limited espionage options. There isn't a bewildering array of choices to confuse or distract you. Some players might be put off by this simplicity, but it's actually liberating. The strategy portion of Shogun is very much like an enhanced version of Risk, as it distills the basic fun elements of strategy gaming without offering too many choices, much like the classic board game.
The campaign mode begins with an overhead view of Japan, which is portrayed as an unfurled map of the country spread out across a table in your throne room. Each province is visible, along with pieces that designate your generals and special units, such as ninja and emissaries. The strategy portion of the gameplay involves moving your pieces around the map to gain intelligence (using shinobi, your spies), offer alliances (with your emissaries), assassinate other leaders (with your ninja), or conquer other provinces (with your generals and their armies). All the while, you're trying to generate money from your provinces to fuel your war machine with unit-producing or unit-enhancing buildings and castles, as well as with troops.
Each province you hold generates koku, or bushels of rice. This is the game's resource unit, which you use to buy troops and buildings. You collect the koku tax every four seasons, or turns. You will never have enough koku to buy all the troops you want and to construct buildings in all the provinces; instead, the game always forces you to make difficult strategic choices about what to build and when. Luckily, there are several things you can do to enhance your influx of koku. You can set higher tax rates each year for your people, at the cost of their loyalty; build improvements to your farmland; or conquer other provinces for their yearly income.
One problem with the annual tax collection is that the tax report indicates yearly unit and building costs but provides no detailed breakdown of this cost. For instance, it would be helpful to know the yearly upkeep cost of a common spearman compared with that of a more costly samurai, or the upkeep cost of a particular building.
Diplomacy in Shogun is also pretty flimsy. All you're doing is effectively buying yourself time until you betray your neighbor or your neighbor betrays you. The only diplomatic option you have is to offer alliance treaties. You can't coordinate joint attacks on neighbors, ask for loans, demand tribute, or conduct any other such negotiations - all options you'd expect from an epic strategy game like Shogun. More extensive diplomacy options would have been welcome.
The game's espionage aspect is less anemic. You can hire shinobi to spy on your enemies, incite revolt in enemy provinces, or stabilize loyalty in your own provinces. The process isn't as glamorous or involving as it sounds - you just move your shinobi into a province, and the results supposedly happen. You can also recruit ninja, who can assassinate game pieces - such as generals, emissaries, and even daimyo - on the map. Unfortunately, it's very hard to ever get a ninja to complete an assassination successfully. Ninja need experience to stand a good chance of accomplishing their missions, but until they complete several missions in the first place, they'll never get that experience.
Shogun's technology tree is fairly simple. You need to build a castle to operate the basic military structures. Upgrading your castle opens up options for better military buildings, such as the famous archery dojo and Buddhist temple. Some of the late-game upgrades actually require special conditions, such as the arrival of Dutch traders or the rising of a legendary swordsman in your military ranks. Although you'll want to start conquering territories early, you'll need to carefully balance your desire to throw money into producing the basic units with the necessity to build toward better troops and upgrades. As the game is geared toward offense, there are no defensive structures for you to spend money on.
The strategic portion of Shogun's gameplay has a few interface problems. Using the strategic units, such as emissaries and ninja, is initially cumbersome. You have to drag and drop the unit directly over the opposing unit you want to interact with. Providing these options in the bottom toolbar or employing a right-click menu to conduct a mission would have been easier. Also, the delineation of the discreet provinces is too subtle - you can tell who rules a province only by the faint-colored border or by holding your mouse over the province for a few seconds. It would have been better if each province was lightly shaded according to its owner's color, or perhaps even if the lord's clan name appeared under each province. There's also no easy way to tell what each province is building and what units it's training. When you're managing more than a handful of provinces, it gets annoying to have to click on each province to find out what it's doing.
When you attack a rival province, you can either resolve the combat automatically or command the battle personally. It's usually better to command the battle personally in order to sustain minimal casualties. When you command the battle yourself, you switch over to the 3D real-time tactical-combat game mode, which is the core of Shogun. The tactical game is a lot of fun. You command your groups of troops (the basic unit is either a 60- or 120-man group) in a fully 3D landscape. You can battle during any season and weather condition, so you could be fighting in the plains on a clear day, in the snowy hills with driving snowfall, or during foggy or rainy days. However, there is no night fighting.
The combat is highly realistic. High ground is vitally important, as it confers addition range for your ranged weapons, as well as sight and attack bonuses. Morale and fatigue are also key considerations in combat. Lowly spearmen will break and run if they are hit hard by a charge led by more-seasoned troops, and they'll be more likely to rout if they're tired, after having been driven through forced marches up hilly slopes. Similarly, you get clear advantages for surprising the enemy, such as when you rush out from behind trees to attack the flanks of a passing foe. Ranged units have limited ammunition, although you can disable this feature for less-realistic battles. Also, your units' honor is very important to battles - a unit's honor in Shogun is essentially the unit's experience. Your general has honor ranks, which are added to your units' honor. Higher honor means the units fire faster, fight better, and so forth. Honor increases as a general wins more battles. However, if he loses battles, he also loses honor, and a general with negative honor also confers those penalties upon his troops.
The game engine can handle up to 5,000 individual troops per side, which can make for some truly massive battles. The aftermath of these battles is remarkable, as thousands of bodies litter the battlefield. The game does slow down somewhat when lots of units are onscreen at once, but you can turn down graphic details to get better performance. The 3D terrain looks good, but the little units are just 2D sprites. It's a worthwhile trade-off for being able to see such large-scale combat scenarios, but in consequence, Shogun's graphics aren't quite as good as some of the more recent fully 3D real-time strategy games.
There are a few small problems with the tactical combat in Shogun. There is no way to quickly change your troops' facing quickly without marching your troops in the direction you want them to face. Also, there should have been a way to scout out provinces to see the details of the battlefield before any invasions commence. This would have helped in deciding what troops to station in the province - lots of high ground would have meant you'd want plenty of archers, while flat plains would have been better suited to cavalry.
In general, the production values for the game are excellent. The cutscenes are high quality, and the sound and music are great and well suited. The random events, as well as the 2D strategic map itself, are well drawn. Though the game's intro and victory movies are in English, you can even opt to play the game with Japanese language and English subtitles in the tactical battles and strategic campaign. Though the game was fairly stable on our main review system, we did experience some crash problems on other machines. Updating our video and audio drivers to the latest versions seemed to help.
Shogun has a great subject, and a perfect melding of strategic and tactical gameplay. The strategy portion is simple but very engrossing, while the tactical battles are very realistic, challenging, and entertaining exercises in military tactics. Shogun is a difficult game even on the default setting - but what's so great is that the challenge is grounded on the basic, real-world tenets and common wisdom of warfare. Spreading yourself too thin is an invitation for disaster; alliances cannot be trusted for long; feigning weakness is one of the few ways to goad your opponents to overextend themselves; and so on. When you get beaten in battle or outmaneuvered on the strategic map, in hindsight it'll be clear to you why you lost and thus easier for you to figure out how to do better the next time. Shogun is a very enjoyable game, as it keeps you honest by punishing you for your mistakes and richly rewarding you for your well-thought-out successes.
Shogun does have a smattering of problems, but it easily makes up for its shortcomings with its great design and engrossing gameplay. Since many recent strategy games have emphasized instantly gratifying tactical battles, it's refreshing to play a game that also rewards more long-term planning and tactical thinking. No matter which type of strategy game you prefer, you owe it to yourself to try Shogun.