Despite pervasive balance and performance issues, Shogun 2 is arguably the best title in the Total War series.

User Rating: 9 | Total War: Shogun 2 PC
-Beautiful artistic and technical graphics
-Excellent campaign with varied tactical approaches
-Ambitious and rewarding multiplayer
-Enjoyable battles on both land and sea

-No DirectX 10 or 11 support or Antialiasing at launch
-Multiplayer is bugged and somewhat limited
-Aggressive but underwhelming AI
-Balancing issues and numerous glitches

When Empire: Total War released in 2009, it enjoyed a staggeringly positive critical reception for its bold overhaul of the traditional Total War engine, followed by harsh criticism by critics and fans alike for its profundity of glitches. The Creative Assembly's break from form was an ambitious but flawed presentation that left the fanbase of the series awed and alienated simultaneously. I at first was awed by the overhauled land and naval battles, three-theater campaign, and host of other overhauls to what appeared at the time to be the greatest game of the series. With 356 hours to date clocked in Empire, however, my perception is rather humbled. The game included numerous game-breaking glitches, an unnecessarily complex naval battle system, and an entirely new engine that left little opportunity for the minor modifications and intrepid overhauls that to the series' fans represented the heart and soul of Rome and Medieval II. It is with cautious optimism then that I give my personal endorsement to Total War: Shogun 2 (a new titling scheme that apparently won't catch on) with the caveats of a veteran Total War gamer.

Starting the game, the player is treated to innocuous cherry blossoms in bloom, serene, and an angelic soundtrack (including many remastered tracks of the original Shogun). These motifs, as well as the spoken Japanese, historical names, and a canvas-like campaign map that begs exploration give the player a sense that he entering the realm of the Sengoku Jidai, a land embroiled in a fierce civil war for the shogunate.

I should take the time to mention the campaign map itself. Despite the numerous features of past titles CA neglects to implement in later installations, one part of the Total War experience that never deteriorates between games is the campaign map. Like in Empire, structures are spread throughout a province rather than clustered into the city, encouraging a more versatile and aggressive military rather than the full garrisons cloistered within the capital that pervaded past titles. The campaign map is stylized as a quintessentially Japanese brush painting that instantaneously transform into a breathtaking 3D display when uncovered. The player can make use of ninja (the quintessential assassin and saboteur), metsuke (secret policeman), geisha (effective but conspicuous assassins), and monks (agents of unrest and conversion) to advance their own clan at the expense of the enemy. Unlike the boring and ineffectual agents of previous titles, the servants of the Shogun 2 daimyo are brutally effective. In one particularly enjoyable scenario, I sent my general with a substantial army to attack my enemy to the South, leaving only a token defense force in my own castle. When my army was two turns away from the enemy castle, I noticed a sizable enemy force had snuck its way into my territory and could take my own province before my armies would have time to rush home. I turned to my newly-recruited metsuke and ninja. The former bribed a small force of enemy ashigaru closer to their capital, which I promptly used to besiege his castle. When that failed to turn the enemy army around, I sent my ninja to cripple his army by sapping its movement points for one turn. Winter was now setting in and would take its toll in the form of attrition on the enemy force, but it still was not enough to save myself. I sent my ninja to join my army, giving it extra movement points to reinforce my turncoat ashigaru and take the enemy castle. The enemy faction capitulated. I then reformed my defeated enemy into a vassal clan to serve as a buffer state between my homeland and my powerful, untrustworthy ally, the Uesugi, to the South. Such examples serve to remind the player just what strides the campaign has made over the years.

Of course, the campaign map is only one half of the Total War experience. As useful as the monk and geisha are to crippling your enemy, campaigns are won and lost by the real-time battles. The positioning of armies on the campaign map as well as the campaign map's once again, unlike the boring and recycled maps of Empire and Napoleon. The enemy AI is aggressive and makes good use of terrain; however, an experienced player will realize the imperfections of the computer opponent. Like in Napoleon, the enemy infantry are predisposed to the infamous "charge bug," though this flaw is somewhat concealed by the fact that the battles in Shogun 2 are once again decided by melee combat. The AI has its imperfections, but it behaves more like a precocious middle school student than a suicidal maniac. The battles are a beautiful display of the brilliant balance between quality and performance that CA has struck, though the ambient occlusion is less striking than in Empire and the vanilla version has no Anti-Aliasing or support for DirectX versions older than 9. Balancing is also an issue; matchlock and cannon units are enjoyable and well-balanced, but bow units are too accurate and effective and cavalry is rather underwhelming. Fans of the series have jokingly made references to "Benny Hill: Total War," but the movement speed of units in Shogun 2 is ridiculous even on regular speed. Units run by default and are difficult to position as the player wants, but the visceral combat and enhanced tactical elements maintain the superb real-time battles that fans of the series expect.

Land battles are not the only real-time spectacles on display in Shogun 2. Naval battles make a return and are more fun than ever before. Previously an annoying afterthought in the previous TW games, naval combat was made real-time for Empire and Napoleon. The battles, while gorgeous to view, were excessively complex and frustrating. In Shogun 2, however, battles at sea strike the perfect balance between tactical depth and practical enjoyment. Wind direction still plays a component in battles, but the sail-operated kobaya and bune make it less of a decisive factor. Ships contain their own cooldown abilities, from rally to fire arrows to warcry that add both a tactical and entertainment value to the battles at sea. The player who dominates the seas will enjoy a considerable bonus during the campaign. Trade posts make their return, promising lucrative income to whoever can send a merchant ship to trade for precious commodities like silk or iron, and the ability to ferry your troops around the campaign map is quite useful. Despite these benefits, naval power is not a decisive factor in the bid for the shogunate, making the battles exciting but overall not very consequential.

Now would be a good time to mention the campaign in more detail. The player can choose one of ten clans vying for control of Japan. The Ashikaga shogunate is on the verge of collapse and the empire is up for grabs. The objective of the player is to seize several provinces around their starting area in addition to Kyoto, the seat of the shogun and emperor. The aforementioned features make the campaign an enjoyable one, but a few factors lessen the experience. For one, the scope is quite limited. Only sixty provinces exist in the game, far fewer than in any previous titles. Rome, the golden standard to which all Creative Assembly games are held, had well over 150, in addition to a long campaign with civilizations, "barbarian" tribes, and pastoralist confederations battling for supremacy of the Ancient world. The campaign in Shogun 2 lasts considerably less time and spans a more or less monolithic world. The campaign is still enjoyable, but the excitement created by the clash of cultures and hundreds of varying unit types is gone. Once the player topples the Ashikaga Shogunate, the land undergoes a "realm divide" that pits almost every faction against the player. Designed to give the player a reason to continue the campaign, this feature instead turns the experience from a campaign that balances warfare, diplomacy, and intrigue into a frantic slugfest. The result is not fun. On the plus side, the game's difficulty and varied factions give the campaign good replay value. Because of an AI that is both genuinely smarter (and that gains unfair bonuses from the computer), the campaign becomes quite a challenge. Hard is no longer the standard difficulty and even a competent player can be defeated on normal difficulty. Each clan also enjoys its own unique set of bonuses from the superior siege technology of the Hojo to the cheaper and more effective peasant warriors of the Oda. In spite of every flaw I have mentioned, the campaign of Shogun 2 may be the best of the series.

Multiplayer has long been a core component of Total War games. Though CA is not one to cheapen its single player experience and use online play to justify its laziness, they have put increased emphasis on the multiplayer experience of Total War. Clans make a return in Shogun 2, allowing players to join a clan of their friends or steam group. A player is allowed to customize his own avatar, complete with armor sets and a talent tree. The "avatar campaign" is a fun feature, but quite limited in its scope. The multiplayer experience also suffers from numerous glitches; most of my friends have been branded by the game's servers as "dishonorable cowards" even though they have not once quit a match early. I have had trouble joining and participating in my clan, a source of great annoyance. Worst of all, the unit multiplier in online is stuck at 0.75 (I generally play at 1.5 in single player just to get reasonably sized battles). The multiplayer system in Shogun 2 is the most ambitious and thorough of any Total War game yet, but it leaves me largely unsatisfied.

If this review has done too much to highlight the negative aspects of Shogun 2, then it has not had its intended effect. I am a dedicated fan of Total War; therefore, I consider it my duty to criticize all of its shortcomings relentlessly. I have spent thousands of hours on Total War throughout my gaming career, time I am proud to have spent, and I don't plan on quitting the series any time soon. In spite of many flaws (several of which I didn't have the space to include in this interview) Shogun 2 truly is a fantastic game. Just about every aspect of the Shogun 2 experience is superlative: graphics, sound effects and music, the campaign design, and the combat. CA has proved the capabilities of its new and controversial engine and transcended the numerous flaws of its previous titles to create what is in my opinion the greatest entry yet to this illustrious series.