The Total War franchise is continuing to expand, this time in the form of a sequel to the Shogun entry that started it all. Total War: Shogun 2 is shaping up to be a very fine entry into the series, not only letting you organize your forces in a massive turn-based campaign but also getting right down to the granular real-time action, where strategy is key to victory. Knowing your units' strengths and weaknesses and using terrain to your advantage really is mightier than the finest sword or bow, and armchair strategists have many opportunities to flex their mental muscle.
The preview build contained what is essentially a group of tutorials arranged in a pseudo-campaign style. Starting off with merely one province to your name and a handful of troops following a recent clash with another clan, you are again attacked by a haphazard band of rebels. This fight serves as a basic tutorial for troop movements, actions and basic controls. The control scheme and UI for Shogun 2 is easy to manage, with most basic information showing up in the bottom left. Units are comprised of selectable unit cards, which show detailed information about the current status.
This tutorial is the first of many opportunities that the game takes to emphasize that it's incredibly important to know your units. The first fight features enemy cavalry rushing your spearmen, and it serves as the example of having your spearmen form a spear wall so that it's easier to deal with the charge. The tutorial then rolls onward to show how archers can soften up advancing infantry to make it a much easier engagement. Finally, we see how your own cavalry can form a wedge to decimate pesky enemy archers.
With the battle won, it's time to turn one's attention to strengthening the province and pleasing the populace. Your citizens have many factors weighing on their happiness; you have direct control over some aspects, such as raising or lowering taxes. There is more of a high-end overview of the strategy element in keeping people happy and maintaining your provinces, so you don't have to worry about any real micromanagement. Rather than placing individual buildings, it boils down to picking certain upgrades for the province, and your defenses are mainly from the units that you create. Of course, units have their own upkeep costs, so it is incredibly expensive to maintain an overly large standing army.
The turn-based campaign mode also allows for some subterfuge in the form of employing ninja to sabotage the enemy. These sabotage options have a cost and are never guaranteed to work, but possible actions include poisoning an enemy army's food supply to make them weaker in battle and sabotaging a castle gate to make it easier to breach. They can also serve as forward scouts, letting you know the location and composition of enemy armies so you can reorganize your defenses accordingly.
Naval combat is also represented in this overarching tutorial setup. You start you off controlling a single bow ship, which is a small and squat vessel with an open flat deck from which archers can fire. Not unlike archers on foot, these archers can employ fire arrows, which are effective on the ground but absolutely deadly at sea. Setting a ship aflame is a quick way to watch the whole thing go up as its crew leap from the sides of the stricken vessel, but one must be careful because flaming ships can easily set nearby ships on fire as well.
Ships can also engage in boarding actions — a role best suited for massive bune vessels. These ships are essential giant transport vessels filled with troops, with strong hulls but slow maneuverability. Once these ships get close, they can be brutal, as they can easily grapple another ship and invade the hapless enemy vessel. Ship combat seems a little less strategic than the conventional ground-based combat. Hull strength is represented in sections, and the only thing that damages it is flaming arrows, which can destroy anything wooden. The opportunity for ship combat in the preview build was very limited, though, so it remains to be seen if naval combat is more engaging in the final game.
The best part of the build wasn't found in the tutorial campaign format but in the single historical battle included via the main menu. In this one battle, there is enough betrayal and shifts in allegiance to fill a short story, and the large battlefield includes a handful of every unit type represented in the build. When it's all said and done, countless enemy and friendly soldiers alike lay slain on the field as a result of countless cavalry charges, archer barrages, and a constant cacophony of the clashing of sword and spear. Careful maneuvering is crucial in this battle, as it is not fought in one place but essentially the entire length of the field. Enemy units break away if they see an opening to rush your weaker support units or send their matchlock units to lay waste to your cavalry. Thus, it is important to make sure you are aware of the entire battle to prevent these counterattacks from occurring or mitigate their effect.
The preview build of Total War: Shogun 2 is an exciting taste of what's to come. The game is clearly unpolished in a few areas, but the gameplay is quite solid. The game can be brutal if you haphazardly charge into a battle and let your units get outmatched or flanked. Likewise, it is great fun to set an ambush of your own and completely decimate an advancing force that falls into your trap. The naval combat seems like it needs to find its footing but is quite entertaining in its current form. Look for more information on Shogun 2 as it approaches its release date.
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