Most wars throughout human history can be boiled down to an essential battle of ideologies. To date, it is an aspect of war games that is often touched upon but rarely explored as a mechanic. We know why group X and group Y are rattling their sabres at the other party, but the impact of this knowledge is rarely felt in gameplay terms. The Creative Assembly’s Total War: Shogun 2 – Fall of the Samurai bucks this trend.
Upon setting out on the singleplayer campaign, players are given the choice to stand alongside one of the two key factions of the era. The Imperialist clans all seek to restore power to the emperor, and have no qualms about courting Western powers and their modern ways to achieve victory. The Shogunate-aligned clans, by comparison, are more interested in maintaining the traditions that have thus far defined the country.
While the political ambitions of each side offer little more than setting to the conflict, the differing views on the modernisation of Japan do directly impact gameplay. In short, adopting more modern technologies is generally easier for those clans aligned with the emperor. The Shogunate clans, on the other hand, receive bonuses to traditional units to offset the greater difficulties involved in modernising their armies.
Regardless of clan choice, it is still up to the player exactly how much they modernise their armies. It is more a case of how easy such modernisation is rather than being locked into a particular path.
The principle currency for advancement in Fall of the Samurai is a new game concept: modernisation. The technology tree is still largely in the format you will remember, but more advanced technologies must first be unlocked by achieving the appropriate level of clan modernisation.
But change rarely comes without cost. In this case, a more modern society equates to increased unhappiness in the regions under your command. It is not uncommon for a modernised clan to find that, after a series of regional takeovers, there are more soldiers being kept behind to maintain order than there are pushing at the front. It’s a delightful balancing act that keeps things interesting well into the final stages of the campaign.
Costs aside, the benefits of modernisation are numerous and can really allow you to build up your powerbase on the campaign map. The ability to construct railways across your provinces, for instance, gives you much greater map presence as large armies can be moved large distances with ease.
Of course it is during battles that the impact of modernisation is most tangibly felt. Combat is a significantly more explosive affair than before, with cannon and rifle fire going off at every turn. The new units do require some subtle changes to your typical strategy. Running headlong into a line of riflemen is considerably more costly than doing the same to a group of archers.
It’s also just a lot of fun bringing modern units into a theatre of war like this. The clash between the old and new is fascinating. Add the ability to call in foreign units such as US Marines and you’re left with a battlefield that is both familiar and new all at once.
With the ability to bombard settlements and armies off-shore (even during real-time land battles) naval warfare enjoys increased prominence. Much like the battles on land, Fall of the Samurai’s ship-to-ship warfare is full of big bangs as ironclads bristling with armaments clash amongst the waves. With gun emplacements on shorelines and other variables brought about by the more modern setting, the combat itself is also more engaging and tactical.
One feature that may seem a subtle change is the way the end-game is now handled. Rather than everyone suddenly gunning for you past a certain point, the ‘final battle’ takes place between the two main factions. Not only does it make the end feel more even handed, it also means that all your diplomatic work to date is not completely undone. Of course, the megalomaniacal amongst you can still go it alone for total rule of Japan if that is your wish.
Beyond the campaign, all the usual Total War inclusions, such as historical battles, are present. Multiplayer is particularly interesting, thanks to the ability to play against owners of the original Shogun 2 as well as this “expandalone”. Pitting ultra-modernised forces against their more ancient counterparts makes for some fun ‘what if’ scenarios, and the balance is surprisingly good. Over time, we would expect some imbalances to make themselves known, but for the moment we’re impressed with what has been achieved here.
It is tempting to think of Fall of the Samurai as a content update for Shogun 2. Yes, the overall game mechanics are largely unchanged, but the new theatre and the complexities brought by the modernisation mechanic do a great deal to reinvigorate the game. This is a full-fledged Total War experience; while it may fall short of being as thrilling an arrival as a brand new entry, it remains a purchase that is extremely easy to recommend. Whether you are a Shogun 2 veteran or someone who has simply been looking for a more accessible theatre in which to first experience this grand strategy – Fall of the Samurai is well worth your consideration.
Originally published in PCPP#202, April 2012.