The Gatling Gun brings the Total War series exploding into the modern era, and the changes these machine gun units bring may well be indicative of a series shift towards a more modern brand of warfare.
Of course those deft tacticians at Creative Assembly easily avoided my attempts to draw them in on the subject, but the inclusion of the new gun units and the greater emphasis on naval warfare provides an exciting glimpse at the possibilities now open to the developers should they fancy tackling a more current, machine-dominated period of conflict.
James Russell, the lead designer of this substantial stand-alone expansion, describes Fall of the Samurai as "confronting modernity", and over an accelerated campaign gamers will witness the 19th century Japanese industrial revolution. This time of rapid industrial expansion provides the backdrop for a civil war between the Imperial forces and the last generation of the Shogunate. The Boshin War saw the end of feudal Japan and was a turbulent period of history. The perfect setting for a war game then.
The four hundred year shift brings with it some startling changes to the original Shogun 2 formula. The most obvious is the introduction of the Gatling Gun to the battlefield, but the changes don't stop there. Railways provide options for improved transport links; and naval units now feature much more prominently. The contrast between old and new is pronounced, and as the game progresses the armies modernise to reflect this.
The campaign provides players with several potential paths to take, each weighted with consequence. You can fall in with the Imperial forces, side with the last of the Shogun or set up your own independent state (although this last option usually involves everyone declaring war on you all at once). For the more adventurous player there is even the option of going against the grain of history and opting to completely avoid modernisation altogether. Whilst the factual accuracy of the surrounding detail is superb, history itself can be rewritten and this, as always, makes for a fascinating experience.
One thing that struck me was how much Creative Assembly care about their history. They clearly eat, drink and breath any period of warfare that falls under their collective microscope. It's not unusual for them to heavily research the history they bring to life in their games, and they consulted expert historian Dr Stephen Turnbull to make sure FotS retained the authenticity that is the hallmark of the Total War series.
They describe themselves as historians, and their enthusiasm is infectious. "There's no such thing as a glorious charge", we were happily told by battle designer Jamie Ferguson. He reels off examples of moments in history that defined the transition to modern warfare, examples included the Charge of the Light Brigade and the American Civil War. He was explaining the impact of the new gun units on the games AI; the changes they have made to accommodate this new technology were substantial.
Creative Assembly has had to teach the AI to deal with new challenges and tactics, but they have also had to keep the gameplay balanced. Even though the Gatling gun is a formidable tool when used appropriately, it is vulnerable to attacks from the flank. It might also prove a tempting distraction for some gamers, because using the gun drops the player into a more action orientated third-person mode. Paying too much attention to the machine gun and you risk neglecting the rest of your army.
There will be, from time to time, incidents that are entirely reminiscent of film The Last Samurai, with foot soldiers charging straight at a Gatling gun and getting decimated in the process, but the reworked AI should make sure that this isn't a common eventuality. The studio was also quick to point out that the Tom Cruise film wasn't a major source of inspiration for them. For a start, the film was set during the Satsuma Rebellion, an incident that took place several years after the events depicted in Fall of the Samurai. The developers instead pointed to the film When the Last Sword is Drawn as a major influence.
FotS also adopts the blend of RTS and turn-based strategy made famous by the Total War games that have come before it. During the turn-based element of the game players move their armies around an ever-expanding map of the Japanese Islands. To reflect the rapid expansion of the Japanese industrial complex, Assembly has cranked up the frequency of the turns, with moves now lasting only two weeks. The only downside to this is now there are six turns where your armies can suffer from attrition through the winter, surely enough to affect anyone's long-term planning.
When on the main map, players will engage in a variety of diplomatic and strategic actions. Whether negotiating trade deals with local allies, or dealing with aggressive neighbours, you will constantly be aware of the consequential drain on your resources. There is plenty of different ways for you to build up your towns and armies, with different specialisations bringing different rewards.
Although the turn-based elements are essential to your progress in the game, it is the real-time battles that form the main course of this strategic feast. In this area FotS looks to be a more polished and refined experience. With the developer careful to balance the effectiveness of new units, and with technical advancement putting armies in a constant state of evolution, the battles promise to be grand and exciting.
New units, such as the foreign mercenary and the rifleman, accompany old favourites onto the battlefield, but getting them there might prove more of a problem than in the past. The ability to harass armies as they move around on coastal paths will offer a new element to gameplay. Foreign agents can also call out generals and challenge them to a duel, though sending in low-level mercenaries against hardened generals will often result in defeat.
When you do eventually line up against your enemy in the battlefield, FotS is much as Total War has always been; big, bold and beautiful. The graphics are exceptional, and the detail inherent in each and every unit is impressive. Watching troops charging into each other remains as satisfying as ever.
The scale of the project undertaken by Creative Assembly is impressive. Forget this as an expansion pack, because it is much more than that. FotS will not need the original Shogun 2 to run, and will provide a considerable amount of content for gamers to get through. I'm not really sure why they didn't just call it Total War: Fall of the Samurai; they obviously wanted to maintain the association with the hugely successful Shogun 2, but FotS promises to be distinctive enough, and extensive enough, to stand on its own as a worthy addition to the Total War series.
Creative Assembly obviously takes a lot of pride in the authenticity of their games. All of their titles start from an historically accurate position, but then they challenge us to rewrite history, making it up as we see fit. The 19th century Japanese civil war is the latest conflict to get the Total War treatment; a brief slice of history that hinged on technological and strategic advancement.
Who knows, maybe Fall of the Samurai's clash with modernity may prove comparable to what is going on behind closed doors at CA? In the meantime, while we wait for the answers to such questions, Total War: Shogun II - Fall of the Samurai looks like it is going to be more than enough to keep strategy fans happy/busy come release.