Smoke rises from the battlefield as I position myself in front of the computer screen to take on Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai, the second expansion to Shogun 2: Total War, the first that is a standalone expansion.
In FOTS you select sides between the Emperor, in favor of modernizing Japan, or with the Tokugawa-Shogunate in favor of status quo and the traditionalists. However you choose, there won't be a lack of powerful inventions for killing masses of people, on offer from western powers. The age of honorable fighting man on man with katanas is at an end it may seem.
I admit to my initial skepticism at the reentrance into more modern warfare. No doubt the Gatling gun and naval artillery are popular requests for the series, but for myself I even avoided excessive use of the primitive firearms available in Total War: Shogun 2. Though the prequels Empire: Total War and Napoleon: Total War, where firearms more can give the battles the feeling of standoffs rather than engagements was very entertaining, I was somewhat relieved at the quicker and more action-packed fights in Shogun 2. During the eighteen-hundreds Boshin War, which is the setting and time-period of this game, European Great Powers, with the already well established United States, bring the art of war from those European conflicts to a Japan emerging from two hundred years of isolation and suppression following from where Shogun 2 ended after the Sengoku-period. This Japanese civil war has all the ingredients to become just as sanguinary as the recently ended American Civil War. Both the French, the British and the Americans are there to meet you and trade with you as they all attempt to be on good terms with whoever becomes the next ruler of Japan.
The Tokugawa-Shogunate has divided the more than 60 regions of Japan that are featured in this game between almost as many warlords, most of whom were loyal to the Tokugawa Clan during the last Civil War period, Sengoku Jidai. Some of the clans that you already know from Shogun 2 may therefore be found in a completely different part of the map than what you remember from that game, and they may even have changed their name. Most of the clans are however new from the last game, dividing old regions into tinier ones and giving status to other supporters, so that no daimyos could gather power enough to go up against the Shogun. With that many clans featured you are tossed into a very intricate diplomatic setting, where loyalties are uncertain and various different agendas are at play. However there are primarily two sides, the Emperor's and the Shogunate's, and you have the option to choose one out of six clans to take part in the atrocities that will play out. To the west is Satsuma, south on the island Kyushu, Tosa, east on the island Shikoku, and Choshu east on the main island Honshu. The three start out supporting the Emperor in Kyoto in his rebellion against the Shogun in Edo, today known as Tokyo after the Tokugawa Shogun. They want to have the Emperor freed from his servitude and once again acquire gain power in Japan. Aizu, Nagaoka and Jozai support the Shogunate in the battle to keep the other daimyos in line and the country together under the current Shogun.
The choice is yours and you get the opportunity to influence history in its making. There are few differences in the types of units and tactics that are available to you regardless which side you chose, though there are some variations in strategic elements. I elected to take up the banner for progress and in favour of the Emperor's important position in Japanese society. My selected clan became Tosa.
After the previous Civil War the Yamanouchi Clan was awarded by the Shogun for their support of him the old home city of the Chosokabe, Tosa, and are now called the Tosa clan. Though the Chosokabe were by far the easiest clan to start out with in Shogun 2 doesn't mean that this is just as easy a starting point in FOTS.
The Campaign map is not entirely the same as was used in Shogun 2. There is communication, represented by trade-routes, to France and Britain to the West, and the United States in the east. The map has been expanded northwards to include part of the big island Hokkaido including several conquerable cities. Cities have developed in the time that has passed, and the topographical contours on the campaign map has been made proportionately smaller to allow for larger areas accessible to armies and for travel between regions to take longer. Armies now move shorter distances each turn than in Shogun 2, and travel between the same two cities now takes significantly longer. One year in the game now consists of 24 turns, meaning one turn represents approximately two weeks. Each of the seasons, which now last as much as six turns each, has been given tactical properties meaning that they now have a much greater impact on the strategic aspects of the game.
Some interesting innovations that soon make an appearance on the map is the telegraph- and railway-line that stretches through central regions of Honshu. It makes for faster troop movements among other things, but you can only travel where it goes, and railway lines can't be built wherever you want.
Seafare has also changed a lot. Floating fortresses stacked with samurai have been replaced by frigates, corvettes and ironclads loaded with canons. And these are able to bomb cities, armies, resources and ports within a certain radius on the campaign map. Thus ports have been similarly fitted with land based artillery that can protect them against enemy fleets that come too close. And on an island nation like Japan, where near all regions have a shoreline, upgrading city defenses is essential even where a region lies well protected from attacks by land.
Naval artillery also allows bombing battlefields on dry land from the sea if two armies meet within reach of a fleets artillery. This naval bombarding is limited by having a cool-down period before they become available, the time from when it is fired until impact, the radius of the bombardment, and a limitation of two bombardments per battle from each fleet. Thus, if used wisely and effectively it may have a significant impact on the balance of an encounter between two enemy armies. With enough canons in the fleet precisely guided artillery fire may do enormous damage to an army if timed just right. It is a memorable experience when your last standing unit is about to be routed by a superior enemy in a deceptive ambush and you pull out your last ace and bomb the attacking army to kingdom come and turn the battle around completely to seize victory.
At the beginning of a campaign most cities are already fitted with fortifications equal to the next highest level in Shogun 2, which in FOTS may be upgraded even further from this. Thus most cities start out with stone walls and leveled defenses which make sieges even harder than in the previous game. Later, castle towers may be upgraded to be fitted with gatling guns, archers or rifles.
The open battlefields is not only dominated by artillery, gatling guns and armstrong cannons. Though modern units are befitted with western guns and rifles, the tempo and action are kept at a maximum by eager japanese warriors just dying to throw themselves into a close fight with the katanas swords that most of them carry in their belts. This makes for a much more dynamic and fast-paced strategy warfare than what I had expected beforehand. The new first person view also allows you to get in even closer the fighting than ever before in the Total War series by steering artillery weapons and gatling guns in first person mode. However, though the thrill of mowing down onslaughting cavalry with a Gatling is incredibly awesome, the first person mode have absolutely no practical impact whatsoever on the battlefield. It is much more effective and precise to give artillery units orders where to fire in normal bird view than attempting to hit targets with salvos fired in first person view.
First person mode has also been integrated in naval battles, but here too it is mostly a useless gimmick. It looked impressive the first time i tried it - and for precisely three minutes. That's the time it took before my fleet came within firing range of the enemy and I realized that so long as most naval warfare in this game is about firing broadsides at each other, first person mode is completely useless. Because you only look straight ahead from the bridge and into the front mast, you are unable to see neither where the enemies are or what you are supposed to shoot at.
More impressive however is the new possibility of fighting battles within ports. Thus if you attack a port where there is stationed a fleet, you have to navigate into the variably narrow docks in order to conquer th enemy's ships and port city. If the enemy have upgraded their port defenses this may become a bloody battle against both land and sea enemies.
The infantry too has been upgraded since Shogun 2. Rifles and matchlocks now dominate. Though there are still those who swear by the old ways and train in the art of bushido. Samurais are still commonplace amongst all the clans. The choice between traditional and modern units becomes a strategic choice as they have different impacts on the exploration of new technologies that are central to the campaign. However, the medal of modernization has its backside and development brings with it great unrest and unhappiness among the population. With time special elite units may be rented from the French, the British and the Americans. This follows the early availability of agents from the same countries, veterans that help reduce the costs and upkeep of modern soldier within an army. Along with ninja, geisha and revolutionary missionaries these agents are many in numbers and of great influence on the development of events. Especially whenever a city is conquered by from a daimyo of different loyalties than yours the importance of influencing the populace to see eye to eye with ones ambitions emerges.
Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai is in many ways very similar to its prequel. Many upgrades has been done, and the story and motivations are new, but the setting and goals are still much the same. However, as a standalone expansion this is a strategy game for fans of the series, whether they have or haven't played Shogun 2. It is a game that continues to make the Total War-series ever more intuitive and accessible to players, new and old, while at the same time increasing the pace of the game. The multiplayer part, like the one in Shogun 2, has many options for cooperation online. If the Boshin War or more recent Japanese history stirs your interest this is a great game that gives you your moneys worth in entertainment, fun and a bit of education.