The historically-excellent RTS series makes a welcome return as Creative Assembly travels back to Japan once more as it attempts to prove its eye for detail hasn't faded any and that the best way to command and conquer is with friends at your back.
You want to show how far you've improved in the last decade, you look at photographs, maybe old writings you made. You stack what you think remember of back then against how you think you are now. Self-analyse, agree to disagree and move on suspecting that progression isn't as far as you'd like to believe.
Creative Assembly doesn't do hazy recollections. The British developer can categorically state without fear of reprisal from itself or any percentage of the massive fan base it's picked up in the last ten years worth its Total War franchise that its improved massively. All it has to do is stick on the original 2000 Shogun title alongside its newly-created sequel.
The changes aren't just cosmetic, though you can't ignore the visual upgrades that make every unit in under your command bristle with death-dealing detail, and the sweeping visages and cliff-side plateaus that make up the battleground this time round. Having used (whisper it) satellite data to map a truly authentic Japan, the landscape's strategic implications now impinge on tactics - castles conform tightly to hills and mountainous regions, multiple levels multiplying defensive options but simultaneously adding headaches when lines of sight and arrow flights are incorporated. Similarly attackers need to thrust against barricades to find the safest passage in. Your troops options have expanded, but despite a long line of RTS titles under the Total War name, Creative Assembly is keen to ease you into the frontline.
The slow ease to which the developer nudges you into the role of commander and chief is a good thing; the level of meticulous detail and range of game options the developer shows today, is staggering.
We cover the basics of the single player, which will brief sounds enticing; nine clans war to seize control of Kyoto and an endgame gamble that sees your triumphant win turn to tyrant-toppling siege as the entirety of your defeated foes armies lick wounds and march on your citadel simultaneously.
But today is about multiplayer, which the developer is keen to point out is as deep as the single player campaign (there's also a full cooperative campaign against AI with drop-in/drop-out gameplay). To prove that, it soars over the multitude of customisation options and lightly-coated narrative that ties the experience together, and regularly zooms in on particular micro-details that'd give history buffs, RTS veterans and oddly, Need for Speed fanboys the horn. You ever seen a Samurai in blinged out cherry-pink armour? Its one option of many for deciding your clan colours and flag and no, we don't want to see it either.
Multiplayer's main draw is the ongoing metagame clan war to stake claim to as many regions of Japan as possible, with Creative going to great pains to make the experience as easily accessible as it can. This hub map ties your multiplayer campaign together, colour-coding each region by the dominant clan currently owning bragging rights to the area. Each clan leader can drop a game piece onto the board to indicate which area the clan should focus its intentions on.
However, you can jump across the map as you wish; you first have to unlock each area by conquest first, with each of that area's surrounding boundaries then available to continue over. You're not restricted to massing on land either; naval battles will take place in the twelve sea regions surrounding the continent, while on firmer earth you'll divide your time between routing troops through forests and along rivers in land battles, while siege battles will see you attempt to destroy fortified positions.
Who'll you're stacked against will be decided by back-end mathematics, the system stacking a set number of clans into different leagues, which are stacked depending on skill and dedication, so there's no chance of you facing off against a foe with a wider selection of units than you.
Unit upgrades are part and parcel of the multiplayer's progression system. Your avatar will appear as your army's General in any match and along with your units, can be upgraded via a skill tree that turns experience points into specialist abilities across Leadership, Bow Mastery and such. Which units you favour and utilise during battle will be tracked and form part of your Avatar's Traits system - essentially an online calling card that lets players see your particular play style pre-match and work out a strategy accordingly, making for a more balanced match-up.
When favoured units gain enough experience they turn into Veterans, allowing you to rename and customise them at will. However upgraded units also cost more, meaning you need to balance quality against number, and with battle setups allowing for one-on-one up to four-on-four, you better earn the "strategy" part of RTS real fast.
What Creative Assembly has put into Total War: Shogun 2 is staggering. We came away from an afternoon's presentation with more pages of notes than any other event that we care to remember. Listing them all in the detail that the developer dictated on the written page would be far too dry, numbers and figures lacking the splendour of this vibrant world laid bare before you on your monitor.
Our brief playthrough of both single-player campaign and a multiplayer match had us itching to dig deeper into the game, and proves how not only how far the developer has come these last few years, but that it continues to nail the precision that makes it a heavyweight in its field. From first looks alone Shogun 2 looks to a tightly designed, sprawling RTS that'll likely be your next time-sink.