Total War: Shogun 2

TotalWarShogunII

Ever since the release of Total War: Medieval II Creative Assembly’s Total War series has been undergoing constant changes as experiments are conducted to increase the level of depth Total War games are able to provide.  Total War: Shogun 2 has continued that development by departing from several notable aspects of the Total War genre; namely in its graphics design and technology development system.

It’s important to note that unlike other Total War games (with the exception of the original Total War: Shogun) Shogun 2 focuses solely on the islands of the Japanese homeland.  Factions, units, and architecture are homogenous with alterations of existing units and different faction economics providing the only variation among playthroughs.

Shogun 2 covers the period of Japanese history called the Sengoku Jidai or Warring States period in which the central authority of the Ashikaga Shogunate collapsed allowing the many clans of Japan to make their own bids for regional and even national domination.  Ten of those clans (increased to twelve with DLC) provide the playable factions that players can use to achieve dominion over feudal Japan.  Each faction possesses a unique faction trait which provides a single economic benefit as well as benefits to a specific type of warfare that the faction specializes in.  A few factions also emphasize alternative religious aspects providing unique challenges and opportunities when dealing with the other factions.

Analyzing Shogun 2’s campaign story is difficult for a variety of reasons.  The backdrop of events is, for the most part, historically based and most of the starting characters among the factions actually existed (albeit sometimes in different roles).  Additionally in Grand Strategy games, much like 4x games, the single player story is crafted for the most part by the player.

This blend of a simulated starting situation with personally crafted narratives creates a situation where the game’s ‘story’ as it were is quite often only as developed as the player is willing to invest in it.  Yes, characters like your generals develop certain traits that can distinguish them from others in the same role, yet how much these transform from numbers and stats in the game to living personalities is dependent mostly on the player’s immersion in the game.  This immersion is facilitated primarily by the introductory video of each faction which displays the faction’s strengths in practical terms and also introduces potential enemy factions in the surrounding area.  The motivational speeches given by generals at the start of the RTS style battles also provide flavor, with specific references to the general’s status in the faction as well as the nature of the foe.

Shogun 2 is the first Total War game to offer multiplayer co-op.  Players take turns in sequence with the host serving as first player. Mercifully players are able to manage their cities, unit production, and tech research during another player’s turn.  Co-op is shared victory for the players and during real-time battles the currently active player can gift units to the other player for the duration of the battle providing a unique cooperative combat experience.   Interaction between players is heavily integrated and de-synchronization can slow down play; however recent patching has largely removed any performance issues.

If there was a weakness in Shogun 2 it would be the homogeneous nature of the setting.  Naturally nothing more than Japanese factions fighting over the Japanese mainland should be expected from a game of this nature and focus.  The narrowed focus also keeps the central importance of the office of Shogunate, the campaign’s principle objective, as the single motivated factor and ultimate goal for the player.  Yet the similarities in faction builds, units, and for the most part religion gives play-throughs a depreciating factor of enjoyment.  This aspect presents Shogun 2’s novel co-op multiplayer as the primary factor for enjoying additional playthroughs once players have mastered Japan two or three times.

Overall Total War: Shogun 2 is an excellent showcase for the changes and improvements that Creative Assembly is applying to its venerable series.  It also provides a marvelous historical overview of Japan’s history during this period.  It shouldn’t be considered a sequel so much as a remake to the original Total War: Shogun.  It may not possess the geographic and historical scope of most Total War titles but is still a welcome and necessary, as gaming technology improves, addition to any Total War library.

Endless Legend

This past year saw two notable franchises release the latest titles in their series.  For 4x giant Civilization this game was Civilization: Beyond Earth.  Beyond Earth was highly anticipated and featured many revolutionary new takes on elements of 4x play as well as radical departures from previous Civilization mechanics. Yet despite this strong contender for the 4x spotlight the Civilization series’ most recent arrival seems to have fallen behind Amplitude Studios’ latest production in their Endless series: Endless Legends.

Endless Legend is a faithful child of the 4x genre and features many of the elements of the Civilization Series to make a thorough and engaging city and civilization management system.  You build cities which use food to grow workers that can be swapped between resources to increase production or utilized to construct settlers to make more cities.  The resource types generated by tiles and produced by city buildings are Food, Industry, Science, Dust (which appears to be an amalgamation of currency and magical energy) and Influence.  Settlers are trained in cities and can be used to construct new cities in another region.  Regions are collections of tiles defined by a flashing border on the map and only one city can exist in a single region.  Each faction is unique with their own units and preferred path to victory.  Technology progresses in a series of tech web tiers, with each tier unlocking new luxury resources and strategic resources as well as upgrades for units.

Any veteran 4x player will tell you that the 4x genre is not a story-driven genre.  Indeed the appeal of single player 4x games is crafting your own story.  Take a faction that starts out with literally nothing but the clothes on their back and turn them into an empire to dominate the world; success is dependent on your choices and management skills.  Endless Legend is no different; the customization of faction perks and background info is half the fun in starting a new game.  Yet there is one important variance that Endless Legend brings and that is the Faction Quest system.

Each faction in Endless Legend has an unchanging Faction Quest which is assigned on the turn after you settle your first city.  Like the generic quest system the Faction Quest features a flavorful background or dialogue with short descriptors related to the quest objective.  Each individual part of the quest also gives a reward which varies from anything like Dust or artifacts to technologies and even heroes.  The Faction Quest provides the primary flavor for factions with each completed objective unfolding a narrative that describes the faction’s development from their first arrival on the world stage to eventually discovering the secrets of the long-lost Endless and culminated in the Wonder Victory condition.

Unless the Wonder Victory is the only victory selected the Faction Quest is not essential to the game although it is a convenient and reliable source of quest rewards.  It also does not change for custom factions, taking its cue from the baseline race chosen when developing the custom faction.  Although static and linear it is by far one of the best and most flavorful narratives ever inserted into a 4x game and makes the generally tedious Wonder Victory enjoyable and intriguing to pursue.

Multiplayer is seamlessly integrated into Endless Legends regular game mode and the game has no trouble switching between AI and human interaction (it even allows players to abandon their team and take control of an existing AI team in the game lobby after loading a save).  Turns take place simultaneously ensuring that each player stays busy most of the time and turns are only as long as the slowest player.  As with most 4x games data transfer between the host computer and the other machines is minimal and the principle source of lag is the few seconds after a new turn begins when the host updates the AI progression and activities.

The only weakness to Endless Legend’s multiplayer is its strangely bugged performance.  The game occasionally suffers from corrupted save files which are usually caused by the host computer encountering an error and crashing.  Thankfully Amplitude Studio’s has already released one patch which addressed many issues and is continuing to resolve different bugs in the game.  This problem is also curbed in part by Endless Legend’s excellent re-sync system that allows the host to manually reload the players into the game with play resuming at the start of the turn on which the re-sync is initiated.

Like all 4x games Endless Legend’s re-playability is extensive with eight base factions to try and eight different victory conditions to achieve.  Maps are highly customizable with variable terrain features such as rivers and hills as well as settings for temperature and amount of strategic and luxury resources; although this also leaves maps without flavor or a sense of setting and not a prime source of player interest.  Factions however can be customized in many different ways.

The core faction trait, Faction Quest, and faction units will remain the same but all other perks and penalties can be swapped out for new ones from a list of every perk and penalty available to each faction.  A point system with a maximum of eighty governs how many perks can be acquired with stronger perks costing more points and penalties providing additional points.   Persistent gameplay will reveal that some faction builds work better than others regardless of faction race, but the number of possible combinations is quite large and can produce of hundreds of hours of extended play.

Endless Legend’s AI leaves a few things to be desired.  Although adaptable, reactive, and surprisingly capable of adjusting to the wide variety of playstyles found among the factions the AI is diplomatically one-dimensional and heavily reliant on its starting circumstances to succeed.  AI opponents devalue truces, even when severely losing a war, and flatter or insult generically rather than based on their current mood towards you.  The AI is not totally devoid of reactive ability however; its relations will turn sour if you prove aggressive around its borders and AIs that are ‘terrified’ of you will happily embrace offers for peace and alliances, even going so far as to give gifts for free.

Yet the prime source of entertainment when replaying Endless Legend comes from making your faction grow and succeed.  The AI serves more as a barricade and additional factor for determining strategy and should not be the sole focus in the endgame.  Exploring ruins for special quests, finding new minor factions, and uncovering the best locations for new cities provide more than enough variable challenges for watching a custom faction grow from an idea to a monolithic reality.

In conclusion Endless Legend has extensive replay options with entertaining factions and superb customization options.  I am confident that the bugs in its multiplayer system will be gradually eradicated and its simultaneous turns provide for fast gameplay among friends.  This game is certainly worth the price and provides the adventurous and imaginative player with weeks’ of content and entertainment.

OPUS 1

Happy New Year good fellows; I am the San Juan Gamer and this is my blog.  I live on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, USA.

The San Juan Islands are a very rural community; quiet, artistic, with their fair share of farms and woodland parks.  They have been slower to adapt to the Information Age; even today good internet is hard to find and never comes cheap (in some areas on Orcas Island it doesn’t come at all).

This is all to preface the idea behind sanjuangamer.com.  Living in the San Juan Islands with this unusual technological environment gave the islands’ fledgling gamer culture of the early 2000s a deep appreciation for elements like gaming friends who physically lived close, games with strong single player elements, and new games which were compatible with older software and hardware.

I am not saying that mainland gaming communities can’t or don’t appreciate these elements; I am saying that the discussions here will be lead with these facts in mind:

Does the subject game have a good story?

Do elements of its design contribute to poor online performance?  

How many multi-player games can human players run against the AI before getting bored? Or in other words: what is the games re-playability?

So thank you very much for coming along and may you find many helpful, fun, and informative examinations of games new, old, and from many different genres here at sanjuangamer.com.