Shogun 2 Total War: The Difference A Decade Makes

Artists from The Creative Assembly have spent more than a year learning ancient Japanese ink brush and wood block techniques, just to create transition art for Shogun 2: Total War. Imagine the work going into the actual game.

The original Shogun: Total War intrigued me so much that I actually purchased it. I harbored a strong fascination with feudal Japan. Between that and the game's lovely graphics, I overcame my reluctance to try my hand at war games, plunging into a brief, bloody love affair that ended with my aspirations as a war gamer a bloodied corpse on a muddy battlefield sometime in the mid-15th century.

Perhaps it's just the way I am wired. I have neither the patience nor the grasp of military strategy it takes to master this genre. I want to rush in with superior numbers, while the game wants me to flank and bluff, fooling the other side into making fatal mistakes.

While I can't quite play military strategy games, I can appreciate them, and every once in a while I will see one that stirs the same feelings that Shogun did back in the day.

It's the same feeling I get looking at Shogun 2: Total War.

My session with Shogun 2: Total War at E3 began with the concept artwork you see here. At first I thought I was looking at lovingly restored pieces from the game's 15th century Japanese setting. I was astounded to learn that it was the work of artists from The Creative Assembly, so dedicated they spent more than a year of their lives immersing themselves in the ancient art of the people they seek to represent.

The result of their endeavors speak for themselves.

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While this ink brush and wood block art features heavily in the game's cut scenes and interface, it's just the very beginning of the game's beauty.

From ancient art, let's turn to more modern artistry.

The game's engine is astounding, rendering rolling hills, jagged mountains, and the rugged coastline of feudal Japan with an elegant ease. Zooming in on the ground reveals grasses and flowers flowing in the wind.

Shogun 2 Total War: The Difference A Decade Makes


Fire blazes in burning buildings, demonstrating the various destruction states they can take on as smoke wafts lazily in the air.

My host tosses out words like normal mapping and parallax. The game will support Direct X 9, 10, and 11, with spectacular effects in store for the latest iteration. Nothing is in the background. All objects are rendered in the environment. When it rains, everything gets wet. When it gets dark, new lighting effects make the night come alive.

There are 80 different types of trees in Shogun 2: Total War.

There are only 30 different military units.

For all of this complicated technical wizardry, The Creative Assembly has cut the number of individual units significantly from previous titles in the Total War series, aiming to distill them down, promoting historical accuracy over variation.

Only 30 unit types doesn't mean smaller numbers on the field, however. The theoretical max number of units on the field is somewhere in the realm of 56,000.

And these aren't simple units either.

My guide launches into a night battle, lights from nearby buildings flickering faintly across a rain-soaked battlefield. He zooms in on a set of infantry, anyone looking detailed enough to be the main character in an action adventure title. Rain drips from their armor, running down face masks. The detail is simply amazing.

Shogun 2 Total War: The Difference A Decade Makes


The two generals on the field exchange words dynamically before the battle starts, speaking in Japanese with full English subtitles, with the option of English voice acting being included in the final product.

There is no hope of reconciliation, so the two armies clash. Our samurai clash with the enemy's, individual units playing out movements motion captured from professional martial artists. Panning along the line of battle, I see individual duos pairing off, their own personal battles being waged in the heart of this enormous conflict.

Pulling back for a broader view, we send in a group of cavalry to flank our enemy, only to be routed by archers that have been upgraded with fire arrow technology. In the rock-paper-scissors world of Total War, archers beat cavalry every time, unless...

On the other side of the battlefield our peasant units are embroiled in the conflict, arches station in the woods busy peppering them with wooden shafts. With the arches distracted, we send a cavalry unit in a wide arc, aiming to take them by surprise. Zooming in on the archers hidden in the forest, the silhouettes of mounted riders rise behind them, making short work of the surprised foes.

I wanted to cheer. I wanted that plan to have been mine. Perhaps this time around I'll find the patience.

The battles in Shogun 2: Total War aren't limited to the field. Distinctively Japanese-flavored siege combat is available, for instance. My handler explains that the Japanese had a distinctly different take on siege warfare than the Europeans. Instead of hiding behind a wall waiting for the enemy to breach it, the Japanese wedding-cake shaped fortresses that towered into the sky, defying their enemies to "Come in if you think you're hard enough."

And then there's naval warfare.

The Japanese of the 15th century didn't rely on sails. With boats manned by rows upon rows of oars, sea combat was quite a different animal. While the option for open-water combat exists, the coastline in Shogun 2: Total War is filled with crags and inlets, urging players to set up traps and ambushes as if they were on land, luring their foes into the rocks and reefs so prevalent in the area. You won't be simply circling, exchanging cannon fire. It will take a whole different sort of tactics to survive.

Your goal is to become Shogun. The Emperor may lead Japan, but the man with the greatest military might rules Japan. Are you that man?

As you can see, Shogun 2: Total War really grabbed a hold of me. When it's 2011 release comes I'll be first in line. Let's hope my desire to play overcomes my strategic ineptitude, at least for a little while.