Or, as I should have called it, my review of the Great Colon War of 1864.
In 2009, Creative Assembly released one of the greatest strategy games ever made. A year later, they had the cheek to release an expansion pack and try and pass it off as an all-new title. Skip ahead to 2011, they again released one of the greatest strategy games ever made.
Now in 2012, and in a pleasant about-face, they've released an expansion pack that actually plays and feels like an all-new Total War title. Go figure.
The Fall of the Samurai is a standalone expansion for Shogun 2 which leaps out of the medieval period and into the dawn of the modern era, railroads, gunboats, gatling guns and all. In doing so, it brings the mechanics and orientation of the franchise along with it.
WHAT I LIKED
Death From Above: FotS for the first time lets your strategic assets - namely, your navies - directly impact the result of a real-time battle. If your fleet pulls up on the shore it can bombard coastal targets, damaging buildings and killing units. If it's there when you attack on land, you can rain down shells on your enemies in the middle of a battle. It's a little absurd, and feels more Command & Conquer than Total War, but it's devastating to behold, and it's a blast to call down. More importantly, it makes navies more relevant, and creates a much-needed connection between strategic placement and tactical engagement.
Modern Era: Alongside advanced naval units, FotS treads new ground with weapons like the gatling gun, infantry with proper rifles and even rail networks on the main map. All of them are handled very tastefully, and none come across as unfair or out of place for the series. Well, the railroads do, being unlike anything we've seen in the Total War games before, but the ability to build tracks then whizz troops across the map is something this series has needed for a long time.
Killing With Purpose: Total War titles have always had a problem with their endgames, something FotS does a very good job of fixing. Taking Shogun 2's inspired-but-flawed "tipping point" as inspiration, there comes a stage in a game when Japan stands on the brink of all-out war between the forces of the Shogun and the Emperor. At this point you choose a side, and suddenly you're carrying your leader's banner into battle while the entire map faces off. It gives you a real sense of purpose beyond simply adding to your personal empire. Alternatively, you can revert to Shogun 2's system of taking everyone on yourself, but really, the new options are much more enjoyable.
Big Battles: Finally. For the longest time, Total War games have had a hard cap on the number of units allowed in any one battle. That cap has now effectively been doubled, so instead of only bringing twenty units into a fight, you can bring forty. Yes, that means two entire armies. Like naval assistance, it's another great example of a strategic decision carrying over more directly into a tactical situation.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE
Washed Out. Shogun 2 was a beautiful game, full of bright colours and, quite literally, rainbows. FotS, perhaps because of the time period, has a far more muted appearance, all browns and faded greens, and it's a real drain to have to look at over the course of 50-100 hours. Making things even more drab is the fact many faction colours on the mini-map share similar colours, making distinguishing between them difficult.
Tower Defence. Similar to games like Iron Brigade and Toy Soldiers, FotS lets you jump behind the controls of certain units and directly control them via a first-person perspective. It's a little much for a Total War game, and comes across as more of an ill-advised experiment than a worthwhile addition.
THE FINAL WORD
FotS occupies a very strange place in the catalogue of Total War titles. In introducing modern technology it's got some of the most radical advances we've yet seen for the game, but at the same time it marries it to a setting and underlying system of mechanics that have been largely unchanged since Empire: Total War's release in 2009.
By making it a standalone expansion, Creative Assembly and Sega have pitched this just right. It's got more than enough changes to keep Shogun 2 veterans interested, and by being a standalone title it can lure in those longtime fans of the series who may not have got into the previous title but want to check out how Ironclads, rifles and railways impact the game's style.
Which they should. Because what could have been game-breaking additions to a tried-and-tested formula have been handled pretty damn well.
Oh, and while I've got you, if this isn't a test-bed for Total War: Victoria/Civil War, I'll eat the Shogun's hat, sharp bits and all.
Got any questions? Leave them below, I'll do my best to jump in and answer them!