Total War: Shogun 2 may look and sound for all the world like the latest in a long line of reasonably bland strategy strategy games. As most grand strategy games are. Removing the player from the action to such an abstract level tends to rob the genre of its potential to truly immerse you in the spirit of the war, time or place.
But Shogun 2 bucks this trend. Finally getting right what developers Creative Assembly really began trying in earnest with 2009's Empire: Total War, Shogun 2 draws you into the Sengoku period of Japanese history until you're up to your eyeballs in it, giving you a sense of being and place that most other strategy games can only dream of.
Sure, the exquisite art design helped in this regard, but what really sealed the deal was Shogun 2's wonderful soundtrack.
Shogun 2's score was done by Jeff van Dyck, who is both composer and audio director at Creative Assembly. Having won BAFTA awards for previous soundtracks in the franchise, for Shogun 2 he worked with a number of traditional musicians, like TaikOZ, masters of the Taiko drums (and who are actually an Australian outfit).
The end result is a soundtrack that, if you close your eyes, not only transports you back to 16-th century Japan, but perfectly conveys the scope and scale of the Total War games themselves. There's music to relax to, music to fight to, music to think to, music to plot to. There's even music to watch Ninjas fuck up to.
These are the moments Shogun 2's score shines brightest. When it pares back on the spectacle and tempo you expect from a war game and just...chills out. While screenshots for the game would have you think you spend most of your time in Shogun 2 fighting battles, you actually spend most of your time staring at the campaign map plotting your moves. With cherry blossoms falling and rainbows ending at the feet of ancient mountainside temples, this is exactly what you want to be listening to.
While you may think this is another relaxing tune from the subdued way it kicks off, it's not. It's dark. Menacing. The perfect representation of one of the underlying hooks of the Total War series, that of the ever-present threat. No matter how safe you think you are, or how powerful, in Shogun 2 a single battle or insult can turn the tide of war. You're never truly safe, with death always waiting just beneath the surface. Just like this track, which is even named after one of the more powerful naval units from the game.
Of course, pondering and fear aren't everything. Shogun 2 is, at its heart, about war, the clash of two armies on the field, and this booming number is probably the finest example of the game's battle scores. With relentless Taiko drumming, soaring vocals and a layer of orchestral score sprinkled over the top, it's exactly the kind of thing you'd want to hear while sending thousands of 16th-century Japanese warriors to their deaths.
A big part of what keeps me coming back to Shogun 2 to this day (and I played some over the weekend) is the sense of immersion, of how I don't feel like some abstract person controlling a glorified board game, I feel like I'm actually there, in the time, fighting this war.
And it's this amazing soundtrack that plays a big part in that.
We'll be back every day this week with more of the best video game soundtracks of 2011. Some really good ones coming up. Stay tuned!
"The Best Game Music of 2011" is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.