The Creative Assembly’s Shogun 2: Total War represented a poignant moment in the developer’s history. After almost a decade of Total War games, the developer had finally come full circle. The return to Feudal Japan roots was more than symbolic, as Shogun 2 side-by-side with the original Shogun showcased vast technological and mechanical improvements the famed strategy developer had built and refined over almost a decade. Shogun 2 represented how far the franchise had come, as well as the huge leaps in technology and presentation over a small pocket of history.
More than this, Shogun 2 was for many Total War fans a series return to form. Both Empire: Total War and Napoleon: Total War had left the fan base splintered, some appreciating the ambitious design and tremendous scope of the campaign, others frustrated by a wealth of bugs and unpolished design. The choice to take the franchise to a relatively modern period of history, one bulked with gunpowder and canons, failed to appeal to a sizable audience that had become all too familiar with swords, shields and spears. It was new Total War to be sure, but it wasn’t what many wanted. And then Shogun 2 came along and fixed that, delivering a familiar experience suitably updated.
Now we have Fall of the Samurai, a meaty expansion pack for Shogun 2. And here again The Creative Assembly has created something poignant, though not without a healthy dose of irony. You see, Fall of the Samurai draws from the regularly criticised modern themes of Empire. The same modernisations and themes that lead to the developer returning to its roots in the first place. Fall of the Samurai is a hybrid of old and new, with the absolute best qualities of both.
The key is in the setting. While Shogun 2 was content dealing with a feudal 16th century Japan, Fall of the Samurai (if the name didn’t give it away) hurls the game forward a few centuries to around the time of the Meiji Restoration. This is a period of history where Japan had lost much of it’s traditional Shogun government through the end of the Shogunate. The situation was brought about by clan in-fighting and disputes, as well as trades and land deals with foreign powers such as the British and Americans. The rise of technology and global travel had made the world a smaller place, and traditionalist Japan was feeling the pressure more than anyone.
More than a history lesson, Fall of the Samurai does an admirable job of integrating these themes with the core gameplay. Uprooting the Shogunate clan diplomacy and conquest of the base game, Fall of the Sumarai instead revolves around the balance of tradition with the temptation of modernisation. The campaign makes this clear throughout, as clan choice and new tech tree branches are split between supporting the existing imperial leadership or staying true to the Shogunate. Or, if you’re a crafty player, trying to find a balance between the two, a difficult task to be sure. Favouring foreign influence and imperialism runs the risk of Shogunate loyals rebelling within your empire, while over traditionalists skip the advantages of modern technologies and military philosophies that could better their military force.
Though players are still understandably tethered to Japanese clans, foreign influence can be found throughout. Many new units adopt modern technologies such as steam powered ships and gatling based weapons, and entire regiments of foreign units can be recruited for your needs. Contrast to vanilla Shogun 2, these modernised technologies steer battles towards something closer to what was found in Empire, putting greater emphasis on ranged weapons and pressure fire. Upgraded naval units play a similarly stronger role, with additions such as a new ability for naval units to offer support fire for nearby land shore battles.
Both extra emphasis on modern ranged weaponry and naval battles was a huge focus of Empire, but it’s in Fall of the Samurai that this style of strategy design really hits the ground running. The fat has been trimmed, devoid of any of the clunkiness and bugs associated with Empire‘s release, resulting in a better realised strategy philosophy of guns against guns.
More impressive isn’t just the better imagining of Empire, but how the design has taken a new form thanks to its marriage with the core Shogun 2 gameplay. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t Empire 2 (or Empire 3 if you want to count Napoleon), this is still Shogun 2 through and through. Rather than truly overhaul Shogun 2‘s gameplay, Fall of the Samurai builds from the already impressive formula, tweaking and changes mechanics while introducing new ideas, to create something that feels very familiar yet strangely fresh and unique.
Take the campaign map, for example. Obviously it’s still Japan. Players familiar with the territories of Shogun 2‘s campaign will be right at home. But it’s the little details that count. Updating to the new time period means new clans occupying existing regions, and entirely new regions to conquer or otherwise. In fact, the introduction of foreign powers, especially for trading (which itself is enhanced with the addition of rail networks), impacts the entire concept of diplomacy. Juggling between the different clans in Shogun 2 is one thing, but the shift in politics and power creates something else entirely for Fall of the Samurai. Expect to make new deals with priorities you once never had, as well as make enemies for reasons that were never thought of in Shogun 2.
Unsurprisingly, given The Creative Assembly’s pedigree, Fall of the Samurai is presented with an incredible attention to detail. In fact, the team has gone so far as to update towns and units with assets that better reflect the new time period, giving the game an entirely new coat of paint. Newly introduced units are crafted with incredible texture and effect detail, each coupled with new encyclopedia entries to scratch that history new itch. Sound effects are loud and convincing, from the boom of naval cannon fire to the crackle of rifles. On a weaker note, voice work for many of the new unit types is composed of exaggerated 19th century British and American accents, and clumsy Engrish, though cheesy voice acting is about on par for the entire Total War series.
If I had to give one big criticism to the game’s presentation, it would be that the DirectX 11 technology still seems a bit buggy. Originally introduced via a patch to Shogun 2 many months ago, DirectX 11 enhancements include tessellation, soft shadows, new anti-aliasing options an d more. It looks gorgeous, but we found enabling new anit-aliasing options with soft shadows occasionally resulted in glitch artifacts appear on trees and units, and load times shoot through the roof. Compared to other smoother performing DirectX 11 games, enabling the extra bells and whistles in Fall of the Samurai seems more trouble than it’s worth, with the game performing it’s best with more reliable stability in DirectX 9 mode. Still, if you’ve got the hardware to go the extra mile the DirectX 11 options work well enough, and it’s easy to forget about long load times once the screen is filled with thousands of gorgeously rendered units blowing each other up.
In many ways, Fall of the Samurai is an excellent callback to the expansion packs of old. This generation has been plagued with bite sized overpriced nuggets of DLC, splintering content that would once be bundled together into smaller, separate offerings. Hell, even Shogun 2 was subject to such treatment. But Fall of the Samurai? This is how expansion packs used to be done, and how they should be done.
What Total War fans will get out of Fall of the Samurai is, quite literally, a whole new experience. Hours upon hours have been packed into a brand new campaign, one that forgoes remixing existing content in favour of a whole new approach. This isn’t just an expansion that gives you ‘more’, it’s an expansion pack that gives you ‘new’. New units, new battles, new themes, and new ways to conquer Japan. It’s a wholly separate experience to what Total War fans found in Shogun 2, yet one that stands proudly as a companion piece to the original game’s campaign.
Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai is recommended to anybody who likes their strategy games flavoured with a mix of East and West, and is absolutely essential to any self respecting Total War fan.