With the release of Empire: Total War in 2009, The Creative Assembly attempted to bring its Total War series to new heights of grand-scale warfare, with global conflicts spanning the entire globe during the Age of Imperialism. Although the abundance of features and expanded scope were largely a success, the game was ultimately the victim of numerous critical bugs, due in no small part to the studio’s use of the new Warscape engine for the game.
It’s the same engine that powers Total War: Shogun 2, a follow-up to The Creative Assembly’s 2000 release set in feudal Japan, but the hard lessons learned from Empire allowed the team to better iron out any issues prior to launch, and focus their efforts instead on crafting a game that lives up to the Total War reputation. One of the features that has been greatly expanded over all of the previous games in the series is the online multiplayer mode, which offers a level of depth and persistent progression that falls in line with many MMOs.
Players can still engage in skirmish battles, of course, but the real highlight is Shogun 2’s Avatar Conquest mode and the clan-oriented features that go along with it. The first step is to build an avatar of your army’s general using a range of cosmetic and play-oriented enhancements, more of which unlock as progress is made through online play.
On the cosmetic side, you’ll outfit your leader with individual armor pieces and design the Mon that adorns your army’s flags. The more you play online, the more traits that you’ll unlock. Traits don’t necessarily have an effect on the gameplay, essentially functioning as titles that opposing players can see and, from them, get a sense of your play style. For example, if you happen to be the sort of player who ragequits when battles turn against you, being pegged with the Dishonorable trait will serve as a sort of warning sign. Some traits also have the added effect of unlocking retainers.
In real life, a general’s retainers are his or her personal contingent of specialized officers. The same is true in Shogun 2; retainers are realized as unlockable cards which, when assigned to one of your retainer slots, offer boosts and buffs associated with their particular areas of specialization. Only two retainer slots are available at the start, though more can be opened up as you play.
There’s more to customize as well. Each general has a skill tree of unlockable character buffs, from Rally and Inspire abilities to more direct combat-focused options, like improved melee offense, or a bow and arrow for your general and his contingent of bodyguards. As you participate in battles online you earn experience points, which in turn translate to skill points that can be spent improving skills and unlocking better ones on your general’s tree.
This sense of progression is really what the team at Creative Assembly is hoping defines the online experience in Shogun 2. Once you’ve got your avatar customized, the game flips over to a simplified map of feudal Japan, broken up into 65 provinces. Your army is stationed in one of them and, much like the single-player portion of the game, you select the territory that you want to do battle in next. A built-in matchmaking system pairs players of like skill levels; win the battle and your take control of the province on your own Avatar Conquest map.
Expanding your sphere of influence offers access to other areas of the map, since you can only attack adjacent territories. There’s more to it than that, however. Each province also offers specific advantages for boosting your army. There are a range of schools scattered across the territories. Each school you possess in a specific category unlocks higher-level troop units for you to outfit your army with. For example, the sword school connects to samurai warriors. Take control of four schools and you’ll have access to the best – and most expensive – of those troops.
Clan play is also a huge component in the game’s Avatar Conquest mode. It works pretty much the same as it would for someone playing solo. Up to 24 clans can compete in an individual game world. Each battle won in a province adds points to that team’s total. The group with the most points in a given location takes control of it. To keep things fresh, each set of engagements are broken into “seasons.” At the end of a season, each clan is rated based on its performance. The best will be promoted to a higher level on the community ladder, while the worst will be demoted down to face more suitable opponents.
While all players within a clan can act as they wish to further the reach of the overall group, each clan’s leader has the added option of placing markers down on the map in specific locations. The markers won’t lock players into fighting for the marked province, but it does serve as an elegant way of communicating to the rest of the team that a certain location is of particular interest.
The most successful clans will be able to take control of the entire map, an accomplishment which is rewarded with the winning clan’s inclusion on the top-level Shogun leaderboard. The Creative Assembly forums already have a board in place for clan recruitment. Support will continue following the game’s release, not just with patches but also with regular tournaments that offer prizes to the winners.
All told, Total War: Shogun 2 looks to include a massive expansion of the multiplayer offerings seen in all previous games in the series. Adding structure and character progression to the already-solid real-time strategy mechanics at the core of the game is only going to up the addictiveness factor. The audience is going to have to be there for any of this to work, of course, but the Total War series has a lot of fans who will likely jump at the opportunity to play armchair general amidst a community of like-minded individuals.
Want more? Make sure to check out the latest Total War: Shogun 2 trailer below and download the demo from Steam!