Saturday, April 28, 2012

An Empire In The Palm Of Your Hand: Total War Battles: Shogun

‘Total War Battles: Shogun’ is the initial foray of SEGA/Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise into the world of handheld devices, and it’s one of the best games available for the IPhone/Ipad (and soon the Android). Unlike their recent PC release ‘Fall of the Samurai’, ‘Battles’ makes no pretensions to historical accuracy. Instead, it concentrates on delivering a fun, easy to learn game with ‘real time battles’ between samurai armies and varied types of levels that are deceptively deep in testing a player’s tactical skills. It contains elements of several types of ‘phone games’-tower defense, building, and puzzle being a few. It’s an extremely well-designed game that produces a campaign that will give players over ten hours of fun on their first playthrough, but that does so in bite-sized chunks of five to fifteen minutes-just perfect for a cell phone game.

The backstory is your typical Taiga Drama fodder-after his father is betrayed and killed in battle, the heir of the Crane clan must take revenge on the back-stabbing Takeda-but yet, not all is as it seems (is it ever?). Aided on the diplomatic side of things by his sister Itomi, the Crane heir presses on in a quest that eventually puts him in position to be named Shogun. There’s a lot of voice acting, almost all of it surprisingly well done.

The game has 41 levels divided into regular and side maps. Regular maps must be played to complete the game and side maps are optional. Levels each have a specific objective. Many of the levels that might seem odd at first are important for teaching skills that make the going much easier in the late game. For example, many side levels focus on producing a certain amount of a specific resource within a time limit-or cramming a certain number of specific buildings into limited space. One of the big attractions of the game for us was the sheer variety of missions-whether it was slaying the opposing general, burning an enemy village, defending your ground for a specific amount of time, retrieving a messenger’s body, recruiting elite troops, escaping an ambush, resource production, sneaking past an enemy force undetected, or even placing eight shrines in a valley for a bunch of ungrateful monks that deemed the last mission of placing seven to be not challenging enough. Some missions allow the player to place his own buildings and recruit his own troops on the fly, while others give you a preset pool of troops and force you to make do with them. One thing to keep in mind is that your troops can only move forward-they CAN’T go backwards (that’s against Bushido, y’know). Don’t be caught with your entire force forward and no reserves left to combat the sneaky ninja that infiltrated your camp.

EDIT: We've had some requests on how to pull off 'The Eighth Shrine' mission. Just because we love you all, here's one of the possible solutions (cobbled together from three screenshots)-an excellent one, since it uses the bare minimum of fourteen buildings:

Building an ‘economy’ is one of the more important steps for many of the levels. This consists of constructing a chain of buildings, each tied to an important resource. Proper placement of each is essential-every building has a different footprint and gains advantages for being constructed in a suitable area. Blacksmiths produce more iron when located near stones, and loggers more wood on the outskirts of woods. There are trading posts, monasteries, dojos, barracks, and shrines as well. 

These buildings, when combined with the resources they produce, build troops. With enough gold and iron, a blacksmith churns out cannon and matchlock gunners. The spirit produced by a shrine along with iron for weapons allows a dojo to produce samurai. Wood and gold will recruit archers, spearmen, and ninja at the local barracks. Monasteries produce warrior monks and war banners that speed up the production of resources. And of course, if you need fighting men quickly, filthy gold will allow you to hire ronin. This all sounds somewhat complex, but the game has an effective learning curve, adding a bit with each level instead of bombarding new players with everything at once. By the way, if you’re looking for a superb Japanese themed town building game for the Iphone/Ipad, try out ‘Oh! Edo Towns’. One of our favorites. Anyway…

Troops have different strengths and weaknesses. Spearmen are strong on melee defense and against cavalry. Ranged troops can attack from afar, even over obstacles in the case of archers and cannon. Warrior monks are weak in direct combat but excellent when adding their strength to another unit. Ninja are deadly and can sneak through most enemy units undetected but can’t be aided by leadership. Cavalry are perfect for getting somewhere in a hurry and samurai are killing machines. Players will learn quickly the best ways to deploy them-samurai work great operating from cover against enemy gunners while supported by warrior monks and gunners of their own. Experienced wargamers will have an advantage here, as the maps are laid out in a traditional wargame hexagonal grid, and the same tactics that work on tabletop games work here-placing units on alternate hexes for defense (using the three hex ZOC in front to stop enemy advances) being one of the more useful old standards. Using terrain chokepoints to minimize losses and effective use of cover for both offense and defense will go a long way towards racking up big scores.

Finally, leadership and command play a big part towards winning any battle. If the player’s daimyo isn’t under attack, he can formulate ‘orders’ that can be applied to their forces. These include reinforcement (replacing a unit’s losses), slay them all! (boosting a force’s attack strength), sustain (temporarily making a unit invincible), rain of steel (hitting the enemy around a unit with a volley of arrows), and veteran (promoting a unit to the ‘next step up’-such as making a ronin samurai and turning a samurai unit into elite samurai). Orders take time to ‘formulate’ so having a good anticipatory sense is vital to having the correct ones around when you need them. We found that effective usage of orders made our armies virtually invulnerable, taking no losses even in the tougher late stages of the game.

Now, we hope you got all that, because the enemy isn’t just sitting by playing Parcheesi, watching Noh plays, and dallying with shrine maidens while your master plan comes together. It’s relentless, and if you take your time placing and producing your buildings and getting some troops recruited, you’ll find them burning down your city before you know what hit you.

Graphics are obviously not going to be up to the standard of the PC Total War games-‘Battles’ is large at 250+ megs, but can’t compare to the 30 gigs of Shogun 2. However, they’re very colorful and attractive, and there is a nice variety of maps-swamp, woods, plain, valley, mountain bridge, Kyoto, beach, and more. Game music is taken straight from the Shogun 2 soundtrack.

There are leaderboards (see below), achievements (19 with four of them being ‘secret’-we found ‘em, though), and local multiplayer. The multiplayer function is a bit awkward, especially on an Iphone, with two sets of player hands constantly getting in each other’s way. Multiplayer battles can go on a LONG time between skilled players, since units are generated randomly and neither player gets an advantage. It does contain some nice features, such as three different maps (each with a unique challenge for players) and three different eras to choose from. Genpei armies feature melee troops only, Sengoku armies add higher end samurai units and archers, and Boshin armies break out the matchlocks and cannon. Yeah, remember, I said it wasn’t historical, but it is fun. CA claims that a ‘Melee Mode’ is on the way that will allow players to choose a difficulty level and enter into free battles with any and all of the features they’ve unlocked.

While it’s expensive for an app at $6.99, it’s well worth every penny. It’s good looking, well thought out, addicting, sounds great, and bug free. Better yet, we were surprised after beating the game when we received a code to unlock the Sendai faction in the main Total War: Shogun 2 Fall of the Samurai game. Nice marketing move on CA’s part.

And at the time of this writing, we’re the #1 Ranked Player out of 25,102! We iz teh Main Man. 

Reminds me of the opening days of "Shogun 2" when the Samurai Archives "Matsuken Boyz" team of Obenjo, Kitsuno, and ourselves won the very first "Shogun Takeover" campaign. The team's performance was so overwhelming it looks like they've retired the game in our honor...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Total War, Total Fantasy: Shogun 2-Fall Of The Samurai

 Any time a developer puts together a game based on an historical event, there’s going to be a tradeoff between accuracy and playability. Whether it’s a tabletop sim or a computer game, some situations just aren’t easily recreated, or would cause a serious problem with game balance. Even the most accurate Japanese history sims like Magitech’s “Takeda” series (that uses actual maps of castles and cities and features some battles that even the developers say are impossible to win-just as they were in history), Paradox’s “Sengoku”, or Si-Phon’s “Genpei Souran: Shogun E No Michi” have to take liberties with history in order to give the player some flexibility in options and play style (to say nothing of dispensing with a lot of micromanagement and recordkeeping). Other games like the Nobunaga No Yabou (Nobunaga’s Ambition) series stray from history even further, introducing abstract arcade style battles and making certain characters supermen that tower over everyone else. Which brings us to today’s selection-Creative Assembly’s “Total War Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai”. Fall of the Samurai is a ‘stand-alone/expansion’ that purports to recreate the turbulent times of the Bakumatsu and early Meiji period where the Tokugawa Shogunate fell and the samurai class was abolished. While CA’s Shogun games have often played fast and loose with history, this time around they’ve managed to take things a step further and create a Japan that has more in common with the Union and Confederacy of the American Civil War than it does the supporters of the Shogunate and Emperor. Total War has become Total Fantasy. 

Take a look at the box artwork above for Fall of the Samurai-it tells you all you really need to know about the game. An American officer brandishing a revolver shares the cover with a samurai in traditional elaborate armor. If this doesn’t bring to mind a certain blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise, then CA’s marketing department hasn’t done its job. The modernization of Japan and the influence exerted on it by Western countries (particularly England, France, and the United States-for whatever reason, the Russians, Prussians, and the Dutch are omitted) are the focal point of the game, and about forty years of real time are telescoped into the 6-12 years that the game plays out in. This results in armies on both the Shogunate and Imperial sides that wield an incredible amount of firepower and highly developed naval forces-far more than Japan would ever have been able to accumulate or more importantly, afford. To accommodate the wishes of the game’s largely European and North American player base, CA has not only given them ‘Foreign Veteran’ agents (think Nathan Algren from “The Last Samurai”, or historical French advisor Jules Brunet) that can join Japanese armies and engage in combat/duels, but also allows players to field Western army units. That’s right-you can have units of US Marines (or their British/French counterparts) under the direct command of the Shogunate. Now, we can see allowing these units to appear in the game as allies. After all, it only makes sense that a US/Brit/French unit would defend the commercial interests of their country in Japan-and that sometimes this might have them fighting alongside the Shogunate or Imperialists. But to have them under the DIRECT CONTROL of the Japanese? Ridiculous. It serves no function other than to let Westerners shoehorn their own culture into the ‘mystique’ of the samurai-something which has been going on since (at least) “James Clavell’s Shogun” and movies like “The Hunted”, “The Barbarian and the Geisha”, and the glorious “Bushido Blade” but rarely this blatantly. Want some laughs? Check out some of the game cinemas, where the Emperor sans his retinue is shown chatting with Western advisors at the dockyards in 1864, or the Shogun is shown doing the same thing (and depicted in Court Robes at that). 

Don’t even get us started on the myriad of different unit types that can be fielded. Past players of the Total War: Shogun series already know that CA loves to throw in ‘chrome’ units that have little to no historical justification. The player base just loves ‘em whether they existed or not. In the past we’ve seen units armed exclusively with katana or no-dachi-yeah, right. Crossbow ashigaru? This ain’t China, bub. Fall of the Samurai has Imperial Infantry, Line Infantry, Shogunate Guards, Imperial Guards, Republican Guards, Tosa rifles, Kihetai, Shogitai, Yugekitai, Tortoises, Phoenixes, Red Bears, Black Bears, White Bears, Dragons, and Tigers, oh my-and more. All of these represent virtually the same type of unit-Japanese troops armed with Western rifles. The only difference is that Japanese units tended to get impressive sounding names rather than numbers, but CA gives them all different stats, special attacks, and abilities. If they wanted to differentiate troops, a much better way would have been to do so by the type of rifles they were armed with (they did do this with cavalry)-something that was a big factor in making the Imperialists stronger than the Shogunate. One interesting side note is that while Shogun 2 has at least three different female units, Fall of the Samurai has none-despite the fact that women played a much, much bigger part in the Boshin war than they did during the Genpei War or Sengoku Jidai.

Economic development gets the same treatment. While you can’t build railways in every province, you can put together an impressive network that stretches from one end of Honshu to the other. Of course, what the developers seem not to have realized is that the first railway in Japan wasn’t completed until 1872, and was an extremely short line between Tokyo and Yokohama. This means that the short campaign (ending in 1870) shouldn’t have them at all, and that even the long campaign (which runs until 1876) shouldn’t have any sort of rail net-what existed in Japan at that time were a handful of very short, isolated lines. Quite simply, Japan couldn’t afford to build them. Rails were probably thrown into the game for their ‘kewl’ factor-CA obviously hasn’t read Dan Free’s book.

The game map is also a massive failure, being province based instead of han based. We understand they wanted to build on the regular Shogun 2 map, which is province based. And they did add parts of Ezo and a few other islands. And yes, there were over 200 han during the Edo period, which would have made things a bit too complex for some players. However, using provinces instead of han virtually strips the game of any claim to realistic starting positions-not to mention leaving out many important clans. In many cases the daimyo given for the han seem to be invented out of whole cloth (we’re getting to that), as were their loyalties to the Shogunate/Imperialists. The set-up you see is about as abstract as it gets. A province based map also ensures that the Tokugawa Shogunate has no real footprint on this version of Japan-and as you can see by the map in this thread on the Samurai Archives, they had the largest holdings in Japan.

This brings us to the game’s largest failing. You can play as all four of the Imperial ‘Satchotohi’ factions who were the prime forces that brought an end to the Bakufu-Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen (represented by Saga). But you CAN’T play as the Tokugawa Shogunate, the single most powerful faction in Japan and ruler of the country-five times wealthier than the closest daimyo. The Tokugawa are virtually invisible in-game. If you look at ‘Edo’ domain in game, they give its daimyo as Matsui Yasuhide, a fictitious name. If they meant Matsudaira Yasuhide-then he was far north of Edo in 1864, and even when he was transferred to Kawagoe in 1866, wouldn't be considered part of Edo-Kawagoe was a separate han. Nope, totally wrong-how hard would it have been to just use Tokugawa Iemochi, the Shogun who did count Edo among his holdings? Instead we get Aizu and some minor loyal factions like Obama, Jozai, Nagaoka, and latecomers Sendai. Why? While the spread out nature of the Tokugawa holdings might have presented a problem to an accurate in-game representation, it also would have provided players with a unique challenge-a faction that has huge holdings and a foothold in every part of the country but whose exposed position and fragile condition leaves it wide open to conquest. It just seems to us the Tokugawa were left out because the developers wanted to avoid the play balance problems that might have cropped up. However, leaving them out pretty much cripples the entire game. Fall of the Samurai might as well be called “Total War: Kick the Shogun’s Ass”-a theme reflected in the ‘historical’ battles, all of which give players control of Imperial Forces under Saigo ‘Worms’ Takamori.

And what about those historical battles? As a microcosm of the game’s failure as a sim, let’s take a look at one of them, the Battle of Osaka. This isn’t the famous series of battles that took place in 1614-15 between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa, but rather the action in 1868 that followed the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. What did the Fall of the Samurai developers get right? Well, mostly just the stuff in the opening and closing cut scenes. Tokugawa Yoshinobu did indeed abandon his troops, board an American ship (although the game doesn’t bring that up) while waiting for one of his own to pick him up, and then return to Edo. And the Imperials did indeed burn large areas of the castle after occupying it. Pretty much everything else here is wrong. 

For all intents and purposes, there was NO “Battle of Osaka” in 1868-the Shogunate troops largely followed the leader when Yoshinobu abandoned the castle, and the few that were left surrendered the castle peacefully to the Imperial army. Instead, the game has the player assaulting a force over three times their size that’s entrenched in one of the strongest castles ever built in Japan. This would not have ended well for the Imperials had this been the case-one only has to look about ten years into the future when a small Imperial force held off Saigo Takamori’s attackers at Kumamoto Castle to see what the outcome would have been. The casualties during a playthrough of this single battle end up being about twice what the total was for the entire Boshin War. The layout of the town of Osaka is completely wrong, but not as bad as the depiction of the castle. The extent of the defenses, the schematics and number of the different ‘maru’, the bridges running into the castle, even the location of the site of the tenshu are all wrong. There’s a nicely developed railroad running from the harbor area into town, but as we’ve already seen, Japan wouldn’t even see a rudimentary railroad for four more years.

The game action encourages players to bombard the turrets of the castle, which are holding gunpowder that will eventually be used to blow bridges (usually when players try to cross them). Scoring a single hit on a turret causes a 4th of July explosion that forces the enemy to abandon their defenses. Now how stupid would a defender have to be to put their gunpowder in such an exposed position? Historically, Osaka Castle’s gunpowder store building is one of the few original Tokugawa structures to survive to the present day-precisely because it was located well within the grounds and built to stand up to a bombardment. 

But perhaps one mistake exemplifies the developer’s disregard for history more than anything else. In the game there’s a really nice tenshu sitting right at the back of the Osaka defenses. In looks, it resembles the original Toyotomi castle far more than the Tokugawa version that replaced it. Of course, this fact really isn’t all that important because in 1868 OSAKA CASTLE HAD NO TENSHU. It was struck by lightning and burned to the ground around 200 years earlier (1665) and was never rebuilt.  

So you would think after all this bitching that we hated the game-but that isn’t the case. We love it! While it’s basically worthless as a simulation, it does give one a sense of the essential issues of the Bakumatsu/early Meiji periods. At the heart of everything is modernization and forming bonds with foreign nations. To do so or not? Not doing so will keep your people happy, but leave your military and economy weak and exposed. Doing so strengthens your economic base and gives access to advanced units, but also ties up more of your resources in policing an increasingly restless populace. Rebellions are far more likely the more modernized your faction becomes and can easily destroy you from within. Allying with the United States, British, or French will also give players the opportunity to gain those Marine units we complained about a few paragraphs back-not to mention unique ships like the HMS Warrior, which could decimate enemy fleets all on its own.

Graphically, the armies of the Bakumatsu are depicted in a realistic and accurate matter. They look great. No one can do ‘real time battles’ like CA. Taking direct command of your artillery batteries is great fun and becoming skilled at this will make many battles (particularly the historical ones) much easier. Naval battles are spectacular, with ships blowing up, taking torpedo hits, getting rammed, hammered by shore batteries, and reduced to splinters by nigh-invincible ironclads-all based on real ships and detailed to the max. Game sound adds much to the goings-on with the crackle of gunfire, the scream of incoming artillery, the deafening roar of a broadside, and the clang when two ironclads ram each other. Special mention should be made of the game soundtrack-it’s outstanding, possibly the best game soundtrack we’ve ever heard (even better than the one for Yoshitsune Eiyuuden Shura). While it’s heavily Western influenced (and actually sounds quite a bit like “The Last Samurai” soundtrack) it does have a few Japanese motifs mixed in.

Gameplay accurately reflects the new world of advanced firearms and artillery. Players who are used to success by taking the direct approach in Shogun 2 are in for a rude awakening in Fall of the Samurai. Marching directly towards the enemy is a quick way to lose an entire army. Opposing forces are quick to seek cover and to bolster each other with overlapping fields of fire. Players are rewarded for being patient and meticulous, outmaneuvering the enemy and putting their big guns out of commission with counter-fire. While players can make the choice to eschew modernity, doing so will result in an extremely difficult and uphill battle. We suggest new players try out the historical battles before tackling the campaign just to become adjusted to combat. Trying to wind your way through the mountains of Aizu with armies waiting in ambush on all sides and multiple batteries of Armstrong and Parrott guns looming over the pass is quite the task-and just a warm-up for the final assault on the castle. While spear and sword units have lost much of their utility, they’re still very useful in certain situations, and can easily turn the tide of battle for players who can use them correctly.

Naval warfare in Fall of the Samurai is massively stepped up from Shogun 2. You will no longer be able to concentrate on developing your army at the expense of your navy. Navies can now support land forces with artillery fire, bombard port defenses, economic centers, and shore batteries, and interdict enemy amphibious invasions. A navy is now vital to developing an economy as well as defending it.

Victory in the game is much different than that in Shogun 2. There it was more about conquering Japan for yourself. In Fall of the Samurai, it’s more about ensuring that your faction comes out on top. Personal conquest matters less, but supporting your allies in the Shogunate (or your fellow traitors in the Imperial forces) becomes high priority. Brave players can also take the opportunity to form an independent republic, telling both the Shogun and Emperor to go screw themselves. As expected, this is for the very brave and capable, as it results in virtually every other faction declaring war on you and the defection of many of your agents and forces.

And oh yeah, there are geisha in the game. But not the killing machine geisha of past Shogun titles. Nope, here they’re back to doing what they do best-enchant, inspire, entertain, and distract all of the men. Especially those gaijin foreign veteran agents, who were no doubt as helpless against Japanese women as they are these days. At any rate, the killing is now left to new agents like those same foreign agents, the Shinsengumi, and Ishin Shishi. Not to mention our old friend the Shinobi.  

A word here on Online Multiplayer. Many players don’t bother with multiplayer, just sticking with the single player campaign. We’ve played a bit of it, and it’s a mixed bag. Creative Assembly has put together a fun and varied multiplayer experience with several different game modes and an option for up to four playable avatars (we use one each for Genpei, Sengoku, Boshin Shogunate, and Boshin Imperialist). You can play as a standard Shogun 2 army or a Fall of the Samurai army, even pitting the two against each other in land combat (not naval combat-that would be a King Kong sized mismatch). But the player base, particularly in the Ranked matches, can be wretched. Many matches are not decided by individual skill, but rather by players that find exploits in the game system (whether it be Loan Swords or Tosa Rifles) and milk it for all it’s worth (and then bitch like hell when CA patches the exploit). Many veteran players mod their games to use functions like the ‘debug’ camera, giving them a huge edge over players that don’t know about it. And we’ve played more than a few matches where opponents with incredibly good won-loss records show just how they got them-when they’re taking a pounding and ready to lose, they simply break their internet connection. Viola, no loss! And the verbal abuse spilled out by angry teenagers in ranked matches (whether they’re winning or losing) is enough to burn the ears off a hardened sailor. Take our advice and skip ranked matches. Unranked matches are a much more pleasant experience with a more laid back player base, and after all, the whole idea of the game is to have fun.

So is it worth picking up Fall of the Samurai? Yes, indeed. For all its failures as a sim, the tradeoff is a game that is eminently playable and engaging. It looks great. It sounds great. It plays great. For around $29, it’s also a steal. Players would be wise to approach it much like the movie it channels, “The Last Samurai”. Spectacular action, fun and exciting, and involving-but with everything taking place in a Japan that has only the names and places in common with the real thing. It’s a fantasy land that seems to have been developed more as a beta test for the next Total War game (which by all indicators is going to involve the Victorian Era/US Civil War). Yes, CA really should hook up with a reliable Japanese historian (not Stephen Turnbull, a crass opportunist who’s as careless and sloppy as they come) to weed out some of the more obvious and easily avoidable errors. But they’ve still managed to produce a game that looks and plays wonderfully and that conveys the general circumstances and atmosphere of Bakumatsu era Japan. Historically, it’s Total Fantasy-but paradoxically the fantasy of every gamer with an interest in this period of Japanese history.