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...

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