It is probably fair to say that the West is enamoured with the culture and history of Japan. Samurai and ninja permeate our on-screen entertainment, TV shows and films full of references and wakizashi. Our anti-heroes always seem to have a touch of the ronin about them and our restaurants have somehow come to the culinary conclusion that it is ok to serve raw fish. However, we seem focussed on the deeper past of Japan, unable or unwilling to break the romantic wall and investigate for ourselves how the country moved from the feudal heroes portrayed in our media to the militaristic society we faced in World War II. This brutal deconstruction and subsequent modernisation of an entire nation makes for a fascinating study, the events before and after the Meiji Restoration ripe for interpretation with more than a touch of pathos.
It is to this period in Japanese history that Sega and The Creative Assembly have bought us in Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai, a rather meaty and standalone expansion to Total War: Shogun 2. With the main campaign starting now in 1864 this offering becomes the most recent historical period to be given the Total War treatment. As you begin the campaign you are offered the choice of playing either a pro-Shogunate or a pro-Imperial clan, a choice between the continuation of the traditional Japanese way of life or the embracement of modernity. This is the rift that defined the era, and it drives the campaign here too. Regardless of your choice, both sides of this martial debate have to work to balance the people's desire to respect the traditional Japanese way of life and the need to develop Western-style technology and tactics. The day may begin here with the drawing of a sword but it ends with the spitting of a Gatling Gun.
This internal conflict is portrayed excellently within Fall of the Samurai, with the more Western of the technological advances and infrastructure both raising your 'Modernisation' level incrementally. Each time you hit one of your major milestones a whole new range of tech will open up, but your population will be increasingly unhappy that you are embedding all these Western values. While a fairly simple concept it adds additional depth to the campaign map forcing you to really look at which buildings you are going to build and where - while the frontline may be a great tactical place for a brand spanking new building any negative happiness modifiers may push it over the edge into rebellion. It's these kind of additions, these iterative improvements, that The Creative Assembly do so well - and the best thing is that Fall of the Samurai seems chock full of them.
Take artillery for instance. It appears here (as is relevant for the time frame) and is as devastating as you would expect against troops marching slowly towards you with melee weapons (or even better, some sabre cavalry just trotting along). However, instead of getting your big guns set up somewhere tactically astute and then funnelling the enemy into their killzone Fall of the Samurai gives you something magical - the ability to control the guns in third person. Yep, that's right - a Total War with third person artillery. It's hard to explain the level of immersion this gives you as a player, or the amount of emotional investment you suddenly feel in your artillery crews. Controlling the guns in this fashion is dangerously addictive - when you fire the camera follows the shell/ball as it soars through the air, hopefully landing you whack in the middle of an enemy unit causing carnage and absolute ruin. Even your cack-handed misses can draw you in, honing both your ability to judge elevation and distance as well as your sense of righteous indignation; essentially Fall of the Samurai has made the bit of the battle where you wait for the rest of your troops to get into range fun, which is really quite an astonishing thing.
Even better though this concept has been carried over to the naval battles. While here you won't follow your shot as it explodes in the rigging or clears a desk of gun crews the direct control adds an element of interest that has been sorely missing from past games. Gone are the longer dull boarding focused battles of yesteryear - now we have steam-powered carnage machines with point and destroy control. Arranging your ships into a battle line and then zipping between them as fast as you can unleashing the broadsides with your own targeting is satisfying in a way that I never thought a Total War naval battle could be. It seems like such a minor feature, almost at the level of believing it to be throw away fun when you first see it, but it actually changes the way you approach certain facets of the game.
A little unfortunately however all of this control does come at a small price - the artillery in Fall of the Samurai is more powerful than it has ever been before and this does affect the balance of the game. Leaving your guns to their own devices will see them take out swathes of the enemy faster and more accurately than Total War before, and if you become versed in direct targeting you'll suddenly find yourself able to negate pretty much any threat that gets thrown at you. Whilst the period in question makes this an accurate representation of the increasing power of these artillery weapons and shows the necessity of any competitive army of the time having to include them, it would have been nice to see them slightly tweaked downwards in effectiveness. Not so that everything was as useless as the Wooden Cannon of course, just a little more balanced.
This slight over-poweredness is made more apparent by the balancing seen through the rest of the game's units - it's essentially perfect. As you progress down the technology tree you will unlock all sorts of additional units, but at no stage does one type become entirely redundant. For instance, the use of melee samurai units can remain fully valid well into the late game as long as you modify your tactics appropriately; flanking melee can cause havoc when engaging with ranged infantry and having a supporting stack of samurai for reinforcements can assist marvellously with this. The AI doesn't always respond in kind - I've cut down far too many melee units with concentrated fire as they charged into the overlapping killzones of several units of Line Infantry to respect them in the hands of the computer. Any veteran of the series will want to be cranking up the AI here to try to minimise most of the d'oh moments, but even so they don't disappear entirely. And the less said about how powerful Ironclads are the better. Regardless, unlike in older Total Wars you shouldn't find yourself disbanding outdated units to save on the upkeep costs, there is a valid time, place and use for everything and as the armchair general it's up to you to bend and incorporate them into your tactics in order to fully realise the potential of your force.
Looking at the multiplayer aspect then the biggest challenge has been devising ways to deal with the artillery guns; while battles between players who have a camper mind-set can devolve to torturously long sessions of long-range potshots others have come up with more innovative ways to counter artillery use. Perhaps the easiest counter to implement is to simply accept a certain amount of losses and get on with marching through the pain - spread your units out, march in loose formation and avoid terrain features which funnel you. When it's clear what unit is being targeted have them run away from the rest of your force in order to mitigate damage. Deploying the artillery has a relatively high cost and if you can reduce the effectiveness of that cost then regardless of the casualties you take you should be in a better position once you can start dealing damage yourself. The key point here is not to be scared of the artillery guns, to not let their presence dictate a loss. They are certainly the new dominant feature of Total War multiplayer gaming but their use hasn't made the game unplayable, and many players who rely on them have clear weak points that can be identified and exploited once you have the necessary experience.
Returning to the single player campaign the rest of the changes made since Shogun 2 are generally welcome; the map has been extended northwards, but the very geography of Japan ensures that fighting across its islands is generally a linear affair. Naval bombardments are a great addition to the game, while the presence of coastal batteries provides an appropriate foil. The inclusion of railroads (a feature that was much vaunted pre-launch) seems like a missed opportunity - they appear only very late game, and across fixed routes, making them more a curiosity than a game changer, although the ability to transport slow artillery from the hinterlands of your domain to the frontline is always useful. These are countered somewhat by the reduction in importance in the management of your dynasty, the game lasting only a few short years. Perhaps more of a romantic criticism than a gameplay one, but making your own family more important to the unfolding drama would have been a welcome addition.
As a standalone product Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai offers a fantastic entrance into the Total War world, its gameplay and mechanics as tight as you would expect from any in the series. For veterans of Shogun 2 this is still a necessary purchase, the sheer weight of new units and interactions demanding their attention and appreciation. Pick your clan, choose your side, and then romp through the dying days of feudal Japan, doing your bit by mowing down units upon units of spear-wielding samurai. It's a messy job, but then history can't be changed, right?
Don't bring a katana to a gun fight