PC Game Review: Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai
We get a good look at SEGA's take on the conflict that ended the samurai era through the words of new writer Stanislav Bartoshevich.
Developer: Creative Assembly
The Fall of the Samurai expansion is the latest entry of the Total War series, a complete rework of the highly acclaimed Shogun 2: Total War, including all-new unit, buildings and tech rosters, as well as deep changes in gameplay; making it practically a new game, using Shogun 2’s core engine. It is sold as a standalone game—it can be installed separately from Shogun 2. Fall of the Samurai is dedicated to the tumultuous period of Japanese history that began with the forced opening of Japan to Western trade and strong-arming it into unequal treaties, which caused an economic crisis and social upheaval. This, subsequently, ended with the fall of Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of an emperor.
From a purely military standpoint the Boshin War, which became the culmination of that period and the last civil war in Japanese history, was not particularly interesting. Its first and most decisive battle of Toba-Fushimi was only a small skirmish, compared to the great battles that were fought in Europe and the US around that period. The overall outcome was more often decided by political combinations than by force of arms. But if you’re at all familiar with the Total War series, you should know that historical accuracy has always been a guideline rather than a straightjacket (although, this game and the encyclopedia entries for it clearly show that its creators did their research). So, in Fall of the Samurai players will be able to fight a massive war, with countless fierce clashes between sizeable armies and fleets, over a twelve-year period.
The campaign map in this standalone expansion is similar to Shogun 2, as far as province borders are concerned; even then, some provinces were added (like entire Hokkaido, or small islands around the western end, in places where only trading points had been before) or divided. The map itself was beautifully redrawn, in a more “realistic” style, and the troop movement dynamics are completely different—walking around Japan using normal roads takes far more game turns. Therefore, railroads (where they can be built) and naval transports are necessary to move armies at more than a snail’s pace. As a result, you are most likely unable to reach and besiege an enemy town on the same turn you invade its province, reducing the effect of sudden attacks and betrayals.
There are 6 factions to play in Fall of the Samurai, (plus 4 now available as—overpriced, in my opinion—DLC packs). Southwestern “Choshu”, “Tosa” and “Satsuma” clans form the pro-Imperial side, while northeastern “Aizu”, “Nagaoka” and “Jozai” clans fight for the Shogunate. The frequent criticism of Shogun 2 was the similarities between all the playable factions; and unfortunately, FotS is even worse in this regard. The difference in play between the Imperial and Shogunate clans is less than the difference between Christian and Buddhist factions in the vanilla game. Both sides, irregardless of their propaganda rhetoric, are rapidly modernizing their armies and are closely allied with Western powers (Imperialists with Britain, Shogunate supporters with France)—which is pretty much true to history, but reduces gameplay variety. Unique units/unit advantages of individual factions impact tactics much less, as well. Strategic clan bonuses, however, are significant. And in my opinion the Imperialist clans are just somewhat easier to play, due to good starting positions and seemingly better cooperation, with less backstabbing. Imperialists, as a whole, tend to “wipe the floor” with Shogunate supporters in the campaign, taking over most of the map with minimal human interference.
On the other hand, diplomacy was greatly improved in FotS. One of the most disliked aspects of Shogun 2 single-player campaigns was the “Realm Divide” event, where all the remaining AI clans ganged up on the human player once the latter achieved sufficient fame, regardless of previous relationships. FotS replaces that with a breakout of total war between supporters of the Shogun and the Emperor, where clans with the same allegiance fight on your side. Moreover, your faction and its vassals need to capture only about half the provinces to win. So betraying your allies, once your need to grab more lands starts to outweigh their usefulness, is no longer mandatory to win a campaign. That said, if you prefer your Total War to be truly “total” and are looking for a good challenge, you get an option to declare a republic, instead of siding with either the Shogunate or the Imperialists. This will result in everyone else hating the player clan, massive initial unrest in your provinces due to the allegiance switch, loss of certain capabilities and other problems—about the only aspect of being a republican that isn’t strictly negative is replacement of your previous Western backer with the United States. So the republic way is recommended only for players confident in their abilities. The short campaign in FotS runs from 1864 to 1870, with the long/domination campaigns running from 1864 to 1876—two turns per month.
As in all Total War games, a strong economic foundation is necessary to achieve long-term success in the Fall of the Samurai campaign. The economic model and the tech tree that accompanies it were reworked in FotS, but the core principles of the original Shogun 2 model remain visible beneath the new coat of paint. While in Shogun 2 players had to manage their global food stockpiles, in FotS you now have to manage your modernization level. Buildings used to produce modern troops, various modern factories, advancing through the tech trees, and simply expanding your towns, all increase modernization, which in turn, directly contributes to unrest. Modernizing too quickly will lead to samurai revolts all over the place, and negative economical growth in provinces due to discontent. Of course, this can be dealt with by constructing buildings that either make your subjects happier or oppress them harsher (the end effect is exactly the same), or by using agents (more on that later). But the most cost-effective and stable model of province development is the one already familiar to Shogun 2 players: concentrate your troop production in a few fully built-up provinces (preferably those with bonuses-granting natural resources), leave all the other provinces devoted to financing your war machine, and don’t expand towns in the latter more than necessary to construct the standard economic building package (cottage industry, inn and police station building chains).
The main sources of income are still taxes and trade with other clans—now with the foreign powers too. Just as it was in the vanilla game, taxes are the foundation of healthy economies (so increasing growth of the taxable base in your towns should be prioritized early!), while trade provides an income boost necessary for rapid development (particularly early in the game). When you’re living hand-to-mouth otherwise, the latter is vulnerable to disruption by political developments (i.e., your trade partners backstabbing you, or vice versa), or naval raiding of trade routes and ports.
The tech tree is now less “tree-like”, giving a player greater freedom in choosing or bypassing technologies. Civilian techs still have greater priority. But not to the extent they had in vanilla Shogun 2, where you pretty much had to concentrate entirely on them until late in the game (researching most of them) or lose horribly.
As in Shogun 2, taking good care of your named characters is very important for success; particularly on higher difficulties. The short time span of FotS means that your generals and agents become an even better investment, because the perspective of death from natural causes can be effectively ruled out for them. Unfortunately, this also makes family management meaningless.
Characters still have ranks from 1 to 6, depending on their experience, and you can pick skills for them from skill trees (reworked in FotS) as they level-up. Unfortunately, your generals, even though they include famous historical leaders like Saigo Takamori, now all start with blank slateswith no starting traits to distinguish them. As aging is now not a threat the only sensible option is to use your daimyo as your main general. A daimyo might increase his honor by achieving impressive victories, which benefits public order clan-wide, while other generals might only get traits that reduce their loyalty and increase the probability of switching sides—if they win more victories than the daimyo.
Besides generals, you also have four types of agents. Shinobi, as in Shogun 2, are primarily useful for assassinations and sabotage. Propaganda agents (ishin shishi for the Imperialists, shinsengumi for the Shogunate) convert the population to their side’s allegiance, increase public order by their presence, bribe enemy troops into supporting your cause, inspire revolts in enemy provinces (in allied provinces too, when you need to grab them without openly attacking your ally), and assassinate other characters. Geishas increase towns’ economical growth by their presence and can bribe enemy characters into switching sides. Finally, hire foreign veterans can help make troop recruitment cheaper, increase experience of your troops, inflict casualties on enemy armies, sabotage buildings and assassinate other characters. Most of the agents' actions that target forces of other factions, while possibly having very powerful effects, cost money and can result in losing an agent. But all of them, excluding shinobi, have "passive" abilities that can be even more useful than directly harming your enemies.
Like Empire: Total War and Napoleon: Total War, this game is a “Gun: Total War" game. The traditional Total War swords-spears-cavalry tactical dynamics still do exist, but are swiftly trumped by the almighty firearm. It is still possible to recruit “traditional” units (armed with melee weapons and matchlocks) and use them to significant effect—particularly early in the game when rifle-wielding modern infantry do not fire rapidly enough to stop a charging crowd of spearmen and will be easily overwhelmed in melee. Outflanking an enemy rifle line with spear infantry allows one to quickly "roll” it. A mass rush by a melee-centered army also stands a good chance of causing an immediate rout of enemy units. But considering that traditional units usually have slightly higher recruitment/upkeep costs compared to modern units of the same size and tier, and that nearly all traditional units take two turns to recruit, sticking with the standard line infantry (or rifle levies, if you find your clan in dire financial straits during your opening moves) seems like an obvious choice even in the beginning.
Progressing down the military tech tree swiftly increases the superiority of riflemen. And, after gaining “Kneel Fire” and “Suppression Fire” abilities even basic line infantry will become capable of repelling most attempts to charge it head-on. Add a few Gatlings to your battle line, and any foolish samurai attempting to run towards it with swords and spears will be routed by a hail of fire, no matter their numbers (screenshot). Even if they somehow manage to get into melee by a well-executed flanking maneuver or ambushing from a forest, elite rifle units such as late-game unique faction variations of line infantry or marines (limited number of which can be provided by your European/US ally) can be as good or better than traditional units in melee. Until late in the game, I do prefer to field two units of spear-wielding yari kachi infantry in my big armies, to cover flanks of my battle line from cavalry, outflank the enemy once a fire exchange begins, or be the first to scale castle walls to mop up whomever survived the artillery bombardment.
Speaking of artillery, in FotS it is far stronger than it was in any previous TW game. Even the first modern guns available fire exploding shells and shrapnel—can tear dozens of men from the enemy ranks with each good hit. They can score such hits fairly often, wreaking havoc on enemy formations across half the map. This is exacerbated by the fact that AI is prone to pack its troops in tight multi-line formations; so even a couple of Parrot gun batteries can decide battles. While an army that has a half-dozen of more advanced Armstrong gun units can easily tear through several attacking AI stacks per turn. Artillery is slow to recruit, expensive, and does not become adequate until you erect a second-tier artillery building (the first tier provides exotic, yet not very useful, wooden cannons). So it needs time to come into its own. But once you can raise a decent artillery park it becomes the “god” of land warfare, at least in single player.
As a side effect, artillery also makes siege battles much less of a problem as an artillery-heavy army can swiftly reduce medieval-style castles to piles of kindling—with which you’ll primarily have to deal with until very late in the game. You must do this without being subpar in field battles. But land artillery isn’t the only way to rain death on the enemies from a safe distance now. FotS also includes a feature that has never been seen before in Total War: naval bombardments. These can be called in a very limited number of times per battle, if said battle happens near a coast and you have a fleet cruising nearby, raining very devastating explosive shells on targeted areas.
Another unprecedented addition brought by the expansion is the ability to field up to 40 units, instead of 20, in battle at once. Only up to 20 can be deployed normally, but another 20 can come as reinforcements immediately after a battle begins. This can result in the biggest battles in the history of the Total War series (up to 16,000 men on a battlefield at once, with ultra-sized units). This increase in the scale of warfare is quite welcome, in my opinion. One problem with tactical battles in FotS that can’t be overlooked is the lack of map diversity. It is hard to play a dozen of battles without running into the same maps a few times. This is very unfortunate, in a game where army and tactical diversity are not exactly strong points.
Overall, single player tactical battles in FotS do not compare well to vanilla Shogun 2. There is a smaller variety of troops, smaller variety of viable tactics (at least in mid/late game), all while the AI’s inability to counter even small numbers of modern artillery can turn seemingly hard battles into one-sided beat downs; and equal matches into turkey shoots. As in Shogun 2, those confident with their tactical skills can use the drop-in battle feature which invites random players from across the net to take command of enemy forces in a single player campaign battle. I appreciate the new features of FotS, such as increased army size and the addition of naval bombardments, but they alone cannot compensate the relative lack of variety and replayability.
Strategically, naval warfare increased its importance—as mentioned above. Fleets are often needed to take armies where you need them much quicker, can now help in land battles, and can now bombard towns, building and armies on the move (often causing severe damage). Lack of a strong navy can quickly result in devastating damage from enemy bombarding fleets. In fact, AI habits of rushing an opponent’s coasts and sea lanes with lots of tiny flotillas might well result in widespread devastation even if you have a strong navy.
Tactically, though, naval battles remain not nearly as polished as land battles. Sure, steam-powered frigates and corvettes are much simpler and more fun to control in battle than medieval Japanese floating coffins. It is far easier to execute meaningful maneuvers with your fleet without an entire battle turning into a dog pile of ships. But available tactics aren't very deep or diverse, and quirks of the damage model due to larger ships being very prone to exploding while still only moderately damaged (for extra fast fireworks and cheap wins against AI fleets, research “Explosive Shells”), do not help. Watching ironclads (you can get these fearsome ships from your Western ally, by constructing a trading district, but only one at a time) plow through enemy fleets or using torpedoes to blow an enemy sky-high is no doubt fun, but gets repetitive too quickly. Those who enjoyed previous implementations of naval battles in Total War will probably enjoy them in FotS, but I don't think FotS offers a breakthrough capable of converting those who disliked naval battles before.
Despite noticeable faults that limit its replayability, and made me enjoy it less overall than the original Shogun 2, Fall of the Samurai is still a solid game and a good addition to the Total War series. It covers new grounds and introduces new features that hopefully will enrich future Total War installments. It still offers a reasonably challenging, interesting campaign mode, with a good variety of events that makes it well worth buying even if you aren’t going to play through it more than once. Those who liked either Shogun 2 or firearm-based tactics in Empire/Napoleon, as well as those who are interested in the historical period leading to the Meiji Restoration or middle-19th century warfare in general, should consider taking a look at this game.
Review written by: Stanislav Bartoshevich
About Stanislav Bartoshevich
Stanislav Bartoshevich is a freelance translator who has been a PC gamer for most of his conscious life, playing computer wargames ever since the first Panzer General. Whatever time for hobbies he still has, after wargames—including ongoing PBEM matches and participation in modding War in the Pacific: Admiral’s Edition—and roleplaying games take their share, is devoted to military history; primarily of the Pacific Theater and the Eastern Front of World War II.
Forum username: FatR