Friday, November 18, 2011

Ramblings: Gundam 00

I was reading a discussion about Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer that actually quickly derailed and turned into a debate regarding SEED and Gundam 00.  In response to the accusation that Strike Freedom is ridiculously overpowered, someone brought up Setsuna and his Gundams.  That's an incorrect comparison.

I actually agree that Strike Freedom is likely the most overpowered Gundam in the franchise.  That's why I love it, it's so dominant over everything.  But this person made a point saying that Strike Freedom was best at ranged combat, while Infinite Justice had the best close quarters combat arsenal, and Akatsuki had the best defense; they were an equal team.  I'm not sure about including Akatsuki, even though it DID have above average defenses, being built to deflect regular beam shots without batting an eye.  But it did still get vaporized after taking a battleship cannon beam to the face, even if it did still manage to block the attack from its intended target.  Anyway, as opposed to this team, the person argued that Setsuna and his mechs were always leaps and bounds ahead of the other Gundams of Celestial Being.  That's kind of absurd.

Firstly, the Gundams in Celestial Being weren't overpowered.  The reason they were able to wipe the floor with everyone else for much of the series was because they were far, far more advanced.  The estimation was that they were a decade ahead of current technology.  That's not overpowered, that's just being prepared.  Would you call an F-22 Raptor overpowered for being able to shoot down an F-4 Phantom with ease?  Because that's why the Exia and company were curbstomping everyone in their path until the other guys finally managed to catch up in technology; and only by copying Celestial Being's tech.

And Setsuna was no better than the rest of his team.  In fact, they did the whole "role" thing better than any instance in SEED.  Exia was a close quarters unit, bristling with beam sabers and swords and daggers, with only a small beam rifle to call upon for ranged combat.  Kyrios was the fast interceptor, able to transform into a fighter, and armed with light but versatile weaponry like an automatic rifle.  Virtue was the heavy artillery Gundam, fairly slow but with the best defenses and the most powerful weaponry, including a two handed beam bazooka.  And Dynames was long range support, ineffective in close combat, but a lethal presence at range with its sniper rifle.  None of them, Exia included, was any more "powerful" than the other.

This mechanic continued into the second season as the new line of Gundams rolled out.  Yes, 00 Gundam was literally more powerful than its cohorts, exponentially more powerful.  But they talk about that.  It's because 00 has two GN Drives, as opposed to one.  And the system was imperfect, and unstable.  It was only until 00-Riser came into being that 00 actually delivered on its potential as the ultimate mech, and probably the most powerful in the series.  And even then, though it has its moments of overpowering dominance, 00-Riser is not an invincible mech.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Editorial: The "hardcore" gamer

Lately I've been hearing a lot of murmurs about what it means to be a "hardcore" gamer, and really just a gamer in general.  I find such discussions annoying.  Why contemplate on something so trivial?

I play a very wide range of games, and I play them very frequently and in earnest.  I have the single highest trophy level of all my PSN friends, and I was at Gamestop at 12 am on October 18th, even though I had important things to do the following day.

I guess other people label me a gamer.  And probably a hardcore one, at that.  But I do all that because playing games is a primary hobby of mine; because it's fun.  It's not like I'm actively working to be recognized as a gamer.  I guess I just think it's silly to devote much thought to how you should label yourself, and even less so how others should label you.  It's not much different from the good people out there acting on the idea that young girls typically have fragile self-esteem.

That has a lot to do with interpretation of the words, though; another common topic of discussion.  What is a "gamer", after all?  I would say it's quite simply a person who plays games.  But then some ask "does FarmVille count?  The Sims?  What about Wii Sports?"

And then things get even more muddled when you add in "hardcore".  Who the heck knows what that means?  "Hardcore" could just mean you sit in your room playing Call of Duty all day.  Maybe that is hardcore.

At least with "casual", the meaning is pretty clear.  If you say you're a casual gamer, technically it means that you just play games for fun and giggles.  But a reasonable interpretation is that you play games often or that you play games of the lighter, less intensive sort.

But...who cares?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Batman: Arkham City

They never saw it coming.  Just moments ago they were chatting idly about Catwoman’s sultry qualities. Then they shouted, “It’s the Bat!” as I descended upon one of them, like a meteor from above; he didn’t get back up, and neither did the fellow standing next to him.  Out came the Batclaw, reeling in my first prey as I proceed to slam him into the pavement.  Three guys down, and only now has the rest of the group regained their senses.  Three of them run up, thinking to gain the upper hand with strength in numbers.  I counter all of them effortlessly in a whirlwind of kicks, before unleashing a flurry of batarangs.  In the midst of the chaos, I single out one man still standing.  In an instant I’m in front in him.  He has body armor, so I stun him and then punch him.  He probably expected that.  What he didn’t expect were the next fifteen punches, followed by a fierce uppercut.  Only one left standing, and another getting back up.  I fling a freeze grenade at the one dusting himself off; sit tight for a bit.  Then I focus on the last goon.  First I wrench the bat from his hands, and smack him with it.  Then I trip him, and snap one of his arms.  I end the battle by delivering a flying kick of justice to the thug encased in ice.

This game is nuts.

After his stellar work as the warden of Arkham Asylum, now-Mayor Quincy Sharp has decided that a single facility will not be sufficient to contain the criminal scum of Gotham.  So he sections off a part of the city and establishes the entire district as an open air, maximum-security prison.  Furthermore, he places a scientist named Hugo Strange in charge.  As you soon realize, there is no law in Arkham City other than a simple one imposed by Strange: “Do not try to escape”.

If you think that letting every single Gotham villain run amok in their own little community seems like a bad idea, you’re not alone.  In fact, you’re thinking along the same lines as Batman himself.  And so it is that you find yourself in Arkham City, with the express intention of find out how such a thing could have possibly come into being.

The story told here in Arkham City is ambitious, and far larger in scope than it was in Arkham Asylum.  Indeed, Joker’s quest for the TITAN chemical in 2009’s hit seems almost small time compared to some of the things you see and experience in Arkham City; hammered home by the fact that TITAN is again present, though it’s been relegated to a mere sidequest.

There’s an incredible cast of villains in Arkham City.  Joker and Harley, Bane and Riddler are back in various capacities, but Batman also gets to deal with Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Two Face and of course Hugo Strange (among others) in the main storyline alone.  Through cameos and side missions, the roster is further expanded to include the likes of Poison Ivy, Dead Shot, Mad Hatter, and even, finally, Calendar Man.  As a fan of the comics, many of the appearances were, in a word, awesome.

However, Arkham City’s plot unfortunately falls just a tad short of the mark it tries so enthusiastically to reach.  Many villains meet disappointing ends, with the biggest offense being that of the supposed primary antagonist, Hugo Strange.  I won’t spoil how you finally get to inflict sweet justice on him, but it’s pretty underwhelming.

One of the chief complaints of Arkham Asylum—of which there were few, I might add—was that the boss battles were very simple and mundane.  Arkham City improves this by orders of magnitude.  There are a couple boss battles that are essentially beefed up predator challenges, for example.  In your showdown with Mr. Freeze, you’re prevented from using the same move twice, as every time you pull one over on him he takes measures to prevent you doing it again.  But coming away from the game, I still feel like many of the villains could have put up a better fight.  For each of the more exhilarating encounters, there’s one that’s only decent.

Virtually everything has been expanded and improved in Arkham City, beginning with the setting itself.  Not only is Arkham City a bigger and more varied locale than Arkham Asylum, it is a far denser one. It won’t win points for being the biggest, but Rocksteady made ample use of essentially every square foot of the world they crafted.  Where there isn’t a Riddler puzzle to solve or a group of thugs roaming around, there’s a locale to explore, an Easter egg to discover, or a sidequest to complete.  It feels like everything you do and can do in this game has purpose.

One of Rocksteady’s biggest talking points was how you get around this bigger, better setting: gliding.  You could glide in Arkham Asylum…but not like this.  Now, mid-flight you can go into a dive, than pull up to gain speed and altitude.  Once you get the Grapnel Boost, you can latch onto faraway ledges and objects to vault yourself further and keep altitude high.  This new method of locomotion is extremely awkward at first, and I found it difficult to use.  But once you get the hang of it, it’s surprisingly addicting (and challenging) to see how far you can go without touching the ground.  Then, when you spot a group of thugs below, you can swoop down on them, and that’s when the fun begins.

Combat in Arkham City is, to my surprise, a very different beast than it was in Arkham Asylum, and not just because some of the controls have been moved around.  By the end of the game, your bag of tricks is bulging with so many gadgets, moves and abilities that it can be overwhelming at times.  Not only do you have new moves like the Glide Boost, which lets you quite literally tackle thugs from the air with the force of a thousand suns, you can also stomp on them, Mario-style.  Even old moves and techniques have gained new tricks.  After cape-stunning a target, you can proceed into a Beatdown (yes, that’s exactly what it’s called).  My favorite move in the game, Batman quite simply punches the guy over and over again at super speed, ending with one final, powerful attack that instantly KO’s the poor fellow.  Also, the counter move has been expanded, allowing you to counter not one, not two, but up to three thugs at a time simultaneously.  Now you can also catch and throw back projectiles lobbed at you.  It’s awesome.

But that’s not all.  The number of Quickfire gadgets—those that you can use mid-combat—has been almost tripled.  In addition to Batarangs and the Batclaw, now you can use the Explosive Gel in combat, as well as a variety of other gadgets you’ll acquire as you progress, such as a stun gun and freeze grenade.  Special moves like the Instant KO are back, alongside new moves like the Weapon Destroyer, which has  Bats not only disarming a foe, but smashing said weapon to pieces to stop it from being used again.

Not interested in all these fancy moves and gadgets?  Rocksteady’s got your back with a new ability called FreeFlow Focus.  At the expense of being able to perform special combos like the Instant Finisher (and ultimately gadgets), upon landing your 12th hit in a combo you enter FreeFlow Focus, which enables a subtle slow motion affect, allowing you to wreak havoc on groups and maintain multipliers with heightened ease.  This, combined with the returning Critical Strikes ability—which rewards well-timed attacks with extra power and double points and multiplier gain—makes sure those that favor combos over variation get their due.

There’s even new ways to start a battle.  Before, it was either you ran up and started throwing punches, or you flew in with a Glide Kick.  Now, apart from the previously mentioned Glide Boost, you can also perform a sliding kick, or dive bomb a group before proceeding to send them all flying with a kinetic blast.  Every encounter is also bigger in scale than they ever were in Arkham Asylum.  There’s an incredible amount of contextual moves and takedowns in this game.  Walking up to two thugs standing side by side allows you to take them both down simultaneously.  Doing a Grapnel Boost right under a patrolling thug will prompt Batman to grab the guy on his way up, only to pile-drive him back into the ground.  And then there are the returning classics, like the corner and ledge takedowns.

There are also some new thug types in Arkham City.  Gone are those god-forsaken lunatics—I think anyone whose had their crack at one of the challenge rooms in Arkham Asylum will share my anger—replaced with thugs toting riot shields who can’t be attacked through normal means.  Most are still same old, same old; goons with stun batons have to be hit from behind or from range, those with firearms have to taken down with care (and individually, usually), and unarmed enemies are still fodder, but insanely fun to fight against all the same.  Knife-wielders are back, but they’ve been changed.  Now you can attack them head on like any regular thug, and their attacks are less dangerous; by holding the counter button, you can dance away from their swipes.  With an upgrade, you can even perform a reversal on them; it’s not easy to pull off mid-combat, but it’s one of the most satisfying things you can do in this game.  There are also some other special enemies, like assassins, who attack like knife-wielders but can dodge your regular attacks and are overall much quicker and more dangerous.

The extent to which close quarters combat has been expanded in Arkham City is staggering, to be frank.  As a comfortable form of input, the controller is absolutely pushed to the limit.  There was a time when I wondered if the number of Quickfire gadgets was limited more to keep the controls reasonable than for any creative or design reasons.  Still, the possibilities granted by this insane collection are nothing less than exciting.  This is a combat system with endless depth.  There’s plenty of elegance and complexity for those that want it.  It places squarely in your hands the ability to orchestrate every enemy encounter from beginning to end, and it is more satisfying than words can describe when things go your way, as they did in my opening paragraph.  It is, in my opinion, the best close quarters combat system in existence.

Predator gameplay (read: stealth) is still just as good as it was in Arkham Asylum, though it did not see nearly as much of the overhaul treatment as most other aspects did.  Your giant bag of tricks, in combination with excellent level design allows for a wider variety of strategies than in Arkham Asylum, but it still boils down to methodically taking out armed thugs in any given area.  Of course, there’s also still fun to be had instilling fear in the hearts of professional gunmen and hapless criminals.

I found myself relying on Detective mode much more than I would have liked (just like Arkham Asylum), particularly in stealth situations.  But I think I’m beginning to realize that has more to do with the enemies’ somewhat more sophisticated AI than anything else.  Arkham City never ceases to impress me at least a little bit in how natural many of its inhabitants act.  Enemies will blow up vantage points or roll grenades into vents to try and smoke you out.  Or sometimes, they won’t.  Often they’ll stop for no apparent reason, and just look around.  Apprehension?  Or fear, perhaps.  Occasionally they gain the sense to look up or check under them.  When they see a body, they’ll call for help, with others showing varying degrees of response or concern.  Enemies frequently change or adapt their patrol routes as new developments—like you totally acing one of them—occur.  This is different from most stealth games, where enemies have a rigid and often inflexible set of actions, and specific patrol routes that they usually return to without fail, making them predictable.

Technically speaking, Arkham City doesn’t really look or run significantly better than Arkham Asylum.   However, that only speaks volumes for how good-looking its predecessor was back in 2009, because Arkham City is a gorgeous game.  There are all sorts of fancy visual tricks in effect here, from impressive depth of field and sharp texture work to a rather capable physics engine handling object and body behavior.  Playing the game on PS3, you will see quite a bit of in-game texture loading; try viewing a few character trophies, for example.  I imagine it’s a similar situation on Xbox 360.  But that’s what happens when you have such a small bit of video memory to work with.  There is a near-2GB mandatory install on PS3, but you will only see load times when entering and leaving major areas, and when first loading up the campaign and any challenge maps.

Even from a conceptual standpoint, Arkham City is stunning.  The prison is separated into a handful of different areas, each with a different feel, from the Bowery with its slightly higher class feel, to the industrial district with chimneys galore and a small bay and loading dock.  Underneath Arkham City lies an ancient and eerily quiet complex network of passageways and corridors; another world in itself.  Towering far, far above it all is the Wonder Tower, from which Strange operates.

Just like in Arkham Asylum however, the real star in the visual department is the animation.  And boy is it fancy.  The vast majority of Bats’ animations for his basic movements and abilities have been recycled from Arkham Asylum, but that’s not a terrible thing because there are plenty of new animations, and why would he revamp the way he moves?  The biggest improvement I’ve noticed in Arkham City on its predecessor—and indeed, on the medium in general—is how well the engine nails contextual actions.  There was some of it showing in Arkham Asylum—Bats would react to enemies depending on their location and status in relation to his—but it’s really been expanded here.

You counter one goon, and another runs up; Batman adapts what he is doing to one enemy to include the other.  What used to be a punch to the face is now two faces being bashed together.  Include another enemy and now the attack has instantly evolved to a spinning kick.  Attack an enemy right in front of you, and Bats might do an uppercut.  Attack one some distance away, and he might do this crazy flying somersault to cover the distance.  Attack an enemy up against a wall, and that head butt becomes a skull thrashed against said wall.  It’s all in realtime, and it’s completely natural.  From a technical standpoint, it feels like it should be completely impossible, the way the engine fluidly adapts how bodies and objects move and interact with each other on the fly.  But it happens constantly in Arkham City.  Because it happens all the time and feels so natural, it feels like a minor thing, but no other game does this so well; save for a precious few (Mortal Kombat and Uncharted come to mind), others do not even attempt it.  The animation in Arkham City is, quite frankly a technical achievement in my mind.

From start to finish, Arkham City is an aural delight.  As you boot the game up, you’re treated to vigorous woodwinds that might just send chills down your spine.  From there on, the BGMs don’t generally stand out, but that does not stop the music from doing a phenomenal job contributing to the atmosphere of the game.  Just like in Arkham Asylum, tracks can change to suit changing situations, such as being discovered in stealth mode, or entering combat.

Of course, the voice acting is no slouch either.  Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker, respectively, but there’s talent and enthusiasm behind seemingly every voice in Arkham City.  While the story dialogue in this game is typical, almost classical comic book fare—you won’t believe how many times Batman says some variation of “Today’s not a good day to mess with me”—much of the dialogue provided by auxiliary characters like the various thug factions is surprisingly interesting to listen to.  Flying around Arkham City, you’ll hear lowly grunts discussing their faction leaders (Joker, Two Face, etc.), cracking jokes, day dreaming about Catwoman and Poison Ivy, and even spouting a bit of lore; all in great varying degrees of earnest.  There’s something to be said for the sheer volume of dialogue provided by the thugs alone when, even while roaming around after beating the game I’m still stopping frequently to listen in on some conversations.

Arkham City is pretty much teeming with replay value.  There’s perhaps a little under a dozen side missions in the story mode; the biggest of which by far is Riddler’s 400-strong assortment of trophies, challenges, and puzzles.  It’s a mishmash of collectables and little in-game achievements, like using certain takedowns a number of times or gliding unassisted a certain distance, complemented by dozens of little nods, references and easter eggs to Bat-family lore that Riddler wants you to find and scan.  Finally capturing Riddler is a monumental task, to say the least, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t enjoyable.  The puzzles and riddles are clever, some of them being true head-scratchers, while the trophies will have you visiting every nook and cranny of Arkham City several times over.  As you solve challenges, you also unlock new background information (in the form of "Arkham City stories"), character biographies and audio tapes, 3D character models that you can view (think Super Smash Bros), and loads of concept art.

Challenge Mode is back as well, in a very big way.  Not only are there more challenge maps than there were in Arkham Asylum—about 60% more, by my rough estimate—there is a new feature called Riddler’s Revenge, which are essentially sets of three challenge maps strung together into a brief campaign.  There’s a twist, however.  When you begin a Riddler campaign, you are presented with certain modifiers that you have to use at some point before you finish the third level.  Some modifiers are negative, like restricting your moveset or beefing up enemy damage, while others, like regenerating health and batarangs that instantly KO thugs, are positive.  Choosing the best times to implement these modifiers gives these small campaigns a bit more of an identity.  You can also take these modifiers and apply them in regular challenge maps, if you want.

There are a lot of comparisons to the game’s predecessor—Arkham Asylum—in this review.  There’s a reason for that.  Over the course of Arkham City’s development, I was paying very close attention to essentially all coverage of it, and there was one element that I found very consistent.  Rocksteady wanted to top themselves.  Arkham Asylum was an excellent title, and they knew it.  And yet they challenged themselves to create a sequel, one that they could honestly say was better than its predecessor in every possible way.  They listened.  They tweaked.  They improved.  And quite frankly, they succeeded.  Arkham City is everything that a sequel should be.  And in my opinion, it is also one of the greatest games this generation yet has to offer.  A 10/10.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Looking Forward

This has been an exceptional year for gaming.  And it shows in the fact that I really need to scale down my game purchases going into 2012.  This is the first year where the growth of my game library has actually outpaced the amount of time I allocate to playing games.  It's gotten to the point where I'm buying games, and quite simply not playing them; as is the case with Dark Souls, Tomb Raider Anniversary, Tomb Raider Legend, and Company of Heroes, and Ace Combat Zero.  These are all games that I have not even touched yet--don't get me started on games that are merely unfinished.  I feel almost irresponsible continuing to buy all these great games even knowing that I won't have time to play them.

Here's a list of games I bought or acquired this year.
LittleBigPlanet 2
Dead Space 2
inFamous 2
Tales of the Abyss
Total War: Shogun 2
Ace Combat Zero
Metal Gear Solid 4 (for the second time)
Ace Combat 5
Ace Combat 4
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes
Dark Souls
Persona 4
Batman: Arkham City
Portal 2
Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3
Dirt 3
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Witcher 2
Company of Heroes (for the second time)
TES4: Oblivion
Just Cause 2
Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Tomb Raider: Legend

Of those games, 16 (out of the 24) I haven't finished.  That's kind of unacceptable.  So I'm really glad that 2012 is looking a lot less exciting, at least to me.  I also bought LA Noire, but promptly returned it.  It's the first time I've done such a thing in probably a decade; never have I been so incredibly disappointed in a game that I truly thought would be great.  Other firsts in 2011: I bought Arkham City from Gamestop.  The last game I remember buying from Gamestop was 007: Agent Under Fire, probably about 10 years ago.

So, here's a list of games I'm looking forward to.

Playstation 3
-Sonic Generations;  I...I took a leap, and decided to go ahead and preorder this.  I grew up with Sonic, and I've managed to find some good in almost every game in the series that ever came out (except for Sonic 06).  But even I've felt the effects of what is ultimately just poor design.  But Sega looks like for the first time in quite a while, they might have finally gotten it right.
-Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception; I really think this will be a neat game, but I can't bring myself to buy it brand new for $60.  I'm only in it for the campaign, and that alone does not justify a buy to me.  I'll wait until it's cheaper.  Still, it does look amazing.
-Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls 5; Chances are it will be a very long time before I get around to even touching this game, but I'm not worried about how good it will be.  I loved Oblivion, and all I see Skyrim as is Oblivion with better graphics and updated mechanics.
-Saints Row: The Third; This is one of the last games of 2011 that I'm currently planning to buy at or around its release, but it's also the one I'm thinking the most about waiting on.  It looks like infinite fun, but lack of offline multiplayer hit me kinda hard.
-Rayman: Origins; All I'm hearing is 4-player platforming co-op.  That's all I need to hear.  This was going to be a day one buy, but I think I'm going to wait a while on it.
-Armored Core 5; It's true, I'm rather fond of any mech games that manage to make it stateside.  Of course I'll be keeping a close eye on Armored Core 5, but it wouldn't have to be revolutionary for me to seriously consider picking it up, because I'm that desperate.
-SSX; One of the few games coming out in 2012 that I'm kind of excited for.  I really love the SSX series.  All EA has to do is announce offline multiplayer, and this will probably be a day one buy.  Too bad they probably won't.
-Zone of the Enders HD Collection; I never played the original ZoE games, but I heard they were rather dandy.  The announcement of this collection was a very pleasant surprise, and I look forward to picking it up when it releases.
-Final Fantasy Versus XIII; Still waiting, Square-Enix...
-Ghost Recon: Future Soldier; I have to admit, I'm a bit conflicted about this one.  If it turns out to be a hyperrealistic shooter like, say Operation Flashpoint or SOCOM where you take one bullet and die, I'm out.  But it combines a lot things that I really dig.  That is, third person shooting with an emphasis on cover, co-op, and futuristic technology.
-Starhawk; At the moment I'm actually kinda meh about this, but it looks like it could be a quality title, regardless of what I think of it.
-Final Fantasy XIII-2; I'm a bit conflicted about this one.  Unlike so many people, I actually really, really liked Final Fantasy XIII.  But, given how long it took to develop that game, you can understand my skepticism when I found it they were churning out a sequel in just one year.  I know the leftover assets and the fact that a lot of the tech is already developed is a big factor in the reduced development time (which is why FF13-2 doesn't really look at all better than 13), but a year?  I guess I'm just not used to seeing Square-Enix, of all people, churn out a game so quickly; much less a Final Fantasy game.  Also, I really dislike that they are going to be adding monster recruiting as a gameplay mechanic.  It tends to rub me the wrong way when games have monster recruiting, because it feels like a way to escape the burden of having to add in and flesh out actual characters.  And because the monsters themselves are always so dull and boring to play as.  But by the same token, my interest was piqued when I realized that they would be introducing time travel as a plot element.  I enjoy time travel stories, even though they are rarely done well, without having them turn into confusing messes full of holes.
-Metal Gear Solid Rising; Whatever happened to this game...?  Nobody ever talks about it.  <=/  I thought it looked kind of fun.
-Ni no Kuni; This game looks kind of neat.  A joint venture between Studio Ghibli and Level-5?  Could be great.  But I do worry about the incredible mass of people blinded by the game's graphics.  Yes, the game looks beautiful, like anything with Ghibli's hands in it should.  But what about the gameplay?  We'll see.
-Bioshock Infinite; Though it was kind of a fleeting experience, I really enjoyed Bioshock.  I loved what it brought to the table: a compelling story and incredible setting wrapped around solid FPS and RPG mechanics.  It was just a great game.  And it looks like Infinite looks ready to carry that banner as well.  I'll tell you what, that nine minute gameplay demo was amazing.
-Final Fantasy X HD; I've noticed that every Final Fantasy seems to have a polarizing effect on the fanbase, and 10 was no exception.  I was among those that actually liked 10 quite a bit, but I never finished it.  This ought to be a fine chance to.
-Tomb Raider; With the exception of Final Fantasy Versus XIII (which may or may not come out next year), this is the only game I can say even now that I will probably be buying day one.  SSX I'm interested in, but I might not buy it if they don't include offline multiplayer.  I think Crystal Dynamics would have to really mess things up for me to not end up picking this up when it releases.  I just have a really good feeling about it.
-Assassin's Creed: Revelations; I actually haven't been paying much attention to this game, but I feel almost obligated to buy it, because of how much I've fallen in love with the series since I discovered AC2 what feels like a million years ago.

-Mass Effect 3;  Even though I really loved Mass Effect 2 (it did earn the first 10 on this blog, after all), for some reason I just can't get hyped for ME3.  I think it has to do with the way EA has essentially turned the game into a juggernaut pawn to further its other ventures, like Origin and online passes.  It's kind of tragic.
-Guild Wars 2; Still waiting, NCSoft...

-Kirby's Return to Dreamland;  You know, a couple years ago I would have been endlessly excited about this game.  It would have been a day one buy, and I would have loved it to bits.  But now...I'm kind of tired.  Tired of Nintendo.  Tired of the Wii.  And...almost tired of Kirby.  Almost.
-The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword; Everything I just said in the previous entry be damned, I probably would have bought this game, if Nintendo hadn't decided to use it force motion controls down my throat.  I don't care how intuitive the gesture is, if I have to do it everytime I want to do something as simple as make a sword strike, I'm out.  I'm fine with making it an option and all, but basing the entire game around motion's like they're giving us an ultimatum, or something.  "Buy Motion Plus and love it, or get out."
There's a reason every game with motion controls have an option to play with the traditional way, and a reason why those that are built around motion controls keep it simple and small in scope.  Sorry Nintendo, but what you are doing to this game is unacceptable in my eyes.  Which is tragic, because everything about the game looks amazing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Total War: Shogun 2

Let me start off by setting a precedent.  This is an epic, epic game.  Pumped?  Alright.

Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in the venerable Total War series of PC games, known for offering some of the most authentic recreations of historical battles on the market.  Previous entries focused on such eras as the French Revolution, the medieval age, and the Roman Empire. 

Like its well-received predecessor, Shogun 2 brings our attention to the Sengoku Jidai, or “Warring Era” of Feudal Japan.  A time of much distress throughout the country due mostly to economic development and weak government, the period lasted from the 1400s to the very beginning of the year 1600.  The Ashikaga Shogunate had come into power then, and while they did a fair job at ruling initially, they didn’t really manage to gain the loyalty of the other daimyo (clan rulers).  Given that the shogun is quite simply a military ruler, it wasn’t long before the daimyo fancied themselves rulers instead, with the goal being to unite Japan under one rule, as the Ashikaga had failed to do.

This is where you come in.  There are many, many clans vying for power dotted throughout the country.  Only a bit more than a handful of them are playable, but you choose one, and attempt to bring your clan glory through diplomacy and conquest.  But mostly conquest.

The playable clans include the Shimazu, Tokugawa, Hattori, Hojo, and the Chosokabe, among others.  Those who know a thing or two about actual history will know that these were actual major players in the Sengoku period; in fact, it was ultimately Tokugawa Ieyasu who became the next shogun.  Every clan has its advantages and disadvantages.  They all start in unique places on the map (again, historically sensible), and they all provide _tangible bonuses to certain units.  For example, the Shimazu starts on the bottom edge of Japan, in the province of Satsuma.  Though the clan to the north, the Sagara are a peaceful lot, you also have the Ito clan moving in on you from the east.  The Shimazu get a bonus to the loyalty of their generals, and make the best Katana Samurai units in the game.  The Date, on the other hand starts on the opposite tip of the country, in northernmost Iwate.  Known for their fierceness in battle, they get a clan-wide bonus to charge attacks, and can recruit superior nodachi samurai (a nodachi is a two handed sword that is longer and heavier than a katana).  Every clan has its own flavor.

In terms of empire management, Shogun 2 is not nearly as complex as, say, Civilization.  But that’s not to say that the management aspects are shallow.  War is expensive, so your primary concerns as leader of a clan will revolve around making money.  There are a lot of things to spend money on in this game, yet only a couple ways to keep it flowing in, so you’ll have to watch your pennies.  For example, in addition to the cost of recruiting a unit, each one also has a turn-by-turn upkeep cost, which can quickly push you into bankruptcy if you have a larger army than your treasury can support.

Revenue will come primarily in two flavors: domestic income and trade income.  Domestic income comes from taxes.  Developing your farms and letting your towns grow in wealth are your primary methods of keeping domestic income up and rising.  Trade income comes from establishing trade agreements with other clans, as well as with the several sea outposts representing distant foreign countries like India.  They both have their pros and cons.  Domestic income is extremely stable, but starts out meager and takes a lot of time and a lot of investment to develop.  Trade income is a great way to pull in some quick pocket change, and it will also very quickly gain you access to the various resources available that you might need to build advanced units and buildings.  Trade agreements also gradually build up friendly relationships between the participating clans, making them all the less likely to stab you in the back later down the line.  But trade income is usually unreliable; clans come and go, and when a trading partner loses a port they’re using to trade with you, that would of course completely shut off the deal.  Sea trade necessitates a capable fleet to defend it, upping your costs.  Unprotected trade routes and trade ships are vulnerable to being blockaded or attacked by pirates (who are basically like the barbarians in Civilization), allowing other ballsy clans to seize some or all the profits.

If you want to, you can dive deeper into the economics of the situation.  Every resource you have within your land or coming from a foreign trade post is automatically exported to other clans that you have trade agreements with at market value, which in turn is calculated by the principles of supply and demand.  If you don’t have access to a particular resource, you can import it from a clan who does by striking up a trade agreement with them.  But I don’t have much trouble becoming the richest clan in the game without poring over the financial tabs.  The important thing to remember is to keep your income higher than your expenses.  How much higher depends on how essential you think it is to have a large force, compared to how much money you want to have flowing in every turn.

Shogun 2 splits Japan into 60 provinces.  To finish a campaign, you have to meet certain requirements by a certain timeline.  These include holding key provinces (most importantly Kyoto, the seat of the current Shogunate) in addition to others, totaling a specific number of provinces you have to control to end the campaign.  For a short campaign, it’s 20 provinces.  For a long one, you need to have 40.  For a domination campaign, you need to take over all 60 provinces, by the year 1600.  Each turn represents one season, so there are four turns to a year.

Sooner rather than later, you’ll want to start expanding your territory.   This is done exclusively through marching a sufficiently strong army into the province you want, and showing the capital town there who’s boss.  Every province comes with a castle town, and certain resources; that is, a farm and a road system.  Some have more buildings, like seaports, gold or iron mines, or libraries, to name a few.  In addition, within the castle town itself you can construct more buildings, to further develop the town to suit your purposes.  Some buildings, like the Samurai Dojo and Foot Archery Range, let you recruit military units in that town.  Others, like the Marketplace, Buddhist Temple, and Sake Den grant important bonuses, such as religion spread, recruitable agents and higher town wealth over time (and as we’ve established, more money in the citizens’ hands means more money for you to tax).  Every building in the game can be upgraded multiple times.  The Sake Den can eventually become the Infamous Mizu Shobai District, giving a huge bonus to town wealth, and also allowing you to recruit geisha agents (more on agents in a bit).  The Samurai Dojo can become the Legendary Kenjutsu School, allowing you to recruit Katana Heroes, who are described to be “one with their blades”.  Roads can be upgraded to improve infrastructure, which not only allows you to move farther in less time, but also increases trade volume, again increasing wealth across the region.  Farms can be upgraded to not only provide more wealth, but also more food.

Speaking of it, food is the other currency you’ll want to keep an eye on.  Farms are your sole source of it.  A couple buildings, most namely the castles in your towns, consume more food the more you upgrade them, so unless you want to run into a food shortage and have riots popping up all over your territory (and trust me when I say you don’t want that), you’ll want to make sure your farms are outputting enough food to keep up with your improvements.  A food surplus also contributes to clan-wide wealth.

Perhaps the most important upgrade however, is the province’s castle.  To capture a province, you need to seize its castle town, which involves assaulting the castle within.  Naturally, if you’re on the defending side, you want to be as prepared as you can.  Well, the more you upgrade your castle, the more benefits you get.  In battle, castles can range from lowly wooden forts to multi-level citadels with automatic arrow towers and fortifications aplenty, depending on how high up the chain they are.  Higher-level castles also get a constant garrison of troops to help stave off enemy attack.  Castles are also the primary way to keep citizens under control and prevent rebellion.

Speaking of rebellion, you always want to pay attention to how happy the citizens in any given province are.  You always, always want to keep your citizens happy.  Two bars track sources of unhappiness and happiness, respectively.  If unhappiness is higher than happiness, you will have a revolt on your hands sooner than you’d like.  There are a lot of factors that can influence your citizens’ disposition, from the honor of your daimyo to simple resistance to the fact that you just invaded them.  But the primary one will be taxes.  Setting your taxes too high will piss your people off in a big way, and soon it won’t be long before a rebellion army is formed.  Other big no-no’s are food shortages and religious differences, both of which start small but grow bigger every turn, until not even waiving taxes altogether in a province will save you from the fury of the peasants.  Army units also each serve as one unit of repression (aka ‘’happiness’’), so sitting a very large army on a town will keep it under control through all but the most critical circumstances.  But of course this is a temporary solution, as you can’t afford to have armies sitting on every one of your towns…and even if you could, it would be a colossal waste of money.

If you can manage to keep your happiness extremely high though, you can tax your citizens more without them minding, which will lead to substantially higher income.  Fortunately, if you don’t want to have to look over your shoulder every turn to make sure you aren’t suddenly stepping on one province’s toes with your tax rates, you can have the game auto-manage your taxes, reducing and/or waiving them automatically where necessary.

What really caught my eye about Shogun 2 however were the battles, not the campaign gameplay; at the end of the day, that’s just Civilization Lite.  The battles are the Total War series’ claim to fame, and believe it or not, despite the incredible amount of time I just spent talking about the campaign, I think it’s easy to see most of the developer’s resources really went into the battle system.

There are three types of battles: naval battles, siege battles, and land battles.  Naval battles of course take place on water, between ships, while siege battles are castle assaults, and land battles are all-out clashes on land. _ There are so many factors--small and large--playing into this system of warfare that it would be impossible to get into them all without this review becoming an encyclopedia.

How every battle works is one unit approaches another on the campaign map with murderous intent.  You are brought to the unit layout screen, where you can see your units as opposed to the opponent’s.  A balance of power meter sitting in the middle gives you a quick take on your odds (fortunately, it takes more than just sheer numbers into account) against the opponent.  You then have two choices, primarily.  You can choose to auto-resolve the battle, giving you instant results based mostly on the balance of power, or you can choose to fight the battle yourself.  They both have their uses.  If you have more than just a clear advantage (read: you are crushing a couple hundred peasants with over 1200 katana samurai), you’ll save a lot of time (and even a couple men) by auto-resolving.  But if the balance of power is less than, say 65% in your favor, you’ve got a better chance of getting a satisfactory win fighting it out yourself.  A great example is siege battles.  The balance of power meter does not seem to really take castles into account, so when faced with an army knocking on my door that was twice the size of my own, the game said I was screwed, and auto-resolving would likely have resulted in a crushing defeat.  Fighting the battle however, I was able to easily resist attack, losing few men while their horde slammed itself against my defenses with less vigor every time.  During most land battles, you can also choose to retreat, whether you’re the aggressor or the defender.  However, you can only do this once per encounter, and if the enemy manages to catch you a second time, you’ll have to make a stand. 

Siege battles also open up another option, if you’re the aggressor and you’ve got time to kill.  If you feel that you’re at too great a disadvantage trying to fight the enemy in their castle, you can start sieging them from outside on a turn-by-turn basis.  This cuts off their unit replenishment, and halts all construction within the province.  After a certain number of turns (better castles can hold out for longer), the army inside will simply run out of food and be forced to surrender.  Usually the AI will come out and attack you before that happens, but it’s often more advantageous to fight them on equal terms, right?  Of course, this gives the defending clan time to move in reinforcements, so this is an option you want to use with care.

Units are divided into several types, with each type having strengths, weaknesses, and suggested roles.  These types are sword infantry, spear infantry, bow infantry, cavalry, riflemen, and siege and support units.  Together, they all form a very loose rock-paper-scissors relationship.  Spears, aside from being your bread and butter units, are good at holding a defensive line, and at being sacrificial pawns.  Bows will get cut apart in melee, but from a distance can easily be the deciding factor in any encounter.  Sword infantry are your shock troopers, designed purely to dish out the offensive to whoever wants it.  Cavalry come in many variations, from spear cavalry that hunt other cavalry, to katana and bow cavalry that are essentially quicker but smaller quantity versions of their infantry counterparts.  Melee cavalry units can also punch holes in enemy lines with their wedge charge.  All cavalry share a critical weakness to spears, however.  Riflemen share the same roles and weaknesses as bowmen, but their rifles are much more devastating at the cost of reduced range and long reload times.  Siege weapons come primarily in the form of immobile artillery with incredible range and power but terrible accuracy, and special units, like ninja, who can stealth in open sight and use bombs to disorient the enemy.

Within these types there are a number of different units.  Spears have the most variation, from peasants who come in huge numbers but crumble against disciplined soldiers, to heavy infantry naginata samurai and warrior monks.  Most unit categories also have some sort of hero unit, who come in small numbers but represent the pinnacle of their class.  Katana Heroes wreck the opposition with their mastery of the blade and keep their fellow warriors fighting with the “Hold Firm” ability, Bow Heroes decimate from afar with excellent accuracy, high range and a couple of potent abilities.  The Cavalry hero unit is the Great Guard, tasked with guarding the Shogun himself.

At the head of it all is your commanding officer or “king piece”, which should usually, hopefully be a general.  The general is easily the most important unit in any battle, and can sway the tide with just his presence.  A giant blue radius encircles the general.  Any units within that radius get a morale boost, allowing them to fight harder and longer.  The general also has some Area of Effect buffs, such as the “Rally” ability that temporarily freezes the morale of nearby units, practically making them unbreakable (meaning they will fight all the way down to the last man if they have to).  All units gain experience and become more potent as they net kills, but each general has his own skill tree.  You can develop a general to be more melee focused, allowing him to get in there with his soldiers, or to have more powerful buffs.

Now, these aren’t your normal RTS battles.  I’m going to tell you from the onset that you should just look up a gameplay video, because no amount of words can really describe what goes on during a battle in Shogun 2.  Units come in sizes ranging from 30 to 150, (with it more commonly being 90-120), and you can have up to twenty units in one army at a time.  This means thousands of men clashing on an open field.  Thousands of men charging down a hill.  Thousands of men marching crossing a bridge.  Thousands of men storming the walls of a castle as arrows rain on them from above.  And every single one of them is rendered by the game’s graphic engine.  If games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are squad-based games, this is a battalion-based game.

As expected, strategy and tactics play a huge role in the clashes of Shogun 2.  At the basic level, you always have to keep in mind what units to assign to what role.  That begins in the deployment phase, a sort “prep time” before every battle that allows you to get in formation.  Though the game comes with a number of pre-made formations designed to cover a variety of stances, you can make your own using the group button, allowing you to move as an actual organized force, not just a giant mass of people.  Will you have your spears in the front as a defensive line, or in the back to protect your flanks?  Will your bowmen in the front to be able to start shooting as soon as possible, or in the back for their own safety?

Terrain is also important.  As battles load, you’ll be presented with a topographic map of the battlefield, allowing you to do some planning.  One of the most basic rules of war is to always try to have the height advantage.  Units get a sizable bonus when charging down hills, and it’s easier for arrows to find their mark going down a hill instead of up it.  Other things like rivers and forests play a role too.  Cavalry find forests hard to fight in, but infantry units can use them to travel without being seen.

The longer a battle drags on, the bloodier it gets, so to speak.  Some units, like cavalry and ninja fare extremely well in the initial attack, but then quickly start to lose favor as combat persists.  Vigorous activity such as fighting and running will eventually tire your men out to the point of exhaustion, putting a big damper on their effectiveness.

You don’t really have to keep a close eye on the actual fighting to know who’s winning, though.  Shogun 2 does an excellent job of giving of you multiple ways to tell at a glance how a unit is faring.  You can highlight any unit, either their card representation or the actual men on the battlefield, to instantly get a good amount of information on their current condition, as well as major causes of their condition.  It will tell you how energetic they’re feeling, how close they are to breaking, how many men are left in that unit, and what they are doing.  The most important tidbit of information will be how they are faring in combat, though.  This will range from “winning decisively” to “losing decisively”.  As an attentive commander, you’ll be checking this very frequently.  Every unit also has a giant flag floating above it to indicate its position and which side it’s on.  The flag itself is also a representation of a given unit’s condition, becoming more and more tattered as the men below it take losses, and flashing right before they are about to drop everything and flee.  A bar above the flag also gives you a general idea of troop morale; once it is empty, you can expect them to turn tail and run.

You may be surprised to learn that very few battles in Shogun 2 end with one side or the other being completely decimated.  Usually what happens is you end up “routing” unit after unit, which basically means that they decide to get the hell out of there, and try to escape off the map.  Once a unit is routed it is all but safe to ignore it, since under only a few occasions is it possible (or even worth it) to convince a fleeing unit to come back to the fight.  In this way, it’s really a battle of morale.  Yes, number strength and soldier skill are still deciding factors, but I’ve routed plenty of enemy units without me even touching them, due to them figuratively wetting themselves and fleeing.  Spear ashigaru, made up essentially of peasants, will quickly crumble against katana heroes, despite being five times their number.

The balance of power meter is also ever-present, giving you the game’s take on the proceedings.  Once it is completely filled in your favor (meaning every unit has either routed or perished), you win!  Then you have a chance to either end the battle there, or continue to hunt down every foe that hasn’t yet managed to flee the battlefield.  The option is more than a show of brutality, though, as most of the time one victory isn’t enough to simply wipe an army off the face of the map.  They will regroup and flee some distance, possibly renewing its numbers before coming at you again.  Usually they’re too broken to be a threat again for quite a while.

Siege and navy battles play out a tad differently.  During siege battles, as opposed to simply slaughtering everyone inside, an alternative condition for victory is to capture the central building inside the castle, done by having any unit stand near that building’s flag for one minute.  Aside from the central building, there are a number of other minor things to consider.  First, how to get inside.  The most straightforward way is to straight up climb up and over the wall.  But you can also bomb the doors open with explosives, or fire bombs.  Aside from the central building, there are a few other fortifications that can be captured for your own use.  Arrow towers can be captured to turn them against the defenders, and doors can be captured to open for you without having to destroy them.

Navy battles have a different flavor to them.  Though your objective is still the same as if you were fighting an open land battle you also have the option of capturing enemy ships by rowing up beside them, and boarding them, pirate style.  This starts up a struggle between the two ship crews.  With the winner forcing the loser to surrender, and be absorbed into their fleet.  Until you get access to ships with explosive weapons (which may be never), it’s either this or have the ships shoot at each other with arrows.  It’s an all or nothing situation, with the winner of most naval battles typically walking away with more ships than they went into battle with.  Personally, I hate naval battles.  They are extremely slow and unpredictable.  Plus, winning battle after battle on the sea can quickly snowball into a hugely costing venture, as you accumulate ships and are forced to destroy some to keep expenses reasonable.  The only saving grace of naval battles is The Black Ship, an extremely overpowered European ship that is continually circling Japan.  It’s a tough ship to capture, but will make short work of nearly all others in the game with its cannons and huge crew.

Though war is the focus here, if you’re finding yourself militarily crushed by other clans, you still have options.  The first one is agents.  Agents are individuals who carry out your bidding behind closed doors.  In exchange for a fee, they can carry out quite a number of tasks for you.  The most common types of agents are ninja, monks, and metsuke. 

Ninja are your spies and assassins.  At the basic level, you can direct them to lands unknown, lifting the fog of war and allowing you do reconnaissance on other clans.  Ninja can also assassinate important individuals such as generals and other daimyo, and can sabotage buildings and armies, reducing their effectiveness.  Ninja are invisible to other clans, but can be discovered if they linger in one place for too long, or fail their actions.  Ninja can also be embedded into armies to increase the amount of distance they can travel, or in towns to increase line of sight for that town.  Since enemy armies successfully sabotaged by ninjas can’t move for the rest of the turn, a handful of ninjas can keep an army at bay for a surprising length of time.

Metsuke are basically like paralegals.  They are there to crush criminals under the boot of your law, and carry out your shady dealings.  Detected enemy agents can be arrested and executed by metsuke.  Metsuke can bribe enemy units and generals, causing them to defect.  They can even buy out entire provinces (all with your money, of course).  Metsuke embedded within towns and armies lend a watchful eye to proceedings, protecting against assassinations and discouraging disloyal generals from defecting.  Though it’s extremely expensive, the metsuke’s ability to buy other people’s loyalty allows him to cripple incoming threats for players who favor money over military strength.

Monks are your religious emissaries.  They can up the morale of your own armies, and lower that of enemies.  They also bring happiness to towns that they minister in, and can cause revolt in other clans’ towns, serving as a sizable distraction for enemies.

Each action an agent can carry out has a success rate attached to it.  The higher the percentage, the more likely they are to succeed.  Failure can have dire consequences, sometimes resulting in the execution of the agent.  As they work, agents gain XP just like generals, and eventually level up.  They too have their own skill trees. 

The second alternative to combat is diplomacy.  At any time during your turn on the campaign map, you can bring up a list of all other clans you’ve encountered, telling you what provinces they control, their relationship with you, and a rough estimate of how strong they are and how well they’re doing financially.  From here you can set up deals and agreements, ranging from arranged marriages and trade agreements to military alliances.  If you’re feeling generous, you can also arrange to have money sent to a clan either immediately or over the course of any number of turns, as a token of goodwill; of course, you can also demand that the same be done to you (though it hasn’t worked for me yet).  This is also where you would formally declare war, or request peace.  Every deal you propose is given a measure of how likely it is to succeed, with low meaning they will refuse, moderate meaning they will either refuse or give a counter-offer, and high meaning you’re good.  There are a number of factors playing into the likelihood of a clan accepting a proposal, some of which even I don’t really understand.  I’ve had clans that I was allied with and essentially best friends with refuse to trade with me, for instance.  During their turns clans will sometimes also come to you with offers, which you can either accept or deny.  You can also give a counter offer if you want.  For example, it’s not uncommon for a clan you are on the verge of wiping off the face of the earth come to you with a peace proposal.  Usually I deny those.

Diplomacy is a powerful tool early in the game, but the nature of your ultimate goal means that making peace with other clans is really just a measure to postpone war with them.  Nothing hammers this point home further than the “Realm Divide” mechanic.  Here, you would hear a collective groan from people who have played this game.  As you gain territory, you also become increasingly famous throughout the land.  However, the current shogun will not be happy with your rise to power.  After capturing your 15-17th province, the shogun will declare that you have become too powerful, essentially making you public enemy number one.  This gives a massive hit to diplomacy that gets bigger with each turn, causing all but your friends among friends to immediately declare war on you.  If you’re not prepared, it could easily the beginning of the end for you.

Designed as a way rebuff players who are essentially steamrolling province after province, clan after clan (it’s not as hard as you think if you play your cards right), the Realm Divide mechanic is well meaning but very poorly implemented.  Trade agreements collapse; other clans that were at each other’s throats kiss and make up for no reason before setting their sights on you.  Like I said before, this is a Total War game, and diplomacy is really only there as an option.  But it’s nice that it’s there at all.  The Realm Divide completely throws diplomacy out the window, whether you like it or not.  You just can’t use it anymore, period.  Even clans that come into being in the middle of the game, who are probably 1/15th of your size decide it would be extremely smart to declare war on you.  Clans you encounter for the first time who logically shouldn’t know a single thing about you immediately declare war.  If you don’t know about the Realm Divide going into Shogun 2, it could very well destroy you.  If you do know about it, the early part of the game becomes a race to prepare for it.  And no, Realm Divide does not happen to the AI clans.  Only you.  I’ve seen an AI clan take Kyoto and the Shogunate for themselves (the other surefire way to cause it), and nobody cared.  In a few words, it sucks.

But the Realm Divide is one blotch on an otherwise beautiful painting.  Shogun 2 is nothing short of exemplary in the graphics and audio department, but you’ll need a formidable rig to run it smoothly at max settings.  The opening CG scene is exciting, and sets the tone for all battles to come.  All the sounds of combat are present:  the twang of bows and subsequent whistle as arrows fly towards their marks, the wince-worthy crunch and clash as armor is crushed, cannonballs penetrate wood, and blade meets blade, and the shouts and gurgles of death, pain, and eventually victory. 

Where battles have been fought, only bodies remain.  Corpses of horses and the soldiers that rode them, weapons and those that wielded them strewn all over the field.  It’s genuinely disquieting the first time you fight a large-scale battle in Shogun 2, and glimpse the aftermath.  The only standout thing is that there is no blood to speak of in Shogun 2.  None at all.

The environments aren’t without dedication either.  The maps are incredibly varied, from rolling hills to mountainous tundras, quiet forests and archipelagos.  From a high viewpoint, you can see clouds drifting lazily through the air, as well as smoke columns from the destruction of siege engines.  This goes for both the battles and the campaign.  Sometimes it will rain, other times there will be fog.  Often, during spring you can catch sakura petals falling.  Explosions are spectacular as well.

The theme is perfectly consistent across all areas, from the ukiyo-e art and paintings that permeate every aspect of the game (from character portraits to loading screens), to the traditional instrumental BGMs and regaling speech that every general delivers before battle, fully voiced in Japanese with subtitles.  In fact, the only English you’ll hear in this game will be from your tutorial advisors giving you a Japanese accent.

It’s worth mentioning that the campaign mode is only one slice of the game, albeit probably the single largest portion.  A custom battle mode lets you set up battles against the AI completely how you like, controlling nearly every aspect, from the units to the map.  It’s a great tool for practice and experimentation.  The competitive multiplayer is called “Avatar Conquest”.  I haven’t tried much of it; I don’t really know that much about it.  From what I played, it’s a very light variation of regular campaign conquest.  You can also play through a campaign with another player, as a potential ally or your greatest enemy.  A friend and me can tell you that the co-op campaign is a blast.

At the end of the day, when you realize that you spent all morning, afternoon and evening playing it, Total War: Shogun 2 is an excellent, excellent game.  You don’t have to be a master tactician to have fun playing it, and the advisor, present to give you vocal help every step of the way (if you want it) combined with the extensive in-game encyclopedia make the experience much more intuitive than I would ever have expected.  There is no question of replay value.  Over 100 hours in, I still feel like I’m just getting to know what it’s like take over Feudal Japan.  This is the sort of game I would absolutely love to have seen some developer diaries or making-of books for, because it’s clear that a lot of effort, a lot of polish, and a lot love went into its crafting.  A game for beginners and veterans, average Joes and chessmasters alike.  A 9.5/10.