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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Impressions: Ace Combat Assault Horizon

I’ve been a fan of the Ace Combat series since I first laid eyes on the fourth entry, Shattered Skies.  Though I’ve only played that, The Unsung War and Zero, I feel an intense fondness for this franchise and its many charms.  Due to not owning an Xbox 360, I missed out on Ace Combat 6, unfortunately.  So you can imagine I was ecstatic when Namco first showed a trailer for Assault Horizon, which would be on PS3 too.

Unfortunately, this entry is radically different from its predecessors.  Namco has changed or even outright removed some things, in an attempt to modernize the series and capture a wider audience.  One result of this is immediately apparent.  Ace Combat: Assault Horizon takes place in the real world.  One of the hallmarks of the series (and one that I found extremely appealing) was the fictional yet realistic setting Project Aces drew up for each installment.  Though there were clear parallels drawn from real life—Yuktobonia (AC5) and Emmeria (AC6) being stand-out examples—the stories woven within this fictional dimension felt fresh.  As we glimpse a soldier checking Twitter on his smartphone before boarding a helicopter in opening moments of the debut trailer however, it’s made clear that we’re “back in Kansas”, so to speak.  Now the story apparently follows NATO (read: America) as they fight against insurgents in Africa, only to find that they are receiving aid from a group of Russians.

In a move that I still don’t understand, Namco has also added helicopter and bomber gameplay; a first for the series.  There hasn’t been much word on bombing missions, but helicopter gameplay is intended to have a slower, more deliberate pace, as opposed to the high adrenaline Namco is trying to inject into the jet gameplay.  Naturally, I’ve had misgivings about the game ever since.  The game releases on October 11th, but just this past Tuesday, Namco released a demo for the game, including the tutorial missions for fighter and helicopter gameplay.

Namco wanted to make jet combat a more visceral, exciting affair, so they shook up the gameplay, too.  The most notable addition is Close Range Assault, which you’ll see plenty of in the trailers (or CRA, for short).  Basically, it’s an upgraded version of the simple lock-on.  You get close enough to a targeted enemy, and you can press both triggers (like you would for auto-pilot) to activate CRA, which basically turns the game into a chase scene.  The camera zooms in and dynamically changes angles to highlight the weapon you’re using;  the game mostly flies your plane for you, following your target closely and only really leaving with enough manual flying capability to aim your gun and accelerate/decelerate.  In CRA mode, a circle appears on your UI, getting larger the closer you are to the enemy plane.  If you can if you can keep the enemy plane within that circle (AC veterans, think SAAMs), a meter charges up that, when full allows you to fire a missile with super heightened tracking ability.  We’re talking 90 degree angles on the dime.  You can try to tear the target up with your gun (which by the way has been nerfed quite a bit due to its new lack of accuracy), but really, CRA is about getting that meter full, loosing off a missile, rinsing, and repeating.  The game will even frequently give you a close up of the downed planes as they spin through the air, losing part after part along the way, Burnout-style.

Enemies can also initiate CRA on you, where a circle appears on your UI, that you definitely want to avoid.  If you feel like taking a risk though, you can slow up, which will make it extremely easy for the enemy to target you, but also—if you get close enough—allow you to do a crazy backwards somersault that flips the tables, landing you behind your ex-predator and putting you into CRA.

Though this sounds like a rant somewhat, Close Range Assault is actually a pretty novel feature, and it certainly does a lot to alleviate the concerns some people had that the games were boring because you rarely got to get a look at the targets you splashed.

While I don’t have a problem with Close Range Assault, I do have a problem with the way it’s executed.  It’s not just encouraged, like the vibe you get from the trailers and Namco’s statements about the game; you HAVE to use it.  Now enemies apparently come in squads led by leaders.  Leaders CANNOT be taken down through normal means, believe me I tried.  I pumped 5 missiles into one, and he was still flying perfectly fine.  Go into CRA on him, and it only takes two, like normal.  Normal enemies can be shot of the air however you please, but the game forces you to use Close Range Assault on squad leaders.  Furthermore, outside of CRA your weapons feel nerfed.  Missiles have even worse tracking ability than they normally do, and your gun is almost a waste of time.  Furthermore, the controls are sluggish, such to the point that it almost feels like a chore to keep up with enemies, even in the Raptor you are given in the demo, which has always been one of the best planes in the game, statistically speaking.

The game’s graphics are also sort of a mixed bag, all things considered.  The plane models are great, but Namco doesn’t get points for that because they’ve always looked pretty good.  Some explosions are better than others, but the effects I’ve seen so far (namely flames) are very bland.  The ground looks a lot better than it used to, with actual buildings that you can fly in-between, and the demo’s lower altitude dofighting allows one to realize that this is the first game in the series that really nails that sense of speed.  When you’re hitting the after burners and seeing subtle depth of field and motion blur come into play as you zoom past the ground, you know you’re going fast.

Namco’s really shaking things up this time, and I’m not sure I like it.  They’ve made some things, like the guns and setting more realistic, but they also threw more sorcery into the mix, including regenerating health and missiles that go from barely qualifying as being self-guided to being monsters that hunt targets with ferocity nobody knew they had.  Right now, Close Range Assault makes the game laughably easy, such to the point that I feel really bad using it (like that crazy guidance system in HAWX).  But granted, this is apparently the tutorial mission, and as such the enemy AI was probably too stupid to counter it or even really fire at me at all.  I don’t want to judge the game too harshly, because I don’t think this demo portrays a picture perfect image of it.  Even within this real-world setting, there’s still the possibility that Namco’s got a good story to tell us, and that later missions will more fun.  Even now, just thinking about the demo makes me really enticed to go another round, because it it’s so exciting in concept.  But every time, the gameplay takes some wind out of my sails, all the same.

The Nitty Gritty 
(details that might not be meaningful to newcomers, but those who’ve played AC before might want to know):

-In the demo, the Raptor comes equipped with 4AAM special weapons, effective at about 10,000ft.  It seems to be a new version of the XMAAs, though with shorter range.
-Weapons that can lock onto multiple targets at once can now lock onto the same target multiple times.  So, if you have only three targets on hand and you’re aiming the 4AAM, you’ll just end up firing two missiles at once target.  I think this is incredibly lame.
-Health regenerates.  Very slowly albeit, but it regenerates.  There is no health meter, apparently.  Instead the game will tell you how damaged you are, going from Heavy to Light damage as you regenerate.
-There were no squad commands in the demo.  That’s not to say they won’t be in the full game, however.
-The gun now has a more realistic firing arc, shortening its range noticeably and making it much harder to use.
-Enemies regenerate as well.
-Though you don’t get as high a stock of weapons as in Ace Combat 6, it’s still many more than you get in the PS2 games.
-The expand map and missile/special weapon toggle buttons have been swapped.  Now Select/Back expands the minimap, and Square/X toggles your weapons.
-The two schemes have been renamed, but you can still choose between bank-to-turn flying and full barrel-rolling ability.  There’s also a new option for beginners that provides automated assistance such as automatically leveling your plane to prevent crashes.
-Oddly, there is no sonic boom visual effect.
-The afterburners work a little differently.  Now, they only start up at certain speed thresholds, as opposed to activating them simply by holding down R1/Right Bumper all the way.  A small “AB” indicator also shows up beside the speedometer.
-The 3rd person view is zoomed in further than normal.
-Now, going out of bounds instantly fails you, instead of giving you a momentary chance to get back within the mission area.
-Auto-Pilot is back, and you can still use it to level your plane.
-I didn’t talk about the other view too much because I rarely use them; I like the 3rd person view.  The cockpit view is much improved, though according those who played AC6 that one had a more realistic cockpit.
-Planes accelerate much faster than before.  The F-22, at least.
-Flares are introduced.  Enemies will use them frequently, and you have them too, though I still haven’t figured out how they’re used.
Note: I didn’t write about the heli portion because I didn’t play the heli portion, and I might not ever.