Total War: Shogun 2 hands-on preview

The map feels less like a grid and more like a living breathing organism. The new 3D map of the islands of Japan look great and really pops with vibrant colors and subtle effects, like smoke and fire from damaged territories or cherry blossoms that flutter across the screen when they’re in season.

It’s a pleasure to mouse over your territories on the map and click through the menus as you make the important decisions that will determine the fate of your clan. As with previous Total War games, you can bide your time with diplomacy, forging alliances with other clans. Maintaining trade relations with other clans is a great way to protect your borders on one side of the map while fueling your war machine to push forward and conquer more territories on the other.

Above: This static image does not do the game justice. Shogun 2’s map is a beauty to behold and rivals Civilization V in terms of its click-ability

Of course, you could completely ignore diplomatic alternatives and just try to bulldoze your way through the map, gobbling up territories with one gigantic army as you press forward with a medieval blitzkrieg. But leaving your other fortresses undefended can leave you open to attack from other bordering territories – and the AI is just as likely to backstab you as your best friend when playing a game of RISK. Plus, if you ignore your citizens, you’ll have rebel uprisings to deal with.

And this is where it’s easy to spend hours on end just playing the map in the campaign. You see, you’ll want it all: the best buildings for more powerful units, happy citizens to contribute to your war chest with taxes, good diplomatic relations with a few clans on one side of the map, and a ton of clan leaders that fear you as you press forward in your militaristic conquest of Japan. But building an unstoppable army, maintaining a healthy economy, improving your territories’ infrastructure, and extending the occasional olive branch takes time – and from what we’ve seen so far, it’s all time well spent in Shogun 2.

Above: We’re loving the art style. Heck, we even like the loading screens!

We also got a chance to experiment with the improved system set up for generals and agents, who now behave more like hero units in traditional RTS games. As generals gain experience from battle, you’ll gain skill points which can purchase special perks, like big bonuses to damage or the ability to command your troops more efficiently with boosts to movement speed. The branching skill trees are very similar to the kind of skill systems you’d expect from an RPG and they fit perfectly in Shogun 2.

The leveling-up system also applies to the agents you can hire, like ninjas or monks. Agents are great for underhanded tactics. Monks can be sent off to demoralize enemy troops, and ninjas can be trained to assassinate enemy generals or to sabotage strongholds. Plus, the leveling-up system applies to your agents as well, allowing you to transform a clumsy ninja into the ultimate assassin.

It’s good to see the Total War series come full circle with Shogun 2. This will be the first time that the Total War series will revisit the Sengoku era since Shogun: Total War, the first entry, which released back in 2000. The core gameplay mix of epic RTS battles and conquering the map with turn-based play is still the same. But from what we’ve seen of the early build we sampled, the best of everything that Total War has ever offered has been distilled into its purest form with an undeniably gorgeous visual art style and an extreme attention to detail. We’re expecting to lose lots of hours of sleep due to those just-one-more-turn moments when Total War: Shogun 2 releases on March 15 this year.

Feb 2, 2011