Written by  :  Ray Soderlund (3609)
Written on  :  Jun 26, 2000
Rating  :  4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars
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The definitive game of samurai warfare...or tactical medieval warfare in general.

The Good

I feel the need to warn any reader of this review. This tactical/strategy game does its best to capture the feel of the Sengoku period of Japan, in particular, its battles. Had it a deeper diplomatic and role-playing aspect, I would be banned from commenting on it since it would have been a game made specifically for me.

Shogun began its life as a simulator of tactical combat in medieval Japan. On this end, it does its job splendidly. Using a combination of 3-D terrain and 2-D sprites for the troopers, Creative Assembly managed to bring thousands of troops into rolling battlefields complete with rivers, valleys, villages, mountains, and temples. Varying weather elements, everything from typhoon like rains to dense fog, make you thoroughly aware of a third potential opponent on the field: nature itself.

At first, the tiny sprites are hard to make out, but soon you'll be learning to identify them with ease, especially when running at higher resolutions. Archers, spearmen, calvary, and warrior monks help comprise one of the most authentic orders of battle scene in a samurai game. Each functions correctly and the shrewd general learns how to maximize the benefits of each type...and how to deal with their lackings as well. No fabricated units or articifical enhancements. These units function like the real thing, down to the last man.

Between the sights and sounds of the 3-D real time battle element, any fan of historical battles or of such grand cinema engagements as in Braveheart or Ran will enjoy this part of the game. Peering to the fog, hoping to hear or catch sight of your opponents armies, crashing down a valley with your cavalry onto unsuspecting archers, seeing the smoke rise from a volley of gunfire. or watching a desperate battle for a bridge across a major river are all waiting.

This part of the game, the true meat of the program, is nearly perfect and is not just single-player. Up to six armies can meet on a battlefield, either allied three to a side or in a free-for-all. Play can happen over a LAN, or through EA's online service. Although the only aspect isn't as robust as one would hope (no campaign mode..or even a better way to keep track of where your opponent is in the rankings from the game itself), even the exceptional AI of Shogun pales compared to the ingenious plotting of some online opponents.

Surrounding the real time tactical game is a turn based strategy game. You play one of seven historically accurate clan daimyo in your bid to unify Japan from the shattered empire it is in 1530 and place yourself as its head (hence the game's name). Through an interface that looks like an old map with tokens from a board game (very reminscient of MB's Samurai Swords board game...originally called Shogun), you move your armies about, send diplomats or ninja to perform their functions, and build up the provinces under your control. Pieces slide across the map with an perfect wooden sound and if there was a daimyo with perfectly sculpted images of his troops, one would feel as if you were sitting in a strategy room...even the sides of the map are worn.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the game is that it is very historically accurate. Aside from the sizes of armies (still a limitation of computers to depict efficiently), most other aspects of the game are highly accurate. Stephen Turnbull, one of the western world's most well known experts on the period, was brought in as a consultant and it was not wasted. From the names of the generals (any fan of the time period will recognize most of the familiar faces among his leaders), to the visual display of troops, their banners, and the throne rooms (Takeda's throne room even has Shingen Takeda's famous battle motto), everything feels right. There's even an option to turn all the spoken dialogue (short of the intro/end videos and one small glitch) to Japanese for that last bit of authentic flavor. Often ignored by less serious games, Creative Assembly made a big deal about the incursion of Europeans into Japan during this period; the guns they brought, and the ramifications of the Catholic missionaries...which further divided Japan between the Christians and the traditional Buddhists. The only time authenticity comes to question is when the programmers needed to make a gameplay compromise...but even then, they often sided with making the game work towards the historical viewpoint.

The Bad

Although I am not so annoyed with it as others, the manual (at least, the North American release) is lacking. A tiny booklet with large fonts, it almost feels like some console system manual. Unfortunately, it tells even less. Many people complain about the lack of details about the units and land. I personally feel that's part of the fun of playing. But, the American manual doesn't even give you all the keyboard commands necessary to efficiently control your troops, nor does it tell you how to perform certain actions on the strategic map. Most of these are learned through trial and error and I was enjoying myself too much to really notice it, but it is a major issue.

The strategic part of the game was developed later to support the tactical end and it suffers from such. Anyone buying this game for the tactical battles won't mind too much, but anyone hoping for an updated Nobunaga's Ambition or a good strategy game based on 16th century Japan may want to consider this. Diplomacy is simply a matter of making allies who serve too benefits: 1) usually (though not always) buys one time to work on another opponent and 2) potentially will give you their land if they are left daimyo-less and you're their ally. There is no penalty for breaking alliances, and the computer will do so with even more regularity than a Civilization or Alpha Centauri faction. There are no joint ventures, no kinds of deals outside of near-meaningless alliances. The rest of this section is similarly simple. Generals are automatically assigned and reassigned as your troops are shuffled (occassionally causing you to lose a good general, or, worse, an heir). There is no way to abdicate your throne to a specific (or any) heir and you must hope that your current daimyo is not demoralizing your troops with his incompetence (the best you can do is having him killed off in battle or hope he dies of old age/assassination). You can only join troops if the sum of their numbers is less than the max allowed...no picking a few out to supplement a slightly wounded group. The strategy element is not bad, just easily the lesser of the two elements.

I put the following under 'didn't like' even though I personally liked it. Why? Because I wanted to emphasize this as being bad to anyone who may pick this game up for the wrong reason. The real time tactical battle part of the game is NOT a Warcraft/Starcraft clone. You control whole units, not individual men, and these units act on their own. Those filled with hubris may advance on an enemy though you told them to halt and those running for their lives may just ignore you completely. Battles are not won with 'tank rushes' or carefully manipulation of units in the midst of a hectic battle. Troops don't just agree to your commands. Those in pitched battle won't just turn their backs on those hacking them and walk away. This is something to keep in mind. Poorly laid out battle plans result in a jumbled mass of killing and dying flesh and you'll find yourself frustrated by the lack of control. Part of the battle is organizing correctly before the first drop of blood is drawn. Another is in positioning yourself in good position. And the third is not just releasing your troops with abandon. The battle part of this game models medieval combat VERY accurately. If you yearn for something more realistic than Warcraft, this is the place. But WC/SC fans, remember this is a whole different battlefield. It's much close to Sid Meier's Gettysburg (with a bit clumsier interface and a different pace because of the historical differences). Again, I really enjoyed this aspect, but not everyone will.

The current online gaming aspect needs some improvements. It's had to judge who you're up against (as far as how good they are from records) unless you switch out to your web browser and look them up). Often people just get together for battles with little knowing of who or what they face. The lack of any intelligence about the enemy is frustrating as you don't have a clue as to even the general makeup of his forces. It would've been nice had some automated intelligence gathering was done while people select their troops, providing the opposition with only partially adequate information. Also, the ranking system is awry and needs to be examined thoroughly. It's also too easy for people losing to drop from games and not get penalized.

The Bottom Line

One, if not THE, best games about the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Take the role of a clan leader who is historically accurate and lead him to ultimate victory as Shogun on Japan. Use simple diplomacy and subterfuge to buy yourself time and create havoc, then engage in one of the most realistic simulation of medieval warfare.

The battle part will remind you of the battles of Braveheart, or many of Kurosawa epics. Watch as your cavalry thunders down the hillside, your arquebusiers fire, creating a wall of smoke, your samurai valiantly climbing a hill, or your small group of sohei standing up to an impressive amount of horsemen and winning.

If you are the type that enjoys a good, realistic look at battle, and can stand a simple strategy shell and an incomplete manual, then this is a game for you.