"We were talking a moment ago about a historical character who, in a battle, inspired his men to great feats of bravery by cutting his own head off during the charge,” says Mike Simpson, Creative Assembly's creative director. “Now, this is obviously a one shot special ability.”
Total War is going back to the beginning. Before there was Napoleon, or an Empire, or a Rome to fall, there was Shogun: Total War. Released in 2000, it wed battlefield tactics and campaign strategy, enabled us to conquer feudal Japan, and turned its developers from creators of EA Sports titles to leaders of strategy gaming. This is a return to where it all started.
Where Napoleon was meant as a standalone expansion to Empire, one that grew larger than expected, Shogun 2 is absolutely meant to be the next major entry in the series. I've travelled to Creative Assembly's headquarters, to a room where the Shogun 1 menu music plays on a loop and Shogun 2 posters keep peeling from the walls, to get the first glimpse of what Creative refer to as both Total War 6 and Total War 0.
“The idea is to take roughly ten years of experience in making Total War games and make the game we wanted to make right at the beginning,” explains Kieran Brigden, CA's communications manager. “We take all the technology and advancements in everything we've done and we apply that to making the game we wanted to make right at the start.”
So it's back in Japan – that much is obvious – but a lot of the details are different. Your journey for supremacy begins in 1540, later than the beginning of the original game, which Simpson now feels got off to too slow a start. There are now four turns a year, one for each season, rather than just two. And the fight for Japan is between eight clans – not including a ninth tutorial faction.
“All of these warring factions in the 1540s period are poised to take over Japan,” Kieran says. “Direct assault on the emperor himself is absolutely forbidden because he's God's representative on Earth, but you can still control the emperor as a puppet, much like people did with the papacy in medieval Europe, by saying, 'I'm clearly the military force here, and if you designate me as the Shogun – the armed protector of all Japan – then I will be the sword for your heavenly vision. Shogun 2 is about becoming that powerful.”
During my visit I spoke to Simpson, Brigden, Total War's lead designer James Russell, and Shogun 2's design lead Jamie Ferguson, and what immediately became clear is that it's still early days. Some of the questions I asked during our discussion would elicit not an answer, but a smirk and a knowing look between them. They're obviously still in meetings every day, talking about the game and trying to work out exactly what they're doing. But they're also obviously loving every moment of it, and their excitement at returning to Japan is infectious.
“If you look at the historical things that some people did, they're absolutely outrageous,” says Simpson. He spends the meeting rocking his chair back on two legs, occasionally leaning in to underline a point. “Trying to fold that kind of flavour into the game is what it's all about. So you'll get guys like a general whose job it was to siege a castle and take it. He'd tried for six months and failed. His reaction to this was to commit suicide, which is a fairly outrageous thing, but he then had himself buried on his horse, facing the castle gate, so he'd haunt them to death. There are hundreds of episodes like that, where characters do something bizarre, outrageous, astonishing, treacherous – all sorts of things. What we aim to do is fold that flavour into solid mechanisms the player has control over.”
That begins with representing those siege battles. “Japanese castles are quite different from European castles,” Jamie says. “For Europeans, it really just was a set of walls that keeps everyone out, and you do your damndest to make sure they never got through the front door.” Not so for the Japanese, who would build their castles by chopping the top off a hill, cladding it in stone and building complex, layered forts on top.
“It would be a series of courtyards,” explains Mike. “Most of the castles would be designed like a wedding cake on different tiers, with quite complicated paths and lots of choice about which way you go. The perfect castle defence in Japan is almost to open the gates and say 'Come on in if you think you're hard enough.'”
No longer is it as simple as using a cannon to make a hole and pouring inside. By separating castles into football-pitch size courtyards, Japanese sieges turn into multi-stage puzzles. Cavalry units remain useful even when inside the outer walls, attackers have to pick their route carefully, taking the shortest path to wiping out the enemy, while the defenders decide which courtyards are worth protecting and try to force the attackers towards the castle's most protected walls.
There's now an ebb and flow to battles. “When he takes a courtyard, you'll have to fall back and defend from there,” continues Mike. “And depending on which way he goes from there, because he might go left, he might go right, you'll have to run round to counter that. It's just a lot more choice.”
“It's about providing different ways of winning the battle, and the narrative throughout the siege battle, rather than a focus on the bombardment phase and then a big mosh,” adds Russell. A lot of my questions get answered this way, with all three men finishing each others' ideas and debating what they can say. They're Total War's own Cerberus, guarding the game's secrets.
Representing siege warfare to its fullest allows the designers to represent specific historic battles, such as the Battle of Kawagoe, in which the Uesugi and Hojo clans fought. “The Hojo had been completely surrounded in their castle,” says Ferguson. What makes the battle significant is that the Hojo were only 10,000, and the enemy outside the gates had around 85,000. “The Uesugi had been besieging it for a couple of weeks, but then the leader of the Hojo clan actually attacked in the middle of the night, in a storm, and completely annihilated the Uesugi.”
Which is another thing Shogun 2 aims to represent: night battles. It's called a “stretch goal,” by Kieran, meaning it's something they're pushing themselves to do, but aren't yet convinced by. “It absolutely has to earn its place in the design,” he says.
These anecdotes also highlight the extremely memorable characters that led armies. The Hojo clan are just another example of that. “There was a pretty inspiring speech given by the leader of the clan,” says Jamie. “Which was basically 'Don't look to your armour, don't look to huddle together.” “Don't stop to take heads,” adds Mike. “Which is something they used to do at the time,” laughs Jamie. The heads would be used to count each warrior's kills, and to add to the soldier's honour.
They're determined that Shogun 2 should represent these characters with more personal generals. The same was said about Napoleon's leaders as well, but they're pushing it further this time. “You only need to do a quick scan of our forums to see the amount of backstory a player puts into the generals he controls. We wanted that to be something they could realise, and not just something they made up for themselves.”
That means you'll be able to choose the skills your generals develop, unlike in Napoleon where traits developed automatically based on your play style.
But Creative Assembly want to go a step beyond even the generals, and represent the legends of the Japanese battlefield as well. Samurai are famous for their skills with a blade, and their abilities with a bow, but there are characters legendary for their ability to turn a battle on their own. If you can construct the buildings necessary to create them (and if you can find them), maybe you can hire... the hero units.
“In the Sengoku period,” says Jamie, “something they would frequently do at the start of a battle is step out from the crowd and actually shout out their lineage, shout insults at the enemy, and say basically, 'If you think you know how to deal with me, come on, try it.'” These are what the new hero units represent. Each will have different weapons and different skills. One might be particularly good at taking down cavalry, while another could be best against swordfighters. Either way, the presence of these warriors on the battlefield should be spectacular.
[MPU]These characters will also have special abilities. That guy who cut off his own head on the way into battle? “You can imagine it: one-shot, it kills your character, but it buffs the whole army, and they all go, “Wow!” and frenzy for a while,” says Mike. Unfortunately, this is only an example of the kind of special abilities we'll see. “We probably won't put that in, because it was one guy who did that, and even then it might be apocryphal. He might have fallen over and cut himself.” Which would be a less special ability.
As we talk over the sieges, James mentions the AI. He pauses almost as if he knows what he's getting into. Total War's enemy AI has long been the bane of both Creative Assembly and its most ardent fans. In his review of Napoleon (PCG 211), Tim Stone explained how the AI struggled to 'produce plausible play,' and how he was able to capture Moscow with 'relative ease.'
So Creative Assembly are aware of the problem, and they're working on it, aided by the fact that Shogun 2's melee units are easier to simulate. “It's one of our key objectives to make sure that no one ever mentions AI ever again in a bad light, because we've had enough of that,” says Mike. He sounds very, very determined. I'm a bit scared.
There have been six Total War games so far, and it's easy to see the building blocks that make up the series: the campaign map, the battles, the naval battles since Empire, and the multiplayer. What becomes clear when you talk to the designers is how none of these things are taken for granted. They are reconsidered in full each time out, and morph to support each new game's setting.
Case in point: the naval battles. It was an essential addition to Empire's global colonial war, but it felt like Creative Assembly had difficulty giving it the depth and fun of the land battles. Far from jaunty piratical adventures, sea skirmishes were about two, slow-turning galleons lobbing cannonballs across a featureless ocean.
Japanese naval warfare of the Shogun 2 period was a very different thing. It turns out the medieval Japanese were game designers in waiting.
“In European naval wars, it's really about who has the bigger gun platform,” explains Russell. “What we're excited about in Japanese naval battles is that we can put in a lot more of the stone, scissors, paper gameplay where certain ships are better against other types of ships.”
Japanese ships typically fell into two categories: sheds on water, and castles on water. The shed-boats were small platforms carrying groups of soldiers. Those passengers could use the platform to pull alongside enemy ships and board them with swords, fire arrows from a distance, and watch the golf without being bothered by the kids. The castleboats were bigger platforms capable of carrying more people, but essentially the same.
“There's a mixture of ranged combat and close combat,” extends Ferguson. “There's also terrain.” Naval battles in Japan were fought near the coastline, meaning Shogun 2's new fights will provide much a needed frame of reference for steering players.
The land also provides new tactical opportunities: you can position your boats on the other side of an island to give them cover, or place them between coastlines to block your enemy's passage.
“It makes the naval battles more similar to land battles in terms of the tactics you can use,” says Mike. There's one last major change that makes that even more true. “These ships are mostly oar powered.”
What made Empire's naval battles awkward was that you were constantly moving, the wind driving you in grand, sweeping arcs around your foes. Not so with oars. You can tell your boat where to go, and it will go there, and then stop. “You couldn't do anything remotely like that in an Empire naval battle, so it completely changes it.”
But still the most obvious area Total War must change in each iteration is in its campaign map. Empire's global scale required separate theatres. Napoleon: Total War added the attrition and supply lines that stymied the real Bonaparte across his four military campaigns. In the words of Mike Simpson: “Japan is just Japan. It's even a nice shape for scrolling across; long and thin.”
Sticking to a single location and culture provides the opportunity for the designers to focus on detail.
“The differences between the regions and the importance of the regions to your strategy should be a lot stronger [than previous games]” says Mike. “So it's not just 'Oh, conquer another region, conquer another region', and you don't care much about what they are. You'll think more carefully about where you go and how you do it.”
Will Napoleon's supply lines make a return? “Not by default,” says James. “We don't necessarily keep every feature, because we'll just end up with a bloated experience.”
“It's a kind of Zen garden principle,” adds Jamie. “The more you refine it, the better it gets. It's making sure that every piece is perfectly crafted and feels like it should be there, and the more you use it, the more you realise what you can do with that particular lever.”
James puts it like this: “It really is trying to make something that's much easier to play, and much harder to master.”
[MPU]At this point, Simpson leans in. I haven't asked a question, but he has something to say. “There's one other area we haven't talked about which is a focus in a way we've never done before. That's art. In a way, this is the first time we've had a Total War game that's an art-led game.” He pauses. “What do I actually mean by that?” Mike pauses again and James and Jamie laugh.
Jamie continues. “In Japanese environments, you get the weirdest kinds of terrain make-ups that you don't get in Europe. You'll get a massive hill right in the middle of a plain, with no build up to that. Literally just flat terrain, then bang, a big volcanic rock sticking up out of it, covered in trees.”
Imagine your troops standing in a paddyfield, a group of blossoming cherry trees to their right, and a Lord of the Rings style mountain thrusting from the ground in front of them, its top severed and replaced by an enormous castle. Imagine it at night. Imagine it during a storm, the shuffling of your troops highlighted by lightning. Imagine it in winter, the ground thick with snow, then imagine it different again in spring, summer and autumn.
The designers hope that Shogun 2 will look more alien than any other in the series. “There's nothing the same about it at all,” says Jamie. “Even a samurai doesn't just look like a guy in armour. He looks like a work of art.”
Simpson told PC Gamer last year that each Total War would re-write a single area of the game from scratch. What will be re-written for Shogun 2?
“It's multiplayer, is where we're taking the game and doing something very different,” says Mike. “Multiplayer has always been a bit lower down the priority list for Total War. We did the multiplayer campaign, but there's a lot more scope for doing interesting things.”
“I guess our aim is to get to a point where the majority of people who buy the game routinely play multiplayer.” Laughing, he adds, “I really, really want to talk about this a lot but I'm not being allowed to.”
“To try covering the point that Mike desperately wants to cover,” laughs Kieran, “it's safe to say that there is a major multiplayer innovation in the works, which we haven't nailed down yet.”
“It's not unambitious,” ends Mike.
With that, our conversation begins to wind down. The three designers filter out. Jamie returns a few seconds later to take some biscuits with him. The Shogun 1 menu music continues looping, two more posters flop from the walls, and I dash for my train.
It's still early days for Shogun 2, but not too early to be excited about it. I leave with the urge to play the original, and on the train, I look over the aisle at a businessman who, with Blackberry in one hand, is controlling a laptop with the other. He's playing Rome: Total War.