Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai review
Set 300 years after Shogun 2, Fall of the Samurai is a standalone expansion covering the events of the 1868 Boshin War in Japan. The negotiation of unfair trade agreements with western powers has led to growing resentment towards the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate at home. A group of southern factions has rallied around the Emperor and mobilise against the Shogun. As commander of one of the six leading factions of the time, you must pick a side and ultimately decide whether Japan will embrace the might of the west’s new technology, or stay true to the way of the Samurai.
That requires conquering as much of Japan as possible using the tried and tested Total War formula. You build towns, move armies, negotiate and trade on the turn-based grand strategy map, which has been expanded to include the northern provinces that historically become the last safe haven for the Shogun’s forces. When armies and fleets meet, you have the option to dive into gorgeous real-time battles to command your troops personally.
For the first few turns everything will seem extremely familiar if you’ve played Shogun 2, but there’s a wealth of new units and buildings to unlock as your faction embraces the influx of western technology. Fall of the Samurai includes 39 new ground troops, ten new steam-powered and ironclad ships, and three new agents who can be deployed on the turnbased campaign map to disrupt enemy forces, assassinate generals and spread dissent in enemy cities.
Fall of the Samurai is the most modern setting visited by Total War to date, and contains some of the series’ most explosive toys, which can be unlocked on the clan development tree. As you build advanced structures you gain modernisation points, which move you through four tiers of new technology.
Modernisation breeds dissent among your citizens, leading to the odd revolt, but that’s easily a price worth paying. Modernise your clan effectively and you’ll be able to train line infantry, equip marksmen with advanced carbines, arm your general’s mounted bodyguard with revolvers, unlock the devastating Gatling gun and, best of all, fit artillery pieces to your steam ships.
Ah, artillery. There hasn’t been a madder or more entertaining weapon in Total War since they bolted cannons to elephants in Medieval II. Artillery-equipped ships in Fall bring an attack radius to the campaign map. Enemy structures within this radius can be bombarded, and Japan’s long, narrow geography means that much of it is within range of a shoreline strike, making coastal bombardment an excellent way to take out key economic structures such as farmland and resource points. It has an even better use, however. If one of your armies gets into a fight within that radius, you can call down a barrage of shells in the middle of a fight.
You’re only be able to do this a couple of times in a battle, but any more would be excessive. In fact it’s already excessive – but tremendously satisfying, too. Clicking the artillery button in the middle of a battle lets you place a ring on the battlefield. A tiny test shot falls from the sky onto the centre point of your targeted area, and after 11 or so seconds, the shelling starts. A regular sequence of missiles plunge out of the sky to strike randomly within the targeting circle. Each hit punches a crater into the battlefield, obliterating any men within it instantly, and sending those on the outskirts of the blast flying through the air.
A lucky strike can atomise half a unit, but the unpredictable spread of shells and the 11-second wait makes it easy to miss too. It’s a surprising addition that does a great job of establishing a direct connection between the real-time battles and the position of your units on the strategic campaign map.
Bombardment also makes sea units much more relevant to the campaign. Fleets aren’t there just to transport troops and raid trade routes: they can pound land structures and have a violent affect on the battlefield as well. Bombardment is available from the beginning, but the rest of Fall of the Samurai’s unlocks are carefully paced. Whether you decide to command one of the three traditionalist, pro-Shogun factions, or one of the three modernised Imperial clans, you’ll have to embrace the technological advances flowing into Japan from the western nations to stay competitive. A clan’s overall objective will be to take a certain number of territories within a time limit, a mission I was happy to ignore entirely. The gamey, slightly forced need to capture a certain amount of provinces felt secondary to the alternative version of the Boshin War that was unfolding around me.
The playable clans are grouped together, Imperial forces in the south of Japan, traditionalists in the north. Every faction, even the tiny ones, must ultimately declare their allegiance to the Emperor or the Shogun. In my Imperial campaign the map became a large war between north and south as strong factions wiped out nearby clans of differing loyalty. Before settling on a final decision, each faction’s leader can change where their loyalties lie, making for some uneasy truces and the odd betrayal.
Curiously, your clan’s objectives aren’t tied to the success or failure of the side you choose to support. Taking provinces will gain you favour with the Shogun or the Emperor, and let you appoint your generals to high ranking governmental positions, but beyond that I found my clan’s mission quite divorced from the overall narrative of the Boshin War.