Hands on: Shogun 2’s siege battles

Japan's best spear delivery company.

What is a castle?

Our western sensibilities suggest an establishment for the nobility; a structure that represented the feudal power-base, and a way to keep enemies out.

The medieval Japanese agreed on two out of three of the above principles. Why on earth would you want to keep enemy soldiers out of your castle, when you can lead them in, to fight – and die – on your terms?

This level of combat artistry is something that Total War: Shogun 2 aims to recreate. And no, that's not a typographical error; in a move to establish brand consistency, Sega recently announced that Creative Assembly's grand-strategy epics would begin, not end, with Total War. I really hope they apply that retroactively too – it'll tidy up Steam libraries worldwide.

But back to the field. I recently got stuck into our first siege battle in Shogun 2, and what became apparent as the troops clashed was that things have changed from previous games in the series, and you need to think of castles in a very different way. You're not simply aiming to keep enemies out – although that's a valuable tactic, and there are times when denial of-entry is absolutely key. But the space and configuration of these castles means they work in interesting ways.

Our castle is low, broad, and three-tiered. The base-tier is, well, huge. Quite un-castle-like all round, compared to European designs. It's like a series of big stages; there are wide-open areas where multiple units can clamour, with elbow-room to spare. Exploiting these spaces properly is a case of tempting a limited number of units in through the ground-level gatehouses, or an unprotected section of wall. By which time, hopefully, you'll have the perfect configuration of troops ready to rout and ruin.

That's not how it went down at all.

My initial deployment tried to cover every facing of the castle. I had Samurai archers and melee troops stretched thin across the base tier, with an aim to retreating to the second tier if things got dicey. My mounted General was right at the top tier, out of harm's way.

The computer bluffed me. He sent in waves of archers, with a blade unit to scale the walls. I was weak of will; I redeployed to meet the threat.

Then what must've been the bulk of his army marched out of the eastern mists – a veritable brigade of melee and cavalry units. Panic stations! I pulled everything off guard-duty to meet the threat in the east. And just as I was micro-managing the rampant disorder I'd created for myself on the lower-east tier – spearmen bouncing off swordsmen, archers struggling through the throng to line the walls – the Combat Advisor's words froze my heart:

“Our General is in grave danger!”

Panning over, I saw the AI's double-bluff in horrifying execution. Three melee units had scaled the first two tiers on my unwatched western ramparts, and spearmen were engaging my General.

And that was that. The General fell, the soldiers wept, I shat the bed, and the wheels fell off.

I almost feel sorry for the AI. It can't revel in this moment of victory, or dole out the kind of conceptual tea-bagging that my martial lollygagging so richly deserves. It can't even call me a noob.

Round two went a lot more smoothly. Now keenly aware of the AI's potential to posture and lure, I presented a couple of obviously weak flanks, and didn't budge my troops. I ignored his ruses. I let his melee troops scale the walls, and closed the net each time, with fire-arrows and whistlers terrifying the attackers, and my fresh, tight-packed blade turning them on their heels. By the end, all he had was a few groups of scattered archers, and a bunch of cavalry cantering around uselessly outside, as I hadn't let him take a single gatehouse. Fetlocks and hooves? Not so climbey.

I shudder to think how terrifying this is all going to be in multiplayer. Shogun 2's battle AI has impressed me so far, and I'll be interested to see what improvements have been made to its campaign-brain. But this level of jiggery-pokery could make for some very, very tense encounters when it comes to skilled players. It's also worth noting that multiplayer in Shogun 2 brings a massive shakeup for the series. Check back shortly for the altogether exciting details.

For now here's the dev diary behind some of Shogun 2's music, mainly involving muscular ozzies banging on taikos -