Why Shogun 2 Was the Greatest Total War Ever, and What Attila and Total Warhammer can learn from it.
I recently started playing Shogun 2 again on my channel as a part of my “Legacies of Total War” series. I was absolutely amazed by it. Going back to it from Attila, I immediately noticed how much more fun I was having. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Attila, nor do I think it’s necessarily a bad game. It’s just that Shogun 2 is so much better. I would go so far as to say that it is, in fact, the best Total War game ever designed. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s everyone’s favorite Total War game, but it is fantastically well made.
Sense of Danger
The first thing I noted in my Shogun 2 l.p. is how hard it was. Campaign AI since Medieval 2 have always been designed to annihilate the player. In Shogun 2, though, it’s amazing how often it actually happens.
In Shogun 2, one battle can make the difference between winning and losing a campaign. For the majority of the early – mid game, a single major battle can mean the end of you or your enemy, even on legendary difficulty. This is because of two major factors: the size of the map, and the balancing between economy and military.
The Shogun 2 map was small, to be sure. More importantly, however, most settlements were one, maybe two turns away from each other. That meant that, if you or your enemy lost an important battle, there would be little to no time to raise a significant enough force to protect your settlements. Within a single turn, your closest settlement would be in enemy hands, and , due to the balance between economy and armies, it could mean a crippling blow to your faction.
The balance between economies and armies was very fine tuned. Through most of the mid game, you could only really afford three, maybe four stacks of ashigaru or two – three stacks of an ashigaru/samurai mix. This was mainly due to the food mechanic: castles needed food but provided building slots. You couldn’t simply spam buildings in a province; food was a real limiting factor, and you had to be careful on how you spent it. Not only did this add a real strategic meta on how and where you would build what, it also made it so that you couldn’t simply spam economic buildings and support giant stacks of death.
Practically, what this means, in combination with the small space between settlements, is that battles are quite decisive. You live and die on the life and death of your one or two stacks. Losses are often catastrophic, and victories yield huge benefits. This is not always the case, of course, but it is most often the case.
I think balance can be broken into two main groups: macro-balance and micro-balance. Macro balance is the balance of the entire design. For example, Shogun 2 followed a very strict Rock (spears) < Paper (swords) < Scissors (cav) < Rock mechanic. This was its “macro balance.” The micro balance is the balance in between the individual troops within the tiers of rock, paper, and scissors. So, for example, Yari Ashigaru have terrible morale, armor, and overall stats in comparison to Yari Samurai, but they are cheap, easily recruitable, and have the indispensible shield wall.
Shogun 2’s macro balance was possibly the best in the entire Total War series. Cavalry and swords are powerful but brittle. Spears are sturdy and dependable but cannot be the core of your army. Each tier balances the other out almost perfectly. Even a light cavalry could inflict significant casualties on high tier sword infantry, and even Yari Ashigaru (or naginata attendants!) would render even the highest tier cavalry useless. Everything was a niche, and nothing was overpowered (single player, of course).
The micro balance was also almost perfect. Of course, the efficacy of Yari Samurai was extremely limited, and Naginata Samis also could use a little buff, but even they had a place in a professional army. Katana cavalry was brilliantly destructive but a very niche unit. Yari cavalry was shocking but brittle. Every unit had very clear strengths and weaknesses meant to be pitted against each other.
Art Over Pixel Counts
Lastly, the art style of Total War: Shogun 2 was fabulous. The colors were bright and vibrant. The landscapes could be breathtaking. The “oriental” feel of the game did a perfect job walking the tight rope between appreciation and appropriation. The music was fantastic.
The first thing I noted when I loaded up the game was how much prettier it was than Attila. Sure, Attila has amazing effects and very high quality textures; but Shogun 2 is beautiful. There’s a significant difference between the two. One focuses on raw processing power, technical capabilities, and an overwhelmingly “realistic” feel. The other focuses on vision, artistry, and design. Shogun 2 has a full palette of colors. Attila is 50 shades of brown. Shogun 2 is an expressionist interpretation of landscape. Attila is an attempt at photography.
In the end, Shogun 2’s style, art, and feel continue to shine. Rome 2, Medieval 2, or Empire 2, which tried a similar “realist” approach to Attila, start feeling aged and dry. The difference is that one is art, and the other is an attempt to mimic reality. One is an attempt to capture the feeling of a time and place, and the other is an attempt to capture the physicality of a time and place. Shogun 2’s aesthetic design appeals to an artistic nature in humans, while all Attila does is appeal to the eyes.
What Can Attila and Total Warhammer Learn from Shogun 2?
- Give me a sense of mortality and impending doom
Edmund Burke, in speaking of the sublime, once said that the most powerful human emotion is fear. That is probably why we love horror movies. We love the exhilaration of fear while knowing full well that we are safe. We need more of the sublime in Total War, and that is done by creating a real sense of mortality and doom.
- Balance Matters
This seems to be a no-brainer, and yet too many Total War games are horribly unbalanced. Meta-balance, though, is probably more important than micro balance. Tagmata cavalry, for example, would not have been such a problem if spears were properly balanced against cavalry. Tagmata became OP because spears were horribly UP, almost completely useless against a good player who would never let you brace in the first place.
- Art Trumps Textures
Some of the most beautiful games are highly artistic. Shogun 2 proved that art and style have a real place in strategy games. Use lush colors, and don’t be afraid of the entire spectrum of color. Things don’t need to be “gritty and dark” to be beautiful, enjoyable, and palpable. I really hope that Warhammer is not another installment in Total War: Fifty Shades of Brown.