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Full Steam Ahead: Total War – Shogun 2

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 19 Hours

My first introduction to the Total War series was Medieval 2, purchased during a summer in Calgary where my only activities were training for speed-skating, attending an optional religious studies course at university, and playing video games. The game’s blend of large-scale turn-based strategy (fulfilling diplomatic duties, strengthening my monarchical line, angering the pope) and intense bursts of high detail real-time strategy (flanking maneuvres, ambushes from the forest, angering the pope) left an impression on me that few game series have since matched. I’ve often heard people refer to the one-more-turn effect of some games like the Civilization series, or XCOM. Total War is the series that introduced me to this phenomenon. I guess I’m not terribly surprised that Total War – Shogun 2 is in my library.

I can’t remember why or when I purchased this game. Given how many hours I spent perfecting the Holy Roman Empire, being betrayed by the Franks, or attempting to keep Iberia from falling into the hands of Moors, I am surprised I didn’t log more time in this game before Full Steam Ahead. I’m especially surprised when I consider my interest in the Sengoku Jidai (warring states period) of Japan’s history. Why’d I stop playing? What have I learned from years of absence? Will these question actually be answered, or are they purely rhetorical? Oh well, this train-wreck has to start rolling somewhere.

Please don’t betray me.

I’m going to start a short campaign (30 years in-game) with the Shimazu clan. A small blurb tells me that the clan is proud, brave, and loyal to the extreme. What this means mechanically is I get better, cheaper swordsmen, and my general will be more loyal. That latter point is particularly important to me, as I am still wary after a Medieval 2 game years ago where my general absconded with 75% of my army and conquered my capital 3 turns into the game.

Instantly, the game throws me to the southwestern-most point of Japan, and tells me to conquer Kyoto. Kyoto, as memory serves is close to the centre of Japan, with many powerful and angry clans in the way. This might explain why, in our own history, the Shimazu did not become the Shoguns. But surely the opportunity to rewrite history, to overcome the challenges our historical forebears faced, is a powerful source of motivation in these games. After, within a few hours of the campaign’s start, the game informs me that the Tokugawa, Uesugi, Date, Hattori, and Ikko Iki have all already been vanquished. This doesn’t make my trip to Kyoto any shorter, but who knows? Maybe now the Shimazu will have their chance. Seeing my objective is one of conquest, I send my ludicrously giant general to go stomp all over Kanoya Castle.

Tremble, puny Earthlings!

Once the battle begins, the game switches from its turn-based map (of humongous castle and Kaiju-sized generals) to the real-time strategy portion of the game. Given that this is the first turn of the campaign, the battle is too small and too straightforward to involve much in the way of strategy. A simple smash-down-the-gate and slaughter. The Shimazu clan is victorious, establishing control over the province of Osumi. After the victory, there’s little to do for the next few turns. I recruit more troops, upgrade my farms and trade routes, and get to know my generals. Part of me wonders about the men under my command. What is it makes this general lucky, or self-centred? From a mechanical perspective, it’s handy that he is more resilient against assassination attempts, but from a narrative  point of view, one has to wonder how they got like this. This is a feeling I often get playing these sorts of games.

I wonder at the point of assigning these soldiers personality traits. If it is an effort to humanize them, to make it easier for me, the player, their clan leader, to relate to them, should I feel more guilty about sending them into conflict? The latest battle of Satsuma results in 942 deaths, two-thirds of which were my own men. Some routed, some died in a defensive effort. Some were brought down by arrows fired carelessly over the shoulders of retreating archers. I’m zoomed in on a field of corpses, mostly mine, when the battle draws to a close. One of my men shouts that we are about to win a glorious victory.

What glorious victory looks like, apparently.

I don’t feel glorious. I’ll confess, I am something of a coward, and I have a soft heart. There is another time, perhaps, to have an extended discussion about conflict, violence, and pacifism in games, but in an effort to prevent this series from going too gonzo on me, I’m trying to keep to the feelings I have that are inspired by the game itself.

I suppose in that sense, I cannot be to disappointed, or surprised. After all, the series is called Total War, not Total Sit-down-and-have-a-responsible-chat-about-our-grievances. As the war continues, so does my polish on each battle. I experiment with different formations, different flanking angles, and different army mixtures. I also experiment with some of the different forms of subterfuge and sabotage, courtesy my clan’s ninja agent. Each attempt comes with a little movie. Poisoning tea, kicking people off of balconies.

It’s amusing in it’s own right, but I quickly tire of the same pre-battle speeches, the same blood spilled over the same hills and forests, fighting a war of attrition over the same provinces. I push my army towards their capital, Saito, expecting a well-stocked garrison of troops, under the command of a peerless general. Instead, I find a small contingent of retainers, barely able to man even a portion of the walls. I don’t even have to wait to bring down the walls or prolong a siege; my ninja has sabotaged their gates. My armies pour in, bringing a swift, violent end to the Ito.

The purple armies are the Ito. The greenish arrows are active commands for about half of my army.

This war has lasted twenty turns, or five years, in the game. Saito is ours, as is the province of Hyuga (one of my campaign objectives). Many thousands of have died in many battles, but the Shimazu banner flies over three provinces. I’m pleased with how well I’ve done. I’m far from conquering the other local provinces that will grant me victory, and further still from Kyoto, but with another couple of lucky seasons, the chance to recruit some more units and develop my infrastructure, I’m sure I’ll be able to lead the Shimazu to even greater victories.

But do I have the stomach for it? The truth is I don’t. Before each battle, the generals rally their troops with an inspiring speech about destiny, glory, honour, and other such jingoistic rot. Phrases such as, “I will not put aside the sword until our enemy is driven from this place.” I don’t remember most of these speeches. Most of them felt pretty much the same after the first few battles, even before I’d fought enough to hear commonly repeated phrases.


What I remember, for good or ill, are the soldiers. So much detail was put into these warriors that when I zoom in on the battlefield, I can clearly see the anxiety on the faces of my men as their positions are overrun.

Okay, that’s probably just me projecting, but it feels strange how this game can be at times so impersonal, reducing casualties to mere numbers, and at other times make me feel so responsible, in victory as in defeat, for their lives. Maybe that’s how I’ve changed over the years; I don’t want to be responsible for this war anymore. Maybe that’s why I stopped playing in the first place. In any case, I don not share the conviction of our generals. I will put aside the sword.

That’s one of the benefits of this project, I suppose. There was a time, clearly, when I would have played for a while, found something I disliked about the game, and then quit without ever giving a second thought as to why. This forces me to think about my games, and think about myself. Putting it down in writing means even if I forget, there will be a record somewhere of what I felt.

I still love the Total War series. This game was very well crafted, and I can imagine I will be returning to the warring states in the future to lead the Shimazu, but, sparingly. As for tonight I’m going to enjoy some tea and get my head away from the bloodshed.

Next Episode: Assassin’s Creed 2

… damn it.

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