It’s a little unfair to call The Fall of the Samurai a mere expansion, though to be fair, that’s pretty much how The Creative Assembly refers to it. But notably, it’s a standalone game that you can enjoy without needing Shogun 2 itself; it’s also a completely new time-period, bringing the thoughtful game of Japanese strategy and tactics into the turbulent 19th century.
However, the thing that’s really impressive is just how huge this expansion is – it’s basically a whole new game, with new factions, units, weaponry and hundreds of hours of gameplay. And on top of all these, it even comes with Gatling guns.
Tom Cruise not included
If you want a crash course on this particular period of Japanese history, the best shortcut is to watch The Last Samurai. In fact, it was pretty much required viewing for everyone working on the game, along with all the usual historical and cultural research. Long story short, though, the 19th century sees Japan still struggling between its own cultural values and those of the modern age, only the signs of modernity are even starker. Similarly, outside influences from the period’s Imperial super powers are forcing matters to a head, dragging Japan kicking and screaming onto the world stage.
Internally, things aren’t much better. The country is torn between those loyal to the Shogunate, and those loyal to the Emperor, a difference which was prone to degenerate meetings into open conflicts at the sight of any katana (which, importantly, was always present).
Fall of the Samurai is, because of this, one of the most interesting Total War games to date. The dual axes (that’s plural of axis, not weaponry) of the game pull the player into some interesting decisions, and can lead to some vastly different game experiences.
As you march toward full modernisation, the importance of managing your still largely-traditional populous becomes ever more important, as they get rather upset at the huge towns and railways dotting the landscape. However, if you want to keep your people happiest, you need to curb such advances.
And yes, there are railways. This is without a doubt the most modern Total War game to date, and with it comes units and technologies that have never before been seen in the series.
Musket beats katana beats spear
At its heart, the gameplay is instantly familiar. From the strategic map, you manage towns and industry, work on diplomatic relations, and manoeuvre your military units on land and sea. But there are changes in all of these levels of gameplay. There are new civilian units, like the ishin ishi, a provocateur who can assassinate generals and sway entire armies to your cause; a particular favourite is the Foreign Veteran, who can train your units in the western way of war. All these characters, as well as your generals, can profit from clever skill choices as they level up, and they provide a lot of useful skills.
City and resource management is now even more important in the modern era, because choices like upgrading a town to a large town not only improve your income and open up new units, but also impact negatively on the population. In our current playthrough, we’re very much aware of balancing the new ways and the old, and it’s quite the challenge.
A lot of work has been put into improving game AI at this level too, and it seems to have paid off. Factions are now much more likely to contact the player for a diplomatic con-fab, and seem far more skilled at aggressively using naval assets. In fact, the AI seems much more in the loop than any Total War title before it. One memorable instance of AI behaviour was a large army that had marched directly into our territory to attack a city, but once repelled, settled for terrorising the country-side, burning outlying settlements. This kind of behaviour makes it very easy to humanise the opposition – a neat and handy trick in this sort of game.
The strategic layer does have some issues, though. The main one is that the cramped nature of the home islands makes it hard to really feel like you’ve got much choice in your expansion, and once you get a good roll on, the game can get a little samey. Thankfully, though, this is offset by the aforementioned railroads, which make large troop movements easier, and more deadly, than ever before.