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Game Review

The smiling Asian negotiator leans forward, aiming a sweeping gesture in your direction and welcoming you with, "Come, my friend. I have ordered tea, prepared to whet our wits and warm our hearts."

There are any number of real-time strategy titles out there. But few merge intricate details and complicated strategy play with elegant graphics and rich historical drama quite the way the  Total War games do. And the new PC stand-alone expansion pack Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai is a strong example of that impressive gameplay formula.

The action takes place two-thirds of the way through the 19th century during Japan's short Boshin War. At this time in real world history, the Land of the Rising Sun was in the throes of a nationwide struggle as forces of the Empire and the Shogunate wrestled for political dominion. Some of that struggle was brought on by Westerners who showed up looking for a new port of trade. Because along with their hand-wringing hopes for stacks of gold, the Brits and Yanks brought warships and modernized gunpowder-based firepower to a land that was still fighting battles with arrows and samurai swords.

In a very short period of time, the Japanese were forced to revamp just about everything—from their economy to their style of governing to their mode of warfare. And they had to do it while trying to keep their culture from being trod underfoot by outsiders. In Fall of the Samurai, all of that historical warring, reinvention, transformation and diplomatic juggling is transferred to a digital domain that you must oversee.

Turns, Tactics and … Trouble Figuring Things Out
You start by choosing a pro-Shogun or pro-Emperor clan to lead, and then work to make your side the dominating group over the country's 75 provinces by the end of a six-year period. But it's not just as simple as building up a monster army and heading out to smash everything like the Hulk. Do that and you'll be the one scattered and crushed like so many cherry blossoms in a spring storm. No, you've got to figure out how to maintain your armies, develop your cities and care for the general welfare of all the citizenry under your charge.

Like previous Total War games, Fall of the Samurai combines a turn-based strategy mode with a series of tactical, real-time battles. The turn-based section involves managing your provinces, researching technologies, building improvements like markets or farms, seeking trade partners, and servicing or recruiting armies. And, of course, there has to be a constant balance maintained between how much money is coming in and how much is being spent.

The real-time tactics come into play when you're defending your territories, reinforcing an ally's position or attempting to expand your clan's holdings. When your forces square off with those of an enemy, you can auto-resolve the fight and see who loses what … or zip down to a bird's-eye view just above field level to marshal your units by hand.

Depending on whether you're focusing on traditional or modernized forces, armies will be made up of everything from knights and samurai to cannon units and carbine cavalry—each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Navies strive to gain control of the shipping routes.

Have you figured out by now that steering and positioning all the various units—taking terrain, troop strength and weather into account—is an intricate process? Which is exactly why the victory of cresting a fortified wall, sinking a steam-powered ironclad or leaping from cover and outflanking an unprepared enemy force is so rewarding. (A narrating adviser is provided to politely walk you through the tough spots should you need the extra help.)

Putting the Show in Shogun
Now, if you're wondering whether or not all this warring also plays out in messy killings, the answer would be "sort of." If you direct the camera to swoop down into the heat of battle, some scenes can look like clips from an old Akira Kurosawa film, with slashing katana-wielding samurai and rearing horsemen. And when you take charge of a troop-blasting artillery group or a fort's Gatling gun, you mow attackers down from afar. Sometimes, closely observed masses fall and city walls burn. So it's the lack of bloody carnage that keeps this game rated T, not its lack of carnage in general.

Special recruited agents are a big part of the action too. And it's strongly implied that, at your command, shadowy shinobi slip in to assassinate unwary generals, or geishas use their feminine wiles to enchant (and turn) important figures. Provincial negotiators are regularly trying to ply you with comfortable surroundings and a nice cup of sake. (We actually see only a little sword and/or fan waving, not the tippling, spying and lounging details.)

To put it like an Shogun negotiator might, this is a game that will entice you like the warmth of shelter during a winter snow. Just be mindful of three things should you decide to enter its welcoming doors: 1) While it's not a shooter, it is still a war game. 2) The age-appropriateness of the abovementioned content concerns. 3) How many modern-day hours you're devoting to digital conquests in a conflict that ended nearly 150 years ago.

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March 23, 2012

On Video

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Bob Hoose

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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