Shogun - Total War: The Mongol Invasion Expansion  

Game Name:  Shogun - Total War: The Mongol Invasion Expansion
Developer:  The Creative Assembly
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
PC Release Year:  2001
Review Date:  January 11, 2016

I find myself in a love-hate relationship with Total War’s modern incarnations.  Wacky scenarios, like seeing Sicily battle with Egypt for control of the Eurasian Steppe, solidified my fandom early on in the series.  Starting with Shogun 2, however, the fun of exploring this emergent gameplay began to take a backseat to the challenge of beating the new legendary difficulty setting, and earning a fancy Steam achievement in the process.  This has led me in pursuit of the ‘perfect’ game, which is an unfulfilling ritual where I try a new faction, theorycraft an aggressive start, painstakingly capture around 20 settlements, and then quit in frustration when some unanticipated diplomatic betrayal or botched battle ruins my progress.  This recently happened with my Rome 2 campaign as the Getae, but I walked away from that failure without having scratched my Total War itch.  Knowing my ego could not handle another loss so soon, and hoping to recapture a bit of the wonder that originally sucked me into the series, it seemed like a good time to try the Mongol Invasion expansion for the original Shogun.  While my victory in Japan definitely took the sting out that loss in the Balkans, most modern gamers will not be able to see past Shogun’s rudimentary design to appreciate the novel mechanics that hide underneath this title’s creaking exterior.

Where most Total War games adhere to some semblance of fact before a first-turn diversion from the chronicled past, Mongol Invasion is unique in that it is almost entirely based on a fiction.  It presupposes that Kublai Khan’s horde of Chinese, Korean, and Mongol soldiers actually established a beachhead in Japan before his invasion fleets could be destroyed by the unseasonal typhoons that gave rise to the term, kamikaze.  This sets up an interesting clash of 13th-century cultures that goes well beyond the ten or so coastal battles from Asian history texts, with highly-trained samurai squaring off against the technologically advanced horsemen from the steppe.  In a way, these asymmetrical forces differentiate this expansion from Shogun, Empire, and Napoleon, which are not fondly remembered by Total War enthusiasts.  Rather than seeing battlefield tactics dictated primarily by the size of opposing armies, composition plays a much bigger role now that javelin-armed skirmishers, bomb-throwing grenadiers, and stalwart sword saints have been included to differentiate one faction from the other.  This means engagements are no longer as simple as scanning the enemy’s front line to set archers against infantry, cavalry against archers, spearmen against cavalry, and swordsmen against spearmen.  These new soldier types provide just enough variability, with their unique combat roles, to make battles feel a little more like those of Rome or Medieval, which remain popular series entries to this day.

Gamers, who are reluctant to move away from the more traditional Total War unit types, may wind up a bit disappointed when they attempt to incorporate Japan into the great khanate.  This is because Mongol Invasion’s campaign is designed to posit how an island invasion in this era would have occurred, so it naturally presents some unorthodox gameplay compared to the rest of the series.  For starters, players commanding the horde have no way to recruit troops directly.  They begin the game by making landfall with two large armies at their back, and while these forces dwarf those of the nearby defenders, the expedition is essentially surrounded.  Managing the survival of these soldiers takes on a bit more gravity when it becomes apparent that the Khan will only provide reinforcements if tribute is given in return, and the only way to get these desperately needed funds is to capture and hold new land.  As a result, each territorial acquisition brings a tense division of troops, followed by the second guessing that comes when the Hojo clan attempts to push back any Mongol gains.  Even when backup does arrive, at the glacial pace of about once every four turns, there is no way of knowing where they will land on the coast and what type of troops will come ashore.  So, you do not like micromanaging cavalry archers?  Well, too bad!  They are all that was sent, and if you want them to have any kind of impact on the strategic map, you will find a way to make them work as you battle across the countryside to link up with your main force.

While I found this gameplay completely refreshing compared to the staid and conservative design that Sega’s Creative Assembly pushes out today, there is no escaping the fact that Mongol Invasion’s mechanics could be better implemented.  Realistically speaking, when the decision on what type of troops to enlist is taken away, there are no friendly clans to conduct diplomacy with, and the only buildings that can be constructed are watch towers to spy on neighboring provinces, it cuts out a huge part of the Total War experience.  Why is there no option to recruit mercenaries to the cause?  In an age before nationalism, it is not hard to imagine a band of Ronin leading the Mongol horde into battle.  This would at least give some semblance of control back to player, as far as army composition is concerned.  Additionally, why is it impossible to get one of Japan’s subjugated clans to try and throw off the yoke of Hojo oppression?  After all, the game is already premised on a historical what-if, so what difference does it make if a rebellion is imagined at the same time?  Even if this is too extreme, considering the game’s straightforward premise, there should have at least been a diplomatic means of currying favor with the Khan, to add some strategic depth and help pass the time between battles.

Of course, modern gamers who are willing to look past these flaws and accept Mongol Invasion for what it is, rather than what it could have been, still have to contend with the fact that the underlying guts of this expansion are clunky and obnoxious.  How could it be anything else when it is overlaid onto the horribly aging structure that is Shogun?  The graphics are terrible, the user interface is unintuitive, there is no way to command battles in slow motion, the pathfinding is unintelligent when multiple units are moving together, and the built-in skirmish mode, which is necessary considering the abundance of horse archers in the Mongol horde, will only stay at range of a single, targeted unit; meaning they will get immediately flanked if they are not micromanaged.  Still, a playthrough reveals that there are nuggets of greatness within this title, and they are unlike anything seen in the series since.  If these elements could be grafted onto the shell of the great Shogun 2, it would easily be one of the best Total Wars ever made.  As it stands, though, modern gamers will find an unfulfilling mess of great ideas in Mongol Invasion that were never made into anything more.

Verdict:  Not Recommended