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Game Name:  Shogun: Total War
Developer:  Creative Assembly
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
PC Release Year:  2000
Review Date:  February 2, 2014

Grand strategy has to be the most intimating genre in gaming.  Ignoring the theorycraft for popular multiplayer titles, like League of Legends and Hearthstone, no other style of game demands the same amount of outside reading and intensive study.  While it may seem like a waste of time to research the intricacies of military, economic, and diplomatic policy within a game world, there is a slow burning enjoyment to be gained from putting a strategic plan in motion and watching it unfold before your eyes.  An added bonus is that these titles typically have a historical theme.  For gamers like me, who revel in thinking through the great what-ifs of the past, this is just the icing on the cake.  It is for these reasons that I count the Total War series amongst my favorite gaming franchises.  My fandom may have started in college when a friend convinced me to try the demo of Rome: Total War, but it was not like I was unaware of the earlier releases.  In fact, I would say I was downright hostile to them.  I wrongly perceived Shogun: Total War to be nothing more than a computerized version of the board game by the same name.  Knowing now how mistaken I was, the time seemed right to give the franchise’s first outing a try.  While I ultimately found a competent strategy game that I could have sunk my teeth into a decade ago, the many improvements to the series have left this title completely obsolete.

For those gamers who have somehow bypassed the entirety of Total War since 2000, the defining feature which sets it apart from the competition is its dual nature.  On the campaign map of this particular outing, you are the daimyo of a Sengoku era clan.  There are seven to choose from and each has different starting positions and gameplay bonuses.  During each turn, which lasts a calendar season, you can forge alliances, build infrastructure, raise armies, and invade nearby provinces in your bid to conquer all of medieval Japan.  At the end of a turn is when the magic happens, and the game transitions down to a brilliantly realized tactical mode where the player becomes the general of the very troops that were commanded to invade neighboring lands.  These RTS-like battles work because there is a strategic context for them, and the campaign map works because you are invested in the individual troops whose fate you control.  Combining such disparate elements has been a staple of series back to its earliest iteration, and thankfully, it still holds up today.

While the underlying game design is solid, the campaign map in Shogun: Total War is rudimentary by modern standards.  Nothing like the richly detailed 3D terrain from Total War: Rome II is on display here.  A colorless flat map, with hand-drawn provincial boundaries, is as good as it gets.  I found myself relishing the tactical mode, simply as a means of sparing my eyes the monotony of this static view of the world.  It would be nice if the problems were limited to the visuals, but the content quickly gets boring as well.  Unlike later entries to the series, which limit the number of buildings in a province and introduce food as a secondary resource to force players to make consequential development choices, the only constraints here are the natural resources within a territory and the amount of currency in your treasury.  As a result, infrastructure improvements follow a boring and predictable path where, if you are playing long enough, each territory starts to look a lot like the others.  The only bright spot to be found at this level, and a sore spot for later games in the series, is the quality of the AI.  With such a simple rule set and map, the computer makes very few mistakes and can provide a challenge to even the savviest of gamers.

Digressing from the strategic component, the tactical mode is just as unrefined.  Sure, the underlying elements are there like the ability to route an enemy by breaking their morale, the combat bonuses soldiers receive from holding the high ground, and the impact weather effects like wind have on projectiles, but there is little more.  Unlike the newer franchise entries, units will not have special abilities that can be toggled for certain situations, generals will not exude a sphere of influence to keep lines from breaking, and characters lack the talent trees and family retainers which allow for truly unique and specialized armies.  The biggest letdown on this level though, is simply how dated the graphics are.  Landscapes are sparsely populated 3D arenas which all use the same color palette, depending on the season.  Soldiers are even worse, since they appear as indistinguishable blobs of 2D sprites with choppy animations.  While this mode is still better looking than the strategic map, that is not saying much.

If this retrospective fails to deliver enough gameplay details for franchise newbies, let me sum it up this way.  If you want a great introduction to the Total War series, ignore Shogun 1 and grab a copy of Shogun 2 the next time Steam is doing a sale.  Not only is it completely beautiful, with its richly colored world and heavily stylized interface, but it takes the Creative Assembly’s many successes over the years and distills them down into a streamlined experience that is friendly to newcomers.  For everyone else who has tried and enjoyed other Total War games, consider this a warning to stay away.  It is not that the first outing is bad; it is just nowhere near as good as what has come since.  I wish I had given this title the time of day at release, especially since a friend of mine gave me his copy when he found out his laptop would not run it.  Well before I conquered Europe as the Scipii in Rome: Total War, I could have been enjoying one of the seminal series in PC gaming.  I missed out at the time though, and there was nothing to be gained from going back.

Verdict:  Not Recommended