Short Total War Riff

Lately I’ve been playing Total War: Shogun 2 and Rome II Shogun Total War II 2 and I have to say… I’m not a fan. I love this sort of grand strategy wargame so I keep booting it up but the same things keep irritating me. I thought about doing this as a full article but I figured eh fuck it these games are old anyway, but I did want to get across my gripes with the game.

I’ll say first off that I’m not good at videogames. I know I’m not good at them. That said, if I stick at it, I can generally get to a mid-level of proficiency. On both of these games I could conquer a pretty solid empire, but I basically threw up my hands at their terrible endgame design; in Shogun 2 I’m pretty sure I would have lost by the time I actually stopped, but I’d just sort of given up way before then and was just clicking through to see what would happen. Now that I know the things will happen I’m fairly sure I could figure out a way to get through it if I wanted to. But I don’t.

Also, I’m specifically talking about the campaign map. I’m pretty okay at the RTS battlescreen which is fun once in a while, but usually when I playthrough I’m just focused on the campaign map bit and I autoresolve the battles. I know that the core of the game is the RTS battles but the campaign map is still a big part of the experience and one that I think Creative Assembly has consistently gotten wrong.

So that’s the set-up. What follows is the rant/riff/raff:

Total War games play very much centered around the armies. Those are reasonably predictable elements. Agents are not at all predictable; when first recruited they are far too weak to be useful, and their frequent deaths mean that they’re mostly an expense. In the early game then you are very much encouraged not to use agents because the investment isn’t worth it. Further, agents at similar levels often cancel out but not always, which means that at high levels there isn’t much use to specialization as strong metsuke or monks can beat strong ninjas and vice versa. Each agent has vaguely equivalent skills which makes them interchangeable and the effect of randomness (since unlike with the armies, you don’t get to build up the strength of your agents in parts and under your supervision) means that they’re not effective as political tools. Don’t disagree that they can heavily affect the game but they don’t form a reliable strategy.

On the level of inter-group politics, the games are always extremely limited. The vassal system seems designed for players never to be a part of it with excessively stringent rules which are not well defined in game terms (that is, in numeric statistics). Rarely do other nations on normal begin a large war to check your power as a player. This stands totally at odds with the world war mechanics that are often employed. In effect, rather than nations/factions rationally forming alliances to stop your influence as it grows, they almost capitulate to allow you to gain power and then join together to assault you once you do. The fact that there is very little nuance in how groups perceive your actions means that relations boil down essentially to levels of alliance. It isn’t possible to, say, cultivate a specific relationship with another group; if you step out of line they will still start to dislike you and the games don’t provide a way to counteract that. The options are either to play a ‘squeaky clean’ game (political/diplomatic) or piss everybody off by warmongering, even though warmongering is the sanest solution presented by the game.

The Total War games need to focus their politics around a politics of war. Though it is distasteful as an actual policy, as the background to a wargame, using a politics that presupposes war does make sense. Mechanics related to war happiness and war prestige should play a more prominent role, as should alliances of conscience which aren’t easily broken by simple/basic affronts or the short passage of time. If we are accepting that there must be some political justification or allowance for war (as Total War does, disallowing wars with allies) then there must also be a way to provoke wars that is clear and well defined. In Total War, for instance, once you are strong you’re nearly always beyond challenge. Your only way to engage in war is to attack others. Even if they hate you, if you’re outmatched in power they will leave you alone, perhaps even agree to treaties with you. I haven’t experienced success with sabotage/agents to provoke war and I haven’t read about widespread success with it, either; at best the agent abilities are aimed at hurting your opponent’s economy/military and don’t appear to have any effect on their willingness to attack you. If your target is allied to you, there needs to be a way to get around that alliance (or vassalhood or whatever) without necessarily incurring a penalty to you.

Essentially, Total War figures ‘politics’ as a genre that means ‘anything which stops war’. The agents are window dressing, generally unable to shut down opponents unless that opponent is militarily threatened and unable to respond. The actual political decisions available are one dimensional, traveling entirely along the track of is-or-isn’t-allied. All this means that the campaign play is always very frustrating. The AI does not present a significant challenge strategically, existing mostly as an obstacle as you attempt to build your own power. The ease or difficulty of a starting position/campaign is entirely to do with how little or how much (respectively) the position relies on using elements other than the movement of armies, when in my opinion it should be about more creating difficult problems involved in using armies: more powerful neighbors, difficult terrain, etc. Because of this, what is difficult in Total War campaign play isn’t really conceptually difficult, it’s simply beside the main thrust of the game.

The endgames are a mirror of this. In Rome II, for Rome at least, your empire will suddenly break into civil war. There is a meter, yes, but its firing is essentially random, as are its results. Half of your empire goes, but which half is never clear. For me personally, nearly every settlement of mine had 100 happiness, yet I lost them. So not only does this have very little bearing on the military aspect of the game, it completely contradicts every other part of the game except for a single mechanic which, up until that point, only gives you benefits. Clearly there’s a contradiction in how this mechanic was set-up. If the idea was to get you to pay attention and manage your influence, surely a more effective way would be to introduce penalties as you go along so that you would think to manage it. Shogun 2 has a similar problem. I’ve read that the way to avoid a totally brutal realm divide is to play diplomacy, get marriages, etc. I’ve gone several games without getting any marriage offers from other clans (lololol story of my life) and it’s never suggested by my council, the general mechanic for infodumping stuff on you. There’s really very little benefit to be gained by diplomacy, until suddenly it really matters, but you can’t do anything about it then.

The theme is the same: the campaign map play in Total War games is excessively lazy in design. I believe games should give you a mountain to climb that has difficult ascents, punishing winds, frigid cold, everything to test your ability. Total War’s campaign asks you to go up an escalator but cuts off your hands and feet. People pay a lot of money to risk their lives on mountainsides. Not a lot of people are getting amputated for fun.