Total War: Shogun 2

Let me start off by setting a precedent.  This is an epic, epic game.  Pumped?  Alright.
Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in the venerable Total War series of PC games, known for offering some of the most authentic recreations of historical battles on the market.  Previous entries focused on such eras as the French Revolution, the medieval age, and the Roman Empire. 
Like its well-received predecessor, Shogun 2 brings our attention to the Sengoku Jidai, or “Warring Era” of Feudal Japan.  A time of much distress throughout the country due mostly to economic development and weak government, the period lasted from the 1400s to the very beginning of the year 1600.  The Ashikaga Shogunate had come into power then, and while they did a fair job at ruling initially, they didn’t really manage to gain the loyalty of the other daimyo (clan rulers).  Given that the shogun is quite simply a military ruler, it wasn’t long before the daimyo fancied themselves rulers instead, with the goal being to unite Japan under one rule, as the Ashikaga had failed to do.
This is where you come in.  There are many, many clans vying for power dotted throughout the country.  Only a bit more than a handful of them are playable, but you choose one, and attempt to bring your clan glory through diplomacy and conquest.  But mostly conquest.
The playable clans include the Shimazu, Tokugawa, Hattori, Hojo, and the Chosokabe, among others.  Those who know a thing or two about actual history will know that these were actual major players in the Sengoku period; in fact, it was ultimately Tokugawa Ieyasu who became the next shogun.  Every clan has its advantages and disadvantages.  They all start in unique places on the map (again, historically sensible), and they all provide _tangible bonuses to certain units.  For example, the Shimazu starts on the bottom edge of Japan, in the province of Satsuma.  Though the clan to the north, the Sagara are a peaceful lot, you also have the Ito clan moving in on you from the east.  The Shimazu get a bonus to the loyalty of their generals, and make the best Katana Samurai units in the game.  The Date, on the other hand starts on the opposite tip of the country, in northernmost Iwate.  Known for their fierceness in battle, they get a clan-wide bonus to charge attacks, and can recruit superior nodachi samurai (a nodachi is a two handed sword that is longer and heavier than a katana).  Every clan has its own flavor.
In terms of empire management, Shogun 2 is not nearly as complex as, say, Civilization.  But that’s not to say that the management aspects are shallow.  War is expensive, so your primary concerns as leader of a clan will revolve around making money.  There are a lot of things to spend money on in this game, yet only a couple ways to keep it flowing in, so you’ll have to watch your pennies.  For example, in addition to the cost of recruiting a unit, each one also has a turn-by-turn upkeep cost, which can quickly push you into bankruptcy if you have a larger army than your treasury can support.
Revenue will come primarily in two flavors: domestic income and trade income.  Domestic income comes from taxes.  Developing your farms and letting your towns grow in wealth are your primary methods of keeping domestic income up and rising.  Trade income comes from establishing trade agreements with other clans, as well as with the several sea outposts representing distant foreign countries like India.  They both have their pros and cons.  Domestic income is extremely stable, but starts out meager and takes a lot of time and a lot of investment to develop.  Trade income is a great way to pull in some quick pocket change, and it will also very quickly gain you access to the various resources available that you might need to build advanced units and buildings.  Trade agreements also gradually build up friendly relationships between the participating clans, making them all the less likely to stab you in the back later down the line.  But trade income is usually unreliable; clans come and go, and when a trading partner loses a port they’re using to trade with you, that would of course completely shut off the deal.  Sea trade necessitates a capable fleet to defend it, upping your costs.  Unprotected trade routes and trade ships are vulnerable to being blockaded or attacked by pirates (who are basically like the barbarians in Civilization), allowing other ballsy clans to seize some or all the profits.
If you want to, you can dive deeper into the economics of the situation.  Every resource you have within your land or coming from a foreign trade post is automatically exported to other clans that you have trade agreements with at market value, which in turn is calculated by the principles of supply and demand.  If you don’t have access to a particular resource, you can import it from a clan who does by striking up a trade agreement with them.  But I don’t have much trouble becoming the richest clan in the game without poring over the financial tabs.  The important thing to remember is to keep your income higher than your expenses.  How much higher depends on how essential you think it is to have a large force, compared to how much money you want to have flowing in every turn.
Shogun 2 splits Japan into 60 provinces.  To finish a campaign, you have to meet certain requirements by a certain timeline.  These include holding key provinces (most importantly Kyoto, the seat of the current Shogunate) in addition to others, totaling a specific number of provinces you have to control to end the campaign.  For a short campaign, it’s 20 provinces.  For a long one, you need to have 40.  For a domination campaign, you need to take over all 60 provinces, by the year 1600.  Each turn represents one season, so there are four turns to a year.
Sooner rather than later, you’ll want to start expanding your territory.   This is done exclusively through marching a sufficiently strong army into the province you want, and showing the capital town there who’s boss.  Every province comes with a castle town, and certain resources; that is, a farm and a road system.  Some have more buildings, like seaports, gold or iron mines, or libraries, to name a few.  In addition, within the castle town itself you can construct more buildings, to further develop the town to suit your purposes.  Some buildings, like the Samurai Dojo and Foot Archery Range, let you recruit military units in that town.  Others, like the Marketplace, Buddhist Temple, and Sake Den grant important bonuses, such as religion spread, recruitable agents and higher town wealth over time (and as we’ve established, more money in the citizens’ hands means more money for you to tax).  Every building in the game can be upgraded multiple times.  The Sake Den can eventually become the Infamous Mizu Shobai District, giving a huge bonus to town wealth, and also allowing you to recruit geisha agents (more on agents in a bit).  The Samurai Dojo can become the Legendary Kenjutsu School, allowing you to recruit Katana Heroes, who are described to be “one with their blades”.  Roads can be upgraded to improve infrastructure, which not only allows you to move farther in less time, but also increases trade volume, again increasing wealth across the region.  Farms can be upgraded to not only provide more wealth, but also more food.
Speaking of it, food is the other currency you’ll want to keep an eye on.  Farms are your sole source of it.  A couple buildings, most namely the castles in your towns, consume more food the more you upgrade them, so unless you want to run into a food shortage and have riots popping up all over your territory (and trust me when I say you don’t want that), you’ll want to make sure your farms are outputting enough food to keep up with your improvements.  A food surplus also contributes to clan-wide wealth.
Perhaps the most important upgrade however, is the province’s castle.  To capture a province, you need to seize its castle town, which involves assaulting the castle within.  Naturally, if you’re on the defending side, you want to be as prepared as you can.  Well, the more you upgrade your castle, the more benefits you get.  In battle, castles can range from lowly wooden forts to multi-level citadels with automatic arrow towers and fortifications aplenty, depending on how high up the chain they are.  Higher-level castles also get a constant garrison of troops to help stave off enemy attack.  Castles are also the primary way to keep citizens under control and prevent rebellion.
Speaking of rebellion, you always want to pay attention to how happy the citizens in any given province are.  You always, always want to keep your citizens happy.  Two bars track sources of unhappiness and happiness, respectively.  If unhappiness is higher than happiness, you will have a revolt on your hands sooner than you’d like.  There are a lot of factors that can influence your citizens’ disposition, from the honor of your daimyo to simple resistance to the fact that you just invaded them.  But the primary one will be taxes.  Setting your taxes too high will piss your people off in a big way, and soon it won’t be long before a rebellion army is formed.  Other big no-no’s are food shortages and religious differences, both of which start small but grow bigger every turn, until not even waiving taxes altogether in a province will save you from the fury of the peasants.  Army units also each serve as one unit of repression (aka ‘’happiness’’), so sitting a very large army on a town will keep it under control through all but the most critical circumstances.  But of course this is a temporary solution, as you can’t afford to have armies sitting on every one of your towns…and even if you could, it would be a colossal waste of money.
If you can manage to keep your happiness extremely high though, you can tax your citizens more without them minding, which will lead to substantially higher income.  Fortunately, if you don’t want to have to look over your shoulder every turn to make sure you aren’t suddenly stepping on one province’s toes with your tax rates, you can have the game auto-manage your taxes, reducing and/or waiving them automatically where necessary.
What really caught my eye about Shogun 2 however were the battles, not the campaign gameplay; at the end of the day, that’s just Civilization Lite.  The battles are the Total War series’ claim to fame, and believe it or not, despite the incredible amount of time I just spent talking about the campaign, I think it’s easy to see most of the developer’s resources really went into the battle system.
There are three types of battles: naval battles, siege battles, and land battles.  Naval battles of course take place on water, between ships, while siege battles are castle assaults, and land battles are all-out clashes on land. _ There are so many factors–small and large–playing into this system of warfare that it would be impossible to get into them all without this review becoming an encyclopedia.
How every battle works is one unit approaches another on the campaign map with murderous intent.  You are brought to the unit layout screen, where you can see your units as opposed to the opponent’s.  A balance of power meter sitting in the middle gives you a quick take on your odds (fortunately, it takes more than just sheer numbers into account) against the opponent.  You then have two choices, primarily.  You can choose to auto-resolve the battle, giving you instant results based mostly on the balance of power, or you can choose to fight the battle yourself.  They both have their uses.  If you have more than just a clear advantage (read: you are crushing a couple hundred peasants with over 1200 katana samurai), you’ll save a lot of time (and even a couple men) by auto-resolving.  But if the balance of power is less than, say 65% in your favor, you’ve got a better chance of getting a satisfactory win fighting it out yourself.  A great example is siege battles.  The balance of power meter does not seem to really take castles into account, so when faced with an army knocking on my door that was twice the size of my own, the game said I was screwed, and auto-resolving would likely have resulted in a crushing defeat.  Fighting the battle however, I was able to easily resist attack, losing few men while their horde slammed itself against my defenses with less vigor every time.  During most land battles, you can also choose to retreat, whether you’re the aggressor or the defender.  However, you can only do this once per encounter, and if the enemy manages to catch you a second time, you’ll have to make a stand. 
Siege battles also open up another option, if you’re the aggressor and you’ve got time to kill.  If you feel that you’re at too great a disadvantage trying to fight the enemy in their castle, you can start sieging them from outside on a turn-by-turn basis.  This cuts off their unit replenishment, and halts all construction within the province.  After a certain number of turns (better castles can hold out for longer), the army inside will simply run out of food and be forced to surrender.  Usually the AI will come out and attack you before that happens, but it’s often more advantageous to fight them on equal terms, right?  Of course, this gives the defending clan time to move in reinforcements, so this is an option you want to use with care.
Units are divided into several types, with each type having strengths, weaknesses, and suggested roles.  These types are sword infantry, spear infantry, bow infantry, cavalry, riflemen, and siege and support units.  Together, they all form a very loose rock-paper-scissors relationship.  Spears, aside from being your bread and butter units, are good at holding a defensive line, and at being sacrificial pawns.  Bows will get cut apart in melee, but from a distance can easily be the deciding factor in any encounter.  Sword infantry are your shock troopers, designed purely to dish out the offensive to whoever wants it.  Cavalry come in many variations, from spear cavalry that hunt other cavalry, to katana and bow cavalry that are essentially quicker but smaller quantity versions of their infantry counterparts.  Melee cavalry units can also punch holes in enemy lines with their wedge charge.  All cavalry share a critical weakness to spears, however.  Riflemen share the same roles and weaknesses as bowmen, but their rifles are much more devastating at the cost of reduced range and long reload times.  Siege weapons come primarily in the form of immobile artillery with incredible range and power but terrible accuracy, and special units, like ninja, who can stealth in open sight and use bombs to disorient the enemy.
Within these types there are a number of different units.  Spears have the most variation, from peasants who come in huge numbers but crumble against disciplined soldiers, to heavy infantry naginata samurai and warrior monks.  Most unit categories also have some sort of hero unit, who come in small numbers but represent the pinnacle of their class.  Katana Heroes wreck the opposition with their mastery of the blade and keep their fellow warriors fighting with the “Hold Firm” ability, Bow Heroes decimate from afar with excellent accuracy, high range and a couple of potent abilities.  The Cavalry hero unit is the Great Guard, tasked with guarding the Shogun himself.
At the head of it all is your commanding officer or “king piece”, which should usually, hopefully be a general.  The general is easily the most important unit in any battle, and can sway the tide with just his presence.  A giant blue radius encircles the general.  Any units within that radius get a morale boost, allowing them to fight harder and longer.  The general also has some Area of Effect buffs, such as the “Rally” ability that temporarily freezes the morale of nearby units, practically making them unbreakable (meaning they will fight all the way down to the last man if they have to).  All units gain experience and become more potent as they net kills, but each general has his own skill tree.  You can develop a general to be more melee focused, allowing him to get in there with his soldiers, or to have more powerful buffs.
Now, these aren’t your normal RTS battles.  I’m going to tell you from the onset that you should just look up a gameplay video, because no amount of words can really describe what goes on during a battle in Shogun 2.  Units come in sizes ranging from 30 to 150, (with it more commonly being 90-120), and you can have up to twenty units in one army at a time.  This means thousands of men clashing on an open field.  Thousands of men charging down a hill.  Thousands of men marching crossing a bridge.  Thousands of men storming the walls of a castle as arrows rain on them from above.  And every single one of them is rendered by the game’s graphic engine.  If games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are squad-based games, this is a battalion-based game.
As expected, strategy and tactics play a huge role in the clashes of Shogun 2.  At the basic level, you always have to keep in mind what units to assign to what role.  That begins in the deployment phase, a sort “prep time” before every battle that allows you to get in formation.  Though the game comes with a number of pre-made formations designed to cover a variety of stances, you can make your own using the group button, allowing you to move as an actual organized force, not just a giant mass of people.  Will you have your spears in the front as a defensive line, or in the back to protect your flanks?  Will your bowmen in the front to be able to start shooting as soon as possible, or in the back for their own safety?
Terrain is also important.  As battles load, you’ll be presented with a topographic map of the battlefield, allowing you to do some planning.  One of the most basic rules of war is to always try to have the height advantage.  Units get a sizable bonus when charging down hills, and it’s easier for arrows to find their mark going down a hill instead of up it.  Other things like rivers and forests play a role too.  Cavalry find forests hard to fight in, but infantry units can use them to travel without being seen.
The longer a battle drags on, the bloodier it gets, so to speak.  Some units, like cavalry and ninja fare extremely well in the initial attack, but then quickly start to lose favor as combat persists.  Vigorous activity such as fighting and running will eventually tire your men out to the point of exhaustion, putting a big damper on their effectiveness.
You don’t really have to keep a close eye on the actual fighting to know who’s winning, though.  Shogun 2 does an excellent job of giving of you multiple ways to tell at a glance how a unit is faring.  You can highlight any unit, either their card representation or the actual men on the battlefield, to instantly get a good amount of information on their current condition, as well as major causes of their condition.  It will tell you how energetic they’re feeling, how close they are to breaking, how many men are left in that unit, and what they are doing.  The most important tidbit of information will be how they are faring in combat, though.  This will range from “winning decisively” to “losing decisively”.  As an attentive commander, you’ll be checking this very frequently.  Every unit also has a giant flag floating above it to indicate its position and which side it’s on.  The flag itself is also a representation of a given unit’s condition, becoming more and more tattered as the men below it take losses, and flashing right before they are about to drop everything and flee.  A bar above the flag also gives you a general idea of troop morale; once it is empty, you can expect them to turn tail and run.
You may be surprised to learn that very few battles in Shogun 2 end with one side or the other being completely decimated.  Usually what happens is you end up “routing” unit after unit, which basically means that they decide to get the hell out of there, and try to escape off the map.  Once a unit is routed it is all but safe to ignore it, since under only a few occasions is it possible (or even worth it) to convince a fleeing unit to come back to the fight.  In this way, it’s really a battle of morale.  Yes, number strength and soldier skill are still deciding factors, but I’ve routed plenty of enemy units without me even touching them, due to them figuratively wetting themselves and fleeing.  Spear ashigaru, made up essentially of peasants, will quickly crumble against katana heroes, despite being five times their number.
The balance of power meter is also ever-present, giving you the game’s take on the proceedings.  Once it is completely filled in your favor (meaning every unit has either routed or perished), you win!  Then you have a chance to either end the battle there, or continue to hunt down every foe that hasn’t yet managed to flee the battlefield.  The option is more than a show of brutality, though, as most of the time one victory isn’t enough to simply wipe an army off the face of the map.  They will regroup and flee some distance, possibly renewing its numbers before coming at you again.  Usually they’re too broken to be a threat again for quite a while.
Siege and navy battles play out a tad differently.  During siege battles, as opposed to simply slaughtering everyone inside, an alternative condition for victory is to capture the central building inside the castle, done by having any unit stand near that building’s flag for one minute.  Aside from the central building, there are a number of other minor things to consider.  First, how to get inside.  The most straightforward way is to straight up climb up and over the wall.  But you can also bomb the doors open with explosives, or fire bombs.  Aside from the central building, there are a few other fortifications that can be captured for your own use.  Arrow towers can be captured to turn them against the defenders, and doors can be captured to open for you without having to destroy them.
Navy battles have a different flavor to them.  Though your objective is still the same as if you were fighting an open land battle you also have the option of capturing enemy ships by rowing up beside them, and boarding them, pirate style.  This starts up a struggle between the two ship crews.  With the winner forcing the loser to surrender, and be absorbed into their fleet.  Until you get access to ships with explosive weapons (which may be never), it’s either this or have the ships shoot at each other with arrows.  It’s an all or nothing situation, with the winner of most naval battles typically walking away with more ships than they went into battle with.  Personally, I hate naval battles.  They are extremely slow and unpredictable.  Plus, winning battle after battle on the sea can quickly snowball into a hugely costing venture, as you accumulate ships and are forced to destroy some to keep expenses reasonable.  The only saving grace of naval battles is The Black Ship, an extremely overpowered European ship that is continually circling Japan.  It’s a tough ship to capture, but will make short work of nearly all others in the game with its cannons and huge crew.
Though war is the focus here, if you’re finding yourself militarily crushed by other clans, you still have options.  The first one is agents.  Agents are individuals who carry out your bidding behind closed doors.  In exchange for a fee, they can carry out quite a number of tasks for you.  The most common types of agents are ninja, monks, and metsuke. 
Ninja are your spies and assassins.  At the basic level, you can direct them to lands unknown, lifting the fog of war and allowing you do reconnaissance on other clans.  Ninja can also assassinate important individuals such as generals and other daimyo, and can sabotage buildings and armies, reducing their effectiveness.  Ninja are invisible to other clans, but can be discovered if they linger in one place for too long, or fail their actions.  Ninja can also be embedded into armies to increase the amount of distance they can travel, or in towns to increase line of sight for that town.  Since enemy armies successfully sabotaged by ninjas can’t move for the rest of the turn, a handful of ninjas can keep an army at bay for a surprising length of time.
Metsuke are basically like paralegals.  They are there to crush criminals under the boot of your law, and carry out your shady dealings.  Detected enemy agents can be arrested and executed by metsuke.  Metsuke can bribe enemy units and generals, causing them to defect.  They can even buy out entire provinces (all with your money, of course).  Metsuke embedded within towns and armies lend a watchful eye to proceedings, protecting against assassinations and discouraging disloyal generals from defecting.  Though it’s extremely expensive, the metsuke’s ability to buy other people’s loyalty allows him to cripple incoming threats for players who favor money over military strength.
Monks are your religious emissaries.  They can up the morale of your own armies, and lower that of enemies.  They also bring happiness to towns that they minister in, and can cause revolt in other clans’ towns, serving as a sizable distraction for enemies.
Each action an agent can carry out has a success rate attached to it.  The higher the percentage, the more likely they are to succeed.  Failure can have dire consequences, sometimes resulting in the execution of the agent.  As they work, agents gain XP just like generals, and eventually level up.  They too have their own skill trees. 
The second alternative to combat is diplomacy.  At any time during your turn on the campaign map, you can bring up a list of all other clans you’ve encountered, telling you what provinces they control, their relationship with you, and a rough estimate of how strong they are and how well they’re doing financially.  From here you can set up deals and agreements, ranging from arranged marriages and trade agreements to military alliances.  If you’re feeling generous, you can also arrange to have money sent to a clan either immediately or over the course of any number of turns, as a token of goodwill; of course, you can also demand that the same be done to you (though it hasn’t worked for me yet).  This is also where you would formally declare war, or request peace.  Every deal you propose is given a measure of how likely it is to succeed, with low meaning they will refuse, moderate meaning they will either refuse or give a counter-offer, and high meaning you’re good.  There are a number of factors playing into the likelihood of a clan accepting a proposal, some of which even I don’t really understand.  I’ve had clans that I was allied with and essentially best friends with refuse to trade with me, for instance.  During their turns clans will sometimes also come to you with offers, which you can either accept or deny.  You can also give a counter offer if you want.  For example, it’s not uncommon for a clan you are on the verge of wiping off the face of the earth come to you with a peace proposal.  Usually I deny those.
Diplomacy is a powerful tool early in the game, but the nature of your ultimate goal means that making peace with other clans is really just a measure to postpone war with them.  Nothing hammers this point home further than the “Realm Divide” mechanic.  Here, you would hear a collective groan from people who have played this game.  As you gain territory, you also become increasingly famous throughout the land.  However, the current shogun will not be happy with your rise to power.  After capturing your 15-17th province, the shogun will declare that you have become too powerful, essentially making you public enemy number one.  This gives a massive hit to diplomacy that gets bigger with each turn, causing all but your friends among friends to immediately declare war on you.  If you’re not prepared, it could easily the beginning of the end for you.
Designed as a way rebuff players who are essentially steamrolling province after province, clan after clan (it’s not as hard as you think if you play your cards right), the Realm Divide mechanic is well meaning but very poorly implemented.  Trade agreements collapse; other clans that were at each other’s throats kiss and make up for no reason before setting their sights on you.  Like I said before, this is a Total War game, and diplomacy is really only there as an option.  But it’s nice that it’s there at all.  The Realm Divide completely throws diplomacy out the window, whether you like it or not.  You just can’t use it anymore, period.  Even clans that come into being in the middle of the game, who are probably 1/15th of your size decide it would be extremely smart to declare war on you.  Clans you encounter for the first time who logically shouldn’t know a single thing about you immediately declare war.  If you don’t know about the Realm Divide going into Shogun 2, it could very well destroy you.  If you do know about it, the early part of the game becomes a race to prepare for it.  And no, Realm Divide does not happen to the AI clans.  Only you.  I’ve seen an AI clan take Kyoto and the Shogunate for themselves (the other surefire way to cause it), and nobody cared.  In a few words, it sucks.
But the Realm Divide is one blotch on an otherwise beautiful painting.  Shogun 2 is nothing short of exemplary in the graphics and audio department, but you’ll need a formidable rig to run it smoothly at max settings.  The opening CG scene is exciting, and sets the tone for all battles to come.  All the sounds of combat are present:  the twang of bows and subsequent whistle as arrows fly towards their marks, the wince-worthy crunch and clash as armor is crushed, cannonballs penetrate wood, and blade meets blade, and the shouts and gurgles of death, pain, and eventually victory. 
Where battles have been fought, only bodies remain.  Corpses of horses and the soldiers that rode them, weapons and those that wielded them strewn all over the field.  It’s genuinely disquieting the first time you fight a large-scale battle in Shogun 2, and glimpse the aftermath.  The only standout thing is that there is no blood to speak of in Shogun 2.  None at all.
The environments aren’t without dedication either.  The maps are incredibly varied, from rolling hills to mountainous tundras, quiet forests and archipelagos.  From a high viewpoint, you can see clouds drifting lazily through the air, as well as smoke columns from the destruction of siege engines.  This goes for both the battles and the campaign.  Sometimes it will rain, other times there will be fog.  Often, during spring you can catch sakura petals falling.  Explosions are spectacular as well.
The theme is perfectly consistent across all areas, from the ukiyo-e art and paintings that permeate every aspect of the game (from character portraits to loading screens), to the traditional instrumental BGMs and regaling speech that every general delivers before battle, fully voiced in Japanese with subtitles.  In fact, the only English you’ll hear in this game will be from your tutorial advisors giving you information…in a Japanese accent.

It’s worth mentioning that the campaign mode is only one slice of the game, albeit probably the single largest portion.  A custom battle mode lets you set up battles against the AI completely how you like, controlling nearly every aspect, from the units to the map.  It’s a great tool for practice and experimentation.  The competitive multiplayer is called “Avatar Conquest”.  I haven’t tried much of it; I don’t really know that much about it.  From what I played, it’s a very light variation of regular campaign conquest.  You can also play through a campaign with another player, as a potential ally or your greatest enemy.  A friend and me can tell you that the co-op campaign is a blast.
At the end of the day, when you realize that you spent all morning, afternoon and evening playing it, Total War: Shogun 2 is an excellent, excellent game.  You don’t have to be a master tactician to have fun playing it, and the advisor, present to give you vocal help every step of the way (if you want it) combined with the extensive in-game encyclopedia make the experience much more intuitive than I would ever have expected.  There is no question of replay value.  Over 100 hours in, I still feel like I’m just getting to know what it’s like take over Feudal Japan.  This is the sort of game I would absolutely love to have seen some developer diaries or making-of books for, because it’s clear that a lot of effort, a lot of polish, and a lot love went into its crafting.  A game for beginners and veterans, average Joes and chessmasters alike.  A 9.5/10.

Valkyria Chronicles

Lately I’ve returned to Valkyria Chronicles, giving it a second playthrough on my new game+ file.  I feel like writing about it again, because for one thing I don’t like the quality of my original post for it.

Valkyria Chronicles is a unique mix of tactical RPG and third person shooter.  As the prologue so aptly describes, the game tells a story of war, and those affected by it.  The setting is an alternate but similar version of Earth in the mid 1900s.  In 1935 two world powers–the Federation and the Empire–scuffle over an increasingly important mineral resource called ragnite.  Tensions rise, and soon the Empire invades the Federation, beginning the Second Europan War.  The Empire makes good progress in the initial attack, and with the confidence gained from this, proceeds to also set its sights on Gallia.  Gallia is a small country sandwiched by the Federation and Empire, and until now it had managed to maintain a neutral position in their affairs.  However, Gallia is known to be a rich source of ragnite, and thus the Empire invades, opening up the Gallian Front in the war.  In addition to its regular army, the Gallian government enacts an emergency draft, mobilizing a militia.  The game deals with the Gallians’ efforts to push back the Empire’s assault.

We’re soon introduced to our main characters, Welkin Gunther and Alicia Melchiott.  Welkin is a calm-hearted tank commander and nature enthusiast with a wide knowledge of natural science.  Alicia serves on the town watch, and is also a talented baker.  Though kind, she’s no stranger to battle, and is determined to see her goals through.  The war sees both Welkin and Alicia assigned to Squad 7 in the militia, where they meet many different characters, most notably Largo and Rosie, the former of which is a grizzled war veteran, and the latter a sassy lass who used to sing in a bar.

The visual theme of the game is that of a history (or story) book that focuses on Squad 7 and its various members as they live and fight in a world ravaged by war.  The book serves as your menu, with different plot chapters and modes present in their own chapters in the book.  Story progress is made by selecting various illustrations on each page, which represent either cutscenes or battles.

When you’re not watching a cutscene or navigating menus, battles make up all of the gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles, even though it doesn’t feel like it.  When you first enter an engagement, you’re given a briefing that outlines your objectives and recommended strategies.  Then you’re given a chance to deploy your units; up to 9 (later 10) can be present at a time.  Once you’re satisfied with your formation, you can start.  Battles are turn based.  There are two parts to a turn (known as a phase in game).  First, you look at an overhead map that displays your units and captured camps and the known positions of enemy units and their camps.  Here is where you’d do most of your strategic planning, much like in any other SRPG.  Once you decide to make a move, you select a unit.  The game then delves right into the game world, where you control that unit directly, in real time.  Playing as a soldier on the battlefield, you have certain actions that you can take, before you have to go back to the map.  Each unit has a set amount of AP, or Action Points, that dictate how far they can move before they are rendered immobile for that turn.  Furthermore, you can also use something from your equipment loadout once.  This could be firing your rifle, tossing a grenade, healing yourself, etc.  Once you’ve done what you wanted to with that unit, the camera flies upward again, and you’re back at the map screen.  Taking control of a unit uses one Command Point (two, in the case of tanks).  Once you’re out of Command Points, your phase is over, and the enemy gets to move.  Once they finish, you go again, with a new stock of Command Points.  And so it goes.  The typical battle has you working to either eliminate all enemy units or capture all enemy base camps.

Units come in six different classes: Tanks, Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Engineers, and Snipers.  Aside from the ragnaid first-aid capsule (used to heal yourself or others) that all classes are equipped with, they all come with different equipment and stats.  

Scouts have the most AP of any class, and have a standard rifle and grenade loadout, but aren’t very tough.  Shocktroopers use machine guns (and later flamethrowers) to cut down enemy infantry with brutal efficiency, while trading max AP for higher defense.  As your anti-tank footsoldiers, Lancers are very tough, sturdy units, but are limited to rockets and portable mortars as their weapons of choice, with finite ammo per phase.  Engineers do everything on the battle except fight, having almost as much AP as Scouts (and sharing their equipment loadout), and being able to repair tanks other structures, disarm mines and replenish ammo, in exchange for being the weakest class in terms of defense.  Snipers have very little AP and defense, but come packing powerful sniper rifles, which can have better accuracy, anti-personnel damage, and range than any other weapon in the game.

Finally, we have the Tank class.  For much of the game, Welkin will be piloting your only tank.  Since he’s a central character, the destruction of the Edelweiss is an instant game over.  From most angles, tanks are completely immune to gunfire and grenades, and resistant to any other weapon.  They have about the same amount of AP as perhaps a Shocktrooper.  Tanks have two health bars; one is their primary HP, and the other is their tread HP.  Destroying a tank’s treads won’t destroy the tank itself, but it will leave it with almost no AP, rendering it close to immobile.  All tanks have a heatsink sticking out their back, which serves as their critical weakpoint.  Even bullets will do fair damage if aimed at this glowing weakpoint.  A tank’s primary weapon is its main cannon, which of course fires tank shells.  Tanks also have mortars and machine guns, for dealing with infantry.

The different unit classes form a loose rock-paper-scissors relationship, with certain units being more effective others, and better for certain roles.  There are many other nuances to combat, as well.  Different weapons have different effective ranges.  Attempting to hit enemies that sit beyond a weapon’s range results in dramatically reduced damage (and of course a much less lower chance to hit).  Even as you run for cover and take action in realtime, there are certain “rules” that arbitrate your success.  Enemies whose sight range you walk into are free to open fire on you, but are forced to halt as soon as you press R1 to begin aiming a shot.  When you aim at an enemy, a chart at the top of the screen tells you how many shots you will shoot, compared to how many will be necessary to KO the target.  An orange circle around the targeting reticule represents the extent to which shots can miss.

Strategy in Valkyria Chronicles extends not only to how you use your units, but what state you leave them in at the end of your phase.  You always have to be careful to make sure your tank won’t get hit in the behind before you end control over it, and it’s always advisable to leave your infantry either out of sight or sitting behind cover before you head back to the map.  Sometimes you can predict enemy movement and obstruct it by positioning your units to open fire on them as soon as they move.  In the map screen you can trade Command Points to use Orders, which can have positive effects on your units; anything from stat buffs to covering fire from offsite.

While the enemy AI definitely puts up a fight, it soon became clear to me that they were following a fairly straightforward and inflexible set of rules.  The result of this is a glaring lack of strategic sense on your opponents’ part.  Not unlike the philosophy of the Empire that most commonly represents your enemies on the battlefield, game difficulty will usually come from being outnumbered and outgunned, not outmaneuvered or outsmarted.

Of course, Welkin, Alicia, Rosie and Largo don’t serve as the only troops in Squad 7.  From book mode, you can view the Headquarters menu, which gives you access to the Command Room.  Here you can fill the squad’s ranks, drawing from a pool of around 50 unique individuals, spanning all the different classes (except for Tanks).  Each character is unique and voiced, with their own backgrounds and personalities.  All characters also have a set of traits and/or abilities known as potentials.  Potentials have the chance to activate while you’re controlling a unit in battle, and can have a range of effects.  For example, some scouts, like Alicia, can gain access to the potential “Double Movement”, which gives them a chance to completely refill their AP meter once it’s depleted once, allowing twice as much travel in one turn.    Jann, a Lancer, has a man-crush on Largo, exemplified by his “Largo Lover” potential, that gives bonuses when you bring him near the fellow Lancer.   One of the Shocktroopers, Jane, has the “Sadist” potential, that gives her a boost to damage when gunning down the Empire’s forces.  Characters also like and dislike certain others, with friendly faces being likely to pitch in with shots of their own when you open fire on an enemy while they’re nearby.

Should a character fall in battle, you have three turns to get another unit to their side and call in a medic before they bleed out and die, becoming lost to your ranks for the rest of the game.  The credits will show a list of everyone who lived or died, so you can imagine I felt pretty good when every character in the squad showed up as “Living”.

Headquarters (located in the Gallian capital Randgriz) is also home to a host of other options.  You can upgrade your troops’ weapons and equipment as well as individually fine tune each unit’s weapon loadout.  You can also use experience points gained from battle to level up your troops, which, in addition to buffing their stats, unlocks potentials and new orders.  Medals and rewards gained for battle performance are also received at headquarters.  Furthermore, it is home to The Writing on the Wall, a local newspaper that covers national events.  New articles are posted on it from time to time that not only cover story occurrences, but also other things going on, painting a better picture of the world as a whole.  Additionally, you can purchase playable “Reports”, extra chapters that aren’t part of the main plot but flesh out the squad’s various personalities; among these is the compulsory swimsuit/beach special.

The story book theme extends to the game’s visuals, which sit among some of the coolest I’ve yet seen, even today.  The engine was designed from the ground up to have a colorful, art book style of graphics.  The result is a game that looks like a painting or sketchbook in motion.  This is exemplified most effectively by the first few moments in the opening cutscene.  You watch as a picture depicting Welkin and Alicia riding the Edelweiss is first rapidly sketched up then colored, with them immediately springing into motion once the portrait is finished.  A finishing touch is added in the form of various emotes and onomatopoeia.  Even though it’s not eye-poppingly gorgeous from a technical standpoint, the game still looks great because of its art style, even today.  But if someone demanded that I think of a complaint against the visuals, it would be that the facial expressions and body language aren’t as lifelike as the voices and personalities associated with them.

Valkyria Chronicles isn’t just a stunner in the visual department; the audio is great too.  The soundtrack is one of the better ones I’ve heard this generation, and the voice acting is well delivered for nearly every character; a notable triumph, considering the rather large cast of voiced characters there are in this game.  Sticklers for original dubbing will be delighted to discover that the game also offers an option to play with the Japanese voice tracks.

Also of note is the game’s performance.  There is an optional install available, and with it loading times are usually very brief, spanning no more than 10 seconds, if I had to estimate.  Aside from some occasionally questionable rag doll physics, glitches are totally absent.  Framerate does dip noticeably sometimes though; particularly in grassy areas.

Earlier battles stick to having you capture enemy base camps, and are over quickly.  However, you’ll find that the further in you get, the longer and more tactically inclined they become.  I found myself spending more and more time poring over my map, planning effective courses of action, and before I knew it, a skirmish had lasted longer than 45 minutes.  There are about 18 chapters in the main campaign, with 1-2 battles per chapter.  Those that fall head over heels in love with the game may find interest in Skirmish mode, which provides extra, non-story related battles.

Valkyria Chronicles is easily one of the most charming games I’ve ever played.  It intrigues you with its colorful yet modest presentation, then keeps you interested with an engaging story, an incredible cast, and a unique gameplay style that leaves you wondering how it hadn’t been thought of before.  Few other games have touched me like this game did; its wonderful portrayal of human emotion is worth experiencing many times over.  A 9.5/10.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

As many people I talk to know well enough, I loved, Assassin’s Creed II. No, let me change that; I love Assassin’s Creed II. I’m not sure it was my game of the year (can’t remember all the games that came out this year but Uncharted 2 was likely a good contender), but if nothing else it was damn close. I was still roaming Florence, Venice, and good ol’ Monterigionni, slaying people as I pleased as Ezio when Ubisoft announced (and indeed, released) Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Ezio’s back for another round, and man am I glad.

Firstly, spoilers ahead for those who haven’t finished Assassin’s Creed II. (skip to the next paragraph) Brotherhood starts literally moments after the first one ends, at least in Ezio’s timeline (Desmond’s starts effectively in a similar manner, but I can’t say moments after). Ezio’s got the Apple of Eden, and together with Mario they escape Rome and head back to the villa. The other Assassins and other allies–Machiavelli in particular–aren’t happy that Ezio didn’t opt to finish off Rodrigo Borgia, who is now the Pope. Ezio reasons that the Apple was far more important, but it isn’t long before the Borgia stage their retaliation. A full-frontal assault on Monteriggioni leaves some major characters dead or captured, the villa you may have worked so hard on in shambles (and with it your armory), and the Apple of Eden lost to enemy hands. In a nutshell, you’re back at square one, and once more have a bone to pick with the Borgia.

Meanwhile, Desmond and company are hoping to find out where Ezio stashed the Apple of Eden after he retrieved it from the Borgia. To this end, Desmond jumps into the Animus once more to find out precisely where he put it, but the memory pertaining to this appears to be broken. They discover that the memory repairs itself as Desmond continues to live Ezio’s life leading up to this mysterious segment.

Brotherhood really is a direct sequel to AC2 in every way. There’s a very brief recap shown at the beginning like in AC2, but to be honest if you hadn’t at least played the previous numbered entry it would probably be difficult to pick up, especially given AC2’s twist ending (hoo boy; Brotherhood’s ending is a doozy). This really is purely a case of the gameplay being updated rather than completely overhauled or redesigned. Combat still works pretty much exactly the same as it did in AC2, with you being able to taunt enemies, grab them, dodge attacks, strafe, guard, and pull off counters and disarms (with the former resulting in a satisfyingly brutal kill). There are now some minor changes and tweaks, though. For example, enemies can now grab you (like how you could grab them), and attack a little more tenaciously. Attacks have more weight to them, with the camera shifting and the controller rumbling appropriately. You also can’t guard continuously. Taking hits continuously will smash through your guard, with some weapons being more suited to guarding attacks than others (for example, you can’t guard at all with your fists, and the hidden blade only blocks an attack sometimes). Ezio also locks on with his gun much quicker. Apparently Ubisoft realized how important counters and parries were to combat in AC2, because now they’re the name of the game, and it’s much easier to pull off a successful counter now.

The game assumes that you acquired pretty much every upgrade in AC2, so in Brotherhood you’ll be decked out in the Armor of Altair (for a little while anyway, before it gets destroyed), all the capacity upgrades (throwing knives, medicine, etc.), and such. All of the weapons from AC2 return, including the arm pistol, dual hidden blades, poison, and the ability to throw money. You also start off with the extra moves already learned, like throwing dust to blind your opponents and the climb-leap. Even though you lose them early on, you gain most of them back very quickly (or they at least become accessible). The game takes the special moves that the heavy weapons had and takes it a step further by giving most of the other weapons some kind of extension attack if you hold the button down instead of press it. For example, you can use the pistol with the sword equipped to kill a fleeing guard without having to open the weapon wheel. Speaking of heavy weapons, you can buy them and carry them around with you now (excited yet?). There’s nothing like strolling through town with a bastard sword strapped to your side, huh? Other new stuff you can carry on you include a crossbow (which is an insta-kill like the gun, but has more ammo and doesn’t make noise) and poison darts, which let you poison people from a distance.

The biggest change to the combat though is the ability to chain kills, and with that comes new finishers. And boy, does this speed up the pace of battle. I can NOT believe how I got through the last game without the ability to do this. Basically, by pulling off a finisher on one enemy, you can roll right into executing another nearby enemy, Batman-style. This improves the flow of battle immensely, bringing it a step closer to Arkham Asylum’s brawling system. I mentioned new finishers, right? Well firstly, you can now melee-finish enemies from the front, like you could with your bladed weapons, so there’s no longer a need to even draw a weapon when dispatching lone enemies that you can’t catch from behind. Beyond a few new exclusive animations for each weapon (like Ezio thrusting his sword right into an enemy’s throat), Ezio now integrates his arm pistol into kills sometimes, like grabbing an enemy by the neck with his gun arm and firing.

I may have alluded to this previously, but very little has changed since AC2 in terms of gameplay. The guard response, blending, and free-run systems are all almost exactly the same, with the exception of a new free-run mechanic called the lift, which takes you instantly to the top of a structure if you run towards it. The biggest difference comes in the sheer amount of new stuff to do, on top of what you could already do in AC2, virtually all of which has also returned. The platforming-centric underground areas are back in the form of Romulus tombs, which each contain a key needed to unlock the best armor and dagger in the game. And the quests, oh man the quests! The thief, courtesan and mercenary guilds are back, and bigger than ever. In addition to still having respective representatives stationed around available for hire like in AC2, each guild has their own series of quest lines. Furthermore, you have a slew of miscellaneous unrelated memories (what the game calls quests) involving citizens that are having trouble with Templar agents. Still more, Leonardo’s back, and since the last game the Borgia family have forced him to make them war machines, so you have several quests involving the destruction of those machines. Still more, you have a series of totally random quests unrelated to ANYTHING about a particularly lovely girl in Ezio’s past. Assassination missions are also back.

And that’s not even half of the stuff you can do. The villa upgrade system is back in a BIG way. Rome is in shambles due to the Borgia’s shoddy rule, with most of the shops closed and many buildings closed. With enough florins, you can change that. Instead of renovating one of each type of shop, there’s several of each shop spread out across the city (obviously). The aqueduct system is also out of order. You can fix that. There’s empty buildings you can fill with either courtesans, mercenaries, or thieves. With the revenue of an entire city flowing to you every 20 minutes, you’ll be making bank. The shops also have special items you can unlock in exchange for special trade items you can find in treasure chests or on enemies. There’s even a set of VR missions! You can test your mettle in combat challenges, timed runs, stealth assassinations, and one or two others I’m probably forgetting. Feathers are back, though there’s only 10 of them this time. But don’t worry, because there’s also 100 Borgia flags to collect!

Now…let’s talk about the reason Brotherhood is called what it is. When you first arrive in Rome, the Borgia have an iron grip on the place, which is carried out most directly through the several Borgia towers dotted across the map. The city is split up into sections/territories, which are each watched over by a tall tower overlooking a guard outpost. Strolling around either in the tower or somewhere nearby it is the captain of the outpost. To remove Borgia control from the area (reducing the amount of guards present and making it possible to renovate stuff), you’ll have to kill infiltrate the outpost, kill the captain, and light the tower on fire, telling the citizens that their oppression is now a thing of the past. It’s a shame there’s only a few more than a handful of these towers, because this represents some of the most fun you’ll have in the game (which is saying a lot, considering how much fun you’ll have and much stuff there is to do).

It’s about time the Assassins began expanding their ranks, which is why Ezio, now a Master Assassin, plays the recruiter in this game. Freeing an area from Borgia control opens up a slot for a recruit in your guild. When this happens you’ll encounter citizens rebelling against the guards. Help one out and he/she will join your guild.

There are two things you can do with the recruits now that they’re in your guild. The first thing is you can send them on missions across Europe. The Order is expanding its operations, but Ezio is occupied in Rome, so instead you can send your assassin recruits to carry out various tasks ranging in difficulty from delivering a letter to carrying out espionage in another country’s royal court, or assassinating key Templars in other parts of the continent. The other thing you can do is keep them with you as Assassin Signals. By looking at a nearby guard, you can press L2 to use one Assassin Signal (which regenerates after a couple minutes), which will summon your assassins to off the guy. Sometimes they might ride in on horses, other times they may strike from above, or from a haystack, either way they’ll get the job done, and take care of anyone else that gets in their way before making themselves scarce. They’ll also help you out in combat. As they off guards you shake your fist at or complete missions, recruits will gain XP and new levels, RPG style. With new levels comes new equipment to use. By the time your assassins reach level 10, they’ll have smoke bombs swords, daggers, their own hidden blades (one per recruit, of course) and arm pistols, and eventually even their own Assassin outfit reminiscent of Ezio’s. A recruit’s ascension to full-blown “Assassino” is a little more celebrated than your typical level-up, but I’ll leave that little bit as a surprise. I will say that it’s very satisfying seeing someone you picked up off the street ambush a group guards with a smoke bomb before expertly moving in for the kill, while decked out in the elite Assassin garb. So with an entire Assassin brotherhood at your back, as capable as Ezio is by himself, you’ll no longer feel like you’re in this on your own.

So! Let’s tally it up. In addition to the main story, you have a series of quests for each of the three main guilds, a bunch of Templar agents to assassinate, tombs to raid, a girl to reminisce on, war machines to destroy, a city to renovate, chests to raid, VR missions to try, targets to assassinate, feathers and flags to collect, Borgia towers to destroy, and a guild to run. Whew. And that’s on top of how fun it is to just run around killing guards like some sort of freedom fighter. Also, Subject 16’s puzzles are back.

And the amazing thing isn’t the staggering volume of content, it’s the variety present among it. Each the missions have a different flavor to them. The Christina missions (the afore-mentioned lovely girl of Ezio’s past) take you back to Ezio’s younger days, meaning they run mostly parallel to the events of AC2. For example, one mission takes place right after Ezio’s father is killed and before he gets the hidden blade repaired. So you’ll have to carry it out stealthily. Many of the Courtesan missions involve stalking a target before performing the kill. Each of the Borgia Towers and their captains are located in different locales, requiring different approaches and presenting different challenges. One of the Romulus tombs has you searching a masquerade party (which for some reason is going on underground) for a hidden target, while another has you sneaking into a church session and ends in an epic chase across the rooftops, attics, and generally places very high up from the ground. One of the storyline missions has you fending off an army. Each of the war machine destruction missions are also widely different from one another, though they all end with you getting to pilot the given contraption, with the vehicles themselves ranging from a bomber (which is basically the flying machine with a cannon strapped to it), to a tank.

One final addition is challenges. Almost every mission, story-related or not, has a side objective you can pull off to achieve 100% synchronization. Challenges can range from killing targets a certain way, not getting hit or detected to finishing within a given time limit or never touching the ground. With this comes the ability to replay memories and missions, with unlockable cheats enabled if you so choose.

However, it’s not all good times. As a game developed in a single year’s time, it’s amazing that this game is as good as it is, but that probably has to do with the devs saving time by not really updating the engine. Brotherhood’s graphics are exactly the same as AC2’s, with some perhaps very minor touch ups to character models. The graphics are still pretty good, but compared to some other AAA series, the engine hasn’t aged well. For one thing, the game almost never runs at what would be called a buttery smooth framerate, and dips quite often. It also froze a couple times during my playthrough. Load screens aren’t especially prevalent, but there are some moments (like when loading the map or pause screen) where the game takes a little longer than expected. Frankly, even AC2 ran a little better than this. To be clear, I’m not saying the game is a buggy mess, but it still looks like it could have used more polish in the technical department.

However, once again the developers did an excellent job building a living, believable world to roam in. For one thing, there’s a level of NPC activity present here that you’d only expect from a Rockstar game. The populace once again have limited minds of their own. You’ll overhear a variety of conversations (many of them concerning you), as you stroll down the street, and often observe a wide set of mannerisms. Some particularly disgruntled people will even aid you in battle if you find yourself in a scuffle with guards. Furthermore, the city is full of unique architecture and landmarks, from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Pantheon. Many of them, such as the Colosseum, are simply breathtaking. The music is also just as enchanting as it was in the first game (in particular, I’m a fan of the BGM that plays as you roam Moneteriggioni in 2012), and the dialogue is delivered very well.

The main story in Brotherhood, while not bad by any means, is one of the few, if only areas that is, at least in my opinion, inferior to that of AC2. And that’s not simply because it is shorter (if I had to guesstimate, I’d say Brotherhood is approximately 2/3 as long as AC2 purely in terms of plot length). AC2’s story was one that spanned entire decades, with the player witnessing and playing through segments of Ezio’s life ranging from the moment of his birth, to his induction into the Assassin Order as a young man, and finally to his acquiring the Apple of Eden as an adult Master Assassin. The player guided him through the wrongful execution of half his family, and as he learned what it meant to be a Assassin. Brotherhood lacks that scope. Instead we see Ezio mentor a new generation of assassins, which is great, but it just doesn’t have that magical feel that I loved so much about AC2’s plot.

Meanwhile, Desmond’s story doesn’t move forward that much either. However there is much more character interaction than there was in AC2. The game begins with Lucy and Desmond exploring the catacombs underneath the Monteriggioni villa, searching for a hidden entrance. As they travel together, they chat it up, cracking jokes and one liners at each other the whole way. This suddenly cheery atmosphere felt abrupt coming from the somewhat more grave atmosphere that was previously present. Incidentally, now you can leave the animus any time you want and talk to the other characters (they get some new dialogue options periodically as you progress through Ezio’s story). You can even get some fresh air, spending some time outside, and roaming a now-deserted Monteriggioni.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood improves on its predecessor in almost, almost every way. The combat is better, the world is better, and holy jeez the volume of content is way better. I was really looking forward to some more adventures with Ezio Auditore, even if it was more of the same, and this game has sated my appetite perfectly. That said, I’m definitely ready for Ubisoft to make the next big transition, like they did from 1 to 2. Another merely iterative approach at this point would be very disappointing. For now though, this game gets a 9.5/10 from me. This really is a case of “more of the same”, which is great if, like me, you really got a kick out of AC2. But on the other hand, this game (apart from the multiplayer) might not change your mind if you didn’t like its predecessor.

*Note: Brotherhood also features a full suite of online multiplayer. The reason I didn’t talk about it in this post is because I haven’t had the chance to spend a lot of time with it. I HAVE played a few hours with it though, and it is really innovative. I think I’ll just do a separate post on it. The score was still granted with the multiplayer in mind, however.

Assassin’s Creed II

Almost like platformers, great singleplayer games are a dying breed. Too often are games that are not RPGs and/or lack multiplayer disregarded because of the preconception that they simply aren’t worth the price tag. But thankfully, Ubisoft is here to prove that a game can certainly be full of lasting appeal and still lack multiplayer. Enter Assassin’s Creed II.

Assassin’s Creed II, as the “II” would denote, is a sequel. And a damn good one, at that. The first Assassin’s Creed followed a young man named Desmond, who is kidnapped by a large organization known as Abstergo, and forced to relive the memories of his ancestors, starting with a professional assassin named Altair. The player watched Altair as he worked to reclaim his honor after a mishap sees him demoted to the lowest ranks of his order. In the process, both him and Desmond stumble upon a revelation far bigger than they imagined.
At the beginning of Assassin’s Creed II, Desmond is rescued from Abstergo, and meets other members of the present-day Assassins. To train Desmond in their ways while simultaneously investigating the information revealed in the first game, this time he relives the memories of his ancestor Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Much like Desmond, Ezio begins as a regular (albeit mischievous) young man, but the murder of his father and brothers leads him to take up the suit and weaponry of the assassin. What begins as a quest for revenge once again unravels into a plot far larger than him or Desmond.
While the story itself is compelling and well paced, that’s only one part of the game. The first Assassin’s Creed had a great story, but some will argue that the major pros stopped there. Fortunately, Ubisoft made sure not to repeat this, and went above and beyond to improve every single aspect of the player experience, starting with the Free Run system.
Free Run is an incredibly nifty movement system introduced in the first game that allowed players to traverse almost any type of terrain in a relatively swift and efficient manner. Holding R1 and X while pushing forward on the stick prompts Ezio to sprint forward, automatically climbing or vaulting over any obstacles he encounters. Run into a wall, he’ll jump up and immediately start scaling it, continuing to run forward across the rooftop, and automatically leaping across any gaps. All you really have to do is steer, and Ezio will do the rest. However, here’s where a slight problem arises. The Free Run system is absolutely great for exploring the cities, but getting much precision out of it for tighter spaces or planned getaways takes more practice than should be necessary. What feels like a slight movement with the stick often translates to a near 90-degree turn in game, which can be annoying at best, and rather frustrating at worst. The other thing is, due to the camera not always giving you the best view of just what you’re going to land on when you jump off a roof, eager players will quickly find themselves taking more damage from accidental falls than any enemy’s blade. Fortunately, the game rarely seriously penalizes you for movement mistakes outside of the Assassin’s Tombs (which are optional). Even the speed run sidequests are often lax on their time goal.
Combat also received a beefy upgrade, as not only does Ezio utilize a few more tools of death than his predecessor, he has a variety of new abilities. Among his new toys are dual hidden blades, a wrist mounted firearm, and poison. The addition of a second hidden blade allows him to perform dual assassinations, killing two targets in one swift motion. Meanwhile, the gauntlet pistol, the last weapon you acquire in the game, allows you to kill targets in one shot. Even with all this new stuff, the game still feels balanced, with each weapon having its pluses and minuses. For example, swords ands hammers are the easiest to parry with, and thus are excellent all-around weapons, though lacking any outstanding attributes. The pistol will kill any target in a single hit, but Ezio requires several seconds to get a perfect bead on the target, and is vulnerable while aiming. It also attracts a lot of attention, and thus isn’t usually suited to stealthier kills. Throwing knives, as an alternative, often only do minor damage, but Ezio is quicker on the draw with them, and you can carry far more of them (you can carry up to 20 throwing knives, but only 6 bullets). The hidden blades require far more precise timing to block and parry with than held weapons, and thus aren’t suited to all-out combat, but their small size allows Ezio to “kill on the go”, quickly stabbing someone from behind or tackling them.
But even with all these new ways to kill people, Ezio still has his fists, potentially the most potent weapon of all. Even with no weapons equipped, you’d be a fool to think he’s not dangerous. Upset a villager who wants his pickpocketed money back? With a quick flick of RI and Square, you can counter his clumsily thrown sucker punch and end with a brutally delivered knee to the face, non-lethally defeating him. Beyond regular punches, you can counter almost every attack enemies throw at you. If you are unarmed, fighting an armed opponent, you can even disarm them, wrenching their weapon right out of their hands and, if you so choose, slaughtering them with it.  But Ezio’s move repertoire still doesn’t end there.  You can taunt enemies to draw their attention (or just talk smack, of course), dodge and strafe, and, if they are weakened enough, grab opponents by the collar and proceed to punch, headbutt, and/or kick the stuffing out of them.  You can even learn how to throw sand/dirt to momentarily blind your enemies.
And let me tell you, the finishers are brutal. The developers once said that they were designed to make you wince when you see them, and it works. I personally unequip any weapons I have when a Brute-type enemy (guards wielding broadswords, battle axes, or spears) is in battle, so I can disarm him and watch one of the finishers for his weapon. Ezio often leaves the weapon stuck in the victim’s body, making it even more gruesome to behold. Try hitting an enemy from behind or countering with a sledgehammer or two handed weapon, and you’ll see what I mean (though the finishers for ALL the weapons are pretty satisfying).  Overall the fighting system is excellently done, but crowd fights (which are pretty much they only fights you’ll be in) are unrealistic.  Enemies take turns attacking, and simply button mashing reveals how stiff Ezio’s regular attacks can be.  So while the combat system is still fun, it’s not nearly as fluid or believable as, say, the one in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
But sometimes you may find it better to avoid combat altogether.  To avoid attention, you can sit on benches, hide in hay bales or wells, or simply blend by walking with crowds and not doing anything conspicuous.  Not all guards will be fooled however, and depending on your notoriety (which rises with various spectacular actions and is quelled by bribing heralds and ripping down posters of you), they might be actively searching you.  When they’re on your tail, like in GTA4 a circle will appear, which indicates the area that they’ll be searching for you in.  Leave that circle without being seen, and find a place to hide and they’ll quickly give up.
As you progress through the game, you’ll be constantly invited to engage in various side activities. Minor examples of this include hunting down cheating husbands, small scale assassinations, and foot races. Most of them are actually pretty amusing (I especially enjoy the extra assassinations). There are also more significant side attractions, such as the Assassin Tombs. These are designed to challenge your agility and ability to think on the go, presenting various areas and obstacles courses you must traverse, usually under a strict time limit. Though entirely optional, completing all of the tombs gives you access to the strongest (and coolest looking) armor in the game. And then there’s of course the collectables, which come in two flavors: feathers and glyphs. There are 20 glyphs inscribed on various historical structures in each of the cities, and with each glyph comes an accompanying puzzle presented to you by the mysterious Subject 16, another person captured by Abstergo who learned far more than he bargained for during his time in the Animus, and split up his findings into pieces and encrypted them. The feathers (of which there are 100) aren’t quite as significant to the plot at large, but you can collect them as a personal monument of sorts to your slain family members.
But once again the developers didn’t stop with just a great story, excellent gameplay and impressive replay value.  They went on to work on the presentation, graphics and overall performance of the game.  Visually, Assassin’s Creed II is dazzling.  Ubisoft has successfully managed to emulate the same kind of detail and fluidity that Rockstar achieved with Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV.  Pickpockets dart in between crowds, various shop owners can be heard from all directions hawking out their wares.  Throw money on the ground and people respond in a big way.  Get in a fight, and the citizens will form a ring, cheering excitedly as the action unfolds.  Men try to woo prostitutes, and guards stay on vigilant patrol (unless distracted by money or whores).  Bystanders may cheer you on for defeating guards, but will boo and insult you for being a bully.  This is a living, breathing world and it shows.
The cities themselves are also spectacles to behold, with each one having a very unique feel.  The devs worked hard to rebuild these cities as replicas of their real life counter parts, and it shows.  There are over a dozen historical structures to be found as well.  Basically, this is a game with  not just a rich fictional backstory, but a rich historical backstory.
The game performs well overall, but there some slowdown, notably with large crowds and when the Animus is reconstructing each city (though that may be intentional).  Glitches were few and far between, but the corpse physics are a little weird.  There’s a mandatory install, but loading times are not only interactive but not overly long or frequent.
Assassin’s Creed II is an excellent game.  Ubisoft knows it, and hopefully after playing it for a bit most other people will too, even if they also know it’s not quite their cup of tea (there’s a difference between not liking a game, and it being good).  Ezio’s tale is one worth hearing, and the story at large, while complex, is interesting (though the ending will break it for some people) and pushes you forward just perfectly, even though it still manages to step around certain tidbits.  There’s also a lot of replay value to be had here, from collecting the feathers to solving the glyph puzzles (and I didn’t even mention the Villa).  Plus, it’s also fun just roaming around getting in fights and such.  A 9.5/10.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Every now and then I come across a game that simply feels right. Where I feel hard-pressed to think up any serious complaints against the game, and it contains a large number of elements so great and so well done, I wonder why they haven’t been done before in this capacity (Or maybe they were done before, but weren’t done right). I believe the last game I played that was like this was Valkyria Chronicles. That game had so many good things going for it, but Sega completely failed to advertise it, and thus pretty much no one played it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is another of those games. It’s a game where I don’t mind whiling away the hours working at a particularly tough trophy, or where I’m having so much of a blast playing it that I simply don’t really care what time it is, or when I need to stop. That’s what happened the second day I played it, as I stayed up till 3am working at the 40 hit combo trophy, and enjoying every second of it.

So enough single minded praise for a bit, let’s talk about the premise. The game opens just as Batman is driving the Joker back to Arkham Asylum in his Batmobile, having spent the evening foiling the clown’s attempt to assassinate the mayor. You play as Batman, escorting the Joker deeper and deeper into the depths of Arkham. You can feel tension in the air as Joker continues to make jokes and be cheerful as usual. Naturally, you soon find that the Joker let himself be captured (as Batman suspects out loud). You watch as he attacks and kills both his captors, and reveals that his men, transferred from Blackgate prison due to a [rather coincidental] fire, have already begun taking over the asylum. Now everyone (including Batman) is trapped on the island, and there’s no help coming. So put simply, Batman’s spent a lot of the past couple of months rounding a lot of big super criminals and throwing them in Arkham Asylum. Now he’s trapped on the island with all of them wanting a piece of him.

Fortunately, you’ve got the brains, skills, and tools to not only escape the island, but to put every criminally insane individual back in their cell in the process. Arkham Asylum is composed primarily of three things. Brawling, exploring, and sneaking. I’ll explore each of these components separately, starting with hand-to-hand combat.

Rocksteady (the developer) has devised one of the most simplistic, satisfying, deep fighting systems ever for Arkham Asylum. I’ve spent a lot of time cracking skulls with this system, and it works so ridiculously well, I can’t imagine how any game with close combat in it could possibly compare favorably anymore. It’s completely off-balanced my scale on how I would compare combat systems. It’s called the FreeFlow Combat system. At the most basic level, you only need to use Square and Triangle to do pretty well. Square is the attack button, you mash it continuously until you see a dude trying to attack you. Then you press Triangle to counter his attack. Eventually, you’ll come across enemies that have to be stunned with O or dodged with X before you can attack them. If you want to get fancy, you can also quick-throw Batarangs with L1, and (once you get it), pull enemies with the Bat Claw by double-tapping R2.

At the beginning, you can get by fine enough just button mashing. But in later fights, you’ll find that hordes of thugs won’t let you just hit square all the time or rely on a simplistic strategy. As Batman, you need to keep an eye not just on the guy who’s arm you’re breaking, but on everyone around you. If you’re not observant, you won’t notice that guy on the fringe of the battle who runs off to rip a pipe off the wall to attack you with, or to break into the gun depository. At a more basic level, you won’t notice the guy slowly making his way towards you, getting ready to throw a punch. An experienced brawler is paying more attention to the battle at large, than just Batman and the poor soul getting kicked in the balls.

But you can’t just sit around, either, because another important element to combat is the combo counter. You’ll need to throw three punches in quick succession before you go into FreeFlow mode, where you can easily direct Batman’s attacks. From there on, you’ll want to maintain your combo. Getting a high combo chain is the basic key to a high score and getting large heaps of EXP in one sitting. Every time you get hit, miss a punch, or stop attacking for about two seconds, your combo drops back down to zero. Unless you rely on heavy variation in your attacks, it’s pretty difficult to get a high score without getting good at combos.

Occasionally you’ll have to fight a boss. Even though (without spoiling much) these are generally famous enemies of the Bat from the comics, in my opinion boss battles are actually one of the lower points of the game. There’s a Zelda-esque simple pattern to beating each of them, and but they don’t really ramp up the difficulty each time you outwit them. So the battle becomes boring.

The alternative to facing foes head on is sneaking. These areas, where it’s better to take a stealthy approach, are known as predator challenges. Of course, you’re the predator. Again, this is a very well-designed aspect of the game. In predator challenges, the only goal is to take out every single enemy. How you do this is entirely up to you. There are usually numerous hidden pathways, hiding spots, and alcoves for you to hide in, as well as gargoyles that you can perch on to survey the area and plan your moves. As you systematically take out each person, the Joker will make comments directed at both you and his henchmen. The funny thing is, he often spends more time chiding, taunting and threatening them than he does Batman. For example, by the time you’ve taken out all but the last person, that dude is just completely terrified. He turns this way and that often, and looses off shots at even the slightest hint of your presence. Meanwhile, Joker will constantly insult and threaten him over the loudspeaker, definitely not helping his psyche. You almost feel sorry for the guy.

You have numerous moves and tools at your disposal for dispatching henchman. One signature takedown is to hang from a gargoyle and wait for someone to walk under you. Then you can immediately swoop down, grab him, and string him up from the gargoyle. Later on, goons will start wearing suicide collars, which alert the rest of the crew when someone is taken down. One of my favorite things is to dispatch a guard, then boobie trap his body with explosive gel. You can guess what happens when the others come to investigate. Another fun one is to take advantage of structural weaknesses to bury a henchman in falling debris. Besides gadget based attacks, you also have a number of physical takedowns. Sneak up behind an unsuspecting henchman to take him down cleanly and silently. Hang from a walkway and wait for someone to walk by you, then rise up and pull them over the edge, Assassin’s Creed style. Alternatively, you could lie in wait behind a corner, and wait for your prey to walk up just close enough to pop out and KO him in a corner takedown. These predator challenges really are made of good stuff.

And finally, there’s exploration. Though you’ll constantly feel propelled through the campaign, and rarely lost, the fact is Arkham Asylum is one big sandbox. At most points in the game you’re free to explore and backtrack, either to solve riddles or just to see the sights. I say most because one of the villains, Poison Ivy eventually breaks out and wreaks havoc on much of the island structure. Gameplay wise, this could actually be a good thing, as it often forces you to take different routes when backtracking, because your normal way might have been blocked off.

The game provides incentive to stay observant with riddles and other secrets hidden all over the island. There are over 200 Riddler challenges to solve, from hunting down Riddler trophies to scanning the various Amadeus Arkham plaques left behind. Besides the latter example slowly unraveling an interesting side story, completing Riddler challenges not only net you a hefty XP bonus, but also unlock combat and predator challenges, patient interview tapes (all of which are quite amusing to listen to), and biographies for a bunch of famous and not-so-famous characters in the Batman universe. I know I learned quite a lot about Batman and his past through the character bios. If the campaign secrets aren’t enough replay value, each combat and predator challenge also has it’s own online leaderboard, including the ones in the Joker DLC.

Finding and these challenges is simple enough, but solving them might be another story, as many of them are real head-scratchers. A lot of the Riddler trophies and riddles are only accessible with the use of certain gadgets though, so it’s nice that you can continue strolling the island after you’ve beaten the game.

Arkham Asylum is also visually crisp and impressive. The animation especially is very fluid, and it shows during combat and ingame cutscenes. It also makes notable use of depth of field blur effects, and overall a very dark (almost horrific at times) style, fitting for the Dark Knight and the tone of the game. The audio is also pretty good, with the Joker obviously having the best performance. Just like the Dark Knight movie, you can expect to hear a lot of deep woodwind instruments as you stroll through the ruined halls of various Arkham facilities.

Ultimately I found I was unable to find much fault in Arkham Asylum. It’s just an excellently done game with great pacing, superb controls and gameplay, and impressive replay value. The PS3 version even comes with free DLC that let’s you play as the Joker through several Predator and Combat challenges. Really, just go play it if you can. A 9.5/10.

Note: By the way, there’s also an Alternate Reality Game going for Arkham Asylum. It involves the fire at Blackgate, and how one of the employees there thinks how incredibly strange it is. Visit to start.


Like Uncharted, LittleBigPlanet is a game that only recently caught my attention. After a bit of research into it, I quickly became excited; the game really looked great. Apparently, I wasn’t alone, as, despite Sony’s marketing campaign, LittleBigPlanet took many people by surprise with its cute and fun charm, coupled with its polished gameplay and incredible replay value.

Three words: Play, Create, and Share. Those are the words that form the game’s marketing slogan, and also the words that best sum up the game as a whole, and the game’s developer, Media Molecule, has stressed the idea that no one of the three is more important the other two.

For the “Play” component, you and up to three other players, online or offline (or any combination of the two) control highly customizable (and undeniably cute) “Sack boys/girls” as you work together to complete a level. LittleBigPlanet is a 2.5D (3D graphics, 2D gameplay) platformer that plays similarly to the old Sonic and Mario games, with a lot of twists thrown in with the typical run and jump formula. In addition to jumping, your Sackperson can also grab and push things (and other Sack people). Throughout your travels, you’ll come across all manner of contraptions, such as cars, air ships, and trains. The folks at Media Molecule have created a set number of stages that ship with the game, and are organized into a story campaign. The story isn’t a masterpiece, but that’s fine since, more importantly, it gets you well used to what the game is all about, and how best to play it.

You’ll also come across numerous bubble objects that often contain items, like stickers, decorations, materials, or things to further customize your Sack person with. Though they are predominantly just cosmetic, you’ll sometimes encounter blank cardboard shapes which, when given the right sticker, activate special areas or more prize bubbles. Bubbles further your score and, when found in quick succession, can quickly multiply. Online leaderboards inform you how well you did compared to other players at the end of each level.

You’ll start the game in your pod, which is a small space ship overlooking three planets: LittleBigPlanet, where the story takes place, the InfoMoon, where you can access a wealth of information and view your friends and profile, and MyMoon, home to all of your custom levels. Other players, online or off, can join you at any time, whether you’re in a level, in your pod, or creating a level. Your pod can also be decorated with stickers and decorations.

The “Create” aspect covers level building. At any time after you’ve completed the initial tutorial levels, you can use the materials you’ve acquired so far to craft your own level from the ground up. Using various tools, you can add music, living creatures that can be programmed to speak to you, elements like electric floors and elevators, just about anything you can dream up can be made with relative ease here. Unfortunately, the game does force you to go through a lot of tutorials before you can really get to work, but they are mostly brief, and they’re all actual levels that you play through, not just videos you sit and watch. Fortunately, loading times between your level and a tutorial level are fairly brief, so being forced to go through them is forgivable. Friends can also join you while you build, with all of you working as a team to build the perfect level.

Most of the “Share” aspect is online. This encompasses publishing your level online for others to play, trying out other people’s levels, and commenting on them. Though the system is organized a little a sloppily, its not a big thing to complain about, and doesn’t take away much from the overall experience.

Like I mentioned before, your Sackperson is fully customizable. The game ships with dozens of clothing and facial options for your little guy on the disc, and even more are readily available from the Playstation Store, some for free, some for a couple bucks. Examples of downloadable costumes include Ryu from Street Fighter, Old Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4 (complete with the Solid Eye and The Boss’s bandanna), Santa Claus, and a Chimera from Resistance 2. All of these come in pieces, not sets, so you can mix and match elements of different costumes, like using Ryu’s hairstyle, bandanna, and red gloves with Santa’s coat and trousers. Add a large mustache and goatee and you’ve got a Sack boy to call your own.

LittleBigPlanet is a great game. Even if you’re not connected to the internet, the fairly long campaign stuffed full of hidden items, not to mention the full featured level builder, adds an unprecedented amount of replay value to the game. Add in 4 player cooperative multiplayer that is very humorous at times, and you’ve got a golden package. LittleBigPlanet isn’t perfect, it has its stutters occasionally, but overall its a game full of fun adventures. A 9.5/10, in my opinion.