As my general ranks-up in Shogun 2's Avatar Conquest mode, winning battles for Clan GWJ and helping it capture its first provinces, I'm spending more time customizing him and my army. I have a superb unit of peasant spearmen who have been with me since my first battle, and they now go into battle wearing a different uniform than the rest of their comrades. Pity the poor cavalry unit dumb enough to charge them.
But what I'm really addicted to is how my play style keeps evolving with my character. I'm not just wedded to unlockable skills and new uniform decorations (though I like keeping my troopers looking fancy). I just love seeing how some new bonuses and elite units force me to depart from the standardized tactics that have seen me through so many Total War games.
Usually, I don't have a warm view of progression systems. They're so often a baited hook—one that keeps players striving for illusory improvements that are in turn wiped-out by enemies that rise to match them. But Shogun 2's progression system changes the game, and using your growing set of tools requires mastering new skills and even leaving your tactical comfort zone. In Avatar Conquest, when other players are doing the same thing, the matchups become that much more interesting.
This is progression done right, because I'm actually being rewarded for putting in more time with the game by seeing it evolve in new directions. When I first started with multiplayer, I adhered very closely to my usual style. I took a handful of archers to whittle the enemy, a large number of spearmen to tie them down, and small core of shock infantry to break them at the flanks. When I had access to cavalry, I held them back to counter enemy cavalry or execute encirclements. My armies, and my battles, had a cookie-cutter feel to them. It's roughly the same formula I've used since Shogun: Total War.
But between Clan GWJ's emphasis on swordsmen, the shrinking size of my armies as their constituent units gained experience and deadliness, and my own general's increasing ability to inspire his soldiers and devastate enemies with savage charges, my style became much more aggressive and straightforward. My army of peasants and swordsmen fight like samurai now, not Romans or redcoats. When my lines surge forward, raked by arrow and musket fire, with enemies racing to flank them, I have to make sure I break my opponent's formations quickly, because an orderly battle works against me.
A couple weeks from now, the game will probably be different once again, and I'll have to re-learn how to fight with my army. So far, it's kept Shogun 2 fresh, and done a surprisingly good job of taking me away from the single-player campaign. Nothing holds a candle to the rush I get from seeing an opponent's battle plan dissolve under the weight of elite swordsmen and perfectly timed charges, especially when that opponent did everything possible to avoid a fair fight.
Shogun 2, like my other obsession, NHL 11, shows what we should expect from games that introduce RPG progression systems into other genres. It shouldn't just be that a character gets more powerful just by virtue of grinding. The player must be forced to grow with the character, to learn how to utilize his new powers and explore new possibilities. Progression should not just extend the life of the game, but also its scope.