These historical war games are the hardest to contextualise. As I was marching my force of Takeda Shingen up a snowy hill, for instance, I found myself humming the theme to Dambusters. That's not very feudal Japan, is it?

So, ten years after the first Total War game and we're back in the Sengoku era, after a spell in ancient Rome, a couple of jaunts in the middle-ages and a brief foray into the eighteenth century. As the Propellerheads and Shirley Bassey sang in the 90s, it's all just a little bit of history repeating.

In the decade-long gap since we've last took up residence here, Total War has seen plenty of changes. Lands have become countries, which in turn became entire continents - a spiralling web of trade and conflict as the Total War timeline inched closer towards the age of globalisation. But realigning the focus on a single nation now adds some necessary tunnel-vision to Total War's scope and intentions; whereas the cosmopolitan jaunts of Empire allowed developer Creative Assembly to briefly skirt over a great many cultures, we're now back to a single nation and a single focus - and it's clear the team at Creative Assembly haven't lost theirs.

That's all a complicated way of explaining the satisfaction derived from watching an entire fleet of arrows thup-thup-thupping into a dense pack of enemies, mind, which is something which Total War has always done better than any other game in the history of ever.

So, picture the scene: I'm defending a 17th century hilltop castle - think wooden structures and those beautifully ornate triangular roofs. The three-tiered fortification's upper keep is where most of the action is taking place, which basically means I'm doing extraordinarily badly.

Rewind a few minutes and I'm comfortably swatting down relentless hordes enemy pikemen, whose tactic of rushing up the forested glades and scaling the castle's chunky stone walls is not really doing much against my swathes of archers. Their lethal, fire-tipped arrows scorch across the air and extinguish themselves in flesh and snow with a satisfying damp hiss. My satisfaction is short-lived, however, as I realise the enemy has snuck an enormous samurai expedition up the mountain passage at the rear of the castle.

My hurried repositioning doesn't happen nearly fast enough, and the enemy forces effortlessly cut through my archers without hesitation - as my squads rout to the uppermost keep they are brutally dispatched by a bold charge of horsemen. The worst part? I completely disregarded the advice, given to me by a Creative Assembly staff member no less, to cover said mountain path. The crushing defeat is humiliating.

Still - let's move on, shall we? The main focus of a recent preview event was on Total War: Shogun II's new online modes, designed specifically to bridge the gap between the series' context-rich single-player campaign and its traditionally disjointed vignettes during multiplayer tussles.

To accomplish this, you're now granted access to a persistent general-class Avatar unit. As your Avatar levels up, you get access to a full tech tree of traits and a set of perk-like retainers. This is clearly an aspect of contemporary multiplayer gaming rather than any contextual nod to history, but it's a system that's proven to work well. This also lets you aspire to unlock a new helmet, too, which never hurts.

Such a range of possibilities and permutations buzzing around the online landscape will blatantly cause the occasional collision - I give the game about three days before some überboffin works out some ridiculously overpowered combination and stomps over everybody, but a beta period and a (hopefully) solid post-launch team will be on hand to iron out any problems that turn up.

Meanwhile, you'll use your Avatar - who I immediately painted pink - to trot along your personal map of Japan. Move into an adjacent square and you'll trigger a battle with another player, and if you win you'll get control of that square. Do really well and you'll be able to turn the whole of Japan pink, just like they actually did in the olden times.

Progress is bound to the individual rather than some kind of humongous central server, but an intricate clan meta-game runs concurrently to your personal progress. Opt-in to this and your posse will be placed in a league with about 30 other clans. Each season runs for two weeks, and any territory claimed goes towards progress for both the individual daimyo and their clan.

Chuck in co-op support for the regular campaign and the ability for allies to share units - an evolution of the multiplayer support in Napoleon: Total War - and you've got ample proof Creative Assembly is seriously looking to bolster the multiplayer side of the game.

And some big changes have made their way into online scuffles, too. The most significant is that key buildings are now positioned in central locations, designed to encourage players to do a little more than set up an impenetrable defensive line and wait for the other to get bored enough to attack. Control of these buildings confers generous bonuses to your squad, which should be more than enough to plough through any enemy who decides to dig in and turtle at the top of a hill.

Forcing you to move armies has an immediate effect on the rhythms of play. Tension mounts, for instance, as four armies divide their forces to work on securing two buildings. Stationary battalions of samurai begin their slow march across rolling fronts that stretch for miles, with regimental walking turning into scattered sprinting as armies charge into one another. Steel clashes, and rain collects on ever-increasing masses of falling bodies.

The enemy has a vastly superior force of archers, and their arrows are fired deftly over their own forces and into my men. It looks bad, with dozens of soldiers collapsing with each volley, but the tides turn when squadrons of elite samurai stalk through a nearby forest, encircle the enemy cluster and successfully launch a counterattack. Their blades mercilessly plunge into backs and sides, and a few minute later an allied general is chasing down the routing remnants of their once-proud army.

Excellent - maybe I'll get enough points to unlock a new hat.

Creative Assembly clearly has a great deal of affection for the Warring States Era, with a huge emphasis on detail oozing out of every corner of the game. But it's also clear that sharpening the focus on one area of history has allowed the studio to reign in their strategy and bolster Total War with an ambitious new set of multiplayer modes. While some people would have been happier with a sequel to Rome, there's a very good chance that going back to the beginning with Total War: Shogun II will herald the second coming of the series.