KOEI keeps on refining and changing the Dynasty Warriors series of games and the latest one that hit the stores is the Xbox 360 Dynasty Warriors 5 - Empires. This takes its cues from earlier titles and builds on the 'Risk' strategy aspect to offer more than just a quick game of hack and slash.
The story is based on the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms era in Chinese history and is full of magic and mythical legendary characters, such as the mighty Lu Bu, a mercenary warrior who rode a horse known as Red Hare and wielded an impressive spear, his combat prowess was said to have no equal and he was capable of turning on his employers in the blink of an eye.
In this game you will shape the story of one of the Three Kingdoms, Wu, Shu and Wei as you forge alliances and attempt to conquer the kingdom map. As one of the central characters from the story or your own custom edit character.
For those of you familiar with the previous titles in the series not much has changed when it comes down to the battles, there are only two modes of play in this iteration and the sub-games have been removed. The first mode of play is the Empires mode where you can take your kingdom to glory in a 'Risk' style map fighting for dominance against the other kingdoms in play.
The second mode of play allows you to play the battle maps and upgrade your character without worrying about story mode, attacks or events. Essentially it's just the old Free Mousou mode from the previous titles but it's nice to see that it's still in the game.
It is here that you can pick a scenario (with more to unlock as the game progresses) as well as choosing one of the established characters to build up, or making one of your own in the fairly refined edit officer mode. An open scenario exists for you to set up your own style of game and if you want you can pick a variety of kingdoms to act as enemies (or later on allies through diplomacy) and place them where you want.
When upon the strategic map screen you can choose from a variety of options, move your fledgling army around the map and use command points (very limited at the start) to perform various actions, these can range from buying special battle cards to consulting with one of your officers to purchase a pair of battle cards for a lower price.
These cards have a variety of effects and either activate immediately or can be saved during the battle setup screen, where they can be triggered to cause problems to the enemy forces or increase the amount of in-game time to complete a map. It is also on the strategic screen where you can buy new levels of blacksmithing to increase your weapon's power, when you reach 100 in a level of weapon type, say, blade you are granted the next powerful weapon in that category.
You can also purchase items here to aid you in battle; these must be made and are dependant upon how much of the map you have taken control of and which kingdoms are under your thumb.
Each order takes one command slot as well as sometimes costing gold and you gain more command slots as you progress in Empire mode. Once you have used all your command slots, you can then skip the battle and see how things pan out or find an enemy to invade and attack them.
During this mode you might also need to defend one of your provinces or enter into an alliance, the ally might also request your help in dealing with his or her enemies.
Eventually you will be called to battle and this is where the series hasn't really changed, the maps have been definitely altered and the type of gameplay is different compared to the older games. But it is still a matter of battling vast amounts of troops, defeating enemy officers and commanders - although the enemy officers will return after a while allowing you to defeat them once again - until eventually you can capture them and put them out of the battle for good.
The battles are timed and the max time is 30 minutes, unless you play a time-extend card before in the setup screen (where you can alter your items and weapon) as well as take advantage of any special cards you want to play.
Your army is made up of yourself, two generals and three lieutenants. You have a number of troops at your disposal and must keep an eye on your armed forces via the strategy screen to make sure you have still got soldiers should you loose a battle or take too many losses.
You can give orders via the D-pad directly or switch to the tactical map and give orders to individual generals and lieutenants; this allows a greater depth of tactics than previous games.
Button mashing is the order of the day however and winning fights comes down to the knowledge of when and how to block, even against some of the more powerful types of guard you can quickly end up dead on the higher difficulty levels (Chaos level especially). Various flashy combos are all easy to pull off and as your character levels up during the course of the game you'll be given access to more powerful attacks, chained combos.
As you battle you build up Mousou power and this can be unleashed in a spectacularly stylish attack to wipe out hordes of enemies in a blaze of glory.
Once you have won the map you are transferred to a de-briefing screen where you're given a tally of performance, experience earned and items/upgrades gained from battle. Your character's stats can be altered quite significantly from attribute upgrades and certain items will give you an effect that can be applied to your current weapon, each weapon has a set amount of slots and better effects overwrite older less powerful ones.
You are also usually given an influx of gold as well as a choice to hire any captured officers to your army, once this is over you're taken back to the strategy screen and it's time to give out more orders and move troops. At the end of a year there is usually an event or two that can change the flow of battle, a flood might prevent you from taking your enemies province for a while, or even worse there might be a plague that ravages through the provinces you control and wipes out some of your troops.
Do exceptionally well in the story and you'll find a promotion awaits from the Emperor himself, this grants you an additional command slot and proves to the other enemies that you're not just there for show.
Items that you make in Empire mode are available in Free mode, and this is the only way to get items for that mode of play, as well as upgrade your weapon. Sometimes you're lucky enough to find an Evolution orb that can be applied to your weapon and allows you to make a powerful Evolution attack, chaining with previous combos to deliver massive damage and destruction.
The graphics of Empires are fairly nice, there's little in the way of pop-up and there's certainly no slowdown when you're knee deep in enemies and officers, battling with an impressive display of pyrotechnics and effects. All the textures are bright and colourful with the costumes being particularly excellent, flowing cloaks and shining armour are the order of the day here.
The scenery is good if a little bland but in a game of this kind when you're battling to slaughter enemies, left right and centre, you're not really too bothered about the surroundings. It makes good use of light and shadow and the special effects are impressive especially when you perform an incredible combo and wipe out a lot of enemy units in a single hit.
The frame rate doesn't seem to take a hit when things get too insane, although there is one huge annoyance in 2 player mode where the characters seem to suffer from pop-up as well as the scenery, this has plagued the series for a while and on the next gen one would have expected this to be fixed to be honest. Seeing your companion vanish into thin air in front of you when you're trying to follow them is somewhat disconcerting.
The most detail is given over to the various legendary figures from the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, these are superbly modelled and each one is a definite character, from the mighty Lu Bu's two plaits of long hair and his heavy armour, to the faster characters and their lighter armour and various outlandish hair styles, it's all a wild ride of the imagination.
There are fewer details lavished on the generic enemies but they are in essence just that, mooks, to be beaten in droves and walloped into the air as part of an impressive sky-borne combo attack.
The level of animation in the game is fine, it does the job and some of the combos are beautifully executed. Each attack swing is timed nicely and nothing seems off as you leap and hack around the map sundering enemy after enemy. Even the droves of enemy soldiers are well animated and they move without stiffness or any kind of jerkiness.
It's not terribly sophisticated and the AI in the game doesn't use a wide variety of tactics, it often rushes when it should hold back and it can sometimes take a less experienced player by surprise by leading them into an ambush or two. On the Risk-style map it will play a cagey game of watch and see, until you make a mistake and you'll find those hard-won provinces are now the colour of the enemy.
It will block an awful lot and on the harder difficulty levels landing a solid blow can seem to take an age. It does provide a fun opponent however and that's all I can really ask for in a game like this.
The clash of steel in the game is nice to hear, the weapons clattering off each other when you're caught in a deadlock with an enemy officer. The sweeping nature of the battle around you and the whoosh of a special attack, such as fire, they're all well realised and match the theme of the game perfectly.
The games have a typical score that fans of the series should immediately recognise from the opening, it has been reworked numerous times but remains a solid piece of music and along with the other pieces match the theme of the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms nicely.
As the games have progressed the voice acting has been getting better and better, in this instalment I'm pleased to say that not all of it is bad, there are still some very dodgy performances by some of the character actors but the majority of the vocal work has life and soul to it.
There's no Xbox Live element to this game but you can play split-screen in both Empire and Free mode with another player, teaming up cooperatively in a battle or in Empire mode is great fun and the good old double Mousou is back when you are next to a team-mate. It is also satisfying to see that in the game's in-engine cut-scenes your friend often makes an appearance if they're set to one of your Generals.
I've long since been a fan of the series and this game is a refreshing change for me compared to the straight, hack and slash action of the previous titles. To see it on the Xbox 360 is a joy but I wish they'd have taken a little more time to refine their 2-player graphics engine and give the game some more polish. It would have been nice to have more content as well as a few more game modes, having just Empire and Free mode doesn't quite make for an experience that has much longevity beyond the first month or so of play.
That said it is a good strategy/action game with tight controls and even more fun with a friend, I hope they continue to refine the series this way and add even more content to the next game.