Version tested: Xbox 360
The Dynasty Warriors series has always had something of an uneasy relationship with historical accuracy. On the one hand, Dynasty Warriors 7 is a game that periodically interrupts its bombastic take on the Wars of the Three Kingdoms to give you a written test on Second Century Chinese history. Questions such as "Which of Xiahou Dun's eyes was shot with an arrow during battle?" and "What colour was Sun Quan's beard?" are categorised as "easy".
On the other hand, Dynasty Warriors 7 is a game introduced by a cinematic in which a Chinese warrior in full armour fly-kicks a horse in the face before sprinting vertically down a waterfall in order to catch a falling baby. It's an A-level history class taken by Michael Bay: the colour of the beard may be historically accurate, but you'll probably struggle to pick it out behind the meteor shower of embellishment.
Even so, the latest iteration of Koei's hack-and-slasher leans heavily on the history books to provide the framework for its Story Mode. Four campaigns – one for each of the Shu, Wu, Wei and Jin factions – are on offer. Each slips you into the chain mail of a clutch of key officers and generals taking to the battlefield in a bid to unite China, and you get to taste some of the friendships, feuds and rivalries that characterised the period along the way.
The story, delivered by low-rent voice actors in dialogue untroubled by subtlety or nuance, is surprisingly engaging. It begins with the Yellow Turban Uprising, a peasant revolt that broke out in 184 AD in the wake of a brutal famine. Primarily, the narrative is shunted along by cut-scenes that bookend each sprawling battle – but, taking a cue from offshoot Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce, you can strike up simple conversations with rank-and-file soldiers and other officers when exploring the occasional battle camp.
Key encounters take much the same format as in previous Warriors games. There's some rearrangement of the core battle systems that makes this one of the stronger titles in the series – and certainly an improvement over its immediate predecessor.
As ever, the odds seem vividly stacked against you as you head out, often single-handed, into a sea of spear-wielding opponents. In reality, the majority of these foes are blade-fodder, jabbing lazily at you every few seconds and barely putting up a fight before you sweep them into a oblivion like so many heads of corn.
Each squadron, however, is led by a rival officer, whose name (plundered from the history books) appears above his or her head, and who has many of the moves and tricks available to you. Strategy comes from managing the battlefield carefully to avoid being in a situation where you are fighting several officers at once.
Each character you play carries two switchable weapons, and combos are built from stringing together light and hard attacks. Each officer also has an EX move that can be tacked on to the end of combos when using their preferred weapon type, in order to create more powerful strings. Switching weapons mid-combo with a tap of the right bumper will often toss your opponent into the air, allowing you to juggle them and continue the combo as in a Capcom fighting game. There's some skill in the timing.
As you defeat enemies, you fill a 'Musou' special gauge. Like Street Fighter IV's Ultras, Musou specials are powerful attacks that come bundled with their own introductory cinematic, during which time slows down before the explosion of fireworks and fury. Tacking a Musou attack onto the end of a 12-hit weapon-switching combo is extremely satisfying, and to some extent defies those critics who claim this series is nothing more than a brain-dead button-masher.
Each enemy officer you defeat nets Skill Points for your character which can be spent upgrading his or her abilities, adding extra Musou gauges, or extending the potential length of combos you can execute. The skill tree is limited and the same for every character, but as an RPG-lite touch, it's a welcome one.
Likewise, some enemy officers drop new weapons that can be switched in and out of your armoury. While each character has his or her own weapon proficiencies, it's possible to use any of the 36 weapon types in the game with any character. Weapons themselves have 'seal' slots into which you can drop stat-upgrading buffs, increasing your character's strength or defence when you have used the weapon for long enough. So the potential for statistical strategy is present, if a little light.
On the battlefield, Koei attempts to upset the repetitive rhythm of running towards the next officer skirmish by introducing environmental hazards or tasks. You might need to commandeer a catapult in order to knock down some giant wooden gates or avoid a hail of giant boulders.
These moments lack grace and polish, the majority of effort having been put into the fighting system. Combined with some very noticeable pop-up (whereby entire battalions of enemies only become visible when you are 20 metres away), these visuals give the game an anachronistic, low-rent feel, even if it is the best-looking title in the series to date.
Outside of Story Mode, however, a great deal of effort has been made to add longevity in Conquest Mode, a generous and well-crafted offshoot to the main campaign. Ignoring narrative entirely, Conquest Mode presents players with a map of China divided into hexagon tiles.
Each tile represents a city, battle or series of battles that must be completed in order to unlock access to the adjacent tiles. The aim of the game is to unlock every tile on the board, something that can be achieved with a friend either in split-screen or online co-op.
In Conquest mode you are free to play as any officer you have unlocked thus far. When you make it to a new city tile you can upgrade weapons, purchase animal companions (both mounts and combat 'pets') and meet up with other officers with whom you have formed a bond through fighting together on previous 'tiles'. Battles are more diverse here than in the main campaign, with targeted objectives such as escorting a particular character to safety or capturing a specific base, making this the more interesting mode in the game over the long haul.
However, over that long haul, Dynasty Warriors 7 does suffer from repetition and a troubling failure to introduce new techniques or nuances to master. While you can unlock additional Musou attacks by using specific weapons for long enough, there's very little long-game development here, aside from attempting to max out all of the 60-odd officers in the game and collect every cinematic, weapon and seal.
With the minute-to-minute play cycle of Dynasty Warriors so fully developed already, it's a disappointment to find very little refinement to long-view progression. Dynasty Warriors 7 may be a bulky proposition, but for all the overwhelming scale, it doesn't offer much of a journey.
This remains the series' greatest challenge. Until Koei can refine the long game, Dynasty Warriors will continue to slip from relevance, in much the same way as Xiahou Dun's good eye, or Sun Quan's colourful beard, have done before it.
7 / 10