Version tested: Xbox 360
They all look the same, so they say. Blindness to nuance and personality in the face of the unfamiliar has always been the bigot's way, and how many gamers are guilty of the same when looking to Koei's Dynasty Warriors series? "There's no real challenge," they argue, setting the difficulty to easy and switching off after an hour. "You simply mash the buttons to trigger an apocalypse of fireworks," they explain, ignoring the capacity for skill beneath the pyrotechnics.
These are half-empty criticisms for anyone who has invested the time and effort that Koei and Omega Force ask. The developers may have failed to keep pace with global trends, leaving their once-commanding hack-and-slash series fading in the face of newer, bolder creative visions. But only a wilfully ignorant critic would claim nothing changes from release to release.
Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3 arrives, then, as the most refined of the series' robot spin-offs in recent years. In fact, it's one of the most pacey and exciting Dynasty Warriors games of its generation, and it outshines recent entries to the mainline series in almost every way. Make no mistake: there are shortcomings here. But approached with the right mindset and expectations, this a game that offers considerable breadth and depth.
For Gundam fans, it is a crafted package, packing a huge number of battles from the long-running animated series' mythology into the journey. While there is a main storyline to pursue, the quick-fire nature of the stages (many of which can be completed in as few as three or four minutes) means that you'll be dipping in and out of historical fights across various timelines. The game's freeform structure runs several campaigns concurrently, allowing you to flit between those in which you must befriend another character to those set in the distant past, revealing the key protagonists' backstories.
"The cel-shaded mecha have a solidity and grace that the Dynasty Warriors titles set in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms era have always struggled to achieve."
That said, only the most avid Gundam devotee will be able to maintain a handle on the huge cast of characters (52 are playable, with many more pitching in with support dialogue) and the cat's cradle of social ties that draw them together. This isn't helped by the fact that only a handful of these characters are elaborated beyond the most basic level.
Instead, the air fills with ridiculous battle cries during play (Japanese or English dialogue can be selected), urging you on for who-knows-what. It's never really clear who you are fighting or why, and unless you have a deep-seated affection for Gundam, the game is unlikely to make you a fan of the universe on anything except an aesthetic level.
But it might well do that, because Gundam 3 is a pretty game. The cel-shaded mecha have a solidity and grace that the Dynasty Warriors titles set in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms era have always struggled to achieve. There is a huge array of different mecha to collect and pilot in the game, and slicing through a sea of robots with a giant pink beam sword never grows old. The environments in which you battle may repeat too often, but they are filled with enough action and interest to bear that repetition.
In play, Gundam 3 is more like an old-school 'Musou' game (the term covering Dynasty Warriors and all its related and spin-off series) than the more recent iterations.
Battlefields take the form of a series of interlocking square areas. At the start of a battle you and your cohorts begin on one side of the map, while your enemies (usually the 'blue' team) start in the opposite corner. Be the first to arrive at a new square on the map and you'll turn that area to your side's colour, spawning friendly units in that location to bolster your army as you do so.
Meanwhile, enter an enemy square and you'll need to defeat a pre-requisite number of enemies before you switch it to your own side. As you claim new squares, so the size of your army swells, and there's a certain thrill to racing towards an unoccupied square to claim it for your army.
Certain squares on the map have special properties, and claiming these for your side will provide benefits in the fight. For example, one type of square acts as a warp point, allowing you to move to different areas of the map in an instant, while another will improve the AI of your compatriots.
In almost every battle the aim is to capture the enemy headquarters square. Try to enter this before you've decimated your opponent's forces by more than 50 per cent and giant defensive cannons will shoo you away. Every enemy HQ is also defended by a robot general who must be defeated (the death blow delivered in lingering slow motion) before the battle is won.
While that may sound like a lot on paper, as the game progresses you become adept at screaming around the battlefield, managing your Gundam's thrusters to boost quickly across giant expanses of level. As your pilot grows more powerful and the Gundam he pilots becomes better equipped, so the length of time it takes to complete a mission reduces too. The game's rhythm is snappy and satisfying, and by placing renewed focus on the wider strategy of a battle, there's more to think about than merely which combination of buttons to hammer to cut down the sea of enemies.
Defeating key generals results in loot drops, some of which take the form of new Gundam schematics. These can then be created in the workshop between levels. There is a gigantic number of machines on offer in the game, all with different attacks and special moves. As plans come in different tiers of quality, increasing in value as you drill into the game's later missions, so crafting the perfect machine for your play style becomes an obsessive pursuit.
Each mecha comes with a varying number of upgrade slots, allowing you to increase melee effectiveness and so on, and each can be augmented with a handful of pieces of special equipment giving huge customisation options, albeit within fairly narrow parameters (compared to, say, the Armored Core series).
Each machine handles just differently enough to make collecting them all a motivation, and many of the designs are humorous, encouraging you to develop and upgrade outlandish mecha for the fun of it. So it's a crying shame that (as far as we can tell) the online mode doesn't allow you to take modified Gundam into the wild. Rather, a suite of set missions are offered for up to four players to tackle, into which you can take your own levelled pilot but only off-the-shelf mecha, reducing the opportunity for showboating.
It's in the long game where the clichéd criticisms do hit home. While Gundam 3 encourages players to improve their skills over the course of the game, far more emphasis is placed on the economy of external gains. You grow in power primarily by levelling your chosen pilot (thereby unlocking new skills and team-up combination attack opportunities) and by tinkering with your Gundam. Rarely is a new move introduced, and as there are no penalties for lowering the difficulty of a mission, it's possible to approach the game more like FarmVille than a nuanced hack-and-slash action title, devouring levels in search of better 'loot'.
Nevertheless, for a player whose brain is wired the right way, Gundam 3 offers a wide and deep playpen. It deilghts in the moment-by-moment empowerment of piloting a 1970s vintage mecha in battle, the medium-term enjoyment of turning the tide of a battle through strategic thinking, and the long-view 'gotta catch 'em all' collecting loops. If you have never tried a Musou game before, this is where you should start.
8 / 10