Forget everything you thought you knew about Dynasty Warriors. Remember, instead, the days of the Dreamcast, and the first time you ever played Phantasy Star Online. Remember the sheer logistical improbability of it all - the trouble you had getting hold of a keyboard and trailing your phone line across your house just so you could meet up with friends online. Remember meeting up and dancing in the lobbies, before heading out, just the four of you. Remember the way that everybody was so nice and friendly, and how higher-level characters (or everybody on the Japanese servers) would drop gifts on the floor before nannying you through the difficult bits.
Remember the way the game managed to combine the best bits of massively multiplayer gaming with the intimacy of multiplayer with mates. And remember forgetting all of those logistical difficulties because it was all just so much fun.
Remember it because that, in a nutshell, is Dynasty Warriors Strikeforce. Instead of the sprawling battlefields and seemingly endless hordes of enemies that usually characterise KOEI's marmite brawler, the latest handheld version has been stripped down and reconstructed, rebuilt from the ground up from smaller, more concentrated battlefield scenarios that are clearly designed to be played co-operatively with friends.
The game is KOEI's response to the massive surge in sales of the PSP in Japan - specifically, it's KOEI's response to the games behind that massive surge in sales. Capcom's Monster Hunter series has become a bona fide phenomenon in Japan, and while it barely troubles the outer reaches of the sales charts over here, in Japan it's reached record sales figures and inspired the PSP to become the best-selling gaming hardware of 2008. It's also woken other publishers up to the potential of multiplayer gaming on the PSP, which is how the latest instalment of the Dynasty Warriors series has come to resemble SEGA's online classic.
As with PSO, the action in Strikeforce starts out in hub levels, but these hub levels resemble ancient Chinese towns, where you can buy items like grenades or potions for use on missions. What's more, these hubs are upgradeable, so you can use the resources that you acquire over the course of missions to build better shops, giving you access a wider and better range of items - as well as enticing more lowly ranked players by offering them a glimpse of the riches that they'll reach if they play on.
While you'll still play as one of the multitude of characters from the Dynasty Warriors mythos, you'll also get to customise them a bit by strapping equipment to their arms and legs, or by equipping them with new weapons entirely - a change that will be as groundbreaking to fans of the series as the introduction of character flight will be to those with only a passing knowledge of the games (yep, you can equip your character with items that allow them to soar above the battlefield - cementing the series' reputation for historical inaccuracy).
From these hubs you'll be able to depart in a team of up to four players for the missions themselves. They feature more complicated objectives than some of the other Dynasty Warriors games and tend to climax with a set-piece boss encounter (like a gargantuan, fireball-spitting, flaming statue, straddled by Liu Bei, for example) or some sort of puzzle, but either way, the emphasis on co-operation and teamwork is pronounced. Teamwork will also be required to take on the rank and file, however, because while enemies are fewer in number, their intelligence is more sophisticated.
Helpfully, you'll be given some assistance along the way, with a new fury mode ramping up the power of your musou attacks and a lock-on targeting system that transforms the feel of the game entirely. And finally, missions are generally shorter than their console counterparts, with time limits typically running to 15 minutes (and not 60 as is more typical for the series).
It's these relatively brief, concentrated bursts of gameplay that are so reminiscent of SEGA's online opus, tied to the teams of four players and all of the effort that KOEI is putting in to making sure that members of the Strikeforce community continue to be nice to each other. There is, though, another slightly more worrying comparison to Phantasy Star Online. Like Phantasy Star, Strikeforce will be released on a hardware platform that isn't especially successful over here in the UK.
In Japan, the game makes perfect sense: you can barely leave the house without stumbling into someone who's absorbed, head down in their PSP. In the UK, however, you'd probably struggle to find anyone who's still using theirs. That wouldn't be such a major problem were it not for the fact that you can only play the multiplayer modes in Strikeforce over an ad hoc connection. You might be able to connect to other players using the PS3's adhocParty service, but there's no guarantee, yet, that it'll work perfectly. If it doesn't (or if you haven't got a PS3), it means you'll need to be in the same room as three of your friends, each with their own copy of the game, to fully enjoy Dynasty Warriors Strikeforce.
That's a logistical hurdle that's easily on a par with the embryonically slow internet connections and keyboard scarcity that blighted the early days of the Dreamcast. And it's a hurdle that KOEI will have to clear, at least if it's to persuade gamers to take a punt on the unlikely marriage of its biggest brand to what is, for that brand, a wholly innovative new game design.
Dynasty Warriors Strikeforce is due out for PSP in Europe on 3rd April 2009.