I am writing this review at 3AM. I have to be at my desk in six hours. From this morsel of seemingly useless information, you can wrestle the following implications: something has kept me up this long; whatever it is has compelled me to keep myself up for another hour or so; and this review will probably make about as much sense as dialogue from the erstwhile Channel 5's late night movie.
Fortunately, only some of this is true [we'll see -Ed]. Dynasty Warriors 3: Xtreme Legends has kept me up until 3AM, and it has certainly compelled me to review it before I let my head hit the pillow, but the fact that my deadline looms on the other side of sunrise is also a contributing factor. All this for a console game expansion disc that costs £25 and has the word "Xtreme" in the title?
Matters of extremity aside, why is this keeping me up?
In short: because I don't really know what score to give it. It sounds silly, but given the reasonable price tag, a succession of additions aimed at people who own DW3, and an adequate measure of content for those who don't, not to mention the impending June release of Dynasty Warriors 4, you can probably understand my quandary. But before we get into that, let's refresh. I have no intention of reviewing both DW3 and XL here so hopefully this will suffice for those with short memories.
Along with Kessen, Dynasty Warriors 2 was the first time KOEI successfully pushed the hardened strategy of its Three Kingdoms games towards mainstream acceptance. DW3 gave the hackandslash mechanic more brains and even better good looks. The games combined the strategic gameplay of old with more appreciable perks like combo systems, enormous quantities of unlockables, an understandable plot and some lovely visuals.
Essentially, Dynasty Warriors is a war in which the player controls a veritable one-man army, thrashing hordes of enemies whilst collecting healing and stat-enhancing special items, fighting alongside dilapidated allies to raise their morale and slaying enemy generals to weaken the opposition resolve. Although massive combos kept players chuckling maniacally, it takes more than just running around like a headless chicken with a katana to achieve victory - the conditions for which often involve killing several key enemy units whilst simultaneously protecting your own. In other words, you have to think as much as you thump.
Am I here to a Musou?
What Xtreme Legends does is add seven new Musou (scenario) campaigns with new battlefield layouts (one for each of the enemy characters unlocked in DW3), four new challenge modes and various tweaks and gameplay additions, the most significant of which is probably customisable bodyguards. You can now customise a division of up to eight bodyguards to escort you around (since you're such a prized unit), renaming and changing each unit's appearance, and even assign other playable characters to your side (enabling extra-powerful Double Musou attacks).
Other changes and additions include a fifth new weapon for every character's arsenal (although in fairness we found it pretty difficult unlocking four), really easy and really hard difficulty levels for players entering at opposite extremes, new stat-enhancing items which even affect your horse, elephant or bodyguards, and, curiously, the ability to insert your preferred characters into the game's in-game opening cinematic. You can also play through DW3 again with these new features after some disc swapping and memory card juggling.
So in terms of new content you can probably find ways to drag out the life of DW3 for many hours, and the four new challenge modes (well, three; the fourth is just the other three in succession) spit out a unique code at the end which you can enter into KOEI's high scores page on the Internet. But even if you aren't good enough to get up to the top these remain fun. Our favourite is probably Balancing Act, in which you have to smack as many enemies off a small platform before you take the plunge; the others are Speed Demon (a race to the finish line through waves of onrushing enemies) and Combo Mania (pretty self-explanatory).
However, what XL does not do is update the gameplay engine, which is now starting to show its age. At the time of DW3's PAL release, it looked very nice comparatively, and the fog, unit pop-up, jaggedness of characters, often bland environments and frequent slowdown were widely understated because on the whole it looked good in spite of them. These days though the problems seem a lot more acute, no doubt accentuated by the cheap and tacky feel of the interface, the atrocious voice acting and those beautiful screenshots of Dynasty Warriors 4. We also still find the camera to be rather, well, crap, as it refuses to align behind you unless you stop first and then hit the button, and the musical score is about as suitable as death metal is to a monastery.
Good and Evil
Considering the timing, it would be easy to knock Xtreme Legends for six with a well-placed Halberd uppercut from the top-seat of an elephant, but in my view it probably is worth £20-25 to die-hard fans of DW3 who want to warm their blades in time for the long-awaited sequel and finally give Lu Bu a decent run out. It's better than the average PS2 title at £40 despite less bullet points on the press release, and it's definitely been made for its audience.
But the ultra-novice mode hasn't convinced me. If you really want to get into Dynasty Warriors from scratch, then you might find yourself better off with a second-hand copy of Dynasty Warriors 3, which you can probably find for 15 quid. And if you're so certain that it's the game for you, you might just as well hold off for a month and buy DW4, right? Better to start there with all the perks of a modern PS2 title than to take a spin in last year's model.