The dictionary describes the word ‘dynasty' as meaning a succession of rulers of the same line of descent, or a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time. So, in a way, the Dynasty Warriors series has really lived up to its name. Not only has it ruled the so-called taction (tactical action) genre since its inception, but with the fourth game hitting shops recently - fifth if you count Xtreme Legends - it can also lay claim to a succession of decent titles.
But, as with any dynasty, the longer its reign continues, the more likely cracks are to appear in the foundations. And so the question arises; is Dynasty Warriors 4 where Koei's series crumbles, or is the Han empire as strong as ever?
Send in the diplomats!
Unfortunately, there's no short answer to that. If there was, this review would end right about... now... and we could all go our separate ways. As it is, DW4 does what virtually every sequel does these days - it builds on a proven formula, adds a few new features and, above all, makes sure not to become too innovative. After all, when sales keep adding up, why pull out all the stops before they're needed?
The most important thing fans of the series need to know is that the changes we really wanted haven't happened. There's still some strange weather god spouting a fog of war over ancient China; the AI soldiers (despite some welcome tweaks) generally remain stupider than stormtroopers and the plot... well, it wouldn't captivate an entertainment-deprived hermit on acid.
Still, despite any major overhauls, a lot of small changes make DW4 a better game than its predecessors, even if the focus is now on diehard fans of the series.
For anyone unfamiliar with the series, Dynasty Warriors is based on a piece of historical fiction known as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which Koei has worked into games for years now. Don't let the name of the book fool you, however, as DW is no love story. Unless you love violence that is. Which, um, a lot of gamers do (Shhhh! Don't tell the Daily Mail). Anyway, DW basically puts you in the bloodstained boots of superhuman officers in ancient China, as they cut very large swaths through literally hundreds of enemies a battle. But rather than being a straight-forward hack 'em up, DW spices things up with a dash of free-roaming strategy, and a touch of the RPG.
As we said, DW4 is aimed squarely at people who bought the DW3 remix and are still playing it. That's not to say it won't appeal to newcomers to the series - it's as good a start as any of the games - it just doesn't do enough to entice casual fans back to battle the Yellow Turbans et al all over again.
This is because many of the changes will probably go unnoticed by people who only played the other games briefly. Sure, you can now hit longer combos, but it's still a combo-based system right? Who's going to know except those who loved the game in the first place? Yes, you can upgrade your weapons by attacking high-ranking enemies - which adds to the neat process of customising characters - but the same argument applies there. In fact, the same argument applies for many of the other changes too.
Now, this isn't necessarily such a bad thing; polish is always welcome to an already good series. Just look at Pro Evo; no one complains when Konami make subtle-but-effective changes to that series. It's just that DW4 lacks that one major change to make all the others worthwhile.
For instance, the much-vaunted duel system is certainly welcome, but it's not as good as it should have been. In the midst of a battle, an enemy officer might challenge you to a one-on-one fight, which you may accept or decline. If you accept (which you will, while screaming "Feel my wrath, pitiful worm!" and cackling insanely) then the game cuts to a separate screen in which you face off against said enemy. If you win, he is defeated. If you lose, game over. If no one wins, then it's a draw. Ultimately, this is a pretty pointless, if enjoyable addition. The only incentive to beating an officer this way is to avoid his lowly footsoldiers getting in the way on the battlefield and boost morale a bit. Now, if this resulted in his unit dispersing, or perhaps even exploding with rage...
But no, it's a superficial change at heart. As are the siege engine bits, which involve no real interactivity whatsoever, just more cut-scenes. And the same goes for the new 'taunts', which are supposed to startle the enemy, but are never really worth using.
Still, what it all comes down to is more of the little things. More steeds, more characters, more weapons, a few more stages and so on. The game is a fair bit harder than before, though, mainly thanks to enemies doing more damage and not being quite as thick. They still tend to get all reflective in the middle of battle, staring off into the distance with a glazed look in their eyes, and opposing forces still tend to mingle happily with each other before remembering they are sworn enemies, but at least they gang up on you better this time. Getting stuck in the middle of low-ranking soldiers isn't as easy to escape from in DW4, especially with a tough officer in tow.
Diehard fans will love all the small changes - and probably discover a lot more - but the fact remains that the basic engine, levels and gameplay remain. And, yes, it's still a lot of fun.
Singing in the reign
When Dynasty Warriors 5 inevitably gets released, graphics, sound and the overall direction of the game need to take precedence. Because if Koei can make a Dynasty Warriors game that blends suspense, high-quality atmosphere and proper production levels with the existing battle system, then they will have a massive hit on their hands.
Think about it. Imagine if when the enemy soldiers saw you taking out their comrades by the dozens, they began to cower as you approached, moaning in fear? What if the voice acting and cut-scenes were Kingdom Hearts quality instead of Kingdom Arse quality? Em, what if you could see beyond 20 feet?
Admittedly, all this probably won't happen until the PS3/Xbox 2 get released, but in the meantime DW4 hasn't improved things much on this level. There do seem to be more enemies on screen at any given time in this outing, plus slowdown is only an issue when major combos are unleashed on a lot of enemies. But again, it's a case of polish over reconstruction.
Thankfully, a few excellent, much more ambient songs have been added to the game's soundtrack too. Whereas before there was only stereotypical metal music to grate on your ears (though some are very catchy, it must be said), now the menu screens have some quality tunes attached to them as well.
Running the rule over things
So to answer the question raised at the start of this review, the Dynasty Warrior reign is not in decline. It is, however, in danger of getting complacent. And we all know what happened to the Romans, don't we? Actually, no.
But we do know what will happen if you buy Dynasty Warriors 4. If you're a diehard fan of the series, then you'll probably love the numerous tweaks and changes made to game. It won't make a difference that you'll be playing through a very similar experience, albeit with some new twists.
If you're a newcomer, then add a mark, maybe even two, to the score below. This is the best game in a very enjoyable series, so you might as well start here.
If you're a casual fan - someone who's played DW2 or 3 but needs a good reason to bother with 4 - then there's not a whole lot here to warrant a buy. A rental, sure, but a purchase, no. After all, Dynasty Warriors 3: Xtreme Legends, only 25 bob to begin with, is probably available even cheaper now.
We look forward to the day Koei takes this empire to new horizons, but until then DW4 should keep it safe from ruin.