We may like to think that it's just the likes of EA who pummel the shelves of retailers with seasonal sports franchise updates, whose subtle alterations generally necessitate much marketing ear-bendery and press release juggling to truly understand, but to say the Japanese games industry isn't guilty of that sort of thing is nonsense.
Dynasty Warriors is a perfect example. On the surface of Dynasty Warriors 4, it's a game of spot the difference, and even after a few hours with Koei's latest Romance of the Three Kingdoms slash 'em up we were still glancing nervously at the press materials, wondering whether we'd missed something. And of course we had.
To fans of the series, Dynasty Warriors 4 is as much of an evolution as the latest iteration of something like Winning Eleven is to its many fans. Yes, yes, the polished visuals still tussle with erratic framerates and questionable draw distances, enemies still stand around waiting to be struck from time to time, and the principle means of progression is still slaughtering everybody, making sure that your troops don't wimp out and leave you in the midst of swarming bloodlust, but beneath the surface lies a definite undercurrent of improvement.
Those self same enemies that stood around like lemons waiting to be juiced last time now gang up, juggling you from time to time, blocking with greater frequency, and each battle is more difficult as a result. There were times in previous games when even the highest ranking officers of the challenge mode were the only true adversaries, but these days everything can bite your ankles, from the lowliest infantryman right up to opposing generals - and you can even challenge the latter to duels if certain conditions are met.
Adding to the variety and difficulty of combat is a mass of more varied terrain, with around twenty areas in total, multiple paths of approach demanding more tactical thought, and even randomly generated sections that can be used for ambushes. Conditions for each battle vary from character to character, too, and this time you can actually choose from various combatants before you step onto the battlefield, as long as they share the same kingdom as your original choice, obviously.
Not to worry
What with the toughened prospect of battle, Koei has wisely chosen to tone down the effect of arrow damage, and made it more difficult to wield missile attacks in general. Other tweaks include the loss of power-ups and bonuses, which turns out to be a good idea, a few new mounts, the ability to use elephants wherever you like (can't argue with that), better bodyguards, and bigger numbers on the combo front. On the whole, you'll need to be more dextrous than before to triumph in DW4, commanding better combos and thinking about each successive charge before you launch into it, and all of this better helps to stave off the feeling of repetition. Granted, we haven't exactly played it to death, but we get the feeling we'll last longer than we did before. Good news.
That said we might have to, as character progression seems to have slowed. You also seem to hang onto individual weapons for longer, levelling them up instead of discarding them for bigger and shinier implements. Of course you still do this - it wouldn't as much fun otherwise - but this time the tools feel worthier the longer you pummel people with them, and you can bolt on elemental attachments to make them even more useful.
As we hinted at the outset, the engine has once again been spruced up, with smoother animation, and better destructible environments, but at a certain distance the mist still descends on your troops and the framerate still takes a hit from time to time. A shame really, as we'd happily sacrifice quality for quantity in this game! Oh, and we can't really let you go without a word on the voice acting and soundtrack. Unlike previous DWs, this one seems to lack a Japanese option, meaning you'll have to endure piteous vocal talent (arguably) from the US and thereabouts (OK, so they're not Japanese, why not just give us the appropriate Chinese voicing then?), or try and drown it out by turning up the hideous guitar-laden metal music. All change at the recording studio, please!
Although we're still getting to grips with what's changed (and you'll forgive us if we've occasionally mistaken something old for something new), Dynasty Warriors 4 feels like a decent progression of the formula - certainly something that its many fans are going to enjoy. If you didn't get it before, you probably won't get it now, but if you simply haven't plucked up the courage to wade into battle yet, this might be just the excuse you've been looking for. June 27th can't come quickly enough.