Japanese publisher KOEI have a long history of producing games based on far eastern history and legends. In fact, one of the first PC games I ever bought was a turn-based strategy game by KOEI called "Genghis Khan", released way back in 1990. It proved so addictive that I've continued playing it on and off for the last ten years, and one of its sister titles ("Romance of the Three Kingdoms") has since spawned no less than six sequels.
The poster which came with the game was emblazoned with the motto "we supply the past, you make the history". Heady stuff indeed...
History In The Making
And now they're at it again with "Dynasty Warriors 2", a curious mix of hand-to-hand action and strategy set during the "Three Kingdoms" period of Chinese history, which saw the area engaged in a devestating civil war. Exclusive to Sony's new Playstation 2 console, the game has already proven a massive hit in its native Japan, with over 300,000 copies sold in the first six weeks after its release.
Now Cambridge based publisher Midas Interactive are hoping to replicate that success when they release the game in Europe, with English, French and German versions all expected to be available for the Playstation 2's big launch day at the end of November. KOEI will be releasing an American version themselves around the same time, so our friends across the pond won't feel left out. And having recently taken a hands-on look at the game to find out what all of the fuss is about, we're happy to report that they might just be on to something.
While the original "Dynasty Warrior" on the old Playstation was a fairly straightforward Tekken-style beat 'em up, the sequel takes advantage of the vast polygon pushing power of the Playstation 2 to put you in the middle of a full-scale war. You still control a single hero, but now you can roam around a vast battlefield, facing literally dozens of enemy soldiers at once in brutal hand-to-hand combat using swords, spears and other weapons of the period.
It certainly makes a welcome change from your usual one-on-one beat 'em up, and provides a much more visceral and at times downright chaotic experience, with the map in the top right of your screen often vanishing in a sea of the little red and blue dots which mark the positions of other soldiers on the battlefield.
Dynasty Warriors 2 allows you to fight for any of the three warring kingdoms, and each gives you a choice of three characters to control, with their own individual fighting styles and weapons to wield in battle. In addition each character also has a bow, which can be used for long range sniping from a first person viewpoint.
Most of the game is fought from a third person isometric viewpoint though, looking down on the battlefield as you charge around fighting up close and personal with groups of enemy troops, as well as taking on the occasional boss in the form of an enemy officer. As in any good beat 'em up you have a range of different moves which you can pull off in combat, as well as flashy special attacks and combos. Power-ups can also be found on the battlefield, providing you with armour, increased weapons strength or extra special moves.
The sheer scale of the game is perhaps the most impressive aspect though, with each of the eight massive battlefields covering a square kilometer of terrain and containing anything up to a thousand enemy troops. Over twenty characters can appear on screen at once without any noticeable slowdown, and the result is a frantic and bloody battle. Successfully completing even a single battle can take upwards of an hour, and just running across the huge battlefields will take you some time. Luckily, if your poor little legs are getting tired you can also ride around on horseback, riding rough-shod over enemy troops, and cutting them down from the relative safety of your mount.
Brains As Well As Brawn
It's not all about mindless slaughter though, you will have to use your head as well as your thumbs to bring you victory, and not all of the soldiers you will meet are your enemy. While you may be facing over a thousand opponents, you are not doing so single-handedly, but are merely the leader of an army of your own, engaged in a vast pitched battle which is going on all around you throughout the game.
Your soldiers will fight with or without you, helping to defeat the enemy, and preventing them from all just rushing you at once. Keeping as many of them alive as possible is an important part of the game, as the fewer allies you have the more the enemy can focus on hunting down and killing your own character, and however powerful you are eventually you will be overwhelmed. Aid a group of friendly soldiers and they will rally around you, their morale increasing as you lay into their enemies, encouraging them to redouble their own efforts.
As you drive back the enemy you will gradually take control of the regions which the battlefields are split up into, with new areas becoming unlocked as you push on towards victory. Capturing terrain and eliminating enemies are only two of your objectives though, and often you will find yourself charged with tracking down and capturing an enemy general or over-running an enemy fortress. To achieve these aims you must find weakpoints in the enemy's line and concentrate your attacks there, and often you will find ways around obstacles which might otherwise seem insurmountable.
The game isn't just a series of linear missions either, as your performance from one battle to the next will effect how the war unfolds around you. The more successful you are, the more enemies will be thrown at you in combat, and the more challenging the objectives which your own commanders give you will become. With only eight battles it's a rather stubby branching mission structure, but it still gives some much-needed replay value to the game, which should play out slightly differently each time you fight your way through it.
Your character will also develop new abilities as you gain combat experience, getting additional special attacks which become increasingly spectacular and effective. The game's graphics are little short of stunning, with all of the big explosive special effects which you would expect from a modern beat 'em up. Truly spectacular moves will earn you a Matrix style freeze and pan shot, with the camera spinning around your character as they deliver the finishing blow in ultra slow motion.
The characters themselves are incredibly detailed, with fluid animations and suitably gaudy clothing turning the battlefield into an eruption of colour and motion. And with so many soldiers on screen at once it's a true testament to the power of the Playstation 2 that the gameplay remains silky smooth during even the most frantic of battles.
With a mixture of lightweight strategy and violent hand-to-hand combat on a truly massive scale, not to mention gorgeous rendered cutscenes to introduce you to the legends of this colourful period of Chinese history, and fourteen bonus characters to unlock giving you even more reason to go back and play through it again, "Dynasty Warriors 2" is looking like a real winner.
The Playstation 2 launch line-up is rather blighted by an excess of dull beat 'em ups, driving games, and quick cash-in sequels, and this is one of the few truly original games to appear on the console so far in its native Japan. All we can say is that we're looking forward to seeing it arrive here in Europe next month...