Anyone who's so far avoided contact with the Dynasty Warriors games could be forgiven for thinking they've missed the boat, imagining that by now there must be so much back-story to catch up on that it'll be like trying to get into Lost halfway through the second series. But while the plot might initially seem impenetrable, the gameplay has always been pure arcade stuff, and familiarity with previous games in the franchise is really not necessary.
First, a history lesson: Dynasty Warriors 5 Xtreme Legends is not to be confused with Dynasty Warriors 5 (released in the summer of 2005), and is in fact an expansion disc for it (a fact that's reflected in the price) but also functions as a standalone game in its own right. As with all the games in this long-running action strategy series, this latest is based on Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, an epic, 600-year-old piece of Chinese fiction that draws upon historical fact to weave a complex story of warring factions entwined with more personal sub-plots.
Cutting to the core of the game, the gist here is the same as ever: huge battles fought at close range with swords, pikes, bows and all manner of close-combat melee weapons. These battles are pretty much as they've always been; on one hand they're very impressive in terms of scale, with loads of warriors knocking the crap out of each other on screen at the same time (and fast and smooth with it), but on the other the input demanded from the player is disappointingly limited. The sheer number of enemies swarming around your character may demand some degree of simplification in terms of moves, but it's disappointing that most of the actual hand-to-hand combat comes down to little more than positioning your hero among a throng of bad guys and letting rip with a frenzied assault on the controller's buttons. There's a bit more to it than that, but not much.
New for Xtreme Legends is the Destiny mode. This is a departure in that it allows you to create your own character and take it up through the ranks, as opposed to playing through scripted scenarios as a character from Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. The create-a-character feature isn't that in-depth (boy/girl, tall/thin/short/fat, pick a hairstyle and face, choose a voice and a weapon, and you're away), but it offers an alternative route for anyone who's become overly familiar with the existing cast and plot.
Xtreme mode challenges you to complete as many missions as possible in succession, which is made harder by the fact that you're not automatically healed after each battle. A new feature here is a two-player co-op, an offline-only split-screen affair. Co-op in war games is always fun, and works especially well in simple button-mashers like this, where a novice mate can turn up and get stuck in without ever having played the game before. Talking of novices, there's a new, easier difficulty setting included to get newcomers fast-tracked in the ways of the Warriors.
Despite the game having evolved through five generations, it still hasn't addressed the camera issues that have blighted it for so long. You're constantly having to flick L1 to centre the camera, and ambushes from behind (or even the front) are still commonplace. It can also be hard to tell who's who on the battlefield, but it doesn't really matter, since your attacks only harm the enemy.
Xtreme Legends peaks and troughs in all the same places all previous Dynasty Warriors games have done. The environments are bleak and sparse - the trade-off for all those rampant soldiers - while the gameplay is intense but simplistic and repetitive. As for the plot glue that sticks it all together, that's a matter of taste. If you have (or are prepared to develop) an interest in Chinese feudal history, or more specifically the book upon which the game is based, then there's plenty to get your teeth into. However, if you don't know your Ming from your Tang, most of the narration is likely to go in one ear and out the other.
As a follow-up purchase to Dynasty Warriors 5, Xtreme Legends is far from essential to all but the hardest of the hardcore, although there are 18 new maps included as an incentive. However, at its marked-down price it does offer a low-risk introduction to the series for anyone who's not yet experienced the undeniably satisfying feeling of cleaving a path through an entire army of foot soldiers.