Few titles in PlayStation and Xbox history divide gamers as much as the Dynasty Warriors series. To fans, it remains a wonderfully fun way to participate in the "heroic" slaughter of numerous enemy soldiers. To most others it's one of the most annoying button mashers in history, that will either put you to sleep with its similar missions or send you to the doctor with possible OOS.
Most importantly, while other franchises have evolved again and again with changing platforms, Dynasty Warriors has staunchly remained, well, Dynasty Warriors. Because when people complain about this series repetitiveness, they're not just talking about each mission feeling the same - they're talking about each mission of around 13 games (incl Extreme and Gundam) over almost 15 years being EXACTLY the same.
So here's a quick review: If you're a fan, it's like Dynasty Warriors 5, but better. If you're a hardcore fan, it's like Dynasty Warriors 2, but awesome!! For people who've never heard of it, read on…
Set incredibly loosely on the epic 14th Century Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dynasty Warriors traditionally follows the fortunes of the Wei, Wu, and Shu Kingdoms as they seek to unite China. This time round, Tecmo Koei and Omega Force have included the later Kingdom of Jin. This is because, for the first time, the Story Mode (previously known as Musou) continues past the traditional final level of the Wu Zhong Plains.
Any thoughts of a serious political drama unfolding through the game should be put to rest at the title sequence, where series "hero" Zhao Yun famously rescues Liu Bei's son while fighting his way through the massive army of Lord Cao Cao (pronounced Sao Sao) with said baby in front pouch. Ridiculous enough? How about if, with baby still in front pouch, he runs up a wall, dodging flying chains, grabs hold of one and swings around, knocking out a horse? Still not there? OK, how about he rebounds from the horse, somersaults over a cliff, grabbing fallen soldiers weapons mid air, and slides (slides?!) down a waterfall with a sword in one arm and crossbow in the other, while fighting ninjas? All to a 90's hard rock soundtrack. Welcome to Dynasty Warriors.
The are two main modes of play; Story, and Conquest - which we'll come to shortly.
Gameplay consists of completing various missions through combat with large numbers of troops, with the occasional stronger Officer thrown in, and usually a General to fight at the end of the level. Death and destruction are achieved through a combination of the X (light attack) and Y (heavy attack button). Various combos can be unlocked as your characters level up through the course of the game. Two weapons (which also have unlockable stronger versions to find / buy) are available per mission; with a star rating for the level of compatability between your character and the weapon. Beaten officers also drop powerups that increase the overall stats of your character.
If that all seems a bit daunting, don't worry; Dynasty Warriors 7 contains a very easy to understand and use tutorial that will have you decimating whole armies in no time.
You'll start off with a bare minimum of characters, but more and more will become available as you play through - leading to a total of 60 playable characters. Each one has a particular weapon that allows them to do a special combo. This doesn't mean they have to use it though. If you want to play as Zhao Yun, who is famous for his spear, using a sword and crossbow, you can - and the game will not be much lesser for it.
Weapons can also be equipped with unlockable seals which further increase power and are often the secret to beating characters such as the formidable Lu Bu (ancient China's very own Hulk) to gain extra bonuses.
Graphically the game varies, with particular attention being shown to the characters (including both their animations and specials). Fighting on horseback is still an issue, as is the physics of various weapons, and the horse movement still seems based on unknown, otherworldly rules. But what most will agree on is that the backgrounds of each stage are almost criminally non-developed from DW6. The movies, too, lack a certain level of polish - especially when compared to the recent trailer for Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires, which makes the FMVs here look absurdly dated.
Unless the developers were going for a retro look, you would almost have to assume they were rushed. That said, the effects have improved for specials and, whether flying around creating a tornado with your spear or shooting lasers from a feather fan, there is a level of "awesome" to them.
The "fog of war" is still unfixed from previous games, with random enemies sometimes appearing out of nowhere, or disappearing behind you. It's been a constant problem since DW2 and, five games later, it's hard to understand why it can't be resolved.
Character designs have improved, though, with an intent to "westernise" the game clearly seen in the choice of fashion and weapons. The rapier makes an appearance in 14th century China, amazingly before it was developed in 16th century Spain. Then again, one character walks around with a heavy lance, another in short shorts and a bikini top, and one even has a borderline gatling gun. Like I said, ridiculous.
Interestingly, the game has been developed with an eye towards new 3D TVs which left me wondering if my 30inch set was too small, especially with the sometimes hard to read corner map providing locations of objectives and officers.
Sound also carries both the ridiculous and the retro. As mentioned above, Dynasty Warriors 7 continues the hard rock themes of the 90's games well into the 21st century. One slight change is that now you can pick which banal rock track to take into a mission. So if one particularly grates (and they shall all come to grate) there is a slim reprieve available. At this stage though, the developers might as well keep going, because in a couple of years it will probably sound cool again.
In-game dialogue is a mixture of sometimes accurate, sometimes strange voice acting and a mission script that really could have done with some dialogue touch ups, especially from defeated foes. My favourite is "Remember me, for I shall return. And when I do, yours is the first head I shall seek". Dying or fleeing, that's quite a mouthful to get out. And it, too, will become grating after hearing it from almost any non-playable officer you vanquish in each mission.
Story mode has been altered from previous games to now be kingdom-based rather than character-based. The story of the four kingdoms plays out with improved narration and a clearer sense of drama than previous games. Each Story mission sees you playing multiple characters allowing the best introductory way to see different styles of gameplay, while getting to know the world of Dynasty Warriors. Smashing through the first game on normal mode took around 10 hours - with missions and cut scenes, multiply that by four, add in conquest mode. I suggest taking your time with these, as this is really a part of the game where Tecmo Komei and Omega have made an effort to enhance the gaming experience beyond hack 'n' slash.
Conquest mode has you taking over China province by province, allowing you to both unlock and play any characters you haven't and also find the most powerful weapons in the game. I have to say, that this is a much better way to find the "super" weapons than in previous games which, short of a cheat sheet, were often down to blind luck. Also, the provinces themselves are now explorable bases that you can go to for shopping, meeting allies, developing weapons, or being questioned by a visiting scholar. The questions range from easy to hard, and will require constant visits to the games Encyclopedia for answers. However, you do receive a monetary reward for correct answers, and also a fantastic unlockable weapon on 100% completion, so persevere. Saves can be made both in mission and in the Conquest menu, where you can also switch playable characters to either level up or just make the next few missions slightly different for gameplay.
You may have noticed I've used the word "unlockable" quite a bit, and that really is the secret to the addictiveness of these games. With 60 characters, all with stats to max, stories to play through, and weapons to upgrade, there is a massive amount of content to find, and these "rewards" help to ease what is essentially running around doing the same thing again and again… and again. I can almost guarantee that if you like this game, and you have a normal life, then you will be still trying to unlock everything by the time Dynasty Warriors 8 is announced.
On presentation and value for money, Dynasty Warriors 7 gets a… 7 (groan). If you're a fan, add another 1.5, because this is the best in the series so far, and if you haven't got DW6, then this is a great next-gen title to pick up. If you're not a fan, deduct 3 points, because nothing has really changed, and everything you've always hated about this is still there in droves.
Essentially, as with any novel you read as a kid, this is a game you occasionally re-visit a chapter of for nostalgia's sake. You know it's not a masterpiece, but you're after a bit of escapist fun - nothing less, but nothing more.