Last night I spent some time looking up information on the latest Dynasty Warriors, number 7, listening to Lu Bu's driving metal track while my significant other leveled Xiao Qiao (more like "syiao chiow". Pinyin takes a bit of getting used to) enough to unlock some costumes in our copy of Dynasty Warriors *4*. We've both been playing the hell out of DW 4 since I randomly broke it out a week ago, using guides to unlock new areas, characters, weapons, and items.
Picking the game up again I realize that there were a lot of mechanisms I pretty much didn't know existed before. Instead of there just being a button-mashing single attack, the charge attack is pretty much integral to high-difficulty play, each combination causing a different effect (knocking guys in the air, jumping in the air yourself to slam someone down, area attacks, ranged attacks, quick movement attacks, all connected to specific characters). There's strategy in which item loadout you use, where you can basically create a character build on every new map that will emphasize charge attacks, musou attacks (which are sorta like zaps in older games where you're temporarily invincible), defense, offense, and special effects like ongoing damage, damage through blocking, freezing, and insta-kill for low-level targets.
The unlocks are damned picky in places too, but they're much more fun than most collection/unlock systems out there because each task feels a bit different. I just wish it was a bit more obvious what tasks did what. Even if I'd read the mega-epic this game is loosely based on, I doubt I'd be able to remember niggling details that would somehow give me better in-game magical powers, even if any of these things are more than cursory references to events in the stories. You basically need a guide, or be very meticulous in your explorations of certain levels. I wouldn't have known without reading in a FAQ that the order you choose some stages in affects what MIGHT happen later. It's a lot of variables to keep track of, and we're basically helpless to figure out many of them without the guides we downloaded.
These weird unlocks and alternate battle sequences actually do a better job of player choice than most modern games, just because you make these decisions in the middle of battle. It would be much better, though, if the consequences of your decisions were a bit clearer.
The Inevitable Comparison of Versions
Reading about DW 7 I find myself excited that the franchise seems a bit renewed, at least for most of the people still willing ot take a look. Yet Koei's style of experimenting with game modes and systems still feels weird to me. I feel like a fundamentally sound game exists somewhere within the span of versions we've seen, rather than nestled perfectly into any one game.
For instance, there was a system in DW3 where you would pick up weapons with different statistics. If you completed a level you got to see what sort of stat boosts it gave you, and these would all be random, sorta like finding rare loot in Diablo (another high-body count action game that people praise about as much as people denigrate DW). Beyond expanding this a bit to make loot something you scoop up by the bucket instead of rarely get, just having weapons that had interesting stats that encouraged different styles of play would be pretty fun to have. By comparison, DW4's system simply has weapon levels. The more experience you get with a weapon, the closer you get to leveling it, which gives you higher attack power, and that's pretty much it.
DW4 is a vast improvement over the prior 2 games' character disappearance, where too many dudes on the screen means some people start becoming selectively invisible to prevent slowdown. It still happens, though, and it has me wishing it would choose to prioritize who disappears based on rank, since the higher rank means the deadlier opponent. When there are a hundred friendlies swarming on Cao Cao (pronounced tsao tsao, sounds less stupid that way), I want to be able to see him too so they don't kill-steal on me (kill stealing is why I don't bother with bodyguards anymore).
The dueling system in DW4, while sometimes a relief when I'm outnumbered, is often more of a pain than it's worth. I could lose the entire game if I lose the match, and if I decline to fight or fight to a draw, I lose morale for the entire army. It doesn't help that the automatic health recuperation that NPC officers get also happens in the duel arena, so that they have a distinct advantage over human players if they're allowed to regenerate (not to mention that they don't have to wrestle with the camera like I do).
What I love in DW4 is its lack of formal structure, and willingness to embrace stories that totally defy both the history of the period and the pseudohistory of the fictional legends. At least in free mode, I can play as whomever I like one whichever [available] side I wish to choose in a given battle. And if I ever manage to unlock the elephant saddle, allowing me to start any level with an elephant mount I can use to squish people, you know I'm going to do it. Musou (read: campaign) mode doesn't allow that, though, but it makes me wonder what sorts of stories you could tell if, say, Cao Ren had long ago defected to Shu because he felt Shu was more likely to "end the chaos" than his own noble house would.
(And as I mention in the comments, the writers make an interesting comment about historical relativism. Whenever you're playing for a certain faction, the descriptions are often tailored to fit that faction, such that you're always painted as the goodguys, suggesting that somewhere in the middle lies the truth. Even jerk extraordinaire Dong Zhuo is suppressing pretenders to the throne, and other people start the fires that burn down the capital city, rather than it being directly his fault as in all other versions. The original Romance stories even leaned toward one side of the conflict, making the others look corrupt or evil, probably to enhance the drama and give the reader a side to root for, if not to reflect the tastes of the times.)
As an appreciator of the series if not a die-hard fan, of course I drool over the newer versions' enhanced graphics and flirtation with strategic modes. DW 7's introduction of the Jin faction, which wound up controlling most of ancient China after the wars until new schisms developed, is exciting. I know most of these characters were either legendary or didn't exist at all in history, but I like that there are enough characters that you get a different attitude and feel for each of them. You can almost imagine side stories for them, even though DW is primarily about action and not so much role-playing.
Role-Playing, You Say?
I know that Dynasty Warriors 7 has a skill system that lets you customize character development, and it lets you use any weapon pretty much regardless of character, yet I think the more in-depth customization might be the way to go with these games. You could still have characters with unique back stories and connection with the legends, but the ability to affect just how they develop might bring in people who, sometimes rightly, criticize the series for lacking depth. You DO often feel like you're repeating yourself when you pick a new character who also uses a spear, and it would be nice to see a bit stronger emphasis on individual stories, even if that means cutting down on the character count a bit.
I don't think there's any one right method, but I can imagine some interesting directions this series could take that might make it even more rewarding for people like me who are already wired to enjoy pretty much any game set in ancient China as long as it's playable.
There are plenty of stories in there that could actually make a pretty cool role-playing game, like an actual RPG, with many of these characters being NPCs you could interact with. Reading up on the historical version of one of my favorite characters to play in Dynasty Warriors, Huang Gai (or dude who looks like Mr. T with the big club who kicks you when he's tired of bashing you over the head) was said to have been a scholar and official who felt himself a better military leader than bureaucrat, so he allowed two subordinates to take over the day-to-day tasks of administration. He was feared by the staff, but he said that he wouldn't whip them or beat them should they make mistakes, to try to allay their fears. Yet after their fear of Huang Gai wore off, they began to shirk in their duties to the point where things were becoming disasterous. Huang Gai returned, saw the ruins they left the administration in, invited them to a meal, and said he was disappointed in their abuses of power, but that he wouldn't whip them or beat them for their infractions. He chose to have them executed instead.
I imagine stories like these might not sound heroic to some, but I don't think selling a worldview based on Confucian ideals like honoring your station in life would be too hard as long as the outlook was properly sold to the player early on.
Cue Pop Music and Characters Drinking Wine in a Garden
It's easy to slag on Dynasty Warriors for its dogged insistence on only incremental changes that feel more like experiments than evolution, but I just can't help but love the game. I have too many good memories, when playing older versions of DW, of close battles, grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, and we both have experienced those moments with this game too, like the time my significant other was about a minute away from failure before finally defeating the boss, or where I managed to unlock a top-level weapon by fighting for my character's life in a swarm of aggressive enemies, nailing some poor dude before he could run to safety then murdering an old man before my boss came to chastise me for taking so long.
So, yeah, I like Dynasty Warriors, even if I think it still has room for improvement. I guess I'll go back to pining for DW 7. Check here for a cool site on DW, and other games set in the Three Kingdoms period, as well as the extensive lore behind it.