If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This phrase could be the unofficial slogan for the Dynasty Warriors series, which has returned gamers to the turbulent period of the Three Kingdoms again and again for over seven years. While the series has remained popular, every new version has received criticism from plenty of reviewers (myself included) for lack of total innovation. Well, Koei’s latest title, Dynasty Warriors 4: Empires has just hit store shelves, and detractors of the hack and slash action have a surprise coming their way; Empires provides a much needed shot of creativity to the older formula of conquest.
The main focus of the game (little surprise here) is in the “Empire” mode, which centers around the desire to unify all of China under one flag. Unlike previous Dynasty Warriors games, which restricted players to the Wei, Wu and Shu kingdoms, these realms don’t exist in Empires. This lets the player determine the success and creation of their own territory. Players are given one of two initial choices to initially fight in: historical or fictional mode. Historical actually follows the regional alliances and geographical borders that were known to exist during the Three Kingdoms period, placing specific generals and warriors in certain provinces. Fictional, on the other hand, allows players to randomly choose soldiers and territories to begin fighting for.
While players will still have to put down the Yellow Turban revolt (DW veterans will know exactly what I’m talking about), this mission serves merely as a catalyst to launch the two separate modes of gameplay: the turn based planning phase and the faster paced action phase. The planning phase is obviously influenced by one of Koei’s other franchises, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At the beginning of every “turn,” players receive two policy proposals to be enacted in their lands from each of their generals and lieutenants. There are seven separate procedural categories, totaling fifty regional plans in all. These all range from diplomatic and economic incentives to military tactics and strength.
While you can choose to actively turn down every suggestion made to you during this phase, acting on a specific course of action will drain a certain amount of money from your coffers to ensure the policy is followed. This often forces you to weigh your choices carefully. For instance, do you need to form an alliance with a nearby ruler to protect yourself at the cost of your gold supplies, or do you bolster the size of your armies and pray you can outlast any invaders? The policy screen is also the place where you’ll determine the kind and number of unique battle objects that you’ll be able to bring with you into battle to give your units bonuses.
Battles in Empires take one of 4 separate formats. Players can actively invade a region, defend a territory they own, request help from an ally or aid an ally against a common opponent. Whichever option is chosen, gamers then choose up to three separate generals and lieutenants to take the battlefield and complete their main objective. Most of the time, this involves the elimination of the opposing leader in the chosen arena, although this can also involve the capturing of enemy camps or the defending of bases until a certain time limit runs out. Bases play a number of significant roles in Empires. First of all, they act as chokepoints to strengthen key routes on the map. Secondly, they act as rallying points for armies, making it harder to assault enemies on their own ground. Finally, they are access points for reinforcements, allowing additional troops to pour in to bolster armies in the midst of fighting.
If you’ve ever played a Dynasty Warriors title before, then you’re pretty used to the way that Empires will look. That said, you’re still looking at an nicely detailed main character surrounded on a battlefield by at least two to three dozen minions or opponents at any given point and time. Many of these background participants are fighting each other, although you’ll see the typical “kung fu movie” style of circling an opponent without attacking every now and then. You’ll also find a number of cutscenes scattered through the game that are quite impressive. Veterans to the series will notice the number of diverse maps, such as deserts, swamps and mountainous regions, which all bear distinctive settings for the major battles that you’ll fight.
However, the game still suffers from massive slowdown when the maximum number of characters is reached (often found when you’re cutting your way through a large patch of enemies, especially if using a powered up attack). You may also notice that the camera tends to be sticky at times, getting caught in corners and panning or rotating at odd moments. Sound, like the graphics, are recycled from previous Dynasty Warrior titles, meaning that you’ll find the same overdramatic voice acting, sound effects and wailing guitar rock from previous games in the series. Obviously, this will wind up appealing to the hardcore fan only, as newcomers or other gamers may find themselves turning the sound off completely.
There are a few other modes included in Empires, but by and large, they’re afterthoughts that are completely dwarfed to the main Empire mode. There’s an archive mode, which is essentially a gallery of people, items and weapons that you’ve unlocked. There’s also an edit mode, which lets you create your own general, and a versus mode, which lets you take on the computer or a friend in four separate “mini-games”. Like I said before though, Empire mode is the focus of the game, and creatively, the shortened time limits allows gamers to quickly get their domination plans on without taking an entire day to play. Invasions are held to 30 minutes, and defenses are even shorter, coming in at 15 minutes only, so it’s possible to play a turn or two without feeling trapped at your controller for each battle.
One of the largest problems of Empire mode is the fact that while the inclusion of the turn based planning system provides additional strategy, it doesn’t go nearly as far as it could or it should. As a ruler, I’d rather not be forced to solely accept the suggestion of only one military leader; instead, I’d prefer to pick and choose a number of option(s) from my advisors. Secondly, the specific region affected by a policy does seem to be rather random. This doesn’t seem bad when a player is first starting out, but when you’ve actually started to accumulate a sizable amount of land, it becomes difficult to judge which area is affected, how many items you have in your stockpiles and how well some policies help your kingdom. There is also a rather significant issue with the “use” of skills and talents of computer controlled generals on your side. Since each leader can use these abilities only once, it’d be nice if you could specify when you want or need one triggered. Instead, the computer will often waste these at inopportune moments, making battle much more difficult for you. This, coupled with the repetitive hack and slash motion, can sometimes wear on your enthusiasm for the game.
That being said, it is laudable to note that this is the first significant tweak that’s been made to the DW formula in some time. Throwing many of the “expansion pack” elements aside for an actual shift in gameplay, the inclusion of planning elements forces a slight, albeit flawed sense of strategy to the oftentimes mundane action play. If the less than stellar updates to the Dynasty Warriors series has left you cold, take a look at Empires: You may just rekindle that conquest flame.