Developer: Omega Force
Release Date: March 28, 2006
I begin any article or review I write about Koei's ancient Chinese epic franchise by clearly stating that I have a very large and soft spot in my heart for the Dynasty Warriors series. Many bemoan its simple gameplay devices, hackneyed voice acting, and rehashed levels and storyline. What most people don't realize is that Dynasty Warriors is akin to Madden football overseas. Every year, Koei churns out another DW with minor tweaks and roster adjustments and maybe some new storylines here and there. If you look at any major sports franchise, you can compare year-to-year installments and see that the differences are generally mild and evolutionary.
The real reason why Westerners don't dig the DW franchise is that San Guo Gi (or San Guoko Musou for Japan and Sam Guk Gi for Korea) is to Asia what Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are to Western Civilization. Everyone in Asia has to read these books, my 94-year-old Korean grandmother told me that I will not be considered to be wise until I've read all 2000+ pages of the stories three times. So you see, as the mythology of football, baseball and hockey are culturally engrained in the West, the cultural cues within Dynasty Warriors are just as loud and clear across the pond.
With that said, I have mixed feelings about DW 5: Empires. The past four installments have detailed out in loud rock 'n' roll fashion the exploits of the Three Kingdoms: Wu, Wei and Shu. Each kingdom comes equipped with about a dozen or so heroes which all have their own storylines that are told through the most melodramatic cut scenes ever devised since Wing Commander 4. The levels play out across sprawling maps flooded with hundreds of nobodies to slay. Later installments of the franchise even allowed you to create and train your own officer. Weapons could be dropped or found across each level, and better weapons were uncovered at higher difficulty levels. Finishing levels with higher body counts or under certain times unlocked super-secret characters like the savage Wei-Yan or the intractable and indomitable Lu-Bu.
DW 5: Empires is actually an "upgraded" version of DW 5 so it's not a true sequel. That in itself makes the game dubious, but it is the only "budget" title for the Xbox 360 and the only DW game on the console as well. Where DW5E picks up after the previous versions is the gameplay. You are still parked in a static camera behind your hero and running around, side-stepping and linking three- to nine-hit combos and spazzing out with "musou" rage. DW5E, as with every other DW game, can be summed up as button mashing with some mild aspects of timing thrown in, and in this regard, DW5E doesn't change the formula.
DW5E also doesn't do much to change the graphical flair of the game. DW5 certainly looks better than prior installments on the Xbox or PS2, but the 360's hardware is sadly wasted on DW5's engine. The textures tear here and there, and the anti-aliasing is really sloppy. The cinematic scenes are straight PS2 fare, which is really disappointing. No hint of bump mapping, let alone normal mapping, here. Specular lighting is a far-flung fancy as well and maybe someone ought to bring up motion capture at the next designers meeting for DW6 (because you know it's on the way). The game still suffers pop-up at what seems to be better than DW4, but then again, the X360 shouldn't have any pop-up at all.
The fact of the matter is this: DW5E is simply not optimized for the X360. It has been quickly ported to get the game onto as many platforms as possible, and that is the nature of publishing games today. Keeping a game exclusive to one console and maxing out that console's hardware are long gone. What's disappointing about DW5E is that Koei didn't even attempt to take advantage of what the 360 can do, but that isn't why I have such mixed feelings about this game.
Here is my biggest issue with DW5E: They've messed with the story. Yes, you are certainly shocked as you are screaming, "Thomas, WTF?!? Dynasty Warriors doesn't have teh story STFU!!!" But you know what? It does have a story; you just don't know the story. Here is how DW5E messes up the narrative. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the source material, has three kingdoms where warriors and generals fight over land and power and the people in a most heroic and righteous fashion. Strategy and tactics are employed to deceive, defeat, and teach lessons. DW5E introduces the "Empires" concept, where you are given a strategy map and territories to conquer. You can pick any faction and attack any way you want. You can forge alliances and improve your territories and reinforce your generals and even capture new generals to employ.
What Koei is doing is melding its Romance of the Three Kingdoms series with Dynasty Warriors, and I don't like it one bit. RotTK has its own place, and it's diametrically opposed to DW. RotTK is a game of strategy and intrigue, while DW is a game of action and endurance. Koei attempts to imbue DW with strategic elements that simply don't work. The map is cumbersome and difficult to navigate; you only have a limited number of actions, which simply feels arbitrary. Your equipment and items are managed by creating a sort of industry that can build your items which you can only use once in a battle. Weapons are no longer found across the map but are upgraded with attributes.
As you forge ahead through the upcoming turns, the kingdoms go to war against each other, and you can choose to follow the original story or totally create your own. If players found DW's story to be clunky and disjointed before, then they'll completely lose the plot in Empires. None of the major themes or story elements is left intact; DW5E might as well not even be an homage to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
For the longest time, Westerners have cried out for Koei to switch things up, and I suppose to their credit, Koei has gone and done that. However, I think Koei messed with the one element of the game that really didn't need fixing and ignored the element that really did need growth. The moves and gameplay between DW4, DW5 and DW5: Empires is virtually identical. The timing and camera haven't changed since the first installment, and the graphics engines have been slightly upgraded and optimized, but in the case of the 360, I think one would be hard-pressed to see any big differences between the X360 and Xbox versions.
The famous battles are in the game, but they've lost their context with the jumbling of the storylines. Battles are also largely meaningless if you can go ahead and wipe out the Wei Kingdom in the early rounds. With DW5E, we are left with the game that simply doesn't improve on the formula; in my opinion, it's a serious step backwards. What Koei should have done is made a camera that is more dynamic and fluid and reactive to the player's focus. Ghost Recon: Advance Warfighter is a perfect example of this flowing camera work. The storylines and cut scenes should have been left in their chronology, and if anything, Koei should have revised the CGI to make the scenes look less like something that was slightly impressive four years ago. Far Cry Instincts: Predator's in-game graphics are more impressive than DW5E's cinematic scenes.
What began as a means of improving the DW formula has pretty much gutted what made the game so cool to begin with: its mythology. No matter how you cut it, DW5E is an experiment that has gone wrong, and this is coming from someone who unabashedly loves this franchise. I hope that Koei scraps this "empire" concept in DW6 and focuses on evolving the gameplay mechanics, not the means by which the gameplay unfolds. If you love DW as much as I do, avoid this installment because it will disappoint you; DW5 in its original form will be much more satisfying for a DW purist. If you don't care about the mythology behind the game and like the idea of strategy maps and button mashing, then rent DW5E before buying it to see if you like the way the game works. Personally, Koei's broken my heart.