Genre: Strategy/Beat 'Em Up
Developer: Omega Force
Release Date: February 27, 2007
The original Samurai Warriors 2 was easily one of the best things Koei has published in ages. While graphically unimpressive on the PS2 and downright ugly on the Xbox 360's flawed port, it featured an incredibly wide array of game modes, character-specific stories with some real meat to them, and a tremendous variety of characters with unique attack animations and move sets. It essentially fixed every single complaint a reviewer could have had with Koei and Omega Force's last effort, Dynasty Warriors 5, and even added in some online multiplayer options through Xbox Live. It made you remember how the Dynasty Warriors series got to be such a huge hit, while the focus on Japanese history (and more than a few completely non-historical characters) considerably freshened the feel of the gameplay. Heck, even if you got tired of playing the main game, you could get together with up to three friends and play the insane strategy game, Sugoroku, that was included on the disc.
Despite all of these wonderful features, it was a little difficult to recommend Samurai Warriors 2 when it came out five months ago ... because by then, Samurai Warriors 2: Empires had already been announced. For the Dynasty Warriors titles, the Empires edition usually includes every feature of the original release, along with numerous gameplay enhancements. The two most important, traditionally, are the addition of a long strategic campaign mode that lets you start with any faction and use your resources to eventually conquer China (or Japan, in Samurai Warriors's case) and gather ranks of elite officers and generals to serve beneath you, and a create-an-officer mode that lets you take a customized character sporting either original attack animations or the attacks of another major character through the campaign mode. So it's usually foolish to purchase the initial release of any given Dynasty Warriors title, when the Empires version that comes out a year later is completely better in every way. Since Samurai Warriors is mostly just Dynasty Warriors with "Japan" pasted over "China," it seemed reasonable to assume that this would also be the case with Samurai Warriors 2 and its Empires edition.
This turns out to be an incredibly faulty assumption. The Empires version of Samurai Warriors 2 is a completely different game than the original in almost every respect, save perhaps the music. On the positive side, the original 360 version's truly atrocious graphics — little more than a PS2 port at slightly higher resolution — have been tremendously improved. Now the game actually manages to look better than Dynasty Warriors 5 did on the same hardware, with much more detailed character models and superior cloth and background textures, chugging along at a respectable framerate. The screen ratio is even properly optimized for an HDTV's 16:9 display, so you won't find yourself swapping into 4:3 mode so you can see more of the battlefield. The character models are so incredibly detailed and fluidly animated now that they seem to have been rebuilt from the ground up.
Samurai Warriors 2: Empires is no Ninety-Nine Nights, but it really looks like a title meant for the Xbox 360 now. The only real visual cue that hints at a port from lesser hardware is a tendency toward short draw distances and relatively few enemies moving around onscreen at once. Along with the improved graphics are some new gameplay flourishes for the series signature "Musou" special attacks. You can now perform team-ups with any general in your army, and up to three generals at once to dramatically increase your effectiveness. The Musou animations are enhanced with extra frames, more dramatic flares of light and flying kanji, and some light interactivity that lets you see dramatic end-poses if you kill enemies with your Musou in particularly impressive fashion.
While the importance of the graphics upgrade in the Empires edition of Samurai Warriors 2 can't be understated, the rest of the game is a total disaster. The Empires version of an Omega Force beat 'em up usually contains all of the original game's content, but Samurai Warriors 2: Empires contains virtually none. All of the original 40 playable characters are back, and all of the dozen or so generic character models and voices get a variety of stats and names attached to them in order to create the bulk of the 400 "unique" officers you can recruit. There are no new generic weapon animations, so your original officer in the character creation mode is forced to mimic one of the pre-existing move sets. And you can forget about body sliders or any sort of deep customization; all you can really do is match one of the 20 or so generic voices to the model you select, pick from a half-dozen or so possible Musou sets, and then fill in frivolous information like name, clan symbol, and what kanji fly across the screen when you activate your Musou. This is utterly inexcusable when Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires gave you far more meaningful decisions to make in designing your character, along with basic design options like height/weight sliders.
Remember all of those incredible game modes I talked about earlier, that made Samurai Warriors 2 so satisfying? Not a one of them is back, except for the split-screen two-player co-op (which is actually more hindrance than help in Empires' strategy mode). That's right: no online multiplayer, no Sugoroku, no infinite castle mode, no shop mode, no character story modes. Instead, you get some relatively generic cut scenes for each of the factions you can lead through the strategy campaign mode. Worst of all, a lot of the most fun and interesting Samurai Warriors characters have no historical basis. This means they become sort of superfluous in campaign mode, which desperately tries to pretend like Samurai Warriors's convoluted backstories have something to do with actual Japanese history. It's usually to your advantage to control the leader of your faction in battle, and this means a lot of playing relatively boring guys like Nobunaga Oda and Shingen Takeda instead of delightfully crazy ones like Hattori Hanzo and Oichi. This rather defeats the point of what made Samurai Warriors 2 so much fun to begin with.
Since so much of the original game was sacrificed in favor of presenting the strategy campaign mode with no distractions, then you'd imagine it to be a very deep and satisfying experience, right? Well ... yes and no. For the most part, the strategy campaign mode is exactly identical to Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires. Your goal is to capture provinces so you can unify regions and eventually rule the entire nation. You accomplish this by invading enemy territory and killing enemy leaders, capturing officers to add to your army in the process. You may also find yourself allying with other nations or having to repel invasions from rivals, so you need to think carefully about where you station your armies.
Between battles, you get to play a strategy portion of the game that primarily lets you take actions to improve your army before the next fight. Actions cost so much gold, which you earn both during battles and from strategic actions. You can decree particular actions yourself, or delegate duties to your generals; what duties a general can undertake depends on their inherent traits. Generals also have strategic abilities that can be used to affect the overall flow of battle once you're in the action segment of a campaign. There are well over 100 traits that generals can have, so you definitely won't run out of options. Unfortunately, very few of these are new from Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires, so you really feel like you're playing a game you've played before.
Many of the options are also not really that useful, stuff like being able to open mines in your territory, or raise horses ... just more complicated ways of getting at simple goals from earlier titles in the series, like getting gold more quickly or acquiring mounts. The campaigns themselves don't reflect any particular narrative logic, since Samurai Warriors 2 didn't bother to adapt Japanese history in any sort of sensible way to begin with. This makes the campaign mode feel rather arbitrary and uncomfortable, instead of the epic grandeur or re-enacting the Romance of the Three Kingdoms legend you might experience in a Dynasty Warriors Empires title.
So when it comes to Samurai Warriors 2, 360 owners are kind of left behind. You can play Empires, which features great graphics and incredibly dull gameplay, or the original version, which features fantastic gameplay and inexcusably bad graphics. This is a situation that's frustrating to say the least, especially after the way Koei fans flocked to the Microsoft hardware after the superior ports delivered to the original Xbox. Anyone who upgraded to the 360 expecting the same thing has instead gotten titles where features inexplicably disappear and graphics improvements only come at the expense of gameplay sophistication. If nothing else, the sorry state of Samurai Warriors 2 on the 360 is just an object lesson in how completely the outdated PS2 hardware still rules the Japanese development scene. Until this changes, Japanese developers seem unlikely to produce games that fully use the potential the 360 officers. When they do, they'll probably be PS3 ports rushed out the door with the American market in mind.
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