By James "Xiahou Dun" Wiles
Dynasty Warriors 2 kind of came out of nowhere in the PS2's formative years and became quite a hit. The high action the series offered was unlike anything else on the market, expanding the Final Fight style of game to epic proportions by dropping the player into the shoes of one of ancient China's legendary warriors of the Three Kingdoms period, and having them mow down literally hundreds of faceless opponents on massive battlefields. The game's second incarnation (or third, if you adhere to the numbers), tossed in tons of new modes and characters, as well as something I personally wished for, but didn't think was possible: A two-player mode. With DW4, Koei and Omega Force have focused less on the enhancements and more on refinements (most of which appearing to cater to the wishes of hardcore fans of the series), with overall positive results.
The graphical package for this year's game looks to be basically an enhanced version of DW3, with the few glaring problems mostly repaired; Enemies no longer have the annoying tendency to "teleport away" when caught in a crowd, and the massive slowdown of previous titles has been tamed to a large degree. There are also a few new particle and lighting effects here and there. The character models appear to be just as detailed and well-animated as before.
The most immediately noticeable change in this year's edition is the sheer difficulty. It was pretty commonplace in the previous games for the player to chop their way through enemy troops with next to no real resistance until they reached a commanding officer. This is no longer the case. Even the most lowly of soldiers will put up a decent fight (well, not TOO decentů), blocking, countering, and running away if need be. Their fellow soldiers are also no longer content to stand idly by and watch the player combo their compatriots into submission, and will freely stab the player in the back to defend their fellow men. These changes are certainly welcome, as the player is no longer quite so much of an insurmountable force to the enemy. But on the flip-side, this has served to make the game a bit more frustrating, and a bit less accessible for newbies.
The upping of the difficulty stakes hasn't ended there; battles have become far more complex, and feel far less scripted than before. Events are more numerous and varied, and seem to have a much greater impact on morale, thus making it all but impossible for the player to simply run around and kill stuff in hopes of winning the battle. Also, The rather annoying cutscenes that once simply announced the arrival of a prominent enemy officer are now less numerous, and signal a challenge to a one-on-one duel. Duels not only give an opportunity to cut down an officer without interference from their troops, but can lead to added weapon experience and a big morale bonus if won (or penalty if refused). Unfortunately, dueling is still a bit of a problematic affair, as the enemy has a tendency to turtle, resort to cheap hits, or even heal themselves in mid-battle. Also, duels are limited to 45 seconds, making these problems even more difficult to overcome. Still, it's nice that Koei finally added a feature that I've wanted to see since DW2. Some of the other new additions are not as successful, however; The new siege engines that have figured so prominently into the ad blitz for this game are interesting, but are often simply objects that must be defended for a limited amount of time, and don't seem to figure too heavily into the game.
Once again, Koei has outdone itself with their character designs, as the now familiar warriors continue to look and play better with each new game. The characters have been imbued with even more personality and individuality than in DW3. Also, each character's moves have been further enhanced and refined, with a new array of grabs, running charge attacks, multi-stroke charges, aerial charges, and taunts (which break the guard of every enemy within the area of effect if completed), all of which just feel perfect. Also, the voice acting has greatly improved from DW3, with many of the voice actors being drawn from the ranks of notable Anime VO artists. Unfortunately, the option to leave the voices in the original Japanese has been removed, but since the English voices are far less likely to cause the listener's ears to bleed this time around, I suppose it can be overlooked.
Character advancement has remained pretty much the same, with the most notable changes being to the weapon upgrading system. Instead of forcing the player to find new weapons for their character, weapons now gain their own experience points with well-placed attacks and big combos. Unfortunately, the interesting side-abilities of characters' weapons hasn't been carried over, but overall it's another minor loss in the process of a welcome gain. The equippable items are back, with most of the assortment from DW3 returning, as well as a couple of new ones. Most notable is the larger number of harnesses (including an elephant harness!), as well as elemental orbs that add special properties to a character's attacks.
Overall, even if some of the new features in this year's DW are hit or miss (especially duels and siege engines), the overall quality has still increased nicely. Newcomers to the series may be advised to try out DW3 first before stepping up to this more challenging entry, but vets will likely not regret stepping up to the plate once again.
James. Score: 4 (out of 5)