The popular 3D beat 'em up developed by Omega Force returns for an 8th instalment. Everything that players expect from the familiar battle simulator based on ‘Romance of The Three Kingdoms' is present in abundance. Players fight wave after wave of enemies, defeat powerful generals, level-up dozens of characters and improve numerous weapons.
Dynasty Warriors 8 is a true sequel. Rather than complete overhaul, it is focused on improvements. Reusing the DW7 engine means there aren't fundamental changes. New characters swell the roster to an impressive 77. Online options and tweaked game modes are welcome additions, and mechanism tweaks make the powerful combat more fluid.
For the uninitiated, or those in need of a reminder, Dynasty Warriors centres around three main warring factions - Wei, Wu, Shu. The factions battle for supremacy over all of China. Based on a fascinating period time, it makes Chinese history accessible to a far larger audience than those who would be expected to know it. It's also completely crazy.
While closer to the accounts recorded in the Three Kingdoms legends than ever before, Dynasty Warriors 8 is still a generous interpretation of history. The colourful and animated art-direction indicates overall tone. Cut scenes are exciting and action-packed. Colourful characters have distinct personalities that push the limit of good taste. Every General is a super-hero. While it may not revel in realism, it is a lot of fun.
The combo-based fighting is fast, fluid and rewarding. Difficulty ranges from Beginner to Chaos. On easy difficulties, button-bashing is enough to get through. Higher difficulties require significantly more skill. Players are equipped with two types of weapon that are switched freely in battle. The focus is building successful chains and avoiding damage. Knowing when to block, when to use heavy attacks, when to switch weapons and when to launch special attacks is key to success.
Mastering the controls rewards players with special abilities. The standard ‘Musou Attack' returns, you can unleash a devastating power attack once the musou gauge is filled. Some new abilities have joined the mix as well. 'Storm Rush' is a multi-hitting attack triggered when the player has drained their opponent's affinity gauge. Another new mechanic, 'Switch Counter', counterblows enemy heavy attacks by switching weapons just as the opponent's strike is about to land. The final noticeable addition is ‘Rage Awakening'. Fed by attacking enemies, the rage metre reaches its limit and is unleashed with a press of the control stick to dramatically increase player stats and activate an extended special attack.
In Story Mode, action is spliced with cutscenes. It's the most accurate account of Three Kingdoms legends to have appeared in a Dynasty Warriors game yet. Sometimes cutscenes will show events that change tactics, sometimes even revealing you've lost and must flee from the battlefield. Main characters die. Even favourites can fall. The scenes are heavily stylised and largely ridiculous, but the outcomes are what actually happened. That alone sets it apart from many of the previous games.
As well as Story Mode for the Wei, Wu, Shu factions, the Jin faction makes a welcome return, as does ‘Other', which allows the opportunity to play as unaffiliated characters like Lu Bu.
A returning feature from Dynasty Warriors 6 is the opportunity to play favourite stages in Free Mode. As well as letting players be on the opposite side of the battle than in Story Mode, Free Mode also allows hypothetical ‘what if' scenarios. Players can change events of the pre-determined story. Want to play Lu Bu beating Cao Cao? The battle of Red Cliff going the other way? Free mode will let you.
For players who like to level-up and see indicators of their progress, "Ambition Mode" does just that. The objective is to create a base called 'Tongquetai Tower' and make it good enough for the Emperor to visit. Developing buildings like the Blacksmith or Barracks is dependent on materials obtained in battle. Fame also needs to be increased through battle, allowing the player to recruit allies. Recruiting famous officers lets them be set as camp overseers, act as your personal bodyguards, or become playable.
Dynasty Warriors 7 had removed co-op from Story Mode. Happily, every play mode allows co-op in Dynasty Warriors 8. Co-op is hugely entertaining, whether local or online. The competition between players to see who can get the highest KO count or who can defeat the most generals is enjoyable as ever. The inclusion of online leaderboards makes hitting high scores more rewarding than before.
It's fair to say Dynasty Warriors is mostly button-bashing mayhem, but tactics and strategy are involved as well. Level design is more open than in Dynasty Warriors 7, allowing greater freedom of movement around the battlefield. One bad decision can make all the difference. Spotting an enemy threat heading for my base camp, I went to see them off. Before I knew it, my strongest allies were falling on the front lines. Tragedy occurred as I simply couldn't travel the distance necessary in time to save them.
There's a huge choice of weapons. Each weapon has unique abilities such as generating shockwaves or creating a shadow double that continues fighting for a short time after changing weapons. Any warlord can use any weapon, but they are limited in how far their skill can increase depending on character preferences such as heavy or striking weapons.
Characters and weapons level up constantly and accumulatively throughout all game modes. As well as standard level increases and stat boosts, skills are unlocked and increased through in-game actions. Conditions for upgrading skills are succinctly explained in the menus, allowing the opportunity to change play styles to acquire them.
Sadly for Microsoft fans, the Xbox 360 version struggles in comparison to the PS3. An impressive amount of enemies appear on screen at the same time, giving the sense of a truly packed battlefield. This causes significant graphic popping, frame rate issues and slow-down on the 360. It's not game-breaking, but does hurt the enjoyment. The PS3 version is significantly less buggy. It's smooth and responsive even with 2 players and lots of action. The occasional bug where essential NPCs gets stuck behind scenery (stairs are a particular problem) occurs in both games, but running into them is normally enough encouragement to get them back where they should be.
As a new instalment in an established series Dynasty Warriors 8 is a noticeable improvement. The sheer amount of content means it's sure to entertain for a very long time. It's the same goofy, off-the-walls madness as always. New developments are mostly improvements, though some omissions like the lack of a narrator, or absence of Challenge Mode, are a bit baffling.
It's unlikely that Dynasty Warriors 8 will convert new players, but established fans will get a lot of enjoyment from what's on offer.