We all know love can be blind. The fact that Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas are still going strong after eight years of marriage is proof of that. But if you ever had any doubt just take a look at the button-mashing, hack and slashing Dynasty Warriors series. Hell, just play a level of the sixth and latest version, billed as the franchise's first proper next-gen title. You'll immediately see what I mean. It's what the phrase "love is blind" was born to be applied to.
Bafflingly, millions of Japanese gamers love Dynasty Warriors. The PS3 version of Dynasty Warriors 6 debuted at number two in the all-format Japanese charts when it was released over in the Land of the Rising Sun back in November 2007, selling a stupendous 176,000 copies. Even more incredible, the 360 version got to number four in the all format chart, selling 27,000 units. And that's for a system that's basically non-existent in the country. While there's no chance that the game will repeat that success over here, it still has a small, hardcore following in the West. Well here's my message to all those Japanese gamers who picked up the game day one and all you Western gamers who have pre-ordered the game and will buy it regardless of review scores: wake up and smell the coffee. Dynasty Warriors 6 is a boring, repetitive, stale game from a tired series that's clearly out of ideas.
Playing Dynasty Warriors 6 should be like taking control of an ancient Asian martial-arts hero from spectacular Chinese films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero. It recounts the popular Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a feudal tale of the great upheaval suffered in the region during the first few hundred years of the last millennium. Like the novel, Dynasty Warriors 6 centres on the exploits of a number of amazingly skilful, almost super-powered fighters whose exploits on the battlefield during the period made them legends, much like our very own King Arthur. Sounds great in theory, right? Sure it does. Problem is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been the setting and premise of every single Dynasty Warriors game. That's a total of 21 games, if you count spin-offs. I don't care how glorious, dramatic and inspiring a period of history is - playing DW6 with the same characters and in the same battles from all the other games feels like being forced to listen to the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" while a leprechaun pinches that flabby bit under your arm.
The story and setting isn't the only stale aspect of DW6. Lazy button-mashing combat just doesn't cut it these days. Sure, button-mashing exists to a degree in many modern games, like Devil May Cry 4 and God of War 2. The difference though is that these games require you to weave varied attacks into complex combos in order to win. In DW6 all your combos are triggered with just one button.
Developer Omega Force has tweaked the way combos work, but, quite bafflingly, it's resulted in an even more repetitive experience. The new "renbu" combat system focuses on stringing kills together without getting hit. The higher the combo, the more spectacular your character's attacks become. It's a simple case of wading into a crowd of hundreds of identical enemies, mashing the attack button as hard as you can and watching the "renbu" meter inch ever higher. Sure, you can throw in an extra powerful attack here and there to break down the guard of tougher enemies, and even trigger special, crowd destroying attacks when the meter is full, but for 90 per cent of your time you'll be running about the battlefield, searching out enemy generals and killing hundreds of bad guys by hammering a single button. Not my idea of fun.
DW6 is billed as the series' first true next-gen effort, built from the ground up to take advantage of the Xbox 360 and PS3's power. Well it feels about as next-gen as your Grandmother playing Tetris on the original Game Boy. Yes, there are absolutely tonnes of enemies on screen at the same time, which has been DW's hook down the years. But they all look exactly the same. When you're not fighting the much tougher enemy generals, DW6 simply feels like clothes lining hundreds of clones.
Other tweaks feel similarly staid. You can now swim, row boats, climb ladders and destroy stronghold gates. Whoopy-do. The new skill tree levelling up system is hardly revolutionary stuff either. But it is the lack of an online co-op mode which disappoints most of all. Split-screen two-player co-op can be decent fun - why can't you take this experience online?
The game runs at a healthy 60FPS throughout, but don't expect Devil May Cry 4 quality visuals. While the main character attack animations are impressive (all motion captured), the overall look is that of a PS2 game in high definition. There's loads of pop-up, so much so that enemies and allies can sometimes appear at your feet like magic. The environments are dour, with poor effects and uninspired textures. The level design is half-arsed and can often frustrate, and the music, well, let's just say that it sounds like the J-Rock band who brought us that incredibly annoying Devil May Cry 4 soundtrack has found more work right here on DW6.
And unfortunately I did notice slowdown on the PS3 version of the game. This was only when things got crazy, like when I triggered a special move and hundreds of enemies were on screen at once. For the record I didn't notice any slowdown on the Xbox 360 version. This is not Xbox 360 bias, just the harsh reality.
If the game struggles in terms of next-gen-ness, then it completely fails in the accessibility stakes. The series has never found a large audience in the West, and you can see why. DW6 thrusts you into battle without bothering to explain to any great detail what you're doing or why. While there are embarrassingly voice-acted cutscenes triggered in between battles, as well as lines of text intended to give some context to the destruction, they fail to deliver a compelling story. Yes, the game comes with an extensive text-based encyclopaedia, which players can trudge through if they wish to get a better understanding of the many characters, settings and battles, but I didn't pay my money for a history lesson. I paid my money for a video game.
And there's no tutorial to speak of, so if you're new to the series you'll have no idea what the controls or the buttons are, how battles play out or how the new combat system works. DW6 is unapologetically for fans of the series.
I can't help but feel very disappointed by DW6. There's a great game buried somewhere deep within the Dynasty Warriors concept, and now that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 have been out for a while there really is no reason why it can't happen. But it seems that Omega Force either can't be bothered to breathe fresh air into the franchise, or it feels it doesn't need to because anything in a game box with Dynasty Warriors on the front is guaranteed to make money.