I am stood in a line waiting for my turn in a cigarette-smoke filled Akihabara arcade. If it weren't for the din of the machines, you'd hear a Yen drop. Not a word is spoken. Eye contact is seemingly forbidden. The only thing that matters is the thrill of battle. You win, you stay on. You lose, you stand up and hit the back of the line. It is November 2008 and I'm queuing for Street Fighter IV. Barely a soul has even seen the game outside of Japan, let alone played it, I quip to myself, smugly. The line is four deep. Won't be long...
What's that? That line... well, it must be six or seven deep! Maybe even eight! What are they queuing for? Street Fighter V? VI? Compelled, I sacrifice my spot and have a gander. The queue is for some kind of third-person mech game. Giant robots dart about the screen, slicing and dicing and shooting more enemies than seems possible to comprehend. Fingers flick joysticks in every direction and push buttons in a blur of stubby flesh. People are transfixed. Eyes are not squinted in concentration. Eyes are instead relaxed, as if at peace as the brains behind them approach "the zone". What the hell is this, I ask myself? This is Gundam.
Gundam is to the Japanese what Werther's Original is to us Brits, in that it's been going for donkey's years and is enjoyed by people old and young (and in public!). Despite the fact that it's primarily an anime full of massive samurai robots that spend most of their days smashing each other to smithereens, it's incredibly popular. Gundam figurines go for thousands in Tokyo hobbyist stores, manga novels adorn book shelves everywhere and, last but by no means least, the video games tear up the Japanese charts with unnerving regularity. In the Land of the Rising Sun, Gundam is everywhere.
And yet it's relatively unheard of on these shores, even in these global village times. Of those Brits who have heard of Gundam, most probably only have an acquaintance with the Japanese phenomenon. A smaller proportion still will have played a Gundam game - a fact publisher Koei hopes is about to change.
I am being shown a playable build of Dynasty Warriors Gundam 2. It is a blur of robot and clashing steel, a fusion of jet propulsion and third-person shooting. It is so utterly, unequivocally Japanese that I suspect I might find one of the metal monstrosities working at the embassy in London. So far, so very Gundam. But there are differences this time. Subtle tweaks that mean you, yes you at the back, the one who's not entirely sure what all this Gundam business is about, might take a punt on the mechanised madness.
'Dynasty Warriors Gundam 2 feels more like a scrolling beat-em-up than it does mindless mayhem.'
I think it's fair to say at this point that Dynasty Warriors Gundam, released towards the back end of 2007, wasn't that good. The fusion of chaotic button bashing Dynasty Warriors gameplay with the Gundam universe proved a turn off for all but the most loyal of fans. Koei itself admits that it was specifically targeted at the hardcore, with little in the way of welcoming warmth for newcomers. This sequel shows, almost immediately, that the lesson has been learnt. You'll be able to, for example, start at the beginning, know what's going on, and get to work unlocking the massive amount of content packed into the game. Truly, this is the Lego Star Wars of Gundam.
Gameplay wise, the giant mobile armours that were noticeable due to their absence from the first game make it in this time. This adds some much needed variety to the core Dynasty Warriors influenced "kill 10,000 enemies by hammering a single button" mechanic on which the game is based. The focus now is more on big boss battles and combo development. The upshot? Dynasty Warriors Gundam 2 feels more like a scrolling beat-em-up than it does mindless mayhem.
Fans will be interested to know that the dash function is now more useful - it lasts longer and is governed by a power bar. You can string together elaborate combos with the dash, too, allowing you to work your way through lots of enemies without dying of boredom. Talking of bars, your special attack is now tied into a fighting game style three-tiered power bar, giving it three variations and, as you'd expect, three different animations. There are air attacks, visual indications of the status of your robot via armour damage and, in co-op mode, new attacks made available only when you're close to your mechanised mate.
Adding to the Westernised Gundam mix is a dash of the RPG. Enemies drop robot parts that you can use to upgrade your own robot in the Mobile Suit Lab. And, in true mad scientist style, you can combine these parts to create completely new robots, increasing the 70 robot roster that comes as default on the disc. Mwahahah.
Perhaps the most interesting of all, though, is the Relationship feature. When playing missions some characters will ask for help. How you react to that plea affects your relationship with them. If you're friendly with a character they will back you up when the going gets tough, but if you're in their bad books they will make things harder for you.
The differences between Gundam 2 and its predecessor represents a significant shift not only for the series, but in thinking from Japanese publisher Koei. It now sees more importance in the Western market, and knows that the Japanese market is not the force it used to be. What this means for those of you who have passed Gundam by in the past, those of you who have perhaps consigned it to the great bonkers Japan dustbin that's hidden deep within your subconscious, is that you might need to think again. This time, Gundam might actually make some sense.
Dynasty Warriors Gundam 2 is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 at the end of March.