I've reviewed some pretty awful games in my lifetime. Remember Pulse Racer, where if you drive too fast your character has a heart attack? Yep - reviewed that one. What about Superman 64? Where getting from point A to point B without the game crashing was the real challenge. Yep - did that one too. I almost broke down into tears when I found out I had to review those games, but you know what really grinds my gears? What really sets me off? When Koei releases another Dynasty Warriors game. Because deep down inside, I know the latest game in the series isn't going to do anything to move the series on. I'm going to have to play through the entire game, which if history repeats itself - and that often is the case - means hours of painstakingly repetitive gameplay and another few hours pondering why the series sells as well as it does. It's not bad, but just painfully similar to every title that's preceded it.
You see, no matter how bad the games get, no matter how poor the review scores are, people, for one reason or another, keep buying the games. Maybe I just don't get it, but for a series that hasn't evolved once since its inception, hasn't included a single ounce of innovation since the 2001 original, I find that a bit odd. Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires continues this trend to a tee, making little to no enhancements over its predecessors, and while the new Empire mode adds a bit of juice to an otherwise empty glass, it's hardly enough to get excited about.
Empire mode is the same as any other Dynasty Warriors game, but with a smidgen of strategy involved. You start by assembling your forces, picking a few officers and then choosing what portion of land to begin your assault on. The object is to takeover all of the land in 100 turns, which is the equivalent of 25 years, or four turns per year (each turn represents a season). In between turns, you can purchase new soldiers, hire new officers, upgrade your equipment and then continue your crusade. But in order to do that, you need gold. How do you accumulate gold you ask? Simple: conquer new territory. The more territory you gain, the more gold people have to shell out to you in the form of taxes.
The final element of strategy comes in the form of troop placement. You're given a set number of Generals and Lieutenants that can occupy each territory. Both types of soldiers command a set number of troops, so it's imperative to locate portions of the land with a strong enemy presence and position your soldiers accordingly.
And while the Empire mode is a satisfying change of pace, I have to wonder why it wasn't included in previous instalments; it's a nice feature, yes, but there's hardly enough here to warrant a brand spankin' new sequel. This reminds me of when Bandai released the .hack games - a series which should have been one game - and separated it into four parts, charging gamers ludicrous prices for each. Similarly, the entire Dynasty Warriors series seems like a single game, broken down into six parts.
Empire mode does have its appealing moments, but once the combat actually begins, it's straight down hill from there. Players are subjected to the same combos over and over again, which consist of mashing buttons over and over again. You still follow the map, pick up power-ups and fight wave after wave of mindless opponents until you've taken over every land space and completed all your objectives; then proceed to rinse and repeat on the next level. The AI doesn't stand up too well either - but I suppose it never has. The computer rarely attacks you; I've literally left the game running, made my diner, had a quick nap, watched another episode of Lost, came back, and my health bar had barely taken a hit. The officers on the other hand provide some resemblance of artificial behaviour. Thankfully, they fight back.
If Empire mode doesn't tickle your fancy, Koei has included the ability to jump right into the battlefield with Free mode. It's the same mode of play as all of the previous games, minus the story and all of the neat strategy elements. In other words, if you're not picking this one up to play the Empire mode, you might as well hunt down a copy of Dynasty Warriors 5, which can be bought pretty cheaply these days. It's by far the most complete version the series has to offer.
For those of you who are graphics whores, you might want to take a pass on Empires. It's nearly identical to the original 2001 release, with the awful draw distance rearing its ugly head again, a frame rate that barely manages to make it to 30 fps, and some laughably bland environments and textures - all signs of a Dynasty Warriors game alright.
For 360 owners who are die-hard Dynasty fans, it's all a matter of how much you're willing to spend for a cleaner version of the game. It looks more like a high-res Xbox game rather than a full-fledged next-gen offering. The textures are cleaned up a bit, the frame rate is bearable, and a few more enemies can be seen on screen, but that's about it. Considering it'll cost you more than the PlayStation 2 game, the extra cost isn't really worth it.
I find myself continuously frustrated with Koei. I know the team can make solid games, and I know the Dynasty Warriors series could be so much more than it is. Maybe that's why it's so disappointing to see that the team blew another opportunity to start fresh and make a truly innovative and compelling title. I'd love to say that we'll see some huge improvements in next-year's offering, but I simply can't. The fact that the 360 version is practically a direct port of the current-gen version doesn't help either. Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires isn't terrible, it's just totally uninspiring. But hey, at least we've still got Ninety-Nine Nights and Genji 2 to look forward to.