Review by Ishmael
"Conquer China one stronghold at a time"
The Dynasty Warriors/Shin Sangoku Musou have always been a strange contradiction of gargantuan amounts of character interaction and historical fiction combined with game play that can be boiled down to running around bonking crowds of people on the head. That sense of immense simplicity continues in Dynasty Warriors 4 Empires.
DW4E takes the fairly complicated undertaking of conquering China and makes things more manageable by splitting the map into dozens of different regions that correspond with the way the area was politically set up back around 200 A.D. To conquer each area you need to take over a string of strongholds to connect your base to the enemy camp. Judging from the game strongholds were extremely popular at that point in China since every map is littered with them. In order to capture a stronghold you have to do it the old fashioned way of beating up anyone who gets in your way. An entire nation united through a skillfully played beat em up; what a terrific concept.
I suppose it would be possible to unite a country through diplomacy, communication, trade and so on but DW4E goes with the time tested and more depressing method of straight out warfare. Leading an army into battle would normally be a lot of work but in DW4E you only have to worry about the single character you're controlling. That isn't too good for those that like to plan out every little detail but you'll have more than enough to do trying to keep yourself from getting swarmed by enemy forces. While there is some strategy involved in trying to decide what part of the battlefield to attack next most of the game feels like one mob attacking another. This makes for an exciting game but you won't feel like the next Sun Tzu at any point while playing.
Speaking of your forces, unlike the regular DW4 the other officers in your army in DW4E can actually manage to win a few battles without you there to hold their hand. In DW4E you actually feel like you're being swept along by a wave of humanity instead of getting the impression you're babysitting an entire army. The decision to jettison most of the the event moments from the battles makes all the fights in DW4E a variation on the same theme but it also gets rid of the feeling that you were controlling the only competent character in your kingdom.
At first glance it would seem that DW4E is simple; Tactics for Dummies or a beat em up with delusions of grandeur. But when you look at it a bit more you realize it's as epic as the story it uses for it's source material. Take, for example, the voices. At first you would suspect all that one would need for a game of this type would be a few "oofs" and "arghs" and maybe a bit of chit-chat about strongholds. Instead the game is stuffed with dialogue. From the nearly constant shouting of Cao Cao to the slacker strategy of Pang Tong, every character has a distinctive voice, speech pattern and plenty to say. The game even goes so far as to have individualized introductions for the characters when they start up a new game based upon their starting position on the map. With the game featuring both English and Japanese language tracks there's an incredible amount of spoken dialogue in the game, or at least far more than would be expected of a game like this.
A side note concerning dialogue: try starting up a few games with Wei Yan. Listening to that guy try to grunt his way through public speaking situations is good for some cheap laughs.
Another example of the less is more mode of thinking is the areas you fight in. None of them are that large and the time limit -15 to 30 minutes- is a far cry from the hour and a half you were often given to slog through in previous DW games. Instead of feeling like you have conquered some monstrous task when you finish a level, DW4E is quick enough that starting up another round seems like a good idea. The battles in DW4E turn into the videogame equivalent of popcorn where once you start in it's difficult to stop.
With an absurdly large and clearly defined cast the sky is the limit as far as what type of kingdom you can put together. Will you have a heavy hitting team and strong-arm your way through the game? Will you make everyone swear fealty to the questionable leadership of Xiao Qiao? Will you pick generals based on how shiny and elaborate their outfits are? It's all up to you.
DW4E does what it set out to do and it does it well. Not only does it do a fine job of updating the legend of the Three Kingdoms, it's a great expansion -and my personal favorite iteration- of the DW series as well.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/15/04
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