Review by Evil Dave

"Dynasty Warriors can still be fun - but only barely."

There's not a whole lot that hasn't been said already about the Dynasty Warriors series. While it's well known that most of the newer titles in the franchise are rather lacking in innovation, the final release under the Dynasty Warriors 4 banner, subtitled Empires, earned mostly universal commendation for at least making the effort to throw a new twist into the gameplay. This game married some of the turn-based strategy from Koei's other Romance of the Three Kingdoms-based property to the button-mash friendly Warriors gameplay, and the result was a genuinely engaging new strain of a tired game formula.

Naturally, sensing an opportunity to collect more money from addicted gamers, Koei has serialized this spin-off recipe. This leads us to Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires, the most recent console release in the Dynasty Warriors series. Now, no one would dispute that the game is going to sell a healthy number of units to the franchise's fan base; indeed, the only real question about this latest version is whether or not it can appeal to players who don't fall into that cult minority. While Empires can't scrub all of the stale taste of the series out of its production, the title's unique spin on typical Warriors gameplay manages to help it remain the most enjoyable game in the series.

Visuals:

Stagnation has been readily evident in the production values of the Dynasty Warriors games for quite some time. No amount of level reconfigurations and minor variations on character attire can negate the fact that the series has looked essentially the same for years – and Empires does absolutely nothing to alleviate this.

It doesn't help that the game uses virtually all of the same graphical assets as Dynasty Warriors 5, a game that preceded Empires' release by over a year. All of the character models and animation are exactly the same, and the game's levels are only slightly different, thanks to being retrofitted to coalesce with this offshoot's need for more bases in each level. You'll also still notice that the game's penchant for chugging to keep the frame rate up when the action on screen gets crowded is still irritatingly present, alongside some legitimately hilarious motion-capture animation during cutscenes.

Now, while all of these problems are at least somewhat excusable, the sheer fact that almost nothing was done to upgrade the quality of the presentation speaks volumes to the priorities of the developers: expediency before quality. The game does perform well technically most of the time, and it looks as good as any other game in the series; still, the lack of any sort of enhancements to the original visuals after a full year makes for a very disappointing show.

Empires is a very mediocre-looking game.

Score: 6/10

Sound:

As bad as you might find the graphics, they aren't the low point of Empires' production values. That honor is reserved for the audio, which is so legitimately terrible in some areas as to be downright painful to sit through.

The worst offender is clearly the voice acting. To be fair, the Empires formula doesn't help matters much by giving generic characters a much larger role in the game than they likely should have, resulting in even more repetition of dialogue (in an already highly repetitive game). Nonetheless, this still doesn't excuse some of the dreadful performances. Some characters' lines come across as overwrought, while others are entirely droll and monotone; additionally, the script was universally bad to begin with, and the actors seem to have received little direction as to the settings in which those lines would be deployed.

While it's nowhere near as horrendous as the voiceovers, the game's music is still miles from good. At best, 90% of it qualifies as little more than the generic rock/techno filler that this series has employed for ages. At least there are some tracks in there that serve as more traditional Oriental fare; while these are few in number, they're clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the garbage, and they do a nice job of setting the mood during the game's strategy segments.

It's difficult to describe how bad Empires' acoustic presentation is in words. Suffice it to say, it's difficult to imagine anyone finding it to be a positive for this game.

Score: 3/10

Gameplay:

Naturally, being a Dynasty Warriors game, Empires' main gameplay centers around killing lots of people in a frenzy of button mashing. Fortunately, the trappings of Empire mode, which serves as the game's main storyline-type campaign, help to enliven the proceedings quite a bit more than in your regular series outing.

Empire mode breaks down into two distinct gameplay segments, each of which you'll encounter cyclically as you progress through the campaign. Upon beginning each turn, you're presented with different strategic options to deploy for your kingdom, in the form of either dual proposals from one of your officers or individual orders which you can assign yourself. Through these orders, you'll be able to really get into the nitty-gritty of building your own empire, from the mundane aspects of replenishing depleted troop strength all the way up to diplomatic relations and alliances between neighboring kingdoms.

Once you've completed the policy portion of a turn, you're given the option to engage in some good old-fashioned Dynasty Warriors banality. This phase is where you'll fight to expand your empire by invading nearby lands, as well as defend your own turf from attack or assist an ally in one of their battles. Unlike the strategy section, everything here is straight-forward, as you're dropped into a level and tasked with battling through hordes of enemies as you would in any other Warriors title. There are a few minor differences in the combat for Empires – bases are more prevalent in each level, and capturing them is important to winning – but on the whole, this is still the same game that Dynasty Warriors has always been, for better or worse.

Thankfully, the focus on strategy in between actual combat helps to lend the at-times-tedious Warriors gameplay a much more focused feel. Your wanderings through the various levels now seem more purposeful, thanks to the way that your policy choices perceptibly affect the battlefield. There are a good number more policy options to choose from in this edition of Empires, and nearly all of them have some merit when put to good use, so there's a good bit of depth to the game, as well.

Of course, Dynasty Warriors cultists would buy this game regardless of how well it remixes the content of their beloved franchise. As surprising as it may seem, though, there's enough enjoyment to be had in the Empires formula that gamers who have little interest in the basic series can still find a satisfying experience with this game. It won't convert anyone who dislikes DW in the first place, but it does a nice job of trying to bridge the gap from addicts to average players.

Empires manages to find a sweet spot in between strategy and kill-crazy rampaging, and the end result is a package that can be fun for a wide selection of gamers.

Score: 8/10

Features/Modes:

Being that Empires is a separate entry into the Dynasty Warriors series – meaning, it's not an expansion – it can be played without any prior knowledge or exposure to the franchise. This undoubtedly helps broaden its appeal, although it may tick off some fans who would like to have access to the content of the regular release of Dynasty Warriors 5.

In addition to being appealing to play, Empire mode offers a decent amount of replay value, thanks to a number of different ways for configuring it. You start out with two types of scenarios to play – one based on the actual content of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, and a generic set-up that offers you the chance to populate several kingdoms by your own preferences. As you complete these, you'll unlock a few other circumstances, based on how China looked at different points in the story. Each play-through can easily clock in at 10-15 hours, and up to thirty if you really focus on maxing every aspect of your kingdom out before finishing the game.

Outside of Empire mode, though, there is little else of interest to experience. Free mode allows you to replay battles with an officer roster of your choosing, although why anyone would care for this is debatable. The game also comes packed with an encyclopedia and archive, filled to the brim with information about the novel that inspired the series and all of the characters involved. Again, this is of questionable value, as it's unlikely that most gamers with interest in this game would have no previous exposure to that mythos.

Most disappointing about Empires' offerings, though, is the complete and utter lack of any online functionality whatsoever. It's been said before that this franchise lacks any impetus to improve upon itself, and with each new title lacking in even the remotest of online multiplayer, this maxim becomes ever more prescient. The fact that every single battle is playable with two players only on one system serves as a slap in the face of progress.

While Empire mode presents a nice bit of value, there's nothing else in Empires of all that much importance – thanks most of all to an utter lack of online capability.

Score: 6/10

Total Score:

Despite long odds, Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires manages to be a rather fun game, thanks in no small part to a healthy injection of turn-based strategy. That's not to say that this is the deepest strategy game ever; no, Empires is nowhere near there. It does, however, strike a good balance between the decision-making and the face-breaking, and in doing so it reinvigorates what had become a very staid gameplay formula.

All Dynasty Warriors fans would do well to pick up Empires, thanks to the smart direction it takes the franchise's gameplay in. Any other action game fans who have any interest in building their own nation in ancient China should rent the game, to see if they can tolerate the monotonous nature of the combat. Finally, any gamer who dislikes the Warriors games should avoid this game at all costs, despite its strong points.

Score: 7/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 09/05/07

Game Release: Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires (US, 03/28/06)


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