Dynasty Warriors 7 Review (Xbox360)

If ever there was a signature series to encapsulate the worst elements of iterative videogame design, then Dynasty Warriors would surely have to be in the running. Ever-present since the early years of Playstation, Koei’s free-roaming hack-and-slash arcade battler has remained true to its core gameplay since the second iteration, with minimal tweaks and upgrades introduced in subsequent years to provide a lick of paint and something to put on the back of the box for each release. Dynasty Warriors 7 continues this trend with a few new gameplay mechanics and one eye on authentic Chinese history, along with a slightly rehashed fighting system to differentiate it from its lineage.

Set in the embellished stories of ancient Chinese legend, DW7 weaves its tale around a somewhat more realistic portrayal of real-world events, and actually manages to provide a vaguely engaging narrative - albeit on a somewhat basic level. Where previous versions were content to throw underdeveloped cutscenes and baffling plot threads around with abandon, developer Omega Force has at least paid cursory attention to structuring its campaign and dialogue around a central pillar here, and the result is a more engaging singleplayer experience, even if it’s still a mile away from the genre standard in 2011. You might not care all of the time, but the mere fact that dialogue is anything but skippable has to be heralded as a step forward.

I'm not sure that’s appropriate attire

The game tells the tale of four battling regions in the form of Wu, Shu, Wei and Jin. Each section of the campaign splits into individual battles that form the core of Chinese history, with each of those tailored to a specific general and their unique abilities on the battlefield. In-between you now have the opportunity to interact with various characters in and around the forts and battle camps that punctuate the ongoing war for unity, lending an additional clutch of material that sheds at least a little light into what was actually happening at the time.

Much of this ground has been covered by the series before and might not be of much use to anybody uninterested in Chinese history, but at least the level of inventiveness in map design and environmental set pieces has increased in 7, hopefully keeping things ticking over for those with only a passing interest in the series.

For the uninitiated, the Dynasty Warriors combat system is still best described as something akin to God of War crossed with Total War, but with about a third of the production value of either of those titles. You take control of a specific battlefield general, roaming the sprawling maps and defeating clusters of enemies and opposition leaders in order to fulfil certain goals and push back enemy forces. A tactical overview is available to plot out your best route to a certain objective, and even though the environments remain flat and lifeless, the sense of scale provided by hundreds of on-screen soldiers remains a relatively under-used prospect within the action genre.

Arrows remain a constant threat in battle

Disappointment inevitably sets in with the realisation that most of those enemies never pose a thread and only exist for combo-boosing opportunities however, and it’s left to the strategic engagement of sub-bosses and boss characters to provide any real draw outside of those impressive numbers.

Combat is fast and fluid, with characters now able to dual-wield any type of weaponry and switch between them on the fly to continue combos and chain devastating attacks. Each character is attuned to a particular type of weapon with which they will do extra damage or unlock the ability to unleash one of the new EX moves, which - along with the ability to activate the Mousou special attack from mid-air - is one of the few new features to make its way into this release. The combo-charge system has returned in place of the simplified mechanics of Dynasty Warriors 6, and the overall effect is that of a speedier and more complex fighting system. Battlefield bonus pickups are littered with increased frequency this time round, and the addition of permanent ‘Seal’ weapon bonuses also ease the pressure on new players. There are a few trouble spots to contend with, but overall DW7 is a breeze to plough through.

There are some RPG-lite mechanics to grapple with as each of the unlockable generals can spend points earned in battle to traverse their own skill tree, which shares a core of selectable skills along with a sprinkling of customised abilities here and there. This is most advantageous in Conquest mode, which forms the second half of the major gameplay offerings. In many ways it’s the superior one too, and tasks players with taking over tiles on a divided map of China, each of which represents an individual battle that is often more challenging and diverse than those found in the regular campaign. That Risk-style map can be explored in co-op either locally or online, so may be where the hardcore audience gravitates in the long run. It’s certainly the more difficult of the two.

Cutscenes are full of drama

As with the story mode, Conquest provides a few moments where Koei threatens to jump outside of the template carved over the previous releases and spinoffs, but not enough to make any meaningful difference to the series as a whole. Whether it’s manning a cannon, dodging rolling boulders or jumping on a boat, those brief glimpses of ingenuity soon make way to the traditional button-mashing repetition, and fatigue quickly sets in. At this stage it’s difficult to see where and when those wholesale changes will ever happen, and yet for all intents and purposes DW7 is probably the finest game Omega Force has produced.

That it’s a slight improvement over the last is not a surprise though, and for those of us not in love with the series it’s just another disappointingly average action game. For those of you in the other camp, you can add another two points onto the score and know that it’s a safe bet; but then you already knew that, didn’t you?

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