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[ Writer ] = BAD
[ 11/26/06 ] = Led To Ruin

Headquarters was the first to introduce me to the Dynasty Warriors/Shin Sangoku Musou series. One day he said, "let's play some Head-Lopper 2." Confused, I said, "what the hell is that?" He replied simply with, "Dynasty Warriors 2." At the time, I had heard of the game, but never had a chance to play it, so I just said, "OK." As a longtime fan of games like Knights Of The Round (Capcom) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Konami), I quickly noticed that the game was a throwback to those older 2-D "hack & slash" games. Not too long after, some other friends asked me to play Dynasty Warriors 3 / Shin Sangoku Musou 2 with them, and I began to learn more about Koei's runaway hit series. I liked the game when I played it both times, but I didn't really understand the series until later when I bought Dynasty Warriors 4 / Shin Sangoku Musou 3 from a friend. He was looking to get rid of the game, and when I asked him why, he said that it was the worst entry in the series. He said the other ones were better in every way; visuals, gameplay, characters, everything. I gave him the money anyway, and even after that he recommended getting the previous entries to see how much better they were than the one I had just bought. Remembering his words, I picked up Dynasty Warriors 3 - Xtreme Legends / Sengoku Musou 2 - Moushouden a while back to see if it really is better than Dynasty Warriors 4 / Shin Sangoku Musou 3. This focus of this article is on comparing DW3XL and DW4XL (since they are both upgrades to their original, respective titles). Here are my thoughts...

By the time this game had come out, Koei had already carved-out their spot in the genre with Dynasty Warriors 2, and had improved upon it with the hit Dynasty Warriors 3. For those who are unfamiliar with DW3, it features even more of what made DW2 a surprisingly deep and successful game; more hacking and slashing, more characters, more weapons, and more items. The story is about warring states in China, and picks up right where DW2 left off. But the biggest (and most needed) improvement over its sequel is two-player, simultaneous play, which made DW3 immediately more likable than its predecessor. The game also features a good number of secrets, too (the "hard-core gamer" prerequisite for a "great" game). The game is an overall improvement over its predecessor, with more of everything to keep fans going. Koei noticed the runaway success of the series, and released an upgrade shortly after. Enter Dynasty Warriors 3 - Xtreme Legends. Spanned across two discs, the upgrade is big, with new characters (in addition to the already huge roster from the previous game), new cinematic sequences, new scenarios, new weapons, and new Internet Ranking stages (just to name a few).

To start, DW3XL was developed on the PS2 hardware, featuring visuals similar to its predecessors. The game's historically-based character roster weighs in at over forty selectable characters, and range from typical weapon wielders to slaughtering death-bringers. While the increase in character detail from DW2 to DW3XL is noticeable, the cosmetic differences from DW3XL to DW4XL are subtle. Koei redid the character designs in DW4XL, and even though they look more polished, the actual models aren't much different from their DW3XL counterparts. Both games feature characters outfitted in intricately-detailed Chinese costumes with impressive texture-mapping, but they look rough around the edges. It's not that the characters in DW3XL or DW4XL look bad, they just don't look smooth, and most of them animate stiff and robotic compared to the characters in Chaos Legion (developed by Capcom on the same hardware and released around the same time). Koei instead used the power of the PS2 hardware to put as many dudes onscreen as possible, doing as much as possible. There are a ton of characters onscreen all fighting simultaneously, and this is precisely what the DW series is known for. At first, it may be overwhelming for some (since there's so much going on at the same time); guys are running, weapons are slashing, bodies are flying, dudes are dying, and arrows are flying. All of this happens around you as you fight, and it's crazy being right in the middle of the chaos as it unfolds.

Sometimes the sheer amount of chaos onscreen incurs slowdown (when 20 or more characters are all battling it out in the same area), but unlike everyone else, I don't have a problem with it. Koei also upped the amount of characters onscreen from DW3XL to DW4XL, making battles all the more chaotic. They also took advantage of the PS2's AI capabilities in both games; as you advance toward the boss, the opposition moves about the stage, too, so there are several battles raging on at the same same time in different places. This is another yet another aspect of the series that makes it unique. The historically-inspired areas in DW3XL look good, and range from forested passages and grass-covered hills, to sprawling fortresses and strongholds. The fortresses and strongholds have accessible levels, and camps of tents and watch towers are clustered about. Unlike everyone else though, I don't care about the "pop-up" or "fog" that the game's stages have been criticized for; it's a necessary evil, considering the sheer scale of the environments (and everything in them). Though some areas could have used a little more detail for the sake of distinction, there are various paths to take, and they get the job done.

There are a lot of glitches in DW3XL (so much that FAQs have whole sections devoted to them), which is disappointing because upgrades are usually supposed to address issues like glitches from the original version of the game. Some examples are when troops pass through mountains (and appear on the other side) or disappear completely (never to return) during battles. The violent twitching and flickering of the ground under your character when he (or she) falls in defeat is so bad it almost gives me a seizure every time I see it. Cinematic sequences also have a twitch to them, which is also disappointing because some of them are actually pretty good. Koei learned a few things about the hardware from DW2, but these graphical issues are growing pains that show they were still learning how to utilize the hardware to its full potential. And even though it doesn't have as many, DW4XL has its own fair share of graphical oddities (like twitching models and transparent characters), too. Both DW3XL and DW4XL aren't quite up to the visual splendor of Chaos Legion, but the visual polish of later entries in the series (Dynasty Warriors 4 - Empires, for example) shows just how far Koei has come with the PS2 hardware.

The gameplay of DW3XL is basically more of the same. And when I say more of the same, I mean more of the 3-D hacking and slashing that make DW3 and DW2 so much fun. It's safe to say that Koei pioneered the "ton-of-dudes-on-the-screen-at-once" manic action fighting style with Dynasty Warriors 2, and Dynasty Warriors 3 - Xtreme Legends is no different. The game uses the tried-and-true jump and attack button control scheme, but Koei's approach to the genre makes the feel different. There's nothing quite like unleashing a screen-clearing combo when you're surrounded, and the result is a violent explosion of bodies in all directions. For a developer primarily known for strategy games, Koei made a third quality hack and slasher with DW3XL. The game is fun. The great thing about this game is that Koei made it simple enough for anyone to pick up and play, yet deep enough to keep veterans busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. I've heard people say that it's "just fighting" or "just running around hitting things," but those people don't understand the game. Despite its flaws, it cannot be ignored that DW3XL is a deep game. Characters, weapons, and items can all be leveled up, there are weapons and items to equip, and extra costumes to unlock. Koei also went and added a new weapon for every character in DW3XL. The character level up system is pretty good, and building the different attributes is fun. Even your army can be configured to a certain extent, and more options for this were added in DW4XL, but I hardly ever use them, (and you probably won't, either). It should also be noted that items seem to be more common in DW3XL than in DW4XL (where you spend most of your time running around looking for items), and they don't disappear as nearly as fast as in DW2.

DW3XL was undoubtedly inspired by classic 2-D titles in the genre, which is seen clearly in its unpredictable and sometimes brutal difficulty. The game can get downright cheap; in one stage there's a flood that wipes out almost your entire army, and in others some the restricting time limit forces your army to surrender. The time limit is probably one of the worst parts of the game because the stages are huge and there's just not enough time to get through some of them. If you take too long, essential characters on your side are defeated and you automatically lose. These are particularly frustrating qualms about the game, since you don't get any of the experience or items you gain in a stage if either one of these unfortunate scenarios occur. My question is, "why not?" After playing (or struggling) through a long stage, you get nothing? Then, there are the vast battle grounds in DW3XL, which are just too big. The player spends too much time running around looking for the next batch of enemies (or boss), and in some cases that next batch of enemies (or boss) is a long, boring trip all the way across the map. Most of the time there are no enemies to fight on the way, so the result is an unnecessary break in the action (even on horseback). In fact, the stages are so damn big that an onscreen map is provided so that the player doesn't get lost (which is all too easy). I didn't know where the fuck I was going the first time I played it, though (even with the map), and it's probably safe to say that future first-time players will get lost, too. The game is fun, and nonlinear stages make the game different every time you play it, but it would have been even more fun if the stages were smaller. Another annoying thing is that small cutscenes interrupt battles and reset combos, rendering the player unnecessarily vulnerable to hits. In DW3XL, it's a real pain in the ass during critical fights, and it somehow made it past Koei's testers (again) and into DW4XL. However, more than any of this other stuff, there is one thing that absolutely does not belong in the game. That thing is first-person archery. It really has no place in this type of game, and it plagues both DW3XL and DW4XL.

On the positive side, though, the high score ranking tables for points, kills, and clear times (just like the hack & slashers of old) were carried over from DW2. This is one of the best parts of the game. A high score ranking table sounds trivial, but it's actually an important feature that even 3-D fighting action games made by Capcom and Konami (pioneers of the genre) have been lacking. Koei first took the genre to the next level in gameplay, and then they took scoring to the next level with an Internet Ranking system where players can compare high scores and compete with other players around the world. If Internet scoreboards aren't motivation to get better, then I don't know what is! I'd go so far as to say that Koei revolutionized video games when they devised the Internet Ranking system. The system was thankfully carried over and bulked-up for DW4XL. Props to Koei.

I'd be a fool to say that there's nothing to do in DW3XL (as you can see it's actually the opposite), but there's even more in DW4XL. So much more was added, in fact, that it's difficult to say that I like its predecessor more. First off, DW4XL features added characters like Cao Ren, Zhou Tai, and Yue Ying (all of which rock). These characters alone could warrant a purchase, but if that's not enough, catapults and other new methods of destruction have been put in the game for added chaos. New weapons and items were added (for those who beat the hell out of the original DW4), as well as new Special Attacks (to further distinguish each character). Custom characters and bodyguards can also be used in the game, and it's nice to be able to fight with a character you designed yourself (even though the feature itself seems kind-of bare-bones). If you really like developing your own custom characters, then DW4XL has more for you. Custom characters don't look as cool as the normal ones, though. On a side-note, DW4XL is tougher and less-forgiving than DW3XL, with added modes that will kick your ass all the way to the bank and back again. The added modes are enough to challenge even the most hardened fans of the series.

The rock soundtrack for both games is also pretty good, and it suits the chaos of the gameplay well. The heavy riffs will have fans of heavy music headbanging, and fans of old 80's-style butt-rock will no doubt play the air guitar. Though most of the music is heavy, it has a distinct Asian sound to it that stays in your head. The sound effects consist of the usual slicing and dicing, along with occasional metal-on-metal clash of blades. However, there are occasional breaks in the sound, and sometimes the effects come out muffled. It's difficult to say why these sound issues occur, but it doesn't seem like fault of the hardware itself. There's also a lot of dialogue in both games, and it's impressive if you consider the amount of work it probably took to produce. The audio isn't bad in both games (there are some memorable tunes), but it's not the best, either (there are a few soft tracks).

The bottom line is that even with their flaws, both games are fun, (an important attribute that developers like Square and EA know nothing about). Having played a lot of DW3XL, I can say that it is solid on its own, but I still don't see what makes it better than DW4XL. I got DW4 before DW3, and really I can't see what the third entry in the series has over the fourth. Both are huge games with a lot to do, and they almost break even in my book, but DW4 holds a special place in my heart. Sure, DW4XL should have been a little cleaner and polished (being the fifth entry in the series), but the game still rocks on many levels (some of which weren't brought up in this article). If anything DW4XL wins simply because it is considered by many to be the best game in the series, but there are also longtime fans who call DW3XL a true classic. I can easily see why my friend likes DW3XL so much; before the sequel and its upgrade came along, it was probably the best 3-D action fighter out there. If you can, buy both. If you can't (or won't) buy both, consider this, DW3XL is good for the overall side-scrolling action experience, but more characters and a ton of other additions can be had for a little more dough with DW4XL.