Confucious says, HULK SMASH!!!
When I was pretending to go to college, I had the pleasure of studying the philosophies of Ancient China. From Confucianism to Lao Tzu's Taoism to the concept of Yin and Yang, China has birthed some of the greatest thinkers and most influential movements the world has ever known. Don't trust those fortune cookies.
But contrary to what my oft-inebriated college cranium chose to believe, Ancient China wasn't some Utopia filled with peaceful geniuses, butterflies and buckets of chi. In reality, war was all the rage.
Dynasties rose to greatness and fell from prominence as quickly as contemporary boy bands. One day it's Backstreet, the next it's N'sync. One day it's Wu, the next it's Shu. Too bad the boy bands won't kill each other off, too.
Dynasty Warriors 2 is the latest attempt to bring all the blood, sweat and tears of the Three Kingdoms right into your living room. But despite glimpses of true battlefield brilliance, this warrior could use a few more months of studying.
The original Dynasty Warriors was a decent fighting game for the PSX. The sequel bears little resemblance, opting instead to drop you in the middle of massive battles for some good old-fashioned, button-mashing, beat 'em up kung-fu craziness.
You play an officer from one of the three warring sides: the Wei, the Wu, or the Shu. Each character has statistical marks for life, offense and defense, which can be increased by playing. Your role is to do what you can to help turn the tide of the battle in your army's favor.
And indeed, there are literally armies at war here. There are in upwards of a dozen officers on each side for each map. Add to that hordes of lower ranking corporals, privates, majors, etc. and you've got hundreds of enemies to deal with.
You are armed with one weapon and a bow. There are no upgrades, though you have three different attack types. Mash Square like crazy for a series of four normal attacks. Press Triangle for your 'charged' attacks, which can also be combined with the normal attacks for a few combos. Then there's the Musuo attack, a big whopping special that requires a fully charged Musuo meter. Pretty much Final Fight all over again.
I have to admit, the somewhat paltry offering of moves is a letdown. This sequel is derived from a fighting game, for Pete's sake. Why not have some throws or move modifiers?
The action takes place on large 3D maps, and indeed there's a BIG emphasis on action. You'll spend most of your time pummeling the opposing sides' peons while searching for the higher-ranking officers, who give you statistical boosts if you beat them. Defeating officers also alters the battlefield morale, affecting (theoretically) how well your troops fight. Beat an officer to scatter his troops or clear obstructions (like huge wooden gates) that might be holding back some of your forces.
There are two modes: Musuo Mode and Free Mode. Musuo mode is where the story unfolds. There are different maps depending on which side you're playing as, though in total there are really only about eight. Free mode is essentially identical to Musuo mode, but you need to reach a level in Musuo mode for it to be playable in Free.
Your character data is saved independent of the mode, so if you're having problems in one of the levels in Musuo mode, you can replay an earlier level in Free mode to boost your character's stats. Nice.
Graphically the game meets the standard in PS2 visuals; nothing flashy, but nothing too offensive. There is some very noticeable pop-up during larger battles, but considering the number of moving units onscreen, some pop-up is expected. Some of the environments are bland, but again, nothing too bad.
The FMV is done well, though I would have greatly preferred subtitles than English dubbing. There's just something unsettling about a Chinese warlord who sounds like a cabbie.
At its best, Dynasty Warriors 2 totally immerses you in a large-scale war. Soldiers fighting everywhere, enemy officers leading charges through allied ranks - the whole thing can get very cinematic. You play a hero, and cutting a swathe through hordes of baddies is addictive and exciting. This is certainly a fun game and can absorb hours of your time.
But sadly, this game ain't always at its best.
In trying to simulate a full-scale war, someone forgot to program the AI. In many senses, you are a one-man army, taking down row after row of enemies with nary a scratch and very little help from the hordes of your own soldiers sitting around watching the battle.
For that matter, the bad guys often just stand around as well, waiting for you to smash them in the head with your big ass spear or sword. The higher ranking officers will actually take initiative and attack you, but it still mainly boils down to a button-mashing Rambo thing.
You have absolutely no direct control over your forces. You cannot ask men to guard you, you cannot recommend that some of your bowmen should seek higher ground, and you cannot order anyone to do anything. You only end up influencing troops based on your performance. The missing strategy elements result in many moments of frustration.
You do have a few guards to protect you, who gain in experience as you do. Unfortunately, you can't control them either, and often they'll fail to preserve their own lives in order to keep fighting. This is especially apparent in the earlier levels before you've built up their stats. But even after they've gained some skills you still can't give them any orders.
So despite the fact that you're a high-ranking officer (even reaching general status, eventually), no one listens to you. Maybe you have bad breath or something. The game becomes just a gussied-up beat 'em up, which undermines the whole point of roaming around the battlefield as a general.
I'm not asking for Kessen. I just think that the game would have been MUCH better if it allowed the gameplay to mirror real-life as much as it strives to keeps things historically accurate. Much, much better.
Couple the dumb AI with the absence of any two-player mode and it hurts the experience. I could only imagine how cool this game would be linked, with each player controlling a warrior on opposing sides of the war. No such luck.
I think the problem with Dynasty Warriors 2 isn't so much what it is, but what it isn't. You get the feeling that they're on the verge of something great. With a few more strokes of the design pen - more control, better AI, improved graphics - this could be a fantastic game.
But instead, it's simply average. A rental for sure, but not necessarily worth a buy. Back to the dojo, grasshopper.