DYNASTY WARRIORS 5 / Koei / Playstation 2
As with all the Dynasty Warriors games, this one covers all the major battles of the Romance of Three Kingdoms, just with re-designed maps to make it feel like you're playing a different game. It makes a number of small tweaks from the formula in the prequel, some for the better, some for the worse, and some left up to personal taste.
You're greeted by a surprisingly sparse and grim title screen given the usual high-energy rockin' nature of the series. The expected guitar rock does make something of a re-appearance in the battles, but it's not quite as gloriously butt rock-ish as that of #4's soundtrack, and is often infused with tepid techno. The menus and cutscenes are also accompanied by much softer, more "authentic" traditional Chinese music, such as you might hear when shopping at a touristy gift shop in Chinatown.
Perhaps the biggest change is that in Musou (Campaign) mode, you no longer pick a kingdom and switch freely between their generals, but rather pick one general whose story you follow as they participate only in select battles. So the individual campaigns are shorter than in the previous game, but focus in more on the characters and flesh them out a bit more, and replaying each individual one is a little more interesting since you jump around between a greater variety of battles. This is one area I thought was a step forward. The one small downside is that you can't initially play as the main heroes of each kingdom in this one (Cao Cao, Sun Jian, Liu Bei).
Another big change to Musou is that you no longer tote around a cadre of personal bodyguards, but are stuck with only one, who is more like a general in terms of power (at least after you level them a bit.) At first I wasn't too big on this since toting around 8 bodyguards in the previous game was about as close as you ever got to having your own unit. However, the lone bodyguard is actually debatably more useful. They fight a little smarter, and you can team up your Musou attacks with them. Their level-up procedure is also less random and obtuse than the one from the previous game, where you had to guess what weapon to equip them with at what level to eventually get them special powers.
The graphics are definitely improved. The game just looks brighter and more colorful (if still having rather bland backgrounds.) The character models seem a bit sharper and draw distances are improved with much less pop-in. The only expense here seemed to be making the character models smaller than they were in the previous game.
Maps are less confusing to the newcomer, but also feel a bit more linear and stifling. For example, in the battle for Hu Lao Gate, you aren't going to run around springing all your allies from their initial conflicts so they can hem Lu Bu into a corner when he shows up and you can waltz past him. It's designed so you're fighting his overpowered ass one way or another - he stands right in the entrance to Dong Zhou's compound, and if you waltz around the back way over the walls, Dong Zhou just calls him to his side and then you have to fight both of them at once. YOU VILL FOLLOW ZE SCRIPT! COMBAT VILL TAKE PLACE IN ZE DEZIGNATED AREAZ!
Movement also feels slower too, especially if you pick a big bruiser like Guan Yu, trucking across the map feels like it takes an eternity, horses are pretty much a requisite. Maps feel like much more of a time sink and its even more infurating when you spend 20+ minutes getting to the end of one only to get backshot by a Lu Bu Musou attack and cheaply killed out of nowhere, or you lose because you didn't anticipate some timed event that pops off at some obscure part of the map.
The modes of play from the original have all returned, though character creation has been axed. It was pretty weak so it's no big loss, but I'd rather have seen it improved than just completely dropped.
I feel like they missed an opportunity here to add more strategy to the mix. The one thing that was really missing was the ability to order units around the battlefield, and we still don't get that, though your ally generals seem to hold their own a little better in this one, you don't have to run around like a chicken with your head cut off quite as much this time out. What Koei did with this release is mostly just futzing with minor details, and the overall experience really isn't too different from that of entry #4. It has the same pile of content that the previous game did and it's a great starting point if you've never played any games in the series before, since it makes more of an effort to explain what's going on at any given time, but if you've alread played previous games this one might be a little too samey.