DYNASTY WARRIORS 3 / Koei / PlayStation 2
Dynasty Warriors 3 improves upon the prequel with an increased amount of playable characters, revamped scenarios (and some new ones sprinkled in), longer combos in battle, and on-battlefield voice acting. This was also the first game in the series to have split-screen co-op.
The game established with this entry that the series pattern was just going to be to repeat the events of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms over and over, just with little minor tweaks and new wrinkles each time. You could definitely accuse this sequel of being lazy, especially considering it came out only a little over a year after Dynasty Warriors 2, but somehow this structure would end up working out well enough for the series.
Of course, since the games are so samey in terms of setting and story it's basically down to a matter of personal preference as to which one you want to stick with. My first experience charging across the battlefields of ancient China laying waste to foes with Hung Guy and Cow Cow was the fourth entry, and usually the point you entered with is a nostalgic favorite and sort of the benchmark you set the others up against.
This outing is a total improvement on Dynasty Warriors 2, so that game can be dispensed with as basically everything that came after it was better (though it was certainly a solid start and nothing to sneeze at). As with my darling Dynasty Warriors 4, this game has more aggressive enemies than later entries in the series and is generally more challenging - you really need to be killing enemies in piles to keep overall army morale up, and you're expected to personally intervene in most battles to off an enemy commander so the route you take through the map is important.
What's unique to Dynasty Warriors 3 is that the enemy commanders in Musou (story) mode are CRANKED UP. They take much longer to kill, off-screen allies almost never kill them even when having them surrounded 2 or 3 to 1, and they hit like f'n trucks and even the more scrubby commanders can knock off 1/2 your health with one well-placed combo. And all this is exacerbated by the fact that they can block all your super moves if they choose to, but you can't seem to ever block them for some reason. The only relief is that this game did away with giving them the endless supply of buffs and healing items stuffed down their pants. They don't use items now, but they do seem to randomly start healing up if you wander off and leave them alone for too long.
YOU are gonna need items to withstand their onslaught, though, and that ties into the game's weakest point. You'll spend a lot of time scouring back through the map looking for delicious steamed buns to restore your health after most enemy commander encounters, sometimes having to run absurd distances because no healing items are left anywhere near the battle. It's either that or die and lose possibly an hour's worth of progress and leveling.
The other games do expect you to play in "free" mode to level your favorite characters and get weapons/armor for them before taking on Musou mode, but it's just absurd and unbalanced here. The amount of grinding you're expected to do to survive the hard-hitting story mode battles is ludicrous.
In addition to the unbalanced OP story mode generals, I prefer this game's immediate sequel for a number of other little things: less pop-in and slowdown, better music, better voice acting, more dynamic enemy commander movement, and 1v1 enemy commander duels that make them easier to clear off the battlefield once you reach them. This is a good entry if you don't mind the grind, though, and definitely was an improvement on the original.
* Gameplay Video