Koei knows how to keep fans of their popular series well-stocked, and few franchises have seen more versions than Dynasty Warriors. The Dynasty Warriors series has seen many upgrades and expansions since its debut on the original Playstation. Dynasty Warriors 4: Empires is the seventh title in the series, and this does not take into account the Dynasty Tactics and Samurai Warriors series or the Xbox ports. So how does Koei keep the series fresh? By constantly refining the process and adding just enough new wrinkles to keep longtime fans happy and convince those on the fence to finally dive in.

The graphics, unchanged from the previous DW4 titles, remain solid. Koei hasn’t created the most visually stunning game, but under the hood the engine is a true workhorse, capable of rendering a staggering number of troops onscreen at once. There is the occasional bout of slowdown when engaged in truly epic battles, but when there are hundreds of soldiers presentit isn’t hard to overlook.

Each general has his or her own distinct costume and weapon and the grunts you face in the field will also have different models and clothing depending on the region. There are several types of scenery, which is fairly sparse, as well as different times of day and weather conditions to fight in. Battles at night or in thick fog are a bit more difficult since your viewing distance is limited, but it is a nice touch. Unfortunately the time is arbitrary. It would be nice to see the time and conditions implemented into the overall strategic battle plan in a future installment.

The sound in DW4E is a mixed bag. While it does nothing to immerse the player, the driving guitar rock is effective in pumping the player up to slice and dice through hordes of grunting opposition. There is some nice traditional music to be heard while navigating the main menus but once you take the field the guitar gods are summoned. The anachronism doesn’t stop there, however. The first time an enemy general challenged me in full surfer dude mode I couldn’t wait to cut him in half. Other voices include valley girl and crazy old man. Sound effects themselves are functional, with screams, grunts, and the distinct clang of steel meeting steel. Koei has had ample time over the numerous volumes to refine the control scheme. The controls are both responsive and well laid-out. With the face buttons controlling the action and the shoulder buttons used to switch the view and shoot the bow, the controls are intuitive. The only negative aspect of the controls are the different mounts, be it a horse or the war elephant. Getting on one can be difficult enough, as you need to hit the jump button in just the right place, but the beasts themselves can also be unwieldy to control.

Despite the strategic map, this game is nearly as hack-n-slash as you can get. Pick (or create) a general and carve out an empire. As your empire expands and grows more powerful you will have the opportunity to recruit new generals and lieutenants, level up, and craft special items as you work towards uniting the Three Kingdoms.

Nobody said it would be easy to reunite China under your sword, and it isn’t. DW4E is a challenging game on Normal and downright brutal on Hard. While it might seem easy at first, wading into battle and laying waste to all who stand in your way, this strategy won’t get you very far with the new stronghold system. While making your way towards the enemy base your army needs to capture key locations in order to cut off the enemy supply and to reinforce your own troops. This living battlefield is an upgrade over the battles in previous installments where you might find yourself running back and forth to the same spot several times on one map. The only reason to fall back to the main base or an already captured stronghold is to reinforce troops or stop an enemy counterattack.

The Empires mode allows the player to make some interesting choices on how to rule your empire, but it is overly simplistic and generally boils down to reinforcing your armies and increasing production. Using the map of China you invade other provinces or defend against attack. As the game progresses into the later turns it really bogs down into a battle of attrition, where your enemies will more often than not attack you, forcing you to spend your turn defending rather than advancing lest you run the risk of losing precious territory. Thankfully you have to leave the area undefended two turns in a row for it to be taken, but even when you repel an attack the enemy is often prepared to invade the next turn with a fresh force. I would have liked to see the option of sending half my force out to defend while another force goes on the defensive, particularly when I have six generals just sitting around with no orders.

The game itself is great fun and reasonably priced. At the end of the day there are few reasons to play the Empire mode multiple times unless you are dead set on collecting all of the pieces for the vast archives. The ability to play both Historical and Fictional modes is a nice addition, but it doesn’t change the game too much. The multiplayer modes give the game extra legs, but there is no multiplayer in Empires mode.