Omega Force is at it again, churning out yet another retelling of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Koei has published Dynasty Warriors 6 with hopes that they can still see commercial success with this iteration, even though they’ve glutted the market with essentially the same game every other year.

There have been variants and add-ons; one doesn’t have to look too hard to find the KOEI/Omega Force action combat engine on the shelf. Dynasty Warriors is on its sixth release, Samurai Warriors saw its second release last year (and likely a third is in development), Xtreme Legends (character expansion), Empires (a more flexible story that plays more like RISK’s territorial conquest), Samurai Warriors (Feudal Japan rather than China), GUNDAM Warriors (GUNDAM anime themed), Samurai Warriors KATANA (a WiiMote version that plays like the classic on-rails shooter), and finally Warriors Orochi (an ‘All Stars’ version that pits the Samurai Warriors and Dynasty Warriors against each other).

Their greatest competition in this gameplay is from themselves, although games such as Ninety-Nine Nights and Circle of Doom took a good run at it. So what does Dynasty Warriors 6 offer us that the last 5 missed? There’s a lot, believe it or not.

The graphical upgrade is the biggest leap it’s taken in years. Vivid colors and sharper graphics make their presence known. The increase in the resolution and the way units are drawn means that the map is not only readable, but it’s also useful now too. This is the first game in the series that has been released on the 360 that looks next-gen.

There is still some clipping and the odd invisible fence that encroaches on the gameplay, but Omega Force has added some nice touches along with stepping up models and textures; Dynasty Warriors 4 to 5 graphical upgrades were not nearly as dramatic. There aren’t any issues with draw distance or pop-up, and only in the most chaotic battle scenes with 10 or more officers and thousands of troops did I see any hint of slowdown. Troops are no longer single unit parties that explode into 5 units; the groupings are generally 10 or more soldiers and expand from their lieutenant before they are ever on your screen.

The graphical detail on the officers is well above anything previously done in the series so it’s hard to judge them too harshly on this, however if I were to compare it to Ninety-Nine Nights or Circle of Doom (games that are older than DW6) I would say they could have pushed it farther than they did. There may have been a sacrifice to accommodate the larger battles and more playable characters which neither Ninety-Nine Nights nor Circle of Doom can hold a candle to.

If you’ve played the previous iterations you must be familiar with the horrid voice acting. This was the first thing I looked for, and these too have improved. The dialog feels less like a ransom note cut out using letters from a magazine; the characters were believable and said appropriate things (for the most part). In previous versions I would switch to Japanese with subtitles so I didn’t need to hear them; I never once felt like doing this with Dynasty Warriors 6.

The medley of traditional Chinese music performed with rock and roll overtones in battle are still there and in full force. On the upside you can use the 360 dashboard to override them with your own music, but the downside to that is that you’ll miss the musical cues. Being that you still have the dialog and sound effects to let you know what’s happening, I’d heartily recommend some fast-moving music of your own tastes instead. 

If you’re new to the world of Dynasty Warriors, then you’ll be starting off just as I did; a foreigner to the control scheme. It seems that the classic combo moves just weren’t doing it, and KOEI changed things up, and it was about time.

Gone are the days of counting how many X presses to get a juggling hit from the Y attack; now everything is based on your Renbu (combo) meter. You now can hammer on X or Y all day, and the moves will repeat over and over again. Initially you can only get to level 3, but there are two extra levels that dramatically increase your combat abilities. Your meter builds up based on stringing defeated enemies together. If you are hit with a strong attack or are out of combat for too long, your meter will drop and you’ll need to rebuild momentum. Depending on the weapon you wield, having a Renbu meter over level 2 will either add range, damage or speed.

Initially this concept bothered me as I felt it would made combat too repetitive, but after playing it for a while I found it was easier to work through the general masses without needing to keep count. You can also hold down X or Y for two area clearing attacks, and two other targeted moves (where you hold down your block and then hit either X or Y respectively). These moves are devastating and are best executed on enemy officers rather than the general troops. There are also jumping, horse-mounted and the block-and-reversal attacks to help keep things fresh.

The two musou attacks are back (basically two variants of the berserker combo that hits everyone around you) and there is also runes which allow you to unleash special abilities specific to the character you’re playing. You will notice that some people share the same moves, but since their upgrades are different (and I’ll touch on that later) suffice it to say that they are individual and really balance out characters on the battlefield.

The final sticking point that previous iterations did poorly was camera controls; the snap-behind would disorient and confuse people not familiar with the game, especially while playing split-screen. Now the camera can be controlled manually and stays put when you use the right analog joystick. Well done, KOEI!

Dynasty Warriors 6 has you playing through the storylines of different officers to unlock more people to play, and this is generally accomplished by completing special missions (available in each level). Most characters don’t have any back-story though; you can only access them via the free play menu (select-a-battle mode). This means that while you have been able to see these people in the other stories you’ve played, they never have a starring role. In previous iterations KOEI has given all players a story to tell. Some of them ranged from derivative to off-the-wall, but at least they gave you something to follow each playable officer.

KOEI decided to drop playable characters and scenarios that have been available in other versions; for example they didn’t include the Nanman campaign (jungle) or the use of elephants. That isn’t to say that the additional characters are needed; the content for the stories in this version is more solid and really stands on its own. Only if you’ve played previous versions would you notice it; and some of the characters that were dropped weren’t all that interesting anyways.

The combat feels more solid though, and objectives are clear and easy to understand. There are also optional mission objectives that help you unlock content. Characters now have an upgrade tree that is unique to each character (including the ones without stories) so you can choose what is more important to you; stats upgrades, special abilities and combat abilities are all included in the mix. To upgrade weapons it’s back to looking for random item drops from officers, although there now are no longer any enhancement items to worry about.

Gone are the days of thousands of soldiers standing around letting you kill them with reckless abandon. If you rush into the crowd, you may find yourself in the midst of an unbalanced dueling ring with several enemy officers and their lieutenants who are in some cases just as fierce as the officers. If you get near the edge the common soldiers will hit you so to get out you really need to try to break free or kill the enemy officers.

Other differences include needing to siege forts to stem the tide of enemy reinforcements, and there are no longer any items to upgrade your officer’s abilities. What this means is that you can’t just play one character and collect high level items in a high difficulty level and then use those items with low ranking officers on easy mode.

Horses are also handled different; each gamer has a stable that can house up to 8 horses which are available to them regardless of which officer they play. Each horse has a description and base statistics. As you use the horses they level up and are given special enhancements; to get legendary horses you actually need to find powerful base horses and level them up. This gives the game an extra incentive to play harder difficulties as the saddles you find are rated to the difficulty of the campaign they are found in.

There are a good number of playable officers even though not all characters have a campaign mode and they’ve dropped some special characters, I expect that they will be re-introduced in a not-announced-as-of-yet Xtreme Legends add-on via Xbox Live. That being said, 41 playable characters with full development trees, 17 campaigns in 19 distinct scenarios (some having 3 or more perspectives), 5 levels of difficulty, random weapon drops and the interactive battles with a stronger focus on combat is a welcome change and really helps to solidify the experience. There are hundreds of hours of gaming for the obsessive compulsive gamers out there, and truth be told, it doesn’t feel like a chore. This game is not as easy as the predecessors, and I would suggest playing at least two levels on easy with any fresh officer before moving on to normal.

The officers without storylines share combat moves with the core characters, so you may find some derivative gameplay (Zhang He, for instance, used to use claws but is now a spear wielder with the same fighting style as Lu Meng). Being that only a few elements are the same, they still have distinctly different skills and so aren’t truly duplicates. 

Once again multiplayer modes are restricted to split-screen which also makes the single-player campaign and free modes a lot of fun, assuming your gamer friends are local and don’t mind sharing a screen with you. The leaderboards and challenge mode is good to have, but they really missed out on utilizing the platforms online cooperative capabilities. I’m not going to hold points against it for lack of online multiplayer, but I can tell you that the multiplayer in this game really adds a lot of replay value; the fact that I can’t play online bothers me more than maybe it should.