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'Dynasty Warriors 9' Review: Open World, Empty Battles

February 13,2018 16:45

Dynasty Warriors 9's maximalist approach to open world design echoes the problem at the heart of a game that decided to go open world but can't seem to figure out why, or how. There are watchtowers you can climb to observe the area around you, there is ...and more »

Dave Thier , Contributor I write about video games and technology. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Credit: KOEI Tecmo

Dynasty Warriors 9

You imagine the developers at Omega Force doing their due diligence at the start of development for Dynasty Warriors 9. This was to be the first game in the series to genuinely shake up the formula since Dynasty Warriors 2: it was making the move to a giant open world meant to capture the scope of Three Kingdoms China, eschewing the old menu-based series of battles for something more organic and alive. You imagine that they sat down and played highlights from the open world genre, taking notes on what systems other developers used to maintain order, drive and interest. They wrote them down on a big piece of paper, or maybe a Google doc, and then decided which ones they would bring into their game. All of them, they decided. Every last one of them. And the hell with adapting them.
Dynasty Warriors 9's maximalist approach to open world design echoes the problem at the heart of a game that decided to go open world but can't seem to figure out why, or how. There are watchtowers you can climb to observe the area around you, there is a crafting system, there are sidequests, there is a day/night cycle, there are hidden treasure chests, there are randomly spawning resources, there is asset recycling, there is even a rudimentary stealth system. There is fishing, for the love of God, the great warrior Lu Bu taking a moment to catch a carp or whatever. There is everything, all of it stripped down or sent sideways to the point where you oftentimes feel little choice but to ignore it all save a moment's gawking. Dynasty Warriors 9, like every game before it, carries with it the core gameplay that makes this series so fundamentally satisfying -- for that, and for my sins, I still can't quite put this game down as I slice my way through entire armies with my giant cutlass. But looking at any individual development choices here can't help but leave me shaking my head.
Dynasty Warriors games are practically a genre of their own: they allow you take control of one of a gigantic roster of officers from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 15th century Chinese novel about the conflict between the empires of Wu, Shu and Wei in the third century. If that sounds erudite, the game is not: you spend your time slicing through vast hordes of enemy warriors led by absurd caricatures wielding bladed fans and ten-foot long clubs, all of it set to soaring heavy metal. It's a button masher, to be sure: most encounters don't really require you use more than the one attack, though a counter system and a few more special moves in this installment adds just a tiny bit more variety. It has a cult following and spin-offs both within the framework of the story and without: we not only have games like Dynasty Warriors 8 Extreme Legends, we also have games like Hyrule Warriors, set in the world of Zelda. As games, they tend to promise what they deliver, which is what made the prospect of genuine change with Dynasty Warriors 9 so interesting.

Credit: KOEI Tecmo

Dynasty Warriors 9.

For years, a Dynasty Warriors game has let you choose an officer and let you live out their story in a series of self-contained battles. The basic format is still here, but the battles are now sprawled out across a giant map. The setup is serviceable: most battles contain a single key encounter at their center, usually leveled to the degree that it would be difficult to complete at the outset. From there you can circle the objective with sub-objectives that range from the simplistic -- take a castle or defeat an officer -- to the more complex, some of which contain the core of the historical narrative for the given battle, like Zhuge Liang's epic fire attack at Chibi. Completing sub-objectives both lowers the level of the main objective and allows friendly troops to advance, eventually letting you take out the main enemy and advance the battle. It's perfectly serviceable if a little unnecessary: linear battles of yore ensured a certain narrative consistency that's lacking here.
The problem is actually pretty simple: the map is just way too big. Scale is what I want out my Dynasty Warriors games -- I want to feel the might of empire, the scope of the great families of China warring across decades and generations. Omega Force knows this, but it was wrong to think that just giving us a gigantic map of China would make this work. For the most part there's nothing here save a giant, open expanse with virtually nothing to populate it. You either spend endless trips on your horse galloping through undifferentiated, bland environments as you hop from one objective to the next or just use the fast travel system every five minutes or so and bypass the open world entirely. No matter which option you choose, you wind up losing the epic clash of great armies in favor of a series of disjointed skirmishes culminating in a brief boss fight. The worst part about this is that neither the game itself nor the characters that inhabit it have any idea how to handle this giant map, and so your AI armies either just hang back or move so maddeningly slowly that you'll end up outstripping them every time to face the final encounter alone, for which the enemy will mock you. This, for me, is the greatest loss. I don't just play Dynasty Warriors to roleplay as an invincible warrior, I do so to stand as a great general at the head of an equally great army. And yet in this game my army is almost never anywhere to be found: even sieging a castle, which theoretically requires siege weapons, can basically be bypassed by using a grappling hook to go around and open the doors from the other side. The Battle at Chibi was not won when Liu Bei sprinted through the entirety of the Wei army and kicked Cao Cao in the back, Zhao Yun hanging out a few miles away doing God knows what.
That's the biggest problem, and of course there are more. It almost goes without saying that technical problems abound -- textures fail to load, enemies appear out of nowhere, your horse shows up as an invisible spirit half of the time. That doesn't bother me too much, to be honest, but it's certainly there. But particularly emblematic here is the day/night cycle, which other games have had as a matter of course for decades now. Somehow, it's awful: the game is a black smudge at night that leaves you wandering around waiting for daybreak, when you'll at least be able to see where you're going among the barely-distinguishable bamboo forests that have a way of spamming what I think is meant to be a cicada sound effect somehow more annoying than real cicadas. The developers appear to have tried to mitigate this problem by adding a glowing halo to in-game assets, but it's mostly just weird.

Credit: KOEI Tecmo

Dynasty Warriors 9

The scale is not limited to the map, and it's here where I this game actually shines. The story is more granular and detailed than it ever has been, and I find myself picking up on details of character and plot that the other games only every glossed over. That's a welcome change, and it's one where the glacial pace can actually come in handy: you find yourself inhabiting this world to the degree that the officers matter more than they ever have before, and not just the big ones that have been with us since the beginning. We see not just the great battles but a small dinner between Liu Bei and Cao Cao, meetings in court and preparations for battles. It's refreshing, at least for some: the game will be satisfying to people that both want to know more about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms but would prefer to do so via a ridiculous action game, which is to say me and me alone.
That's where I see the game that I want this to be: an absurd hack and slash, yes, like the game has always been. But also a more detailed, slightly slower and much more involved opportunity to live out such a grand story against an equally grand backdrop: this is the first game in the series built for current-generation systems, and the size of both the armies and castles shows it. When I conquered Chengdu, I felt it, and Dynasty Warriors 9 does a surprisingly good job capturing that. But if the game makes a step forward in the overarching storytelling, it can't help but feel like it's taking a few giant steps backward with how it presents battles, which are of course the entirety of the game. There are many moments here when this is the Dynasty Warriors game I want, where I'm happily slicing through endless hordes of enemies in a stylized historical ballet. It's for that reason that I can't put this game down, warts and all. But I'm having a much harder time finding things to praise rather than criticize: where this game succeeds it succeeds because it is Dynasty Warriors, but too often fails because it is Dynasty Warriors 9. 
I'm off to play Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends, and you should too.
Dynasty Warriors 9
Platform: PS4, XBox One, PC
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: KOEI Tecmo
Released: February 13 2018
Price: $59.99
Score: 6/10
A download code was provided for the purposes of this review.

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