The traditional one-on-one fighting genre gets a massive PS2 upgrade in Dynasty Warriors 2. Stepping away from the histrionics and hype of DOA2 and Tekken Tag, Dynasty Warriors 2 turns the fighter formula into an entry-level war simulator.
The original Dynasty Warriors simply slapped Romance of the Three Kingdoms characters onto a 2D Street Fighter body. The legends of ancient China now get to wage combat in a full 3D world... mountain passes, abandoned villages, enemy fortresses... and wage combat they do. They wage combat until either your fingers bleed or your brain shuts off, whichever comes first.
What first grabs you about Dynasty Warriors 2 is the terrific intro movie, one of the first super-impressive intros to appear on the PS2. Then it's the striking amount of characters per level. At any given time, you could be surrounded by 20+ enemies, all furiously poking you with sharp sticks (or distractedly standing in a perpetual bobbing stance.) As one of the legendary Chinese warriors, you must break through these enemy armies while leading your own troops towards the final boss. The figures are all nicely detailed, if a little similar. Different color palettes indicate your enemies' allegiances, which is a modern nicety that I doubt was present during the real Chinese conflict.
The historic Romance circles the people of three Chinese Dynasties, the Wu, the Shu, and the Wei. You are one of the famous generals of these kingdoms, and your cause is to further your own (with some dramatic license in some cases). Each game begins with the same 2 levels, but branches differently depending on your kingdom. So you'll want to play the entire game (about 5 levels) at least 3 times (with different generals) to see all the maps. Each map consists mainly of some kind of maze-like arena and about 2,000 people. Depending on your strength, it's pretty easy to rack 500+ personal kills per level, and the game keeps a running onscreen total so you can boast throughout. Although you start with 9 available characters, you'll quickly unlock many, many more.
Each player character has a different set of attacks, both straight-forward bashing/slashing and energy-enhanced super-attacks. Unfortunately, there aren't that many attacks to discover, so the game becomes a repetitive exercise of "run towards enemy, square, square, square, triangle. Run, square, square, square, triangle." etc. If you're playing in easy mode, you won't have any trouble at all; but you might get bored with all the easy kills and quick endings. Happily (and not unexpectedly), each character has an amazing musou attack. The musou attacks unleash a massive energy gust on whoever is around, usually sending everybody flying through the air. Musou attacks are also your best bet for generating kill combos. Kill combos - created by socking an enemy 8 times or more before he dies - will generate better item pickups... and health pickups can make all the difference when you're getting attacked by so many guys at once.
The characters gain experience as you fight, increasing their stats continuously. The changes are permanent, which makes the harder modes more accessible to experienced characters. Otherwise, you could be in for an ugly rout. Another interesting feature is the morale meter. If your army's morale is up, they'll fight better. If morale is dropping, you have to raise it by fighting well and protecting valuable or losing troops.
The manual makes a big deal about leading your troops and triggering events for morale boosting. While I have uncovered several "events" (which usually spark another nice fmv movie), I haven't had much luck interacting with the enlisted men. The armies tend to do what they want. If enemies are nearby, they'll go fight... and each level follows it's own scenario that controls when armies advance anyway. So that leaves me in the role of remorseless killing machine, which is all I want to do anyway. There is certainly nothing of the scale of a Starcraft or Age of Empires, which you actually do lead armies directly. Mainly you just run around at top speed sticking swords into Today's Enemy Du Jour. Although the game would like to call itself a strategy wargame, it's really not. It's hack and slash all the way. Maybe in the next version.
Also, pray that the next version explores the PS2's capabilities a bit further. Although Dynasty Warriors 2 is beautiful most of the time, it can run into some very ugly slowdown. Particularly if you leap into a knot of 40 or so enemies. Then, everything creeps to a crawl, and many figures will start to phase in and out, as the processor crunches their numbers. Also, some levels suffer from some ugly fog... which forces you to keep your enemies closer than you might like. And the absence of a two-player mode is an incredible oversight.
All in all, Dynasty Warriors 2 is a nice medium between straight fighting and real time strategy. It's Final Fight over a gigantic 3D world. Probably a great weekend rental if you don't plan on devoting the energy to completing the game with all the characters. I do, but it's going to take some time.