Gundam games are like Star Trek games: Despite the decades of rich source material to draw from, dynamic settings and opportunities for action, and mass legions of ready fans ready to put cash down on a fun, rewarding, interactive interpretation of their favorite sci-fi universe, disappointment after disappointment has brought us to expect little. Gundam games have been, well, crap, up to now. It'd be a joyous cause for celebration for both fans and gamers alike if Dynasty Warriors: Gundam were the title to restore honor to Gundam in games, but, although it's a reasonably good action banger, there's nothing there to get really excited about, it's sad to say.
Koei's Dynasty Warriors games have been a perennial favorite on last-gen consoles; over a half-dozen releases, remixes and reissues have come and gone, featuring the gameplay formula that has changed little over the life of the franchise. A single, playable hero, a screen full (literally - sometimes clear to the horizon) of bad guys, and a whole lot of button-mashing hack-and-slash mayhem. DW: Gundam takes the same gameplay formula, replaces Chinese warlords with Japanese robots, and serves up yesterday's meal reheated. Having never played a Dynasty Warriors game, and being a fan of Gundam anime, I thought that I might be able to approach this title with a fresh perspective, but unfortunately, even as a love letter to Gundam fans the game is still lacking.
For the Dynasty Warriors fans who are turning their heads in puzzlement at this oddly robotic reinvention of their favourite action fix, it should be said that this peculiar mating of genres does make a bit of sense. Mobile Suit Gundam, a space-opera that began in the late seventies as a series of books (Kido Senshi Gundam, by Yoshiyuki Tomino) was an explosive success as an anime adaptation, and is largely responsible for the genesis of the giant robot craze that began in Japan and exported to North America shortly thereafter. The anime feature extremely dynamic, stylized combat, with heroic fighters mowing down masses of ineffectual enemy, and visually striking Mobile Suit and weapon designs that draw on samurai history as much as modern weapon aesthetics.
One thing that Koei and Bandai have done is draw on the complete history of Gundam for the content of the game. The game features two major modes - Official and Original - which have two separate storylines. Original Mode features a new storyline crafted for the game, featuring mobile suits and characters from the full spectrum of the series in a plot created just for the game. The Official storyline has you play specific characters, drawn from the series, in storylines which parallel the story arcs of the animated series. With voice talent brought in from the animated shows, plus the option of playing the game with original Japanese voices with subtitles, and a very large cast of playable characters and mobile suits, unlockable to play in Original mode as well as Official, this should be a fun festival. However, each character has four (or less) missions to play, and these missions may span a story arc that covered a year's worth of animated episodes. What you get is a lot of distracting dialogue and a largely incomprehensible story, unless you happen to be a serious fan of the animated show; which the developers should not have gambled on you being.
Gameplay is exactly what you should expect with the Dynasty Warriors title on the front of the box. Combat takes place on a large map, with various zones of control on the battlefield, friendly and hostile. The battlefield is filled with combatants - one of the few areas where the next-gen hardware is allowed to shine, as your field of vision is sometimes filled with teeming masses of enemy, ready to be sliced down like harvest wheat - and your objectives are usually simple. Kill all the enemy in an area, reclaim an area from enemy control by killing everyone in it, defend an area from enemy encroachment, or defend a specific person, object or objective within an area.
Combat is simple, repetitive, and almost meditative: point yourself toward a mass of enemy, and mash the attack button repeatedly. There are levels of depth and timing that introduce themselves on harder difficulty levels, where the sequencing of sword strikes against multiple enemies and the use of combination strikes do have a factor in play, but unfortunately, it's mostly just hit hit hit, and watch the enemy mobile suits spark and shatter, with the occasional special attack thrown in for some cinematic flair. Fights against boss characters can be frustrating as well, as inverting the camera controls in options seems to only affect the vertical axis and keeping target acquisition is a bitch theres no lock-on control and a screen full of teeming enemy suits can turn a boss fight into a ridiculous round of Wheres Waldo while your enemy relentlessly pounds on your unprotected back. Play can get frustrating at times on certain missions, as players are required to dash from one end of hells half-acre to another to protect this character or that character who get themselves in difficulty, and the level of difficulty can seem artificial at times as masses of enemies suddenly drop out of the sky to completely dominate areas of the battlefield, changing the objectives and play balance immediately.
There is some depth to the game for the player who dives in and sticks with it; above the many playable characters and mobile suits, there are upgrades and improvements for the characters in the form of earnable skills, and part upgrades for the mobile suits. Even if you play a mission and fail, its worthwhile to save your progress and continue, as the experience you earn on each play carries over to the next session. Though your character or suit might not be tough enough for the battle youve chosen, after a few replays of the mission you may have levelled up, RPG style, to sufficiently win the day. Casual gamers may find the game frustrating, however, and the repetitive combat may not be rewarding enough in the short term to entice a player to carry on and put the hours of play in to upgrade a fighter to sufficient status to kick butt.
The game half-heartedly exploits the horsepower of the Xbox 360; though the game is quite capable of rendering dozens upon dozens of enemy fighters on the screen at the same time, there isnt much else to differentiate this from a game that may have come out on last years Xbox, or even the PS2. Level art is flat, with little detail to bring it to life plain textures, repetitive scenery, and no detail to bring these areas to life like rocks, foliage, weather, set pieces, none of that you mostly get ground and sky, or in the case of the space-based levels, not even. The levels have the arid, sterile feel of a Star Trek set from the sixties flat floors, dull lighting, and paper mache. The space levels are particularly irritating to play, as the combat is still on a perfectly level plain (and you still have to jump in the air to boost yourself rapidly across areas of the battlefield) but with open space above and below. This just makes for visual chaos as you are looking through the battle at the set-piece spaceships travelling by in the background, or space debris, asteroids, wreckage etc. which in combination with the melee mayhem just fills the screen with distraction. Anime-style cutscenes, both during mission briefings and occasionally breaking into the middle of the action during a critical moment are a nice touch, which punch up the anime flavour, but overall the game is simply not pretty even the chaos of a melee battle is the same strike animations over and over again, the enemy suits breaking into pieces of rendered geometry with little or no effect.
Suggestions: Overall, this is a Sunday afternoon rental, a hack and slash button masher for the action gamer who wants a bit of meditative combat and to perhaps work out a bad day on the job by killing 500 bad guys a mission. Its not a game for the achievement hounds this reviewer played the game for five hours straight on the first session, across three missions, and didnt unlock an achievement there are no milestone achievements for individual missions or levels; players must complete whole campaigns with each character or storyline in order to unlock achievements. The backloaded achievements, uninspired gameplay, graphical simplicity, and overall disappointing showing make this a rainy Sunday game even for fans of the Gundam universe. Sorry, fans. Maybe the next Gundam game will break the curse.