Koei's Dynasty Warriors franchise, the long-running and once-revered saga of ancient Chinese warriors beating each other with swords, has had a few moments of evolution throughout its lifespan. With the Empires spin-offs, Koei finally managed to give its repetitve hack-and-slash gameplay some context with some legitimately interesting strategy components. Unfortunately, these Empires spin-offs have remained mere diversions from the norm, rather than the full evolution of the series. In fact, in the Samurai Warriors series, Koei's jaunt from ancient China into the world of feudal Japan, there has never been an Empires edition. There was Samurai Warriors, Samurai Warriors: Xtreme Legends, and now Samurai Warriors 2, an entirely predictable follow-up featuring more hacking, slashing, and barely-there battle strategy, with only a couple of ancillary new modes and upgrade systems to make the game warrant a "2" in front of the title. For all intents and purposes, you've already played this game, and even if you've never gotten around to playing any of the Warriors games, the gameplay is so stale that there's not much about Samurai Warriors 2 to inspire interest.
Twenty-six different warriors are available to play with in Samurai Warriors 2, though most of them are locked from the beginning and can be unlocked only by playing through the various storylines of the available characters (and with each one you unlock, you get one of the game's achievements in the Xbox 360 version). If you know this series, you know what you're in store for with the game's storyline. Each character has a several-chapter progression of stages periodically interrupted with melodramatic cutscenes and typically prefaced with pseudo-history lessons explaining the scenario you're about to embark upon. Though Samurai Warriors 2 is, at a base level, rooted in Japanese history, the characterizations and situations take full dramatic license, and the result is a lot of hammy dialogue and disjointed storytelling that does little beyond explaining why you're bothering to hack up all those bad guys.
Like the many Warriors games past, the core action of the game revolves around simplistic combos and lots and lots of enemies. You run around a bland-looking battlefield, beat up any enemy soldiers and officers that appear, move to another section of the map, repeat over and over until your attack buttons have been worn down to nubs, and then do it again in another stage. The game tries to throw some more strategic scenarios at you by forcing you to aid in attacks or defend certain points on a map, but really, these are just window dressing for a deeply dull combat system. The same can be said for the scant few special attacks you earn for each character, which don't require much skill and simply provide a way to occasionally break up the same combo strings you've been using for hours at a time. For what it's worth, the challenge level on the default difficulty is reasonable enough, but that's only in regards to the officer characters you fight against, as the majority of the soldiers on the battlefield still stand around like dunces, waiting to be beaten with your sword, spear, or whatever else.
To its credit, Samurai Warriors 2 does change up the skills and upgrades system a little bit, forcing you to purchase new skills in between levels with gold you collect. Skills come from several different categories, ranging from simple attack-strength upgrades to upgrades for your skills while mounted on a horse, or skills for your bodyguard character, who follows you and fights alongside you at all times. Unfortunately, the tangibility of these upgrades isn't always apparent, so it can sometimes feel as though you're plunging money into nothing; but at the very least, this new system does give you more control over how you want your character to be upgraded.
Besides the storylines, Samurai Warriors 2 offers a simple freeplay mode in which you can take on several battlefield scenarios, free of the storyline; a survival mode that pits you against an unending string of enemies until you can't fight any longer; and a new board game mode called Sugoroku. Sad as it may be, Sugoroku is the most enjoyable aspect of Samurai Warriors 2's package. It's basically samurai Monopoly, with up to four players rolling dice and hopping around a series of squares mapped out to Japan. You can buy unowned squares and make them your territory using gold, and if another player lands on that square, they have to pay you a small fee, or pay the full value of the square to challenge you for ownership. Along the way, you can grab flags assigned to your character, and you can eventually loop back to your home square once you've collected all the flags to earn level and gold upgrades. There's even a chance system assigned to basic shrine squares, whereby rolling the dice earns you one of several different bonuses, some positive, some negative. The overall goal is to reach a certain gold count at the end of the game. Admittedly, it's a pretty simple board game concept and it's the sort of thing that's amusing only for a little while, but it's a more creative addition than anything else available in Samurai Warriors 2. It's just too bad it can't be played online.
Speaking of online, the Xbox 360 version of the game does have Xbox Live play, but it's basically a nonfactor. You can't compete directly against other players. Instead, you and an opponent fight on completely different battlefields and never interact with one another. The goal is to defeat the enemy officer on your battlefield first. If that sounds kind of janky, that's because it is. It's a complete afterthought of a mode that just isn't much fun, but it also happens to be the only competitive multiplayer option available. Neither version of the game has any sort of versus or challenge mode, and all you do get offline is the same sort of perfunctory co-op play that the series has had for a while now.
The Xbox 360 version has much bigger problems than just its lame online mode, too. For starters, this does not look like an Xbox 360 game on any level. Similar to Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires from earlier this year, it appears that developer Omega Force simply took all of their PlayStation 2 graphical assets, upscaled them as much as they could, and shoved them onto the 360. The character models are bland, the environments are empty and colorless, and many of the textures in the game look ugly on the PlayStation 2 version, let alone on the 360. In standard definition, you're basically playing what looks like an Xbox game from 2003. In high def, you're playing an Xbox game from 2003 that has copious amounts of light bloom. Everything just becomes overly glowy and isn't made more attractive because of it. As for the PlayStation 2 version of the game, it, too, looks deeply unimpressive in this day and age. The graphics engine looks haggard beyond repair; a serious overhaul is clearly needed if this series is to keep going (and if history is any indication, it will). Apart from the cheeseball voice acting and repetitive groans and slashes of battlefield action, Samurai Warriors 2 doesn't have a whole lot going on in the sound department. There's some pleasant music that plays during battles and menus, but that's about all the audio has going for it.
Koei has proven in the past that it is capable of doing more with its Warriors games than simply forcing you to cut up enemies endlessly with no overlying purpose beyond advancing a cheesy storyline. With the Empires titles, Koei has periodically transformed these games from pure redundancy to something strategic and interesting. Sadly, Koei hasn't quite grasped the notion that without the Empires' strategic components included somewhere in the game, the action becomes completely uninteresting after just a short time, especially after so many sequels that suffer from the same problems over and over again. By no means should anyone but the most vehement fans of Koei's Warriors games even entertain the notion of Samurai Warriors 2--but even those frighteningly dedicated folk should absolutely skip out on the Xbox 360 version of the game. After all, there's no good reason to pay more for the same content if nothing's really improved.