You really have to admire the Dynasty Warriors series for plugging away year after year with the same core gameplay mechanics. The mega-brawler period piece saw its fourth iteration earlier this year, and now we've effectively gotten an expansion pack/pseudo-sequel in Dynasty Warriors 4: Xtreme Legends. Unlike the Xtreme Legends version of the previous game, however, DW4XL is actually a new game. Sort of. But despite some new modes and rules, deep down it's undoubtedly more of the same and definitely targeted at hardcore Dynasty Warriors fans who already own DW4. Given that, it's definitely a quality product.
By now, the Dynasty Warriors games have abstracted the legends of ancient China so frequently that DW4: Xtreme Legends is all but divorced from any sort of singular, coherent storyline. Still, the base historical context of the game is relevant enough to mention. Like all of the other Dynasty Warriors games, DW4XL takes place in ancient China, beginning with the downfall of the Han dynasty. There's a classic piece of ancient Chinese literature about this period called Romance of the Three Kingdoms, so the story of this and all the other Dynasty Warriors games is indeed deeply rooted in historical fact. This adherence to history has always been one of the most appealing features of the series, but by now it's well-worn territory for fans of the series.
Dynasty Warriors 4: Xtreme Legends works in two ways: as a stand-alone game and as a companion disc for the original game. By itself, DW4XL eschews the previous games' main, linear campaign--the musou mode--in favor of two new modes, the legend mode and xtreme mode. You can also "remix" the original Dynasty Warriors 4 (if you own it) when you start up DW4XL by inserting the old game disc. This will allow you to play through the main modes from the original game with the minor enhancements of Xtreme Legends, though this will only really appeal to you if you can't get enough of DW4's campaign and want to see it with some minor tweaks implemented.
To Xtreme Legends' credit, both of the new modes are a little more easily accessed than the musou mode in previous games, since it's easier here to start up a game, pick from one of the dozens of playable characters, and just play. The legend mode contains one unique mission with its own story setup for each of the 42 characters, and starting a new legend is as simple as selecting your character, reviewing the scenario, and jumping into battle. When the mission is ended, however, you'll have to move on to a new character if you want to play a new mission. You can even play the legend missions in two-player mode if you wish, with the second player free to choose any character. The xtreme mode is a little more involved, but it too lets you grab a character and quickly jump into the action. This mode presents you with a choice of three brief scenarios that contain randomly generated battles, and you'll proceed through a linear progression of missions based on the situations you choose. Items and money will carry over between these missions, and you can purchase new items and upgrades at a shop between missions. At the end, you'll be awarded a rank so you can see how you did.
Of course, if you've ever played a Dynasty Warriors game, then on a basic level you've also played this one. The particulars of the modes differ, but once you're in a mission, you're still running around expansive battlefields, hacking and slashing your way through scores of dumb enemies and the occasional slightly more powerful officer character. Nothing fundamental has changed from DW4 to Xtreme Legends, though a few new things have been added--you can gain even stronger weapons than were available in the previous game, for instance. Additions like this are nice, but they will be accessed only by the most dedicated players who want to obtain everything for their favorite characters.
Xtreme Legends also contains the same peripheral gameplay components as its predecessor. The challenge mode is on full offer here, for instance, and in addition to the returning challenges, like demolition and time attack, it gives you a new one, arena, which has you fighting one-on-one against a series of officers. You can also access modes like bodyguard and officer edit, as well as the informative encyclopedia; both of these options will already be familiar to Dynasty Warriors 4 veterans.
In terms of presentation, Xtreme Legends is pretty well identical to Dynasty Warriors 4. The menus and image design for the characters all look the same, which is fine, since this series has been getting more refined in that department with every sequel. The in-game graphics, voice acting, music, and sound effects are all but indistinguishable from those of Dynasty Warriors 4 as well, and since that game was middle-of-the-road on the graphics and sound front, so is Xtreme Legends. The character models do look pretty darn good at this point, and everything runs at a nice, smooth frame rate. The backgrounds in DW4XL seem to look a little better than in the last game--there are nice weather effects and some niceties like reflections. You've got the same old slightly stale power-chord guitar rock soundtrack, as you'd expect, and the voice acting is just as bad and kung fu movie-style as ever.
The surest thing you can say about Dynasty Warriors 4: Xtreme Legends is that it's a product made very specifically for people who are already way into the game it's based on. Fortunately for Koei's bottom line, that's a lot of people. The game has debuted with a modest $30 price tag, which is nice since it does contain a good amount of content on its own and will also slightly revitalize one of your older games. Of course, the game can't be wildly recommended to new players simply because it does exactly the same things the previous four games did, but for extreme fans of the Dynasty Warriors series, DW4XL is a pretty big value with a solid block of new gameplay.