Samurai Warriors 2 for the PS2 continues Koei's franchise of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors games, and despite only marginal changes from the last edition, is probably the best game they've made yet.
The Dynasty Warriors series put the player in the role of a legendary warrior in the era of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and charged them with cutting a swathe across sprawling 3D battlefields packed with literally thousands of enemy soldiers. The Samurai Warriors series transposes this premise to feudal Japan. Samurai Warriors 2 loosely follows Japanese history from the rise of Nobunaga Oda through to the assumption of power by Ieyasu Tokugawa.
The game has some 26 playable characters, ranging from Nobunaga and Ieyasu through to master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and ninja Hanzo Hattori. Each of these characters is significantly more... extreme... than history might indicate. Nobunaga, for example, apparently commands all manner of demonic magics. Kotaro Fuma can throw fireballs. Ieyasu Tokugawa carries an honest-to-god cannon around the battlefield, which seems to ignore all rules of recoil and reload times.
When you take these characters to the battlefield, you'll basically be turned loose on a vast army and left more or less free to decimate them as you see fit. Generally, you'll have an army of your own backing you up, with a general at the head who you have to protect or risk losing the battle. As you wander around slaughtering your foe, you'll hear the chatter of generals on both sides of the battle discussing their changing fortunes, ordering ambushes, taunting their rivals, and announcing charges and counter-charges. Generally, you'll want to pay attention to this chatter, as not only do you have the opportunity to become involved in their schemes by co-ordinating or thwarting their stragems, but it is in some cases fairly vital. You'll need to capture fortresses, defend cannon emplacements, prevent assassinations, escort spies, and achieve a whole bunch of other objectives.
These in-battle objectives have been tightened up a lot from previous games in the series. Firstly, they're greater in both number and variety than previously. There's usually at least two things you can be doing at any given time, which is great for two-player games as the second player will always have something meaningful to do. Secondly, they're more important. Where previously you could largely ignore the general chatter and just kill stuff, now you'll generally have to finish at least a couple of sub-goals in order to win a battle. This is a change for the better, as it lends each battle a distinctive character, breaks up the repetition, and gives the feeling that you're actually making strategic decisions which influence the course of the battle. And you're still largely free to do your own thing most of the time.
As you win battles, your character will level up in a variety of ways. This, too, is handled better than previous installments in the series. Firstly, levelling up is well matched to the progress of the plot, so you'll rarely need to repeat a level to gain XP - you can just play straight through. Your stats rise as you gain levels, which is a much better system than Dynasty Warriors, which saw you farming levels for rare stat-up items.
You'll also gain gold as you play, from defeating officers, accomplishing sub-goals, and just winning battles. Gold can be spent to buy new mounts, new bodyguards, upgrade your weapons, and most importantly to buy skills. Skills provide passive bonuses on the battlefield, including raising your basic stats, giving you increased effect from healing items, and strengthening your apocalyptic "True Musou" attack. Skills can also be randomly "stolen" from defeated enemy officers.
The game's Story Mode features a unique story for each character, detailing their place in Japanese history over five or six stages of battle. These are reasonably historically accurate, and you'll likely learn a fact or two as you play, although there's a decent amount of "what if" speculation for some of the minor characters or characters who died before achieving their dreams. Notably, there's been significant licence taken with the assassination of Nobunaga Oda.
There's also a Free Mode, letting you play any stage with any character, and a Survival Mode. Survival Mode challenges you to fight your way through 100 floors of a giant castle. Every five floors you have the opportunity to pick a mission, which will then play out over the next five floors. If you complete missions successfully, you earn bonus gold, and occasionally unlock new mounts, skills, or characters. It's a lot more fun than the Survival Modes of previous games in the franchise.
You can play Story Mode or Free mode co-operatively with a second player. Actually, the missions are so hectic you'll often feel like you need a second player just to stay in control of the fairly large battlefields. Two-player mode works in splitscreen, which involves some graphical compromises but is perfectly workable and a lot of fun. There's also a Monopoly-esque boardgame called Sugoroku which can be played with up to four players using a multi-tap. Sugoroku is fun, and worth a couple of tries, but is unlikely to hold your attention in the long term.
The main criticism levelled at the Dynasty and Samurai Warriors games is that they're repetitive, and that's an accusation fairly made. But, it could be said, Tetris is repetitive. It doesn't really matter that gameplay is repetitive when that gameplay is inherently entertaining. And, at least for me, going through battalions of soldiers like a hot knife through butter never gets old. No other game delivers an experience quite like Samurai Warriors, and it's an experience you'll either tire of in minutes, or be happy repeating for uncounted hours.
It's also true that Samurai Warriors 2 is effectively the same game as the original Samurai Warriors, and is very similar to pretty much all the Dynasty Warriors games. Like a sports franchise, Koei releases a new Warriors game every year with little more than a roster update and some new arenas. It may be the case that if you already have Samurai Warriors it's not worth your money to purchase the sequel. But on the other hand, Samurai Warriors 2 is a remarkably fun game, and for whatever reason the original Samurai Warriors was never released in Australia.
Graphically, Samurai Warriors looks good, but not great. The models are reasonably detailed, but some compromises have been made in order to depict the throngs of enemies that the game demands. The fog-of-war is still present and unfortunately close, but never really impinges on your awareness. The game overall looks about as good as Samurai Warriors or Dynasty Warriors 5. I'd love to see it on the XBox 360, as I can only assume the graphics are significantly better. Artistically, it's nothing special - less ugly than some of its ancestors, and sporting some great character design, but still plagued by some pretty bland battlefields and enemy troops.
The sound is similarly middle-of-the-road. Character voices are considerably better acted than the earlier games, but are still by no means particularly good. The best that can be said is that they're rarely irritating. The music combines traditional Japanese motifs with hard electric-guitar rock, and again is neither irritating nor memorable. The sound effects are probably the best part of the bag, with a great mix of screams, yells, horse hoofbeats, weapon swings, musket fires, and suchlike. They're still probably not going to win awards, though.
For my money, Samurai Warriors 2 is the best Warriors game yet. The level design is exemplary, with missions that are tight and focused without straight-jacketing the player. Levelling up is natural and free from the grind that plagued earlier versions. The character stories are strong, and the Japanese setting seems to suit the flavour of the game better than the Chinese one ever did. All in all, this is not only a must-have for existing fans of the series, but an ideal point to jump on board if you've never played a Warriors game before.