Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War Review - 21/01/2008

This is the first of our Koei reviews that will be on in the next few weeks, and early signs are that the developers have learned their lesson from the critical responses to their previous games.

There's no doubt that the Dynasty Warriors games have always been enjoyable, particularly more recently with the co-op options available. Bladestorm however sets the game in a European sphere, which means you no longer have to have a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of Asian history to know what's going on. It's far more approachable, and enjoyable as a result.

The Hundred Years' War, a collection of conflicts between Britain and France, is presented well, with surprisingly slick menus and a central tavern where you can listen to gossip, recruit mercenaries (more on this later), buy supplies, and generally manage your part in the conflict. It's strikingly similar to what you get in the Dynasty games, but far more polished.

The idea of the game has also changed, it's no longer a hack and slash (though Dynasty Wariors 6 is said to be an improvement on this, in terms of complexity), and more of a strategy. You still play as a standalone character, and unfortunately there's no co-operative or online modes, but the upshot is that it's a far more diverse and rich experience as a result.

Cavalry may take a while to get used to, but they're great fun

There are loads of unit types in the game, ranging from long bowman to mounted spearmen and chariots. Siege weapons such as catapults and battering rams, usually AI controlled until the later stages, make up a really complete set of units. If you've ever enjoyed the Age of Empires series or similar, you'll feel right at home with the classes. To take charge of a squad you tap the A button, and, if you've got enough experience, and have discovered the book for that specific class, they come under your command. Depending on the unit type, you can then give them certain commands, and begin to get involved in battles.

You use RB to order your squad to attack, accompanied by tilting the right stick to move them around and towards the enemy. You also move yourself while doing this, and when pressing RB you also attack. So basically your colleagues in your team are following what you're doing. There are extra, more powerful moves than the standard attack, which usually include one defensive option, but vary for each unit type. As foot-based archery units, you do not have a standard attack button, instead, you have to find a decent position to lay in wait for the enemy, and then use one of the face buttons to initiate an attack once they come into range.

Most cavalry units can charge the enemy, and in this case enough speed has to be built up before the attack can be commanded.

It may look like Dynasty Warriors sometimes, but the gameplay is certainly different

The potential for deep combat based on each unit's strengths and weaknesses is obvious. Indicators are present to show you which enemies are easy prey, and which you are weak against, and by about the middle of the game you'll learn those you can risk it against, and those you can't. Particularly, cavalry against spearmen or pikemen is guaranteed doom. Of course, if you have enough units in your squad, you can survive such an encounter to charge away to safety. It may be cowardly, but if you die then the mission is failed, and you cannot retry (though similar campaigns are always made available in the tavern).

The idea is that you take on the easy units that your troops are strong against first. This builds up energy in your Bladestorm meter, which, once full, makes your squad invulnerable, faster, and more deadly. You can then safely attack stronger enemies, who otherwise would receive very little damage from your attacks. It works quite well, though the temptation is always to lure squads out so you can pick them off one-by-one.

A lot of effort has gone into the diversity between the units, with tons of different attacks and moves available in total. Some archery units have an awesome first person mode, and various units have long range throwing attacks. The range changes with each unit, and it's testament to the scale of the game that it will take you many hours before you're used to, and comfortable with, each unit type. There are very few duff ones, and using the ranking system can sort that out in no time.

More exciting moves equal more elaborate deaths

Capturing bases is done in the same way as Dynasty Warriors, and similarly you collect treasure after defeating an enemy squad or capturing a base. You can then increase the size of the squads for each unit type, and buy different weapons for them, as well as certain extra abilities. These include power-ups to make you run faster, hit harder, or take more damage. You earn money too of course, and this is done by simply completing the missions put in front of you. As a mercenary, you are regularly sought out in the tavern and there's always a good selection of missions to go on.

Obviously you have to choose between England and France, and while it is possible for the majority to choose sides at will, you miss out on the most lucrative spoils if you're not willing to switch allegiance regularly.

While you can just run up to a friendly squad and press A to take control of it, you can also purchase units yourself. This allows you to chop and change squads in the heat of battle, altering your strategy depending on the enemy type, as your purchased units beam instantly into the fray. It's obviously not terribly realistic, though if a woman could be the best tactician France had to offer, in Jeanne of Arc, then anything's surely possible...(though she was probably more masculine than most Frenchmen...).

Charge, and watch the beautifully animated carnage

The graphics have certainly improved since Dynasty Warriors 5, with weather effects and rag-doll physics particularly impressive. Animation, with each unit type moving differently, and horses looking particularly stunning, are brilliant. Most battles are spread over more than one day, and as objectives often include taking many bases, doing everything slowly is necessary, and the day/night cycle helps ramp up the tension if you're running out of time (nightfall marks the end of the day). It still gets a little repetitive, as you're only really capturing bases, but the focus on the west rather than the east and some good cut-scenes that weave into certain landmark battles help keep things moving.

The main downfall is really that you can't have an influence on friendly squads. While you can take them over, you really need about five squads (getting to around 100 men) to take on and win most large encounters. Friendly AI seem to spend most of the time standing around, or going after other, unknown objectives, like taking bases that are outside of the mission parameters. A simple command to call for assistance would have been great.

Otherwise, Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War is a return to their best for Koei and their genre of gaming. If you liked Kingdom Under Fire or the iconic Kessen, then you'll get a lot of enjoyment out of this. Action fans need not be put off by the squad based combat as you are still essentially in control of your one character, and while it feels completely alien at first, you love the system after about 10 minutes and won't be able to imagine it any other way! The ranking up and tavern elements are great, and the gameplay is nearly always fun and satisfying, even when it starts to repeat. No multiplayer in a game like this is a shame, but a lengthy single player of up to (and in some cases above) 100 hours almost makes up for it, if you can keep your attention in the right place.

- Mike Hazleton



Omega Force
PS3 - 360