This week I finished Star Trek: The Game and fully intended on writing up my usual recap, outlining how bad the game is and how it strays from the source material. Then, on Friday, Leonard Nimoy passed away and suddenly it didn’t feel like the best time to pump out 2000 words bashing a Star Trek licensed property. I’ll wait on that, just a bit. But rest assured you will hear about Star Trek: The Game.
Instead, I want to talk about the other game I’ve been playing this week. This one is a new release, and it’s not based on any licensed property unless you count a centuries-old Chinese historical novel. That’s right, I’m talking about Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires.
Dynasty Warriors is one of the biggest and, to some, most befuddling video game franchises in history. I can’t even tell you how many Dynasty Warriors games there are. The fact that the latest release has an “8” in the title tells you that there are at least eight mainline games, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most numbered Dynasty Warriors games have multiple re-releases or spinoffs under either the “XL” or “Empires” name. These games either expand the original (XL) or repurpose the original numbered game into a strategy hybrid (Empires).
There is a parallel series called Samurai Warriors, which is basically the same game in Japanese history instead of Chinese. Samurai Warriors is up to Samurai Warriors 4 now. SW1-3 have XL versions. 2-3 both have Empires games. To make things more confusing, there are also multiple Warriors Orochi games, which combine the Chinese cast of Dynasty with the Japanese cast of Samurai. There are also Warriors games based on Gundam, Fist of the North Star, One Piece, and most recently The Legend of Zelda. There’s also Bladestorm, based on the 100 years war, and Legends of Troy, based on (duh) the Trojan War.
While there are slight differences between these games, they all play fundamentally the same way. They are third person action games in which your character–a historical/fictional figure–takes part in a series of battles, capturing bases by slaughtering your enemies by the hundreds. Most of the enemies are cannon fodder mooks, but scattered among them are “officers” or “bosses” that provide some challenge. These are other historical/fictional figures from whatever the time period or licensed property happens to be.
In a lot of ways, Dynasty Warriors titles are the ultimate brainless action games. To those who don’t “get” them, they seem dumb and repetitive. You spend a lot of time spamming the same button combos to take out crowds of enemies that can barely touch you. The attacks are flashy but you see them over and over again. But there’s something very relaxing about the repetition. It requires just enough focus that you can’t be distracted, but not enough that playing it is stressful. The very first time really got into Dynasty Warriors was during law school finals, and it was the perfect way to spend a couple hours unwinding after an exam.
The reason I like the Dynasty Warriors Empires series most of all is the same reason I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing menu-based games like Crusader Kings, Baseball Mogul, and the game that Empires borrows directly from, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (specifically the 7th, 8th, and 10th installment). The best way I can describe it is that these games are designed to create emergent storylines.
Unlike the mainline and XL Dynasty Warriors titles, there is no historical campaign in the Empires games. You are not taken through a series of battles representing the Three Kingdoms history. Instead, you pick or create a character who is dropped into one of a few specific spots in history. That character is one of dozens of characters that (ostensibly) play by all the same rules. Battles are not pre-designed but generated based on the armies, officers, and land involved. These battles are either quests–where you have some specific objective to achieve like defeat a certain officer or deliver a message or quell some literal tigers–or invasions in which you must capture the enemy main camp, defeat the enemy commander, or prevent your own main camp from being taken.
In these battles, the only real difficult enemies you encounter are the enemy officers. As I said above, these officers theoretically are playing by the same rules as you. They get level up after every battle they fight (against you or otherwise), gaining new abilities. If defeated, they can be captured or executed. Losing a fight with one of them isn’t a game over for failing the mission. You may not complete the quest or you may lose the land you were fighting over, but you keep on playing while the enemies get stronger. Your relationship with each officer is tracked and they can become your friends or mortal enemies. This is reflected in the dialog between your characters on the battlefield.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
That’s right, Dynasty Warriors Empires has the Nemesis System.
For anyone who doesn’t know what the Nemesis System is, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor won a bunch of Game of the Year awards in 2014 on the back of a unique metagame that the developers referred to as the Nemesis System. In Shadow of Mordor, an open-world action game, most of the challenge was derived from fighting Uruk captains, mini-bosses that were scattered around the world. These captains were procedurally generated with strengths and weaknesses, a name and a position in the overall Uruk hierarchy of Mordor. While you were playing, they were attempting to climb the hierarchy by doing their own missions you could interfere with. Losing battles against captains didn’t give you a game over, but rather increased the strength of the victorious captain. Later in the game, you can”brand” captains, making them allies who fight alongside you against other enemies.
The Nemesis System was a revelation, because it took a game with a really boring story and gave players a reason to keep playing. Messing around with the Uruk hierarchy–assisting certain Uruks as they rise to power and plotting the downfall of the even more powerful warchiefs–was one of the best parts of the game.
Like any good gimmick, I expect to see some variation of the Nemesis System pop up in a bunch of games going forward. It could be great in a GTA-like crime game, with soldiers and made men rising up through the ranks of the mafia. RPGs could definitely learn from it, perhaps allowing for boss fights that are dynamically generated. I even think sports games could benefit from mapping rivalries and friendships in a similar way.
But Shadow of Mordor didn’t do it first. Dynasty Warriors: Empires featured almost everything that made the Nemesis System special. I say “almost” because when you defeat officers they don’t come back with physical deformities representing how they were killed before. But that’s pretty much it.
Let me get one thing straight: I’m not trying to bash Shadow of Mordor, which was overall a better game than any Dynasty Warriors title ever has been. While the Nemesis System provided the motivation to play, the moment-to-moment action in Shadow of Mordor was the best of Assassin’s Creed and Arkham Asylum blended together. Much like Gears of War will be remembered for popularizing the cover-based third person shooter instead of Killswitch, Shadow of Mordor gets the lion share of the credit. But back in the early days of cover-based third person shooters, Killswitch still got named-dropped occasionally. The world should know the truth because the truth is hilarious. The first Empires game came out in 2004 (Dynasty Warriors 4 Empires) and the first to allow for playing as minor officers and establish relationships with enemy NPCs (Dynasty Warriors 6 Empires) came out in 2009, five years before Shadow of Mordor.
The feature that was heralded as the most innovative part of one of the best games of 2014 already existed. And had existed for years. More than that, it existed in Dynasty Warriors, a series regularly reviled for its lack of innovation. So for once, I’d like to give Dynasty Warriors credit for being something more than a mindless beat ’em up that releases the same game with a new bit of polish every year. Let’s give the Empires games the same credit we give Killswitch, as the flawed precursor to a system that is inevitably going to be copied again and again throughout the next console generation.