If you're looking for some online martial arts action that drops you right in the middle of a crowded battlefield you have to hack your way out of, then Dynasty Warriors Online just might be for you. If you want all that and to play for free, too, then DWO is definitely your friend!
Dynasty Warriors originally began as a spin off of Koei Japan's turn-based strategy game, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The title was a Tekken-style fighting game released on the Playstation in 1997, and there have since been a host of other titles and spin-offs that appear on hand-held and next-generation consoles. Most of these games also focus on the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, where three powerful kingdoms vie for control of all of China. Dynasty Warriors Online first appeared in Japan in 2006, and the free-to-play MMO was picked up by Aeria Games and released to the western world in November of 2010.
Dynasty Warriors Online, while free-to-play, is not a browser-based MMO. The game plays fairly well on even some lower-end PC's though, and the PC download is relatively small. The install will take up about 4.6 GB on your hard drive, however. In Japan, the game is also available on PS3, so a Playstation 3 release may not be far off. In the meantime, get out your PC gamepad, if you have one, because the interface and gaming style is much better suited to it over keyboard and mouse. Don't get me wrong, keyboard and mouse work well enough, but are somewhat cumbersome when playing action martial arts titles like this. In fact, I recommend avoiding the mouse altogether and going straight keyboard, if you don't have a gamepad. Using the mouse is both limited and awkward.
In the offline Dynasty Warriors games, the player is generally presented with a list of important characters to choose, usually from the Three Kingdoms era. The online version of Dynasty Warriors embraces some role playing elements in allowing you to create and customize your own character. It's not as involved as a traditional RPG, but definitely gives more of a feel for that kind of game than any other DW title I've come across.
The first thing a player encounters in the character creation process is the origin location. Here, you must select from a grid of regions across medieval China. Each section displays a bit of historical info about the region, usually involving its battles or the great warriors or generals who hail from that area. It's a decent beginning to character creation, but I haven't noticed any major or practical differences in gameplay when choosing different regions.
Your next step is to design your character, first by selecting from four body-types, eight face-types with nine styles, ten hair styles, gender, and a palette for hair, skin and eye color. There are no classes to speak of, or even game levels, as characters start off as a soldier and progress in rank by gaining experience, and passing promotion quests. You can, however,increase a weapon's stats as you use it, and can gain new weapons and armor from fallen NPCs. There are also no skills, per se, but there is a combo system that has about a dozen attacks using different attack/special attack button sequences. The musou is the most powerful and visually impressive of the attacks, and requires the gauge below your health bar to be full.
While the above flirt with RPG elements, they are, unsurprisingly, more easily compared to action games. However, if you are looking for some RPG stylings, you can achieve further character differentiation and development (at least in character creation) by choosing one of five personality types: Fighter, Intellectual, Passionate, Skilled, and Individual. These personality types have subsets like Cunning, Selfish, Wild, etc. While these are no replacement for the more practical attribute and skill systems in RPGs, they can, at least, give roleplayers a bit of a base for character development.
In the final step of character creation, you must also choose a faction from the Three Kingdoms era to align yourself with: Wei, Wu, or Shu. This choice, as you will see a bit later in the article, has an effect on the overall state of the war and plot of the game.
Graphics options (at least on my machines) are limited in Dynasty Warriors Online, especially the resolution which I could only get as a maximum of 1280x1024 or x720, depending on the aspect ratio of the screen used. There is also no windowed mode, you are able to set the detail settings for the battle and town areas of the game, which will help out with lower-end systems. Overall, the visual quality of the game is actually pretty good, and I was even able to get it to run effectively on my Toshiba laptop with a shared Intel chip on board. To be fair, that chip shouldn't be able to run Dragon Age or Mass Effect, either, but it seems to handle them just fine, as well. Some may find that, on larger screens, the imagery will look minorly distorted, but remember, this game is originally from 2006 -- and it's free...
Audio is decent, with good mood music for the most part, and traditional Dynasty Warriors rockin' guitar licks popping as necessary. The game also has some good martial arts and full battle sound effects.
Customizing the controls in Dynasty Warriors is a bit inconvenient. Both keyboard and gamepad buttons are fully mappable, but the button list and configuration can only be accessed the loader tool that appears when you click to launch the game. Because of this, and the fact that game tutorials do not update to reflect them, if you do any extensive key-mapping, you will want to have a very good memory, or a handwritten list nearby. Otherwise, you will have to exit the game entirely and open up the loader again just to get a reminder or to change something that isn't working. Default keys are the traditional right-handed control scheme, with WASD for movement, and JKL for attack keys. U is for Guard, and N allows the character to jump.