With Dynasty Warriors 9, the series takes its first stab at an open world environment. The team at Omega Force put in considerable effort to recreate China roughly as it was during the Three Kingdoms period of the third Century CE, from broad rivers such as the Yellow to the Five Great Mountains of China. The question which comes to mind is how well the world has been crafted compared to other open worlds.
The Bad: Levels of Detail
In one particular technical area, the environment suffers from a lack of detail. It’s not simply an absence of textures or layers, but rather a level of detail which seems unusually low for an open world game. When compared to other open-world titles like Skyrim, the geographical landscape appears bland. And the lack of visual depth and variation is not limited strictly to the geographic. In general, the graphics appear compromised, as if set to a point which guarantees high speed and reduced load on the hardware, but which doesn’t have models looking their absolute best. Since its launch, Dynasty Warriors 9 has been patched for the PlayStation 4 to resolve frame rate and other technical issues, but these improvements don’t add more objects or set pieces to help facilitate the suspension of disbelief.
One of the more telling examples of this can be found in the animal models. At first blush, the models look like the animals they are supposed to be representing. It’s only when you look more closely at some of those models that you begin to see where the compromises may have been made. Horse manes look less like hair and more like half-cylinders. Tiger and wolf pelts look strangely flat and undistinguished. Even pandas don’t really seem quite “real.” While perfect accuracy is highly difficult to obtain in a real time engine, there’s a level of detail that is good enough the mind will accept it and move along. Otherwise, as the environment here has demonstrated, it sticks out. Instead of thinking “horse,” one would think “horse-shaped.”
Another example is found in the buildings. While fortresses and fortifications have traditionally been squarish in nature, even in early Chinese architecture, they have also followed basic design principles like “ensure direct access to the top floors of a tower for your troops with a staircase.” If a player looks into the areas around the top of a tower, they can see the stairs leading down into the lower levels of the tower. However, the player cannot utilize those stairs. They cannot see what’s in those lower levels. Essentially, the player is being told anything important is at the exterior locations of the top and bottom. As a result, the claim of it being an open world is slightly diminished.
The Good: Sense of Scale
China occupies some 3.7 million square miles, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, which is quite a big chunk of land to try and simulate. It has numerous biomes within its borders, with various species of plants and animals, as well as mineral resources which may well have been easily accessible during the time period being simulated. Put simply, there’s a lot of territory to cover and a lot of stuff within the territory.
In this respect, developer Omega Force has done a very good job. When looking at the game map, and moving it around to previously unexplored areas, it takes a relatively long time to reach the edges. You can see the different areas of elevation, the roads are clearly marked, there are “waymarks” which help the player navigate around. As maps go, the only one that comes to mind that’s close to providing a matching degree of detail and utility to the player would be found in The Witcher 3.
Since the game’s setting is centered around a civil war, there is a distinct focus on military structures and elements in the sandbox. While you might not be able to fast travel exactly to the point you’d want to go to, there are usually camps nearby which friendly (or hostile) forces might be staging up that you can travel to which are typically close to your ultimate destination. Watchtowers scattered across the landscape certainly help the player reveal areas of the map, as well as providing good views of the surroundings. While players won’t be jumping off the tops of towers into conveniently placed piles of hay, it’s still worth seeking out watchtowers whenever possible. Ultimately, the map serves not only to let the player navigate, but also to help them understand the current course of the war and the ultimate objectives involved.
The Uncertain: Systems and Explorations
There are elements of the environment which aren’t especially good, but they’re not particularly bad, either. In other open world games, these elements would be used to help give the feeling of a living environment, to give the illusion that life goes on no matter what the player happens to be doing. There are moments where the game handles these elements well and moments where it disappoints.
One of those iffy sorts of moments deals with wild animals in the environment. It’s perfectly reasonable to see wolves in large numbers, given that they’re pack animals. It’s also somewhat reasonable that a human might have a group of trained bears or tigers, though using them to attack people is a stretch which is palatable given we’re talking about a game where one person can carve through a couple divisions of nameless grunts without breaking a sweat. It’s when the player sees those same tigers and bears in close proximity to each other that the suspension of disbelief gets a little strained. Both are fairly solitary animals, so having to thread your way through areas that seem almost literally infested with one or the other reduces the impact of their appearance.
Another minimal concern has to do with the lack of people outside of villages and cities. There are different people in populated areas, though they’re vendors of one sort or another; they don’t do much than provide you specific types of gear or consumables or offer repeatable side quests. You can easily find mobs of bandits on the road and in the wilderness, and they can certainly be beaten up for fun and XP. Yet, you don’t see wandering merchants or traders, pilgrims making their way to specific temples, masterless warriors looking to test their skills, hermits offering sage advice, or entertainers trying to make their next show. The sandbox is big, but it’s strangely empty, and there’s nothing which really rewards discovery.
Finally, there’s the issue of side quests and how much freedom the player has to explore the world. While quests do send the player off to different locales and help open up the map, there’s nothing to let the player do that for themselves. There’s no room for the player to go and say, “I want to climb that mountain over there.” The pressures of the main and secondary quests make exploration a very circumscribed affair.
Considering where Dynasty Warriors started and where it’s been over the years, it’s not surprising that this first effort at building an open world grand enough for the series isn’t perfect. It’s a transitional title, one that the developer can improve upon in this release with future updates as well as apply the lessons learned if/when they make the next game.