Review By: Jared Black
|# Of Players:||1-4 (2-16 online)|
|Accessories:||USB Keyboard (online chat)|
At first glance, Dead or Alive 4 (DOA4) is a lot like its predecessors. The fighting is fast and fairly straightforward, with a more realistic style (as in no magic fireballs) than most other fighting games on the market. The competitors are as beautiful as they've always been, each with their own fighting style, special moves, and eccentricities. However, the longer you play Dead or Alive 4 the more you realize just what a leap forward it is for the franchise, and how it couldn't have come at a better time for a console suddenly starved for quality releases.
Like prior DOA titles, the primary single-player mode is the Story mode. Here, you pick a fighter and take him or her through a series of eight fights ultimately culminating in a final boss fight (many against the same person/thing) and ending movie. Each character's story plays out roughly over the same time periods, so it will often overlap with the storyline of one or more other characters. For example, at one point in Drunken Master Brad Wong's storyline he's in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up fighting Hulk Hogan rip-off Bass. If you then play Bass' story, you'll see a little bit more of exactly why he was so upset (aside from the 'roid rage of course). The characters' stories criss-cross like this throughout the game, and make playing through them all a little more worthwhile.
My complaint with the storylines is the same as it's always been for fans of the series. They can only really be called stories in the loosest sense; as for the most part they're merely a series of matches. Only a few characters have anything closely resembling an actual storyline, and they all end up fighting the same end boss for the same reason. Nevertheless, the payoff is usually well worth the effort, whether it's a genuinely hilarious ending like Hitomi's or a dramatic one like Helena's (whom most of the story ultimately revolves around). And while I won't ruin what it's like to actually fight as the "hidden" (yet known to every gamer on Earth) Spartan character from Halo 2, I will say that I was disappointed that she doesn't have a story mode. Can you imagine the possibilities for wackiness there?
Other playable offline modes include Time Attack, Versus, Survival, Team Battle, Sparring, and Watch. You're probably familiar with these already, as they're somewhat self-explanatory, so I won't go into a lot of detail here.
As for the actual fighting, at first glance it again appears to be what fans of the series are already used to. Each fighter has his or her own style, and with it inherent strengths and weaknesses. However, the enhanced countering system makes the fighting much more strategic than before. Basically, it involves matching up a defensive move at the right time with an opponent's offensive move to the same part of the body (low, middle, or high). However, now blocking middle kicks requires pressing forward and the hold button, whereas middle punches require pressing backward and the hold button. Get it right and it can quickly turn the tide of battle, but that getting it right part takes a considerable amount of practice and study of an opponent's tendencies. It still doesn't quite put DOA4 in the same class as Virtua Fighter, but it provides some of the depth needed if the series is going to continue to compete with the more technical fighters on the market. As I witnessed on Xbox Live, fighters that have truly done their homework have a distinct advantage over the button mashers.
Speaking of Xbox Live, what is now one of the series' most-impressive features is also its buggiest. First, the good part. There are six playable modes online, including Winner-Stays, Tournament, Team Battle, Survival, Loser-Stays, and Kumite. There's enough variety here to give the mode a good shelf life, and provide plenty of options no matter what you prefer. Personally, I enjoyed Winner-Stays the most. Beating an opponent on a roll provides a great deal of satisfaction, especially if you watch all of the matches between turns to really study his tendencies. Almost all of the modes require significant wait times between matches, but surprisingly these weren't as boring as I thought they'd be. Perhaps I was just fortunate enough to be paired with good players, but I enjoyed watching other matches and chatting about everything from DOA4 to football while waiting for my next turn.
To help make these wait periods a little easier, players can exit watch mode and go to a custom Lobby while waiting. Here players run around with goofy avatars, in often-crazy environments (under water, outer space, etc.), interacting and watching the other matches take place in real time on a mini-HDTV. Here an USB keyboard may also be used to chat, or of course the communicator. Using "Zack(Z)" (basically money) won by winning battles, you may also purchase one of many different things from Zack's Shop to customize your avatar including furniture for your lobby, new lobbies, and costumes for your character. It's all goofy fun and a bit jarring when you first experience it, but it's yet another unique feature that sets the game apart from the competition.
Now for the bad part, the bugs. When the game works properly online it's great fun, but when it doesn't it's incredibly frustrating. To begin with, I had sessions I was involved in lock frequently on me and everyone else in the lobby. Although we could still hear each other talk, the game would simply freeze up (usually during a character's victory pose after a match) and force a hard reboot of the system. That's right, I actually had to get up off my couch and push the power button on the system itself (how primitive!). I also encountered a ton of lag during my playtime online, apparently related to just one single player joining the session with a slow connection. Although the game is still playable with even quite a bit of lag (the whole thing simply slows down as opposed to getting choppy), it's obviously frustrating. Finally, I've heard about other issues involving the Achievement system as well, although I haven't yet encountered these personally.
Whether playing online or off, the environments once again impress. Most are multi-tiered, with barriers to knock your opponents through (or over), steps to fall down, and obstacles to smash. Even after playing through everyone's story modes and a lot of playtime elsewhere, I still found myself discovering new hidden areas and obstacles I could smash opponents into. Nothing screams "next-gen" quite like knocking your opponent into a crate full of apples, and then seeing hundreds of them come pouring out and bouncing around realistically down a gently-sloped cobbled street while the fight continues in the foreground.
So yeah, as you'd expect from Team Ninja the graphics are once again gorgeous. The character models are insanely detailed (check out the mesh on Ryu's ninja suit, or the veins in Jann Lee's arms, or the many other tiny details I'm still noticing for the first time) and beautifully animated, each with distinct fighting styles animated as smoothly as I've ever seen anything in a game. Aside from the obstacles and tiers in the environments, what stands out about them is the depth of color used. There's color everywhere, from the bright lights of the wrestling ring to the lush jungles populated by massive dinosaurs.
Visually, I really only have two very minor complaints. The first is that most characters' hair looks laughably bad in comparison to how great everything else looks. They were obviously trying to make it flow realistically, but hair movement just looks too forced and frequently clips through other parts of the body. My other complaint is an artistic one; namely, the girls all look a little too similar (big boobs, perfect skin, anime eyes.you get the idea). Not that I necessarily have a problem with any of those things (I am a man after all.), but a little more variety in character models like the men have would be nice. That's just DOA for you (and the Japanese in general) though, and it'll probably always remain a characteristic of the series.
Sound wise, I have no real complaints. I'm glad that they're still using the original Japanese voices with subtitles, because frankly I can't imagine the characters all speaking English. The sound effects and music are standard for the series, appropriately goofy and dramatic at the right times and just cheesy enough that it fits without being bad.
If not for the bugs in online play, Dead or Alive 4 would easily be my second 9.0+ score on the system, and perhaps even best the 9.3 I gave Call of Duty 2. Unfortunately the bugs and lag are quite frequent, and until they're fixed they put a serious damper on the online fun.
Overall, DOA4 is the first great fighter for the Xbox 360 based on the strength of the gorgeous graphics, deeper fighting system, and fun offline modes alone. If/when that online play's fixed, we'll have something truly special on our hands.
Posted: 2006-01-23 14:35:01 PST