Editor's note: This is an early impressions piece based on a week with Dragon Ball FighterZ - following the somewhat shaky online betas, we're waiting until the release on Friday for the opportunity to test out the game online on fully stressed servers before we commit to our final review.
Fighting games are, generally, inaccessible. It is a genre stifled by an inescapable brick wall that emerges after the story mode is done and dusted, or a few run throughs of arcade mode are under your belt. It is the realisation that in order to get better, there's a shed load of stuff to learn, a whole lot of complex input commands to memorise, and a bucket full of hours to sink into training mode to bring it all together. And then you venture online and get smashed to bits anyway.
I've been playing Dragon Ball FighterZ non-stop for a week now, and while I'll hold off on a review until I've had a chance to test online play, I have a decent enough handle on the game's systems to praise not just how accessible it is, but how it manages to make its systems accessible without reducing the experience to a mind-numbing mush for fighting game aficionados. Japanese developer Arc System Works, which is famous within fighting game circles for making the superb but complex Guilty Gear and BlazBlue games, walks a fine line here, but it does so with aplomb.
Input commands are the bane of many a budding fighting game player. 360 degree motions, two quarter circle forwards and three buttons, hold down for a second or two then press up and a button or two... For fighting game fans, pulling off these motions is as natural a thing as walking down the street. But for so many players they are terrifyingly tricky. Couple this issue with the thought that each character has its own, unique set of input commands and you've got the basis of that brick wall I mentioned earlier.
Dragon Ball FighterZ does away with all this with a simple, universal input command system that makes pulling off special moves a breeze. There are no 360 motions in Dragon Ball FighterZ. There are no two quarter circle motions. You don't even have to press two buttons for super attacks. All you need is to master the down, forward and a button, and the down, back and a button input commands, and, for some characters, down, down and a button. That's it. Three input commands cover all of the game's special and super moves across all of the characters.
Then there are the auto combos. With most fighting games combos are tricky. You have to remember the buttons to press and nail the timing (some fighting games require brutally-difficult timing for combos). Dragon Ball FighterZ does indeed have combos that require practice to master, but newcomers can rely on three auto combos that each require you simply mash a button.
If you mash the light attack button, you perform a flashy combo that sees your character smash their opponent into the air, fly up to meet them, then continue the pounding. If you mash the medium attack button, you'll do the same, but end the combo with a super attack. If you mash the heavy button, you'll do a few high damage hits. All this from mashing just one button!
This kind of accessibility can be felt across the entire Dragon Ball Z experience. Even throws have been reworked with accessibility in mind. In most fighting games, throws require you press one or two buttons while being close to your opponent. The trick is in the timing - whiff and you'll leave yourself open to a punish. The throws in Dragon Ball FighterZ, which require just one button press, see your character fly across the screen to grab your opponent. If you successfully connect, your character smashes their opponent into the sky and automatically flies off after them, giving you the chance to do an air combo. This is a fantastic rework of the traditional fighting game throw - a one-button move that can be performed from distance, is exciting to watch and can lead to lots of extra damage. Try this: throw, mash light attack then, when you and your opponent land on the ground, do a super to end the combo. All this from just a few button presses.
Dragon Ball FighterZ has an inbuilt parry system, called Reflect, that encapsulates Arc System Work's design philosophy for this game. Parrying is, typically, one of the harder things to do in fighting games. In Dragon Ball FighterZ, to Reflect all you have to do is press away and the "special" attack button. Nail the timing and you'll bat away projectiles and even melee attacks, leaving you free to land a damaging counter. As with so much in Dragon Ball FighterZ, the skill comes not from frame perfect timing or complex input command execution, but prediction and mind games.
Plenty of fighting games have attempted to simplify their systems by adding auto combos and easy special moves (Capcom did this with the much-maligned Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite), but what I love about Dragon Ball FighterZ is its accessible mechanics are universal. This means they apply to all of the characters. So, same input commands for specials and supers for every character. Same input command for the Reflect for everyone. The throw works the same for everyone. Everyone's got a "Dragon Rush" move and everyone's got a "Vanish" move, and each require the same input command across all characters. Dragon Ball FighterZ is the first fighting game I've played where I haven't bothered to look at the move list, because, well, there's not much point. You're better off trying out the universal input commands and working out what the moves actually do.
Dragon Ball FighterZ, then, is the fighting game for everyone. Sure, it's a fast-paced game, and with three versus three action the screen can get pretty busy at times, but Arc System Works' effort to make the combat accessible means pretty much anyone can pick up their favourite few characters from Dragon Ball and get them to do cool and exciting stuff straight away. A few minutes spent in training mode and you'll find yourself doing combos that approach the 100-hit mark - just from a few basic input commands.
Of course, Dragon Ball FighterZ has that brick wall I mentioned earlier, but it shows up later to the party than it does in a lot of other fighting games. And fear not, fighting game aficionados, for Dragon Ball FighterZ has plenty of advanced stuff that easily counters the casual-friendly assists. You can tech throws. Your non-automatic combos are better than automatic combos, guaranteed. And Reflect lets you punish attacks that are safe on block. But the point to make here is for your average Dragon Ball fan, the kind of person who's big into Goku but has never heard of a cross-up, Dragon Ball FighterZ' accessibility is very much a good thing.