Version tested: Xbox 360
Racing game? Check. First-person shooter? Check. Platform game? Check. How about sports games - got all the main bases covered there? Check. Beat-'em-up?
Tomonobu Itagaki and his team are arriving fashionably late for the Xbox 360 launch. It's okay; you're allowed to do that sort of thing when you're cool enough to call your development studio "Team Ninja" and wear sunglasses indoors, in winter, without being laughed at. At least not to your face. Now that he's here, Dead or Alive 4 in tow, we can get the party started. Right?
Something interesting about writing a review of a game like Dead Or Alive 4 is that over the course of the analysis and review process, you prepare several different reviews of the game in your mind. In this particular case, as an unashamed fan of the Dead or Alive series (with the possible exception of the very pretty but hugely flawed DOA3, of which more later), I had already constructed the bare bones of a review before the game even arrived through my letterbox, based on screenshots, interview comments and videos.
If I had written the review that was half-formed in my head before turning the Xbox 360 on and popping the game in the drive, it would have read something like this: "Dead or Alive 4 is the latest game in the popular Dead Or Alive series, and brings beat-'em-up gameplay to the next-gen consoles for the first time. It's very pretty and high resolution. The characters and environments look great. Things break a lot when you fight, clothes and hair flaps around a fair bit, and the water on many stages looks nice. You can play online against other people and there's a customisable lobby system which is a nice incentive to play more so you can buy cooler items for your lobby. It's lots of fun, because DOA has always been lots of fun. Yes, the breasts still wobble. 9/10."
So, those were the opinions which I expected to hold after playing DOA4. Let's leave this one to sit in the oven for two hours, and check back to see what I thought at that stage, courtesy of the helpful notes I was scribbling down between frenzied bouts of thumb-destroying action.
Here are excerpts from my notes about Dead Or Alive 4 from two hours into the game, formed into the review I would have written if I'd dropped the game at that point and rushed to my trusty word processor.
"Dead or Alive 4 is the latest game in the popular Dead Or Alive series, and brings beat-'em-up gameplay to the next-gen consoles for the first time - although I'm not sure why they bothered. Rushed out for launch and suffering from many crashes, the game is a step backwards for the series in almost every respect aside from the graphics, which have been significantly upgraded in the transition to the Xbox 360 but still don't feel like anything more than a somewhat cautious and uneven evolution over Team Ninja's Xbox titles. The gameplay, while improved greatly over the hugely unbalanced DOA3, still fails to reach the quality marked by DOA2 and DOA Ultimate, with extremely excessive air juggle combos and little strategy to each frantic bout; a problem compounded by an extremely poorly conceived and frustrating single-player mode which even veterans of the series will find unfairly difficult. The online modes, while promising, are the victim of shoddy netcode which makes it almost impossible to compete against distant rivals without experiencing juddering lag that renders the game unplayable. A crushing disappointment. 3/10."
On balance, those notes aren't me being excessively negative or simply overreacting to the game not living up to potentially unfair expectations I had in my head. As my housemates, forced to suffer my enraged bellowing of every swearword in the English language and many helpful ones imported from other languages can attest, at about two hours into the game, with a few blasts at single-player, some online play and a dash of two-player under my belt, I was uncommonly angry with DOA4. I felt that Team Ninja, wowed by the power of a new console and placed under amazing pressure to have a game ready for launch, hadn't so much dropped the ball, as thrown it at the ground with astonishing force.
Thankfully, the ball bounced - at least to some extent.
On The Rebound
About five hours into the game, my notes become more appreciative, and at the point I'm at now - just counting the seconds until my ten-hour achievement on Xbox Live pops up - it's fair to say that my views have mellowed appreciably. While still of the opinion that Dead or Alive 4 has been rushed out to meet the Xbox 360 launch and has suffered in the process, it's more apparent to me what Team Ninja were trying to do in some areas, and what I had originally taken to be failures are actually quite successful.
Where the game does best, obviously, is with its graphics. Ever since Dead Or Alive 2, the series has been as much about eye-candy as about gameplay, although for the most part it has managed to balance the two to an impressive degree. Dead Or Alive 4 is very obviously a quick and dirty evolution of the Xbox games in the series, but even this alone is hugely impressive - and on a technical level, DOA4 running in HDTV resolutions is by far the best-looking console game ever created.
Some stages are more impressive than others; a personal favourite is the seaside resort stage, where the battle can include punching opponents through crates of fruit, knocking items off stalls in the marketplace, or even kicking someone out onto the beach via a bunch of balloons. The textures are high resolution, the lighting is great, and the interactivity really has the feeling of a next-generation videogame - one which offers something we genuinely didn't see in the last generation of titles. Some other stages are simpler, such as the wrestling rings with electrified bars, but even here there are nice touches like the fully 3D spectators holding signs with appreciative slogans on.
Unfortunately, the quality is patchy at best. The level of interactivity seen on the seaside level isn't repeated anywhere else in the game, where interaction basically falls to the level of the occasional vase smashing when you knock someone into it, and some of the stages which have been imported and updated from the Xbox versions of the game include textures which we're sure have been lifted straight from the Xbox, and which look quite ugly in HD resolutions. Peculiar glitches ruin the overall effect in places - like the dinosaurs on the prehistoric-themed stage, which are hugely impressive but look utterly out of place since they don't cast any shadows.
The fantastic graphics are also apparent on the character models, as you'd expect, but sadly so too is the inconsistency which marks DOA4 out as a rushed product. Most of the characters boast fine touches on their clothes or hair, with some beautiful effects being used to render realistic metal, leather and cloth - in fact, the only material we noted being a little dodgy is the fur, which simply looks wrong and, rather disturbingly, makes aging martial arts master Gen Fu look like he's got candyfloss all over his legs. Especially notable are Ryu's ninja costume, as seen in Ninja Gaiden - a combination of the astonishing detail on his forehead crest and beautiful lighting effects on the outfit itself make it look spectacular - and new character Kokoro's kimono, which flows and gleams silkily in the light in a superbly realistic manner.
However, one thing which isn't done well, sadly, is skin. It's not for want of detail - the fact that individual veins on Jann Lee's arms stand out is a testament to how far Team Ninja is prepared to go for detail on their characters - but rather because of a misplaced artistic decision to make the character's skin bland and anime-style while making their clothing and surroundings as realistic and life-like as possible. The effect is a somewhat unsettling one, not dissimilar to watching a group of plastic Barbie dolls cavort around your screen in a disturbing parody of living creatures. While I appreciate that this is an artistic decision on Tecmo's part, a little experimentation with skin textures could go a long way to making the next DOA into a much better looking game.
Overall, the feeling is that Team Ninja are experimentally stretching their wings on the Xbox 360, trying out concepts like interactive stages, cloth physics and fabric shaders, but not actually using the power of the system with any level of confidence. That's to be expected to some extent from any launch title, but from a team with this level of experience and respect, is nonetheless disappointing. On a more positive front, it says good things about Xbox 360 - if DOA4 can look so good in certain respects, just wait until Team Ninja and its ilk are turning out games where everything is up to that standard...
And yes, the breasts still bounce. I'd swear they're even bigger than before, too.