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.
If you can see Chuck Norris...
The other thing which DOA4 gets right, I've concluded after much agonising over the matter, is its battle system. The problem, for me, is that the game builds on the deeply flawed system used in DOA3, rather than on the far superior gameplay used in DOA2, which the team returned to for DOA Ultimate on the Xbox. I instantly disliked it for this reason - reminded of the incredibly easy counter system in DOA3 which made for frustrating and unsatisfying bouts by allowing you to reverse even the attack of a skilled opponent simply by waggling the stick and hammering block.
However, DOA4 has toned down this system significantly by narrowing the window in which you can counter an attack, forcing anyone who wishes to use this system to actually time their counter with a high degree of precision. Counters aren't the be-all and end-all of the game any more, not only because they're harder to pull off, but because you can also reverse a counter and deliver an incredibly powerful attack to your staggered opponent - which makes reliance on them into a risky proposition against a decently skilled player.
This makes for a much faster and more offensive game than previous DOAs, which is a change that I'd hesitate to classify as either better or worse. The more tactical gameplay of DOA2 appealed to me, but there's a certain beauty to the short, brutal rounds that DOA4 encourages. In one respect, however, the team seem to have taken this idea a little too far; they've beefed up your options when your opponent is on the ground, allowing you to continue to inflict damage on an opponent before they can recover and even making it possible to force a recovery. I can see why they did this - the idea of pressing the advantage in this situation is attractive - but in reality, it's not a good move, since it removes the brief respite that being knocked to the floor used to afford, and makes it much harder for someone to come back from a disadvantaged position. As any sports fan can tell you, that makes for a more boring game.
Another aspect I'm not sure about is the newfound power of the air juggling system, which was always a key feature in DOA but which has been beefed up even further here. It seems that even more attacks keep you in the air - just inches off the ground, but incapable of moving or blocking - or perhaps it's simply that the same attacks keep you in the air for longer; either way, it's possible to rack up ridiculous combos of quite basic moves while your opponent is entirely incapacitated, leaving them relying on you making a mistake to get back into the game. Beating an opponent who never had a chance to fight back stopped being fun for most people at around the same time that they stopped enjoying pulling the wings off butterflies.
All that being said, the fighting system remains extremely finely tuned in most respects, albeit with a worrying tendency towards the hardcore end of the market. It can be tough to tell what height an attack is registering as, which makes it hard to block, for example - a flaw which Itagaki has publicly explained by saying that you need to learn to play as every character so that you know what their moves do. Thanks, but no thanks; many of us who understand that sunglasses are for outside are unlikely to even attempt such a feat, rendering this aspect of gameplay sadly inaccessible and feeling frustratingly random. Luckily, we're never likely to play against anyone who does possess this knowledge, and at the medium level - well beyond button bashing, but not into the realms of learning all the characters off by heart - the game is extremely well balanced and fun.
So far, what I've discussed is relevant to everything in the game, but I'm really only referring to the traditional way of playing beat-'em-ups - namely, two players on a single console. Unfortunately, the other play options offered by DOA4, while they certainly benefit from the solid fighting system and the extremely shiny graphics, are fatally flawed in a number of crucial respects.
First of all, the single-player mode - often overlooked in beat 'em ups, but actually pretty popular among players who don't always have someone else to keep the sofa warm with them. DOA4's single-player modes, unfortunately, are absolutely dreadful - not because of any particular flaw with their structure (fight AI opponent, lather, rinse, repeat), but because the AI for computer-controlled characters is rubbish, in the worst possible sense.
At a simple level, it's easy to write a perfect AI for a beat-'em-up - just make a system that can always block or counter, and can always attack when an opponent is staggered or open. Piece of cake. What's difficult is writing an AI that actually plays like a human, blocking in response to perceived attacks, falling for good feints, taking risks that leaves them open to attack if they miss, and missing the timing on difficult moves occasionally. It's difficult, but not impossible - fighting games of the past have done it.
DOA4 doesn't even attempt the latter approach. Instead, we get a "perfect" AI which simply makes some absolutely brain-dead mistakes on earlier settings in order to make it possible for human opponents to defeat it - and which ramps up the difficulty extremely quickly, even on the easiest of the game's three difficulty settings. The result is an AI which is utterly frustrating to play against, and which you never feel like you've beaten because you're actually good - you beat it because the CPU rolled the dice and decided to make a completely ridiculous schoolboy error at an opportune moment for you. It's like winning the lottery; you're glad it happened, but under no illusions that you did anything great in the process.
Nowhere is this exemplified more than in the final boss battles in the game, which pit you against a translucent, floaty version of the female ninja, Kasumi. These are an exercise in pure frustration, since the boss character can block or reverse the majority of your attacks, is capable of teleporting around at random - even during combos - and to add insult to injury, is faster than any character in the game and has a number of throw attacks which take control away from you for a very long time and show you a cut-scene not dissimilar to Final Fantasy's oft-derided non-interactive summon animations - a flaw also found in a few other DOA4 characters, but not to this extent.
Whinging about difficulty seems a little infantile, but in this instance I feel that it's justified. I was a huge fan of Team Ninja's Xbox classic Ninja Gaiden, which was extraordinarily difficult but rewarded you with an enormous sense of achievement when you got the hang of the gameplay system and honed your skills to the point where you could proceed. DOA4's single-player game does nothing of the sort, instead simply making you hammer away until the computer player makes a calculated mistake and you win. The only thing you'll hone is new ways of throwing your Xbox 360 pad across the room with enough force to satisfy your rage, but enough caution to make sure it hits something cushioned (hopefully).
The final mode of play worth discussing is the online system. This is an area Team Ninja first introduced in DOA Ultimate, and it's been significantly upgraded in DOA4 with the addition of a new lobby system. In effect, this allows you to create an avatar for yourself (in cute anime style) and select a lobby layout, which you can then populate with items you buy in "Zack's Store" - where you can also buy new accessories for your avatar. When you start an online game, other players can enter your lobby - where they can stroll around, talk to each other and watch matches on a screen in the lobby - before joining the game in progress. It's all a little superfluous, since most players will just enter the game straight away after joining the lobby, but it's a nice touch nonetheless, and earning money to spend in the store is a good incentive to get you playing more online games.
However, the game is afflicted with a problem which is likely to cool your enjoyment of online play significantly - namely, absolutely horrible net code. The same lag and stuttering play which plagued DOA Ultimate make a return in DOA4, and it even exhibits exactly the same bug seen in Ultimate where a game that was relatively playable (albeit dropping frames here and there, resulting in a very jerky look) between two people will come crashing down into a jerky, stuttering mess as soon as another player joins the lobby and begins spectating. Broadband connections which can play FPS titles online smoothly as silk deliver games of DOA4 which are simply unplayable.
For all the attention paid to the lobby system, this is a killer for the online modes of the game. There are quite a few people playing online, and we wish them luck - but the outdated frame-locked net code is going to render this title totally useless to anyone who isn't on very high speed, low latency broadband, and playing against other players who are all on an equally good connection. Create a two-player restricted lobby to play against a friend who's also on broadband in the UK, and everything should be fine. Try anything else, and you're guaranteed an exercise in frustration.
While I've mellowed on DOA4 - a process helped significantly by the fact that it seemed to crash less often in later sessions of play, something which I suspect means that my Xbox 360 was the real culprit here - I'm still quite disappointed by the game. The graphics are nice, the characters are sexy (if plastic models are your thing) and well-animated, and the gameplay system is certainly better than DOA3's, and almost up there with DOA2 - but both the online and single-player modes are flawed to the point where they're simply not enjoyable in any way.
In summary, then, if you're planning to play this game lots with siblings, housemates, workmates, or whatever - with both of you sitting on the sofa and holding a pad each - then it's a game that's easy to recommend. If you're planning on playing the single-player much, it's an abomination, and you shouldn't touch it with a bargepole; and on Xbox Live, it's simply so flawed as to be unplayable in anything other than a basic 1v1 lobby, which arguably makes it into a pretty poor investment unless you have a friends list teeming with people who want to play. Taking all those aspects into account makes this a hard game to score - so when reading this verdict, those of you who've bothered to also read the review should mentally mark the game up one or even two points if you're a big two-player fan, and mentally disregard the entire product if you're hoping for online or single-player fun. There's little to be had here.
6 / 10