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.