Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball is bound to inspire a lot of hot-tempered emotions in some people, not least of all Eurogamer's resident moral guardian Rob Fahey, whose rather venomous first impressions piece left a lot of people either sighing in accordance or seething with rage. Then again, any game that aims to make money by giving blokes a brace of virtual Barbie dolls under the guise of a sports game will obviously polarise opinion.
But we've spent a lot of time with it now, and it seems that the more you play it, the easier it is to appreciate why you should play it. It's still a very simple game at its core, based around some pretty basic activities (card games, hopping, volley-pong, etc), but the sheer number of collectibles and their inconsistent availability will have grown-up Pokémaniacs foaming at the mouth, and the orgy of on-screen titillation will no doubt do the same for some of the rest of us.
As one of eight misled ladies, lured to Zack Island under the pretence of a DOA fighting tournament, the idea is quite simply to build up a collection of crap whilst cruising the sun-drenched tropical plains in babe-ridden surroundings. There are all sorts of knickknacks spread around the game's main boutiques (Accessory Shop, Sports Shop and Zack Of All Trades), with all manner of skimpy garments (fluffy-tailed swimsuits, anyone?) flanked by more obscure items like Uzis (er, yes). As you play volleyball, compete in mini-games or gamble in the casino, you'll earn island currency which can be splurged on these various spoils, and often you'll also find yourself rewarded for a hard day's volleying with a DVD-style extra (videos of old DOA games, obscure literature and so forth).
Subtlety to rival Playboy
However, pretty much every gamer who clicked through to this page is preoccupied with the graphics, and we're not afraid to admit how lovely they are. Whether or not you find oodles of bronzed flesh a bit tasteless, you can't fail to be impressed with the animation, which covers pretty much every inch. Each lass carries herself slightly differently - some, like Kasumi, have a sort of delicate grace, whilst others like videogame-loving Tina are a bit more headstrong and brutal. And when they're not leaping around the volleyball court with seamless realism, they're adjusting their bikinis, rolling around on deckchairs sunning themselves and hopping across swimming pools. Ignoring the question of how "sad" it is, we haven't seen much more realistic character movement in a sports game, or indeed any other game. To put it into perspective, the CG cut scenes look less realistic.
And then there are the environments. In stark contrast to the elegance of the ladies, some (like the casino) have a pre-rendered, Resident Evil-esque feel to them, and some are basically just fancy parallax scrolling. The jungle court, for example, feels totally out of place. The barefoot, swimsuit-clad ladies of DOA feel somewhat alien as they prance around on a floor of fallen greenery, with several rows of lush foliage offering up the illusion of depth. Other stages though, like the many beaches, either do a better job of masking the effect or don't even rely on it - and like Sega's Beach Spikers and Virtua Fighter 4 snow stages, the way the sand parts beneath each of the ballers' feet is a nice touch which adds plenty to the overall aesthetic.
But it's the little details which make the difference, like the way Tina stretches her quads at the start of a match, or Hitomi leans on her knees before receiving a serve, and the emotive juxtaposition of heartfelt celebration and frustration. It may be a very voyeuristic game, with L selecting various pervy camera angles and R zooming in unashamedly on the "vital areas", but Tecmo has had no problem creating some of the most sumptuous, lifelike character animation ever witnessed.
The audio side of things complements the game's aesthetic admirably to boot. Tecmo hasn't bothered to change the Japanese voiceovers, which is vastly preferable in our minds to cheesy American nobodies vomiting the uninspired scripting at one another, and there's a custom soundtrack option - which, unless you like Spice Girls B-sides, B*witched and the Baha Men's other songs, you'll want to be using.
The game bit
DOAX's main problem though is how much like a tech demo it feels at times. Despite the complexity of the visuals, the actual volleyball is surprisingly simplistic, and the inclusion of a bizarre float-hopping mini-game and a casino full of slot machines and card games is disconcerting. Windows 3.11 onwards has come with a perfectly decent complement of card games, ta, and if we wanted to play Blackjack with girly playing cards, we'd buy some.
Out on the courts, it's equally underwhelming to start with. Whereas Beach Spikers took many hours to learn and many more to perfect, Tecmo is happy with receive and shot buttons and not much else. On the defensive side of things, B will tee it up for your partner and A will return directly, and on the offensive, B performs a looping shot (useful for beating jumping blocks) and A performs a spike. The camera is as peculiarly unconcerned with giving you the best view as Beach Spikers', but on the whole the game starts and ends with setting the ball and spiking it, so it isn't so much of a problem as it was with Sega's more intricate baller.
The subtlety, they say, is in the timing. If you go for a spike, holding the analogue stick and hitting A can produce a wide variety of attacks depending on the precise split-second you do it. However in practise, you'll find that spikes are as spikes do - concentrating on the most effective timing is a bit silly when 90 per cent of the time you'll see it returned. You're better off trying to overwhelm the opposition by receiving skilfully, or faking out their blocks with a looping shot.
In contrast to spiking itself, it's usually pretty easy to block or receive effectively. Stand in a reasonably empty bit of court with your teammate on the opposite side, and hit the B button as soon as an opponent spikes and your character will receive comfortably or dive to make up the difference. If you dive, most of the time you won't get up quickly enough for your teammate to set your spike, so the idea is to receive comfortably, set and then spike effectively. Given the ease of control, rallies can last for stupid amounts of time, and you'll feel genuinely aggrieved or exhilarated depending on the outcome. And not just because of the sexy ladies…
For us, the volleyball in DOAX is simple enough to pick up and play that you'll treat it a bit like a pickup game of FIFA or NHL. What's more, winning is worth plenty of cash and if you really do want that skimpy, gun-holstered spotted white bikini or a purple one-piece then there's even more incentive.
One of the key reasons that the game is so accessible is the quality of the AI - even if it's not immediately obvious. As you start to play more and more, you'll have to bribe your fellow holiday-goers to partner with you, and work hard to win those games or you may end up partner-less, but on the court as well there's a definite issue of morale to contend with. It's not just that you lose composure after losing a couple of points either - it's the circumstances that make the difference. If your teammate slams a perfectly good spike into the net, or you completely misjudge a lofted serve, you may well find the next serve banging into your slumped head to compound your misery, unless you keep moving, and, likewise, a particularly cogent duo will sometimes be reinvigorated enough to overcome early deficits.
There's a very noticeable difficulty curve too. As you start out, serves are underarm, a lot of points go awry on both sides of the net and things are generally sloppy. By the end of your first virtual week on Zack Island though, served balls are being thrown into the air and whipped across the net like tennis balls, and the level of skill on both sides makes for some intense rallies. Coupled with the way morale is handled, it's quite compelling - as long as you're actually after the next swimsuit or DOA2 trailer.
However, good though the AI is, we're certainly happy to take issue with the idea that DOAX encourages 'notions of sisterhood', which is an argument we've seen bandied around. We seriously doubt that young ladies anywhere will be enticed by this bunch of scantily clad, bribe-driven, twenty-something bimbos whose response to failure is a petulant tantrum. If that's the world of women today then I'm glad I moved to Brighton. Anybody who tries to argue the merits of DOAX as a sort of virtual feminist retreat either has a loose grip on reality, or a firm grip on his penis.
As we said at the start, DOAX was always going to polarise opinion, but ultimately the entire reward structure is based around the collection of skimpy clothing, accessories and peculiar merchandise. If you harbour kleptomaniacal tendencies and find curvy polygons racier than we do, then the increasingly repetitive bouts of volleyball and weakness in the rest of the package won't bother you. However, if the screenshots peppered around this page don't summon a nod from the little general, and all you wanted was a decent volleyball sim, then we implore you to go elsewhere. DOAX is the mindless, arcade alternative to Beach Spikers, and some semblance of AI and mini-game distractions aren't enough to justify Ł40 - only a frank admission of wankerdom really manages it.