Dead Or Alive 4
Developer: Team Ninja | Publisher: Tecmo | Release Date: 2005 | Genre: Beat ‘Em Up | Website: N/A | Purchase: Amazon
If you have been following the rather convoluted Dead Or Alive storyline you’ll know that in virtually every game the goal is to win a martial arts tournament and squaring off against some superhuman fighter at the end. Dead Or Alive 4 makes no attempt to change this formula so once again it’s your chosen character against the rest before a showdown with “Alpha 152” which is the latest project courtesy of Dr. Victor Donavan. There are some other plot elements like the Mugen Tenshin ninja clan vowing revenge against DOATEC, the company now under control of Helena, but since the game does not bother much with it, neither will I. The important questions are, how does the first Xbox 360 fighting game fare against its predecessors and how well does it usher in a new generation of beat ’em ups.
The first thing anyone is going to notice about the game is the visuals so I might as well start off with it. At first glance, DOA4 looks absolutely breathtaking. The levels all consist of intricate background details and interactive elements. There is just so much to take in that you might just find yourself being beaten because you were distracted by the pretty visuals. Many of the levels are multi-tiered as well, so you have the pleasure of knocking people down steps or through glass. Then there are things like cars, wild animals and even dinosaurs that can knock over the characters, depending on the stage. The enclosed arenas are a little less spectacular but still look good and provide danger in the form of electrified barriers. There is no hint of slowdown either as fighters’ battle it out across the levels.
As for the fighters themselves, they are very smoothly animated and often wear very intricate costumes, but still retain that basic almost plastic look they had in past games. Due to the manga-style character designs I know that the characters are not meant to be ultra realistic but it still makes them look somewhat odd. There are also some clipping issues with the long flowing hair and clothes of some characters which might sound like nitpicking, but can be quite obvious, especially in the victory poses.
The game also features way less unlockable costumes for the characters than in the previous game. You can still expect an assortment of skimpy outfits for all the female characters as is normal for the series although the swimsuits are noticeably absent. The ranks of fighters have swelled with a few new faces; Kokora the geisha in training, Gen-Fu’s student Eliot and a female Mexican wrestler by the name of Lisa. In one of the worst kept secrets in gaming history there is also a female Spartan from the Halo universe hidden away in the roster. Like the iconic Master Chief she never reveals her face, but the armour is still pretty kick-ass. Once you are done gawking at the pretty visuals and “realistic” physics you will be able to see what game modes are on offer.
Story mode takes you through eight single round battles with the last being a fight against Alpha 152 which is basically a transparent, blue, glowing clone of Kasumi. With a couple of cheap moves that can easily deplete three quarters of your health bar before you even know what hit you, she takes her place amongst the ranks of horrible end game bosses. You need to complete story mode once to see the character endings and a few times more to unlock their costumes so good luck with her. Time Attack sees you trying to beat the game in the shortest time possible, but once again, Alpha 152 awaits you at the end to really mess up your times. Survival sees you facing off against a succession of opponents to see how long you can last. New fighters jump into the ring as soon as the previous ones are defeated, which is quite impressive. Then there are the Versus modes which are the real heart and soul of the game. On offer are both online and local fights against real opponents, which is what saves this game. Before you do anything, it is recommended you spend some time with the sparring mode, which is where you learn to master all the combos and counters. While button bashing can get you far, you will enjoy the game more if you know at least a few basic moves.
The controls are as simple as always with only a punch, kick, throw and “free” button. DOA veterans will know that the “free” button is what made the series notorious as it is used to counter attacks and turn them against opponents. The good news is that it is now a lot more complicated to pull off and require some actual skill in order to use effectively. The bad news, at least in single player modes is that this does not stop the CPU characters from spamming it. In fact, on “Normal” which is the lowest setting you will find that the majority of your moves are countered and most rounds lost only a few seconds. This can be very frustrating for newcomers and can taint initial impressions of the game. Add to this some inescapable combos where you are juggled all over the arena and a ferocious AI that veers wildly between countering everything you throw at it to turning into a punching bag and you are left with a rather disappointing experience if you lack friends, a second controller or Xbox Live subscription. DOA 4 almost goes out of its way to put off newcomers, which is a shame, as the game is a lot of fun when played against someone of equal skill. The problem is amplified even more in the tag-team modes where the CPU can pummel you into the ground while your button presses are as ineffectual as your slowly building rage. Impatient gamers or those with a heart condition might want to give this game a miss. All the pretty girls with their innocent looks might fool you into thinking that this is an easy title, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The audio is ok, but apart from the two Aerosmith tracks the rest of the tunes are fairly generic and unremarkable. There are some speech snippets as well, but it is all in Japanese apart from the phrases uttered by Nicole, the Spartan. A few in game cut-scenes are meant to flesh out the story, but while occasionally humorous, actually have very little to do with anything. Seeing a T-Rex get knocked out with an uppercut or two girls fighting over lettuce are just two examples. The endings are all CGI and while absolutely stunning also have very little to do with anything. In fact, most of them exist only to show off the female characters in the most revealing outfits possible. Some of them are just downright embarrassing to watch if you are over the age of thirteen.
With twenty-two playable characters and a variety of gameplay modes, there is plenty here to keep you busy. I found the game to be more fun while played in short bursts as the CPU can really spoil your day. The achievements add some longevity, but there is nothing really special to aim for. The versus and survival achievements can be a chore to get thanks to the last boss and the multi-player ones are online only. While there is a lot to praise about the game like the bright, vivid colours and smooth framerate, its far from perfect. In fact, in many ways Dead Or Alive Ultimate on the original Xbox hardware remains superior in some aspects. DOA4 might be an impressive debut for fighters on the 360 but hopefully things will get even better.
*Review originally published 2005.