In the hierarchy of videogame fighting titles, Team Ninja's Dead or Alive series (DoA) has always languished somewhere near the middle of the pack. Known more for its jaw-dropping visuals, scantily-clad female combatants, and the phenomena of "breast physics" than its fighting engine, the games have always been looked down upon by fans of loftier fighting series like Virtua Fighter, Soul Calibur, and even Tekken. However, that hasn't stopped the franchise from developing a loyal following. The striking graphics and the simplistic pick-up-and-play fighting mechanics (which have always been a button-masher's dream) had long been enough to make sure the titles sold—and sold well.
The first reaction I had after popping the disc into my Xbox 360 was that this looked a lot like Dead or Alive 3—only with sharper graphics. I'll admit, I was concerned by the revelation—particularly since I'd already splurged on a DoA expansion pack in the form of Dead or Alive Ultimate on the Xbox. Undaunted, and never one to judge a book solely by its cover, I played on. In doing so, I discovered that this isn't your father's Dead or Alive.
Sure, it looks like the same old thing on the surface (albeit with the aforementioned improved graphics). The game is gorgeous to look at, moves with the fluidity of water running down a hill, features all your favorite scantily-clad masturbatory fantasies, and has taken the art of bouncy videogame breasts to an entirely new level. Where it differs, however, is where it matters most: the fighting engine.
Long decried by the hardcore fighting game fans as overly simplistic, Team Ninja has taken a serious look at the core of the Dead or Alive series. The result is a complete overhaul of the game's fighting mechanics—so complete that even masters of the last iteration of the series will have to relearn their favorite characters to be effective in this new setting. While DoA 3 was mainly a gigantic counter-fest (thanks to the most generous counter window ever—blind monkeys with two fingers could have effectively hit the counter buttons in the time allowed in DoA 3), Dead or Alive 4 strips the game down to its most basic components and rebuilds it from scratch. The end result is a much deeper and far more satisfying combat experience.
This is not to say that button mashers can't pick up the game and have success with it—they can. In fact, countering is still a gigantic part of the game—so large that failing to learn to counter (yet playing a strategically sound mixture of offensive and defensive moves without just flailing on the controller blindly) will still often leave you with a loss against players who have no idea what they're doing. I know this from firsthand experience. However, button mashing isn't rewarded for long—the computer's artificial intelligence will put up with it for the first three or four matches in story mode or survival, then will pummel the button masher mercilessly from that point forward. Anyone who wants to experience the true depth of the game will be forced to learn the intricacies of this tweaked combat system.
Not only are the new counters harder to pull off, they've had their effectiveness reduced as well. In the previous game, counters flew fast and furious and could turn the tide of a battle that appeared to be all but over in the span of seconds. The counters can still turn the tide of a fight, but not quite as dramatically as they used to. Learning to use them will be essential, but to truly master the game players must also master combos, throws, ground attacks, and the various cancel moves. Each character's move-set has been upgraded dramatically—to the point where just mastering a few basic combo strings will keep the player going early on, but figuring out the more complex and arcane movements will be necessary to really excel at the combat. Anyone who goes into the game playing it like DoA 3 or Ultimate is in for a very rude awakening.
Graphically, the game is pretty. Character models have been updated and feature more polygons and visual flourishes than ever before—thanks to the 360's hardware—but they take a definite backseat to the game's environments. Yet, while the visuals have been improved (and the game blazes at a robust 60 frames per second), the characters still have a few problems. The most notable is that even with all this graphical horsepower, no one has yet mastered the art of making realistic looking human hair. This problem is particularly noticeable on the long-haired female characters—the ends of their silky locks fall like waterfalls, if the waterfalls were all brown or blonde and clumped together in odd chunks. It's a minor complaint, but it's worth noting. Everything else, though, is excellent on the visual front. Combos flow together seamlessly in their animations, and throws and grabs are free from any sort of graphical clipping. DoA 4 is certainly the first game to hint at what the next-gen graphics will be all about—and it's pretty exciting stuff.
For a simple fighting game, DoA 4 features a lot of things for players to do and see before they shelve it once and for all. Keeping with the 360 mantra of "gamer achievements," the title has 45 things for players to unlock to add points to their gamer score.
When players get tired of offline, they can take the game online and play head-to-head against other DoA fans around the globe through Xbox Live. DoA Ultimate was the first title in the series to take the game online, but the internet element was ultimately lacking. In keeping with the "upgrade everything" credo that Team Ninja has applied to this outing, a new online system has been implemented—for the better. Players can hang out in virtual lobbies and then make games with up to 16 people. It's sort of like a virtual arcade—two combatants go at it while others wait their turn, quarters lined up on the cabinet to denote who goes next. Winners stay, losers go to the back of the line. The online component is fast, fun, and had little to no lag. It can be customized in a number of different ways to suit each individual player's needs. It even has a ranking system based on player performance so you can tell at a glance if someone is an even match or way out of your league.
Simply put, Team Ninja deserves a truckload of praise for their work on this game. I've no doubt they could have pasted the DoA 3 engine into a game with sharper graphics and sold millions of copies. Rather than do that, they took a serious look at their game and committed themselves to making it better. The end result is not only the first next-gen fighting game, but one that has set the bar for everything that will come in its wake. No longer can gamers look at Dead or Alive as a series more interested in cheesecake characters and bouncing boobs (although, they're definitely still interested in that—some of the ending movies have to be seen to be believed…). While the game may not be as deep as Virtua Fighter 4, there's no denying it's a lot more involved and deep than previous iterations. Dead or Alive 4 isn't just another pretty face in the crowd—there's some depth lurking beneath the lovely veneer.