Summary: Dead or Alive 4 has brilliant graphics and a sophisticated fighting engine that is sure to satisfy even the most passionate of players. But is any fun? Find out inside. Part 2 of 3 of a series on videogame journalism.
Dead or Alive 4 (Xbox 360)
SIDEBAR: We use an Epiphan VGA2USB for these screenshots
Taking a cue from the great martial arts films of in history, it is possible to catch your opponent's punch or kick and to use it against him or her. In the game, a counter often does substantially more damage than a standard attack with extra points being awarded for better timing. The difficulty is predicting the opponent's attack and timing your counter. This produces a very challenging and varied experience where it is crucial that your attacks remain unpredictable, making it difficult for your opponent to compete, and where it's also crucial to be familiar enough with your opponent's fighting style so that you can time your holds and counters appropriately.
In the previous version of Dead or Alive, the ability to counter an attack was too easy. You could win an entire battle simply by trying to counter every move. This encouraged "button mashing" where you would simply hope that the random inputs would somehow prevent your opponent from appropriately timing his counter. In Dead or Alive 4, the window of opportunity to pull of a counter is substantially less. Timing needs to be almost perfect. Due to the difficulty, you'll end up only using one or two counters per battle. Adding to the difficulty of the game is that it is an exceedingly fast game, perhaps the fastest of any fighter. This means that not only do you need to perfectly time your counter for it to be effective, but the rate at which opportunities arise and disappear is exceptionally fast.
Additionally, each fighting level has either an interactive component such as electrified walls and speeding cars, or multiple levels, where it's possible to throw or kick your opponent through a window, or off a bridge.
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The clip above takes place shortly after Kasumi (in blue and white) has kicked Ayane (in purple) off a bridge. Kasumi drops down and immediately does a two-hit combo kick, timing the attack perfectly just as Ayane is about to get up. This sends Ayane flying back. Kasumi chases after Ayane and attempts to throw another kick, however Ayane is able to counter the move and catch Kasumi's kick, using the momentum to throw Kasumi. Ayane attempts to make an attack from behind, but Kasumi is able to get back up quickly enough to strike back. All that happens in 5 seconds.
If you have the critically fast reflexes to play the game, everything happens appropriately. On the other hand, given the speed with which things happen, it's easier to just start pressing all the buttons together with the hope that one of your attacks will hit. Can you really develop enough skill to time the holds/counters when things move that fast? With practice, yes.
However, the problem with Dead or Alive 4 is that it was playtested by the championship players of Japan. The game is very difficult. The general consensus is that DOA4 in "Normal difficulty" (there's nothing easier) is tougher than the Very Hard difficulty of DOA3. It's not so much that the championship players were from Japan, but imagine if a FPS was playtested using Thresh or Fatal1ty to make sure it provides sufficient challenge. Fortunately, I had a lot of initial incentive to play through the game:
The story mode of DOA4 involves fighting 8 opponents with increasing difficulty. Along the way, you'll have mini-cutscenes which provide an underlying storyline to the game. Don't expect something like Amped or Need for Speed though, the storylines aren't much more sophisticated than Street Fighter II's. The ending CG videos are always well rendered although the content is hit or miss. Tecmo has taken a "Animatrix" approach to the ending videos and have contracted the production to various Japanese studios. It's an eclectic group of CG studios, most of which I had never heard of (Dynamo Pictures, Omnibus Japan, Studio Linda, Taiyo Kikaku, N-Design).
For a skilled player, going through 8 characters can be done in under 10 minutes. You can unlock SPARTAN-458 in less than 3 hours. For the novice, however, it's substantially more difficult. I'm a novice -- I never played DOA3 beyond the first week of release and so it took me about 6 hours to complete.
Those 6 hours were enlightening.
The other advantage was that playing through all of the characters really solidified the sense that each character is unique. Traditionally, the characters in the Dead or Alive series have been very similar. This was far from the case. Each has their own unique personality and fighting style – it's probably as diverse a group of fighters as Street Fighter II once was. With all the main characters unlocked, I could finally figure out which character would match my gaming style the best and go from there.
SIDEBAR: In addition to the story mode, you have a tag team mode, time attack mode, and versus mode.
Dead or Alive 4 is only a game you can appreciate if you're willing to put in the time. It takes at least 6 hours of game time before you even begin to understand which character you will make your favorite. You’re looking at another 6 hours before you even become a decent player. Of course, it took dozens more hours for us to be good at Street Fighter II…
The online support in Dead or Alive 4 attempts to mimic the arcade scenario. A lot of your time is spent watching other people play as you "wait your turn" in the lobby. This is great in capturing the community feeling but it's a problem when you just want to get in and play. Likewise, although it's theoretically possible to watch battles to learn strategy, things move so quickly that it's hard to learn anything vicariously. You have to play the game to develop skills. Online victories give you an opportunity to expand your lobby and change your avatar as well as help you to purchase new costumes for your characters.
The sound effects and music aren't particularly memorable. They're pretty much par for the course. Load times are exceptionally fast. It takes only 4 to 5 seconds between each level.
Balanced gameplay: Each character is unique and when skilled players are involved, no individual character is disproportionately balanced.
6 hour initial investment: In order to appreciate the game, you really have to play the game through each character once and this will take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours for an average player. That's a lot of time to be suffering through. Many of you won't have the motivation to go through the process. For me, unlocking SPARTAN-458 for the review was enough.
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