Inside Pulse 12

Review: Dead or Alive 4 (XB 360)


Dead or Alive 4
Genre: Fighting.
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Release Date: 12/29/05

This is probably going to be the hardest review I ever write.

See, I’m a fan of Team Ninja. I loved DOA 2, I loved DOA 3, I loved DOAU, I loved Ninja Gaiden, hell, I thought DOAX was entertaining, as an actual game. Team Ninja really knows how to make a cinematic experience, and the style they infuse into their games is something I’m always highly impressed by. Are the games really awesome pieces of work? With the exception of Ninja Gaiden, not really. Am I terribly impressed by the seriously unrealistic characters or the “jiggle”? Not terribly. But they genuinely seem to enjoy making their games, and for the most part, when I sat down with their games, I could feel it, and in return, enjoy the games myself.

Not this time.

Maybe it was the month of delays. Maybe it was the unreasonable expectation that a game renowned for its awesome visuals should look better, somehow, than it actually does. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone I know who’s played it refuses to play it any more, after mere days of owning it. Or maybe it’s the fact that there are distinctly times that the game feels belligerent, like the creators said, “We don’t care if you’re enjoying yourself, we just want you to have to work for every single thing in this game, whether you want to or not.”

Regardless, if you’re one of the numerous people out there who feels the game is a perfect ten or what have you, just close the window. Unlike DOA4, I’m going to be fair, but much like said game, I ain’t gonna be kind.


1. STORY/GAME MODES


So, this time around, the Mugen Tenshin Ninja clan is tired of the abuse they’re taken at the hands of DOATEC, and they’ve decided to bring the pain to DOATEC’s door. Hayate and Ayane, with Ryu Hayabusa in tow, intend to tear down the corporation brick by brick if needed, so that they can finally live in peace. Kasumi, runaway kunoichi and estranged sister of Hayate and Ayane, does not wish for this to take place, of course (she just wants to forget about all of the pain and suffering), and moves to try and stop them, if possible. Meanwhile, Helena, the new owner/operator of DOATEC, is having problems of her own with the head scientist Donovan, as Donovan is trying to unleash his latest and most dangerous Kasumi clone, Alpha 152, onto the world. And then there’s the matter of Zack…

The story this time around is much more fleshed out as opposed to previous titles in the series, which is certainly a good thing. Unfortunately, most of the game itself does little to inform you as such. Most of the characters have one or two minor cinematic intermissions that really don’t do much to flesh out their story, and several of the character endings not only don’t have anything to do with their backstory at all, they don’t even make any sense. Kasumi’s ending, for example… look, she’s a tragic character, that’s pretty damn obvious, and she plays a very important role in the fall of DOATEC. So… her ending is… I can’t even describe it. It’s pure fanservice, has nothing whatsoever to do with her as a character, and exists to show off what Team Ninja can do with computer rendering and naked skin. Hey, guys, good job, but what the hell does this have to do with the story? Leave the fanservice to Lei Fang and Hitomi… oops, never mind, you did.

On the other hand, I loved the endings for Zack (always funny) and Jann Lee (which gives respect to Bruce Lee, as it should), but then, they’re not main characters, so you can do with them whatever you wish.

Also, according to interviews with Tomonobu Itagaki, the series’ creator… Ayane killed Genra, but Helena was the winner of the DOA 3 tournament. This is wonderful (if confusing) and all, but it’s in direct contradiction to DOAX, which stated Zack won the tournament (which Team Ninja has since changed their mind about). Okay, but who’s counting DOAX as continuity, right? Well, Team Ninja, because they specifically reference Zack Island in the manual.

And this is why I don’t read comic books anymore; I hate continuity problems and ret-conning.

Regarding the gameplay modes… did you play DOA 3? Add online play to the mix, and you’ve got DOA 4. Did you play DOAU? Flesh out the online play and you have DOA 4. Nothing new has been added since DOAU, only upgraded and advanced. That’s fine, and I’m okay with this mostly, but considering what Namco did with Soul Calibur 3, I was looking for a little more, I think. There’s a lot to do, as always, and your standard Story battles, Time Attack, Tag battles, Team battles, Sparring (practice), and Survival modes are all readily available from the get go. Online play features all sorts of interesting match types as well (including Single, Tag, and Team battles) and modifiers to those matches (Winner and loser stays variants, as well as “Kumite”, which has one player taking on all comers, win or lose). I just can’t help but feel that there should be more, somehow, especially since, aside from online play, this is all stuff that’s been in the series since DOA 2 on the Dreamcast. DOA fans will still love what’s here, but those that are tiring of the series won’t find anything new to suck them back in.

Story Rating: 2/5
Game modes Rating: 3/5


2. GRAPHICS


The graphics in DOA 4 are certainly very pretty, but from what I’ve seen out of the 360 so far, they’re not the best to come from the system. The character models retain their flair and personality, but also retain their “Barbie Doll” appearance, and they tend to look very close to the character models seen in DOAU or DOAX. Since DOA 4 was meant originally to be an Xbox title, this isn’t surprising, but it is a little bit of a letdown. The game environments vary in appearance; some are exceptionally attractive, and seem to take advantage of the power of the console (Nassau Station), while others (The Lost World) don’t look as good as one would expect. The character animations, of course, are as good as they’ve ever been, and all of the new animations added to the game are smooth and clean. Fights flow smoothly, and still retain their cinematic flair, which has always been what attracted me to the series, personally.

It bears noting, unfortunately, that clipping is still a problem here, and while it’s less of an issue here than in previous games, it’s still notable. The new hair effects that are in the game look impressive for about ten seconds, then it looks like spaghetti rolling across a teflon pan. Characters will be static while their hair jerks and flows without reason, and again, while it’s a small complaint, it’s a little jarring seeing it in the in-game cinematics and winning poses (you won’t really see it in battle, for obvious reasons). These issues aside, DOA 4 is certainly one of the better looking games on the 360, and while I can’t say it’s the best looking game available, it’s certainly the best animated, which is really more important that resolution or clipping in this case.

Graphics Rating: 7/10


3. SOUND

DOA 4’s music is the standard expected fair, with techno synths and some occasional instrumental riffs here and there. For pre-rendered cinematics, several bands and musicians have been drafted to provide actual songs, some vocalized, others not. The songs are of variable quality; some, like Jann Lee’s ending track, are quite nice, while others, like Christie’s… well, I’m glad I never have to listen to that again. Also, I still don’t get Team Ninja’s obsession with Aerosmith, but it’s their game, so whatever floats their boat. Once again, you can listen to your own custom soundtracks while you play, which I have to say I’ve never appreciated more. There’s nothing quite so fun as bashing someone’s face in while listening to Sevendust or Machines of Loving Grace.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I would advise not trying to kick ass to Savage Garden. It doesn’t work so well. Just trust me on that, okay?

The voice acting is as solid as it’s ever been, and the new voice actors are just as good in their roles as the old guard they’re joining, so you’ll have no complaints there… well, almost. See, the voice acting is entirely Japanese, which will appeal to fans of the series I’m sure, except for the voice acting of Nicole, AKA SPARTAN-458 (you have to write it in caps or it doesn’t work), which is in English. That’s… a little confusing at times, I have to admit. I’m also a little bummed out that there isn’t a separate English language track, or even better, a recording set that has everyone speaking their native language (Lei Fang speaking in Chinese, Helena speaking French, etc), ala Kakuto Chojin. I’m not going to hold my breath for that one, mind you, but it’d be cool to see… er, hear… you get the point. No points off for that one.

As far as the sound effects go, punching someone in the face sounds like punching someone in the face. That’s all I want, that’s what they gave me, I’m a happy boy.

Sound Rating: 7/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


If you’ve ever played a DOA game you’ll be right at home. Punch, Kick, Throw, and “Free” are mapped right to the face, and all are self explanatory, save the Free button. Free acts like a block button (though you can still block by pressing back if desired), but when you press it and a direction, your character will attempt a counter, which turns your opponent’s move around on them. Movement is mostly in 3D, and is fairly easy to work with. Indeed, the controls are as solid as they’ve always been, and with the exception of a few modifications, should be easy for old and new players alike to jump right into.

Returning players will notice, besides from some modified moves on their favorite characters, that some minor tweaks have been made to the gameplay. The first, and most noteable, change is that Counter timing has been reduced; you now have about half of the time you used to have for counters to take effect (about a second or so), which makes countering a more precise science. You’ll either love or hate this change, depending on your play style (I honestly didn’t really notice the difference). One thing I will say about it is that it serves to increase the gap between good and bad players, as those who can master the timing on counters are absolutely deadly against those that can’t. On the other hand, button mashing has indirectly become less useful as a result, so that should also be taken under consideration.

A second change to the counter system comes from Forward + Free as a viable counter motion. Originally, Back/Up-Back/Down-Back and Free would perform counters at the appropriate height, which was easy to work with. Now, to counter mid level and jumping kicks, you MUST press Forward and Free to do so, which also serves to make countering harder to do against mid-range attacks (high and low attacks still work with Up/Down-Back and Free, regardless of type). Unlike the adjusted counter timing, I’m not terribly thrilled with this change, because I honestly can’t understand the reasoning behind it. It’s silly and somewhat unnecessary, and I’m not entirely certain what the point of such a change was.


Tag Battles have also been changed slightly; when on the same team as another player, your partner must now tag in, when in previous games you were expected to tag out. This makes performing combos easier with two players than it used to be, and allows your partner to pay attention to your life meter instead of forcing you to do so, but it’s also been made harder to tag in (you either have to have knocked your opponent down or be outside of a certain range to simply tag out as normal), I suppose to compensate.

Otherwise, the game plays as it always has, though environments now play more of a role in combat than they did in previous games. Characters can now be knocked over walls and obstacles, and your characters can not only vault and attack off of those same obstacles, but also off of walls and such. This brings more depth to the actual fighting, though most of the time you won’t interact with the environment enough to care. Also of note is that the new characters (Eliot, who is a student of Gen-Fu, and thus plays like him; Kokoro, a geisha in training who fights similar to Akira from Virtual Fighter; La Mariposa, a masked wrestler with a “secret” identity… yeah right… who fights like a combination between Eddy Gordo and Rey Mysterio; and Nicole, the time traveling ass kicking Spartan who fights like Bayman) play just as solid as the older ones, so players shouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to them. All of your personal favorite game modes have returned as well, and since they all basically boil down to “hit people until you win/lose”, they’re all as solid as they’ve ever been.

Online play is highly stable, and quite a lot of fun if you like it, and there are, as mentioned above, all sorts of interesting match types and stipulations players can work with. Hosting your own game and joining games is a snap, and the game is pretty good about pairing you off with players of equivalent rank to your own, so unless you purposely hunt down better or worse players, you won’t have any problems finding a reasonable challenge. You can also putter around the lobbies of players that have arranged competitions, though once you agree to join the fight, you can’t stay in the lobby. It’s cute to see your little ninja or alligator or whatever making faces at people while he/she watches battles on a TV, but it’s really only there to be cute and doesn’t really do much. You can also earn money by fighting online battles, which can be used to upgrade your avatar and your lobby, though you only win cash as you win battles, and even then, you don’t earn that much cash on a battle by battle basis. Thus, winning consistently earns you more cash, and as a result, a more pimped out lobby. Combined with the multitude of Achievements that can be unlocked simply for being a good player, and you can see that Team Ninja went out of their way to prove that they believe “to the winner go the spoils”.

Outside of online and versus play, however, you’ll have to face down the computer, and that’s when things start going south. Team Ninja, for whatever reason, has decided that it’s time to show their fans some “tough love” by directly catering to the hardcore fans. Part of this was done by changing the counter system around, which is (arguably) for the better. The OTHER part of this is done by entirely excising “Easy” difficulty from the game. Yes, that’s right, there’s no Easy difficulty option available for new or unskilled players; you get to start tearing into the game on “Normal” or you don’t play. Actually playing against the computer is frustrating at first, and while skilled players will be able to work with the difficulty, new players won’t learn anything from the variably cheap AI except how to string together curse words into a symphony of profanity. I’ve watched as the computer countered three attacks in a row (thrown at different heights, just to make it more insulting) and wiped a player out cold; I’ve seen the computer counter the first attack in the round, regardless of height, multiple times; and, my favorite, I’ve seen ten hit launch-juggle combos more times than I care to count. Players will find themselves having to learn how to play as characters they have NO INTEREST in EVER PLAYING, just to complete the game with them and be done with it. No offense folks, but I never want to play as Bayman again as long as I live; being forced to learn how to play as someone I don’t like is, frankly, a waste of time, and not at all fun, but it’s pretty much a requirement if you want to unlock ANYTHING in the game.

By the way, the fact that there still isn’t a way to counter/reverse/avoid juggles is, by this point in the series, absolutely absurd, considering how many times I’ve watched someone get their life bar halved by one juggle combo. Just saying.

And, since we’re talking about the CPU AI, hey, let’s talk about Alpha-152. Alpha-152 is the final boss of the game, borne from Kasumi’s DNA and some of that green slime from your old Ninja Turtles playsets. She’s see-through, nekkid, and oh yeah, cheap as the day is long. Remember Heihachi’s crusty dad from Tekken 5? Abyss from Soul Calibur 3? Genra from DOA 3? Not even in the same league. The only fighting game boss I’ve ever faced that was worse was the Dark Champion from Eternal Champions CD, and only because you have to fight him four times in a row on one life bar, no continues. Three different virtually unstoppable grapples that do around (and for one, OVER) half your life in damage, fifteen-hit combos, and, oh yeah, the ability to teleport, at any time, for any reason, to anywhere in the stage. I swear, I can literally feel the mozzarella oozing out of the microphone port as I play. Look, I don’t get the attraction to overly cheesy final bosses in fighting games; getting destroyed by the final boss until I figure out a way to cheap it out isn’t fun, it’s lame.

The worst part of all of this is that, aside from bragging rights, there’s no real impetus to improve your skills beyond the minimum required to beat the game. DOAU offered different unlockables at each difficulty; beat the game on Easy to get some costumes, Normal for others and a few new characters, and Hard for the rest of the costumes. It was a solid, well-structured system that challenged you to improve if you wanted, and rewarded you for doing so. In DOA 4, everything can be unlocked from Normal difficulty, so there’s no reason to improve beyond that, and there’s no Easy difficulty to ease into, so you’re forced to get good, but not THAT good.

Bottom line: DOA 4 plays like DOA with some changes that may or may not agree with you. You can certainly have some fun playing the game, especially against other people. But playing against the computer, especially for unskilled players, is an exercise in frustration, and even if you’re good, you’re still going to have some problems. There’s no way to ease into it, which is honestly a seriously ridiculous omission, and honestly keeps what should have been a major system seller from being worth it to casual or new players. Caveat Emptor.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 6/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Well, I keep coming back to it, and I’m not all that thrilled with the game, so if that doesn’t say something, nothing does. There are a ton of unlockables in the game, including costumes, characters, announcers (I have Bass as my announcer, FYI, because it’s funny), and even a couple hidden stages, if you’re committed enough to get them all. There aren’t as many unlockable extras as in DOA2LE or DOAU, of course, but I’m trusting Team Ninja will most likely offer up downloadable content in the future to remedy that. You can post your best Survival and Time Attack scores on the network, and of course, there’s always online play to have fun with.

But I have one issue with DOA 4 I’ve never had with the replayability of previous games, and once again, it has to do with the difficulty. One of my favorite things to do with the game was to bust it out when friends are over, and play two-player tag battles against the computer. As the game is now unmerciful to unskilled players, without question and exception, this effectively removes a large portion of what made me come back to previous entries. Indeed, if all you want to do is pop the game in and mess around, that’s simply no longer an option… you need to bring some skill to the table each and every time you play, or you’re going to get owned. As I quite enjoyed just popping in previous entries in the series and mashing someone into Ragu, I have to honestly say that after unlocking everything, DOA 4 won’t be spending much more time in the 360, unless someone forces me to play in a tournament or something.

Replayability Rating: 6/10


6. BALANCE


Yeah, you’re funny.

Online, balance issues are largely minimal, though certain characters seem dramatically over-or-underpowered. Characters like Ayane and La Mariposa offer more versatility and ease of use to players, whereas block of meat characters (my term for big slow characters, see Zangief) like Leon and Bayman largely rely on grapples and counters to survive matches, and will require skilled players to use them effectively. Also, Nicole seems fairly limited to me, mainly because she has less than half of the move options available that most characters do (and almost no high/low combos), but other people have said she’s uber cheap, so I’ll leave that one up to you.

Offline, forget about it. Half-hour long boss battles aside, the computer makes it plainly apparent that it’s reading your button maps, especially when playing against block of meat characters. The default difficulty setting, “Normal”, is harder than Normal difficulty in previous DOA games (I compared it to DOAU and DOA3, just to check), and Very Hard is a complete counter-fest from the word go. When you’re playing as characters you’re skilled with, you’ll be okay, but if you’re trying to learn a character, or god forbid, play the game for the first time, you’re going to get mutilated.

And as far as Alpha 152 is concerned, I’ve said my piece about that already, so I simply will reiterate: every time I see her, I expect to see “Velveeta” stamped on her forehead.

Balance Rating: 4/10


7. ORIGINALITY

Back when DOA 2 came out, in the early days of the Sega Dreamcast, it was new and hip and revolutionary and different. Now, five games later… it’s still that same DOA. They’re changed the timing on counters and upped the difficulty, but there’s absolutely nothing here you haven’t seen in every other game prior to this one. The four “new” characters are hardly original either; a Halo character, Haley Joel Gen-Fu, Akira with girl parts, and a character from previous Team Ninja games does not original characters make. Christie, Brad Wong, and Hitomi were new and different; La Mariposa, Kokoro, Nicole and Eliot, not so much. And as the final boss is basically the love child of Kasumi and Dural (or, alternatively, naked Gashapon Kasumi variant #4), we’re pretty much at the point where Team Ninja isn’t even trying anymore, and thus, the score reflects this.

Originality Rating: 1/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

How addicted you become to DOA 4 depends on how good you are, honestly. If you can hang with the difficulty and occasionally cheap AI, or of you can forgive that its sins and stick to playing online, you’ll have a lot of fun with it. If you can’t, then you’ll hate the experience and won’t want to keep playing. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll be more inclined to stick with it, obviously, but the game will offer no quarter, so new players may find themselves becoming less and less interested with every match. If you can stick with it, there’s a good time to be had, but that’s going to be a tall order for a lot of people.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Old school DOA fans will, of course, absolutely love DOA 4. Hardcore fighting game fans will also get a great deal of amusement out of this one. Unfortunately, the game has now changed its focus, so while the game will no longer appeal to casual fans of fighters, or DOA for that matter, it WILL appeal to those that condemned the game for being little more than a poor man’s Virtua Fighter. The truly hardcore will find lots to love about this new game, no doubt, but if you just want to pick DOA 4 up and enjoy it off the bat, forget about it. Unless you’re already a skilled player, you’re going to have to commit time to learning the game if you want to win at ALL, let alone online. If you don’t want to spend hours getting your ass handed to you by the computer just to learn how to play the game, you’re not going to have any fun here.

Appeal Rating: 6/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


So, after all of the above, what’s my personal opinion? Aside from the fact that I’d sooner have seen Rachel from Ninja Gaiden as a playable character than who we got?

Well…

DOA 4 is ultimately going to end up being a $60 coaster for me.

See, you know how I do all that complaining about a lack of online features? And how I condemned Soul Calibur 3 for not having any online play, or how I bashed Marvel Nemesis for offering very limited online options? Right, well, I have a little bit of a confession to make: I don’t actually LIKE playing games online all that much. I mean, absolutely, games should HAVE these features, but I don’t personally enjoy partaking in them myself.

And herein lies my problem: I enjoy playing this game with my friends. My friends have played against the computer, and have become disgusted with the game, especially because we can’t play Tag Battles any more. I have pushed myself to the point where I can absolutely SMITE the game with Ayane (though I can no longer play as her against my friends if I wish to continue our friendship), and have become sick of playing the game against the computer. As I don’t want to play online, and my friends won’t play the game any more, there’s really no reason for me to like a game I have no use for, is there?

And, to bring this full circle, an Easy difficulty setting would have completely invalidated this entire section. I’d be loving this game, playing it with friends, and enjoying myself, and not hating this $60 coaster, and you wouldn’t be sitting there right now thinking I just can’t play it right or something. Being able to play the game right and enjoying the game are two different things. If I can do one, but not the other, then am I wrong for not liking it, or conversely, thinking others might not like it? I doubt it.

Come on Team Ninja. You released Ninja Gaiden to critical acclaim, lots of people bought it, and a small, but vocal, group of fans bitched that the game was “too damn hard” (I wasn’t among that group, as I just sucked it up and made myself beat it). So a year later, you released a new version of the game with “Ninja Dog” mode, which indirectly insulted the player for being unskilled, but actually made the game manageable for a lot of players.

And now, you release DOA 4, and once again, some players are mentioning that hey, the game’s a bit too hard for them (though lord knows reviewers aren’t). And this isn’t an action game like Ninja Gaiden, where you can repeat sections you screw up until you get them right; this is a fighting game, where timing is key, and fighting the default difficulty is like ramming your face into a wall.

At what point did pissing off part of your fanbase seem like a good idea? Did it not occur to you, maybe, that you were going to have the exact same problem all over again? What, did you think you could release “DOA 4 Black” in a year and sell that like gangbusters because it has “Easy” difficulty attached?

Please.

And this isn’t even bringing up all of the glitches I keep hearing about… people’s save files deleted for no discernable reason, bugs in the online rankings (going from C to F- in one session, registering as having 99,999 disconnects, etc)… after a month of delays from the originally announced release date, I’m honestly surprised that I’m hearing so many complaints of bugs so soon after launch. Maybe I shouldn’t be.

Point being: You guys are good at the game, nifty. You BUILT the game, I should hope you’re good at it. And I’m not even pointing fingers at the juvenile subject matter, or the inability you seem to have to allow the series to mature and stop being about T+A. An Easy difficulty, something that’s been in the game series since the original DOA, was just too much for you to consider? You’re assuming that your fans will just suck it up and get better because they love your games that much?

Hey, I can actually play the game, but after this, I don’t want to anymore. Consider me a customer lost, Mr. Itagaki. I’m sure someone else will be happy to buy DOAX2, and I’m sure my money won’t be missed.

Miscellaneous Rating: 1/10

The Scores:
Story: 2/5
Game modes: 3/5
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 7/10
Control/Gameplay: 6/10
Replayability: 6/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 1/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 1/10

Overall Score: 4.8/10
Final Score: 5.0 (AVERAGE).

Short Attention Span Summary
If you like DOA, you’ll like DOA 4. This review wasn’t written for the fans or for the hardcore players. But the game is belligerently difficult for inexperienced players, and considering it’s the 6th version of what is essentially the exact same game, warts and all, no one who’s getting tired of DOA is going to fall in love all over again with this release. If you’re on the fence, rent it, or better yet, wait for Virtua Fighter 5.