Review by honestgamer

"Now with jiggly sections. You know you like them."

Let's just come right out and face the truth: jiggling polygons move games from store shelves to the homes of 13-year-old male gamers everywhere. If the search for a female companion proves too difficult, or gets in the way of gaming a bit much, that phenomenon has no trouble adapting, until you see a game with record sales, something like Dead or Alive 3. And as long as those games sell, Team Ninja will keep right on making them. If you find this news spectacularly good, you'll love Dead or Alive 4, Tecmo's first project for the Xbox 360 platform. If you prefer fighters with depth over bounces, well, that's where the water grows murky.

Oh, wow… how can this look so good?!

The Xbox 360 is capable of pushing a lot of polygons. All at once. If you're a developer and you're so inclined, you can create character models that are jaw-dropping. The people at Team Ninja are developers, and Dead or Alive 4 proves they're so inclined. The first thing you'll notice when you play the game, even before you take in the amazing environments in their high-resolution glory, is how smoothly all of the characters move.

Kasumi has always been beautiful, with her blue ninja garb and that short skirt that doesn't quite hide her white undergarments. Her whole figure seems to be built with one thing in mind: raging hormones. So it is that the measure of a new Dead or Alive title's visual competence can be ascertained simply from one thing: Kasumi's sex appeal.

In this latest game, she moves like silk. This is how a ninja should move, free of the jerky movements in the past, those little hitches that pull you away from the experience and remind you that underneath it all, she's just a bunch of polygons. Don't get me wrong, though; the beauty doesn't stop there. Lei Fang is also back, and Christie, and Helena and… oh, you want the men, too? Well, they've also returned. Brad Wong is one of my favorites, even as I despise him. Get in a fight with the devious fiend and he'll put you at ease as he sways almost hypnotically, bottle of Kool-Aid in hand. Yet a swig of that sweet elixir and he weaves and bobs drunkenly. It's the most credible representation of the drunken fighting style I can recall ever seeing in a game.

Environments receive the same loving care, too. My favorite stages are the lush sequences, like when you're battling your way across a suspension bridge. Each fiber of each rickety board is rendered with spectacular detail. And when someone rolls over the edge of the gnarly rope and drops to the water far below, the splash is amazing and the rippling reflections are almost enough to make you forget that you're playing a fighting game. You just want to stop and stare at them (moreso if you have a high-definition television capable of displaying all of this to its fullest). There's one word for this game's visuals: wow.

That sounds… good.

It's a shame the same can't be said of the sound, though certainly Dead or Alive 4 is no slouch in that regard. If you were to ask me to give you a sense of how it plays out in the most general of sense, I'd have to say the audio here is like every other game you've ever played. There's a rolling thump going on in most of the music (can you tell I don't often critique game tunes) that gets the blood pumping but otherwise doesn't amount to much of anything.

Voice acting is on hand, of course. The characters speak in Japanese as you read the text, which is I suppose preferable to hearing some American delivery that stinks up the noise coming from your speakers. At least this way, the actors can do a horrible job and you'll never know better. Plus the hot chicks all sound like precisely that. They don't remind you of tired actresses who just stumbled onto the set to speak a few lines before heading on to pitch dishwasher detergent.

And I wish I could figure out some way to transition into this final point about the game's sound, but I really can't: it features Aerosmith. Yes, the band fronted by Steven Tyler. I like their music a lot, but the two choices that play here aren't among my personal favorites and they have little to do with the action you'll see on the screen as they play. I guess Tecmo should be commended for having the guts to go for licensed music, but that choice always carries with it a bit of baggage that some games don't ever overcome. Dead or Alive 4 makes a solid effort, but there's a problem when the music distracts you. That's what happens here.

This game plays me like a violin.

Alright, so the graphics are silky smooth and the sound department gets the job done. What about that gameplay? Well, it's like I already mentioned in my introduction: this is where it all gets murky.

On the one hand, you have roughly the same experience you've probably enjoyed in games like Dead or Alive 3. Characters move around the arenas, kicking and punching at one another when they're not busy throwing each other through windows, down stairs or off bridges and cliffs. They're also not afraid of the occasional grapple move, which adds a nice bit of variety to the proceedings. However, it's still quite simple to conquer this game through a familiar combination of button mashing and minimal talent.

The concept is as simple as you would expect from the genre: you need to hurt your opponent more than he (or often, she) hurts you. To do this, you start bashing the kick and punch buttons as you move in his or her general direction. This will generally lead to a successful victory because no one is going to do anything sissified like throwing a fireball. The engine seems to be built around close-quarters combat.

This becomes most readily apparent when you're going up against someone with some real oomph behind his kicks. There are really only two real fighting styles: kick the snot out of you, or give you a hug and squeeze that drains your life meter. The former is effective at steadily wearing down your hapless adversary's life meter, while the latter is trickier but more rewarding as a result. Most of those characters that I would define as “grapplers” can really lay the hurt on you if you let them get within range. There's little more frustrating than getting near to someone with plans to kick him into submission, then finding that he has grabbed you around the waist and is bench-pressing you for several seconds of life meter decimation. Oh yes, it happens.

Meanwhile, those who like to attack swiftly and then back away can quickly work through the rankings by doing precisely that. The most enjoyable of fights aren't a collision of the two fighting styles, but rather a meeting of two like-minded brawlers. Everything else comes down to that button mashing. If all else fails, you can just kick and punch your way to a victory. In some instances, it's possible to use just one move throughout a fight and win a perfect victory. Later matches, which can sometimes be difficult to the point of frustration, are just the opposite. Many a final encounter will find you defeated repeatedly as you try all manner of attacks against an opponent who just seems to come at you in a whirlwind of kicks and grapples you'll find nearly impossible to avoid. There's just not much in the way of balance.

Someone unattractive sings.

So that's what it all comes down to: the gameplay. You've got amazing visuals, sure, but a few years will take away their beauty when high-polygon fighters become the norm. You've got the sound, but let's face it: we've all heard better. There's the story, too, which ties all those plot strands together in a very satisfying and slickly produced fashion (think of it as a patchwork quilt of some of the best cut scenes you've ever seen). And you've got the gameplay, which is fun for a time but lacks the balance and addictive depth you might remember from a Tekken, a Virtua Fighter or even Street Fighter II. That's the bummer.

I can already hear people complaining, typing up little letters telling me that this isn't one of those games, this is Dead or Alive. And I can see the point. But ultimately, even though I find Kasumi just amazing to look at, even though I like me a little Aerosmith and even though the ability to chuck people through glimmering plates of glass hasn't gotten old, I can't help but think that the franchise should aspire to something better, something that will remain fun even when the visual polish loses its sparkle. I'll keep playing games like this if Team Ninja keeps making them, but I'm not sure I'll keep loving them. Try harder next time, guys. Prove it's not all about the graphics and the skin. You're good for it.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/29/06


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