Dead or Alive 4 is one of the must-have games for new Xbox 360 owners. Not only does this title feature stunning eye candy that'll make you feel like the AU$649 you just spent on the console was money well spent, but it's also a kick-ass fighting game that features compelling offline and online content.
DOA4 is by no means perfect. The lack of a comprehensive training mode makes it extremely difficult for newbies to pick up and play, there's no real persistent offline versus mode, and the game's visuals only really shine for those with HD televisions. Plus, if you're the politically correct type, DOA4's physical portrayal of its female characters, while true to the series, isn't exactly progressive. But for many, the good in this game will outshine the bad, and that's mainly thanks to its tight and honed gameplay which features plenty of variety.
Dead or Alive veterans will feel right at home with DOA4 -- many of the series' characters make a return in this latest instalment, sporting many of the same moves. There are four new characters thrown in to mix with the veterans -- Kokoro, a female fighter specialising in open palm fighting; Eliot, a student of series veteran Gen Fu; and La Mariposa, a female luchadora wrestler. The fourth addition is probably the one Xbox fans are most eager to see - Spartan 458 is essentially a female Master Chief and hails from the Halo world. Halo fans will geek out at seeing a fully-fledged Spartan in action well before the release of Halo 3.
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All of the series' trademarks, such as its unique Hold (counter) system and multi-layered environments, also make a return. But overall, DOA4 doesn't advance the series in any significant new directions -- some game mechanics have been tinkered with here and there, but those who played the series before will be able to jump straight in and enjoy the carnage.
The lack of innovation isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Dead or Alive's gameplay has long been one of the tightest on the fighting game block. Controls are deceptively simple -- there's a button for punch, kick and block, but there's enough offensive and defensive combinations present for each character that'll dazzle even the most hardened fight fan. Adding to that is DOA's Hold system, which allows you to counter any attack using a combination of the block button and the left thumbstick. It takes precise control to master, but it's practically a requirement as matches will often turn on one well countered move.
As has become standard for Dead or Alive games, all out attack is the best form of defence in DOA 4 -- those who rely too much on blocking or are overly hesitant are usually cruising for a bruising. The flipside, of course, is that button mashing attackers will find themselves owned by experienced players who will counter most moves. Those new to the series will probably find themselves mercilessly beaten by computer controlled opponents who, even at the lowest difficulty setting, exhibit some pretty advanced skills.
Compounding the steep learning curve for beginners is a lack of a comprehensive training mode. While DOA 4 features a sparring mode which does allow you to practise attacks and counters, there's no basic rundown of the game's mechanics (such as with Soul Calibur III's excellent training mode). New players are simply thrown in the deep end. Another glaring omission is the lack of a persistent offline versus mode, such as Virtua Fighter's Kumite series. But what it lacks offline is more than made up for when you take the game on Xbox Live.
Online is where the real action is. As in Dead or Alive Ultimate, DOA4 offers a variety of different online play variants, all centred on the concept of a virtual arcade. In the ancient days, when lots of people played fighting games in actual video arcades, there were fewer arcade machines than people, so you needed to wait your turn. All the anxious waiting around, as well as the thought of spending more quarters than you wanted to, gave you more incentive to win when your turn came up, which helped inspire fierce competition. DOA4 evokes this same feeling with its virtual arcade concept by letting up to 16 players compete in a single lobby. That's way too many people to wait around for in most cases, but if you set up or find a match with a limit of around three to five players, it's a great balance where players can catch a breather in between fights but never have to twiddle their thumbs for long. The default "winner stays" gameplay variant is best suited for the virtual arcade format, but some of the other variants are also worth checking out, like Kumite, where the host of the session keeps taking on successive challengers, win or lose.
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Before you can host an online match in DOA4, you need to get yourself a lobby. Your first one's free, but to get others, you'll need to spend currency you earn from beating other players. The game offers a bunch of different-themed lobbies as well as numerous quirky avatars that'll represent you when you're in a lobby. Some of this material is actually pretty funny, provided you think ghosts and chickens dancing around in a space station with a big-screen TV showing DOA4 matches is funny.
On a HD-capable television, DOA 4 is an absolute stunner. The characters themselves have retained that unreal, doll-like look from previous games, but all of their clothing contains ultra-realistic textures. Each character has several costumes which can be unlocked. For the female characters, this usually means skimpy outfits, which is par for the course for a Dead or Alive game. The arenas the combatants fight in are equally impressive -- there's plenty of detail on offer, with some notable standouts including the Las Vegas street level and the level based on a Japanese peach tree garden. Complementing the in-game graphics are stunning video cutscenes shown after a player beats that particular character's story mode. Those with normal CRTs may find their visual experience isn't as top notch, however, but that can be said for most Xbox 360 games.
If you're a veteran, DOA 4 is hands down the best game in the series thus far thanks to its refined gameplay, addictive online aspects and stunning looks. If you're a newbie, you'll need patience and perseverance to become competitive.
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