Dead or Alive 4

It’s hardly a secret that Tomonobu Itagaki, the flamboyant frontman for Team Ninja, has a fair amount of distain for the Tekken series. In one interview, when asked to list the five games he hated the most, he listed every single Tekken game, explaining his choices so eloquently with only the word hate. And rumour has it that Itagaki’s own Dead or Alive 4 will be the final in the series; he feels he has beaten Namco at its own game. If it is truly the last in the series, Dead or Alive is certainly going out in a fantastic blaze of glory. But has it really usurped the fighting game crown from Tekken?

It might seem rather shallow to begin any discussion of the graphics. After all, even though a hot topic during the transition to new hardware, it insinuates that the merit lies only in the beauty. It’s like flaunting a gorgeous partner without mentioning their personality. Indeed, for years the Dead of Alive series has been criticised for being just that: all flash and no substance. It’s obviously a criticism that Itagaki has taken to heart, as Dead or Alive 4 boasts a refined fighting system that will dispel any fears that it might be a shallow game. Yet there is still a strong focus on the game’s visuals -- Team Ninja obviously wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

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Itagaki justified his defection to the original Xbox by claiming that he likes to work with the most powerful hardware. Unfortunately, Dead or Alive 4, while proficient, fails to raise the graphical bar the way its predecessors did. The character models still retain their flawless complexion, and while this can be defended as part of an overarching design, they’re nothing the original Xbox couldn’t handle. They also sport their fair share of glitches, no doubt the result of minimal testing due to a frantic release. The animations, however, are drastically improved; characters actually react realistically, rather than the back-clutching animation that accompanies every attack in Tekken. Similarly, the arenas are a mixed bag. Some of them are simply gorgeous – the waterfall and casino levels are some of the best graphics to be found on the system. Others could have easily been managed by Microsoft’s original console. Another disappointment is that some of the stages have been transferred from Dead or Alive: Ultimate, giving a greater sense of déjà vu than should occur in a full-priced sequel. It leaves an overwhelming feeling at times, and an underwhelming one at others, especially when played on a standard definition television.

However, only the most shallow of creatures would play a fighting game for its aesthetical value. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view – the fighting system in Dead or Alive 4 has been greatly refined. Most fighting game sequels offer more of the same: a larger roster, new moves – past masters have felt at home within minutes. Yet Dead or Alive 4 represents a complete overhaul of the fighting system. The franchise has largely been criticised for not only allowing the player to perform extravagant attacks with little knowledge of the character’s move-set, but also for having a rather generous countering system – A system that rewards frantic button smashing instead of skill. This allowed for easy, intuitive, fast-flowing matches that resembled something that would be found in anime or in a martial arts movie.

There was always something quite satisfying about countering your opponent’s onslaught and sending them sailing through a glass window and onto the street below. And while it is still possible, the ease at which it can be achieved has been significantly lessened. The changes and tweaks that Team Ninja has given Dead or Alive bring the system almost up to the calibre of Virtua Fighter. However, the accessibility of the game has been lessened as a consequence – this is not a beginner friendly game. The countering system is the most obvious reflection of these changes: the precision required borders on the obnoxiously pedantic and only the most skilled of players, those with knowledge of their opponent’s target zones, will be able to make use of the system.

Ultimately, the enjoyment that a player will have with Dead or Alive 4 will come down to the amount of dedication they have. Completing the initial story mode with every character will take little more than persistence and a few hours and there isn’t really a lot of incentive to return to it, especially as the story is so ridiculous and full of plot holes. (There is a scene, however, that stars Jann Lee and a Tyrannosaurus and should be mandatory viewing for all.) There are costumes to unlock, but they are few in number and a majority of them are lazy palette swaps – the only real reward comes from the achievement points unlocked for collecting them all. The real meat of the game lies in the variety of modes offered. Time attack and survival modes both offer achievement points and world rankings, but obtaining either is easier said than done. Indeed, time attack becomes an exercise in frustration. The final boss, Alpha-152, has an array of moves that will not only remove a majority of a player’s life, but will also induce high levels of agony as they are knocked out for the 27th time, all while the clock is ticking.

No matter how difficult the offline modes might appear, online is worse. The easiest part is gaining the secret achievement for losing 20 times in a row. There is no shortage of obnoxiously skilled players to demonstrate how lacklustre a player’s skill really is. Like the other modes, practice and persistence will yield rewards, but whether a player has that kind of dedication will be determined on an individual basis. A solid Internet connection is also vital; any lag has a crippling effect, so online play is best left against fellow New Zealanders.

Dead or Alive 4 is a great game, but it’s also hard not to be slightly disappointed with how the focus has shifted. Gone are the days of the accessible fighting game that was easy to pick up and play; Itagaki has made a fighting game that rewards practice and skill. It’s like the reverse of selling out, with the product being tailored to a smaller, niche demographic. There is a lot of fun to be had with the game if the effort is put in, and the difficulty of the game will assure that mastering the game will provide a great deal of value. And if this is how you like your fighting games, you will be pleased to know that Dead or Alive 4 is now one of the most refined fighting games on the market. However, if it’s a quick play or a party session with some friends you’re after, you’re probably better off sticking with Tekken 5.

"A difficult, refined fighter that rewards patience and skill."
- Dead or Alive 4
Follow Own it? Rating: M   Difficulty: Hard   Learning Curve: 45 Min


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