Expectations are a dangerous thing, especially when videogames are concerned. Remember as far back as Duke Nukem: Time to Kill or as recently as Driv3r. And we all looked forward to Metal Gear Solid 2, but no one expected someone named Raiden to steal the show and render Snake a secondary role. We see screenshots of games, read previews which always state the positive and the hype machine goes to work. We set are expectations so high (Phantom Menace) and feel cheated when they aren't reached. Well, we were 6 in a car traveling to X05 in Toronto, Canada, and all we could talk about was DOA4. We would "look" at the other games, but the reason we were stuck in a mini-van in zero-visibility weather, sleeping on air mattresses and riding trains early in the morning was for one reason: Dead or Alive. This was like a holy pilgrimage in scope almost. We hadn't even played it and we were drooling over it, fighting over who would preview it, making grandiose statements of who could kick who's ass sideways, the usual chatter. We talked of moves and combos and reversals and costumes and arenas. We argued over which character fought the best (Kasumi) and which was the cheapest to use (Kasumi) and who was the hottest (Kasumi) and when we had stood in line, gotten our press passes and stepped into X05, there it stood like a beacon: DOA4. Two consoles, two screens, 4 controllers. You know, expectations are a dangerous thing. Thank God Dead or Alive has never let us down.
Dead or Alive 3 made me buy an Xbox. And to this day, it still stands as one of its crowning jewels. Graphically, only DOA: Ultimate looks better in my mind. Dead or Alive 4 (and Madden 06) will make be buy an Xbox 360. It's that simple. DOA4 is hands-down the greatest of the launch titles and is exactly what I had expected it to be. The fighting is faster than Ultimate and the characters look amazing.
Upon first seeing it, surrounded by other 360 games, it still looked amazing; the small little touches here and there, the arenas, the lighting, the hair flowing, the various pieces of costumes floating in the breeze, the wet pavements, the cherry blossoms in the air, the costumes that are photo-realistic, but it's when I played Ultimate again that I realized how much of a departure DOA4 really was.
The build at X05 only permitted versus play but it was enough to see what made this game new and fresh. Whereas the arenas in DOA3 and DOAU were nice to look at (and intricately designed, multi-tiered and interactive) DOA4 makes them "real", living, breathing locations. The dojo may not seem like a place that would provide visual awe, but when you stop and see the shelves lining the walls; you have to actually take a second look. Everything is now 3D; every bobble, shelf, knick-knack, lamp, lantern, screen. Every object reflects light independently. Every piece of furniture has its own texture. And when you take a crack at other areas like the opera house (you can now perform attacks as you jump over tables), the wrestling ring (the crowds and atmosphere are mind-boggling), the wooden bridge arena (with its cherry blossoms and running brook - the water effects are amazing) you realize that more than ever, each arena has been carefully crafted to be both interactive but also ascetically realistic and awe-inspiring.
Backing out of the versus menu, the interface for DOA4 keeps the traditional look and feel that has followed the game since DOA2. The menu selection icons haven't changed that much and I honestly thought I was looking through DOAU's menu for a minute. You'll find every mode that you've come to love and I was told that the online portion would be very different this time around (but that it would still retain all the modes and options that DOAU has). I was told that the "look" of the online portion (avatars, screens, menus, etc.) would be a departure from the traditional one established by the series and would focus on a more goofy-cartoon look and feel.
Of the 23 characters in the game (arranged in 3 lines of 8 with the "random" icon in 24th position) there were 17 with pictures attached to them. Of the 17, 6 were grayed out and had to be unlocked. The remaining 6 characters are a little of a mystery, but I was told that the cat had already been let out of the bag with regards to the 23rd character (and that Master Chief would indeed be hitting the 360 on launch day).
Of the new fighters, Eliot seems to fight an awful lot like Gen Fu (and may even be his protege), Kokoro (an amazing new fighting option) is akin to a fast Hitomi-esque character and the new Mystery Wrestler (which certain Tecmo employees were calling Lisa - from DOAXVB - and then told that her name was La Mariposa ("The Butterfly") seems to carry on in the tradition of Bass and Tina as a grappler primarily. The good news is that the new characters fit in perfectly into the series and while this may seem like an easy job, DOA has long been a series of favorites and balance; the introduction of new characters could easily go awry but the new characters are fun and well-balanced.
On the issue of balance, some of the older characters' moves have been tweaked a little here and there; Kasumi in particular seems to have a few slightly different move set but I'm sure will still prove to be a good option for beginners and veterans alike. The series seems to have renewed its focus on defense as well. While pulling off reversals seems to be a little harder this time around, a sharp eye and quick reflexes seem to be able to defend a lot easier than previous games.
DOA4 still feels like a DOA game, but when compared to previous editions, it's really the graphics that will blow many doubters out of the water. On one of the most impressive arenas, the Las Vegas-like strip at night with its rain covered streets, Christie (in her open leather jacket and whiter-than-white hair) looks right at home. The costumes all appear looser now to allow the new engine to render even the smallest detail to be affected by wind and gravity. The hair is truly the one new feature which holds your attention. While the build we played wasn't final, the hair still proved impressive. This new graphic feature also manages to change the look of many of our favorite fighters. Lei Fang, for one, now has longer, looser bangs which give her face a completely different look. Ayane's head finally looks less square and Frankenstein-y and more feminine. The costumes (2 of which were available initially - more to be included and available through Live) were over-the-top breathtaking. Lei Fang's black stockings in the DOA3 Booster Pack still sets the bar for me, but DOA4 easily blows that away. Two of the most impressive costumes were easily Ryu in his full Ninja garbs and Lei Fang in her traditional red evening dress, this time even more ornate than could ever have been imagined.
In the end, we had high expectations for DOA4; almost inhuman ones. And it's truly a sign of DOA4's greatness that we each left X05 thinking that DOA4 had been the best game there. While it doesn't offer anything truly new to the series, it is again, the greatest iteration of the franchise, a bar-setter for what the new console can do and a testament to the sheer genius of Tomonobu Itagaki and Team Ninja. I for one can't wait to get my hands on the full version.
Earlier Impressions: She Still Kick's High
Although I'm not a big fan of fighting games in general, the DOA series has always proven to be the exception. DOA 2 on Dreamcast was my favorite game until it was released "hardcore" style on the PS2. DOA 2 Hardcore was then replaced with DOA 3 when the Xbox was released and recently replaced by the amazing DOA Ultimate. While most fighting games out there offer something technical and cerebral with combos upon combos to memorize and juggles to perfect, the DOA series, in my opinion anyways, has always been about something more fluid and visceral. A great dance between two polygon characters. The series has taken some "button mashing" criticism upon every iteration, but real fans of the series know that the theory is unfounded. DOA has always been about pushing graphics to the limits and innovating the way fighting games are perceived in general. With the imminent released of the 360, the DOA series seems poised to again set the benchmark upon which all other fighting games (and all other games as well) are ranked.
Tecmo has recently released the 5 minute movie that was shown at E3 2005 (readily available on the new OXM disk - #49 - October 2005 and from various websites at a whopping 500 megs) giving us our first glimpse at the new DOA4. In short, jumping from in-game engine fights to the high-quality CG movies we've come to expect from Team Ninja and its mastermind Tomonobu Itagaki, this movie is quite possibly the greatest preview I've ever seen for a game. Yes, I may be biased at seeing my old friends again and having my appetite completely whet by the images and thought of a new DOA, but even borderline curmudgeons can't helped but be moved by this presentation.
After the initial stormy ocean scene that blends into the Team Ninja logo, the camera pans across a city skyline at night. We see Ryu Hayabusa standing on the edge of a tall rooftop and then, after the jumps off, the trailer seamlessly kicks into high gear. We are immediately introduced to one of three new known characters (Kokoro) practicing her moves as blossoms fall from the sky. Her traditional kimono blowing in the wind and her long black hair moving effortlessly around her. A flash of fire and she is now fighting Kasumi. They stumble into a mind-blowing water level and as she seems about to win, Kasumi unleashes her traditional Sakura-Matoi and in a flash has turned the tables.
We are then taken to a monastery-esque environment where another new character, the blond boy Eliot, is practicing his moves amidst a crowd of onlooking monkeys. Another flash of fire and he is now fighting Jann Lee. Yes, one or two moves later and a "Wa-Ya" is heard as Jann unleashes the world's most powerful "ass-move". This scene also demonstrates DOA4's new multi-tiered environments and background visuals (as the monkeys follow the action as well!).
The outdoor environments are then replaced by a large stadium containing a wrestling ring. No surprise here; we find father and daughter (Bass and Tina Armstrong) battling it out. The background animation looks incredibly impressive and large and the ring ropes seem electrified. And then, out of nowhere, we are introduced to the third new known character, Masked Hooded Wrestling Girl, which looks an awful lot like Lisa from DOAX! She seems a little more buff, but there's no denying the resemblance. Bass and the MHWG go at it for a bit and then we are treated to a very odd looking Hogan-esque dance in the centre of the ring.
A few more flashes and we see some familiar faces; Jann Lee taking on Bad Wong, Ein and Ayane, a CG of Bass and finally Christie and Hitomi going at it in a Las Vegas-y setting. Christie is sporting an open-front leather biker's jacket which seems poised to flap open at any moment (without any shirt visible underneath) and gives all gamers of the world new hope; their favorite assassin (which wasn't included in DOAU) is definitely in DOA4.
Things become a little cryptic at this point as we are shown a CG clip of a Egyptian skeleton soldier who seems to be battling Zack, fully decked out in his secret Teletubbie outfit. This meeting doesn't end well for Zack! And from this moment on, the preview becomes a deluge of images thrown out at us without context. There's Bass getting hit by a car, a beautiful shot of Lei Fang looking better then she ever has, S.W.A.T. teams, ninjas, the "water tank" from the cloning facility, missiles flying here are there, planes, swords, etc, all building to an amazing crescendo of images.
What is good news for all DOA4 fans is that many old friends will be visiting us very soon. At the same time however, I wonder where Gen Fu, Helena, Leon and even Tengu have gone off too. Hopefully we will see them very soon too.
As a fan of the DOA series, I've can't imagine a better way to usher in the new generation of consoles. And much like on the Dreamcast, PS2 and Xbox, the DOA series seems poised to push the limits of what we can expect, this early on, from this new generation of hardware. The free-flowing gowns and hair, the animated backgrounds, the Hollywood quality CGs... if there is any question as to whether you should pre-order DOA4 or not, let me make it clear for you now: This is what the 360 has been build for; amazing gameplay, amazing graphics and incredible online options. And for all the doubters: Kasumi "still" kicks high!