Xbox 360 Review: Dead or Alive 4

Cherishing the hardcore audience the Dead or Alive franchise has been built on, this latest sequel strives to do one thing: alienate every mainstream gamer from ever having a chance at winning. For a lesser fighting game, that's all it takes to destroy the gameplay. For whatever reason, but possibly after countless aggravating hours spent on Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive 4 feels like 3-D fighting game perfection.

There's no solo aspect of the game that sticks out as a highlight. This is a game wrapped around strong underlying coding, that it's a fighting game that's achieved a balance between a wide roster of characters. Thanks to the emphasis on countering, there's not a single move or combination thrown at the player that won't be sent right back if you're playing in a predictable fashion.

At first, it may seem like countering has been eliminated in its entirety. The time frame to pull off the move has been drastically decreased. Combined with a higher rate of speed, it's a long adjustment period for anyone who believes they mastered this franchise. This puts the game firmly in the hardcore gaming mindset, the group with the most patience to lose countless matches to practice and ensure they know every facet of the gameplay.

The other highlight that's captured in this Team Ninja-developed franchise is hard-to-look-at contact. Rarely does a replay convey such intense impact of every blow than in Dead or Alive 4. Previous games also did a fine job in this regard, but this latest sequel (thanks to its speed upgrade most likely) will cause your face to cringe in ways you didn't know your face could cringe. Every blow is sold by the reactions on the character models and the animation warping characters into positions that motion capture sessions would never achieve.

It's a shame the marketing and character models lean so strongly on the upper female anatomy. There are no complaints about this graphics engine (which produces a few photo-realistic environments), but it feels like the multiple levels of the game are hiding behind an anime drenched, "oversized" character set. It could be losing a portion of the audience that would otherwise be captivated by the smoothest 3-D fighting engine available.

You're not playing the game for nothing of course. Beyond the usual set of extra, unlockable characters (including the oddball inclusion of a female Spartan from Halo) and breathtaking CGI endings, Dead or Alive 4 creates a strange and somewhat wasted Xbox Live system. There's nothing wrong with the fighting itself. The ranking system, multiple means of beating everybody up, and cash earning to purchase new outfits is perfectly inergrated into the system.

It's the strange lobby that obviously took a lot of work to implement, but isn't used for much other than showing off one of the strange avatars you bought from the in-game store. In a large multi-player set up, your time is spent watching the fights waiting your turn, or looking at a menu to see who is about to rumble. The lobby offers a few different TV selections to watch the fight on, yet you're not actually in the que to play if you're here. You'll need to enter yourself into game which zips you right out of the fully rendered lobby. The only time spent here is selecting match options, and even then, you're looking at text, not running around enjoying it.

That nonetheless doesn't do anything to mar the relatively lag-free play. The balance means it's perfect for a few quick, fair rounds. It's also a great place to escape from the brutal AI (there is no easy mode here; only normal and very hard). You'll quickly realize that if you can't take on the AI, you won't survive online either. It's hard for a reason, and while it does admittedly seem cheap fairly often, it's all there to make you a better, smarter player. That should be the single goal of any game, especially one as competitive as Dead or Alive 4.

Rest assured you'll spend plenty of time playing too. There's enough here that even after snatching the 100 hours played Achievement, you'll probably still have something to collect, survival goal to beat, item to buy, or a character to finally knock out. It's a flexible title, catering to someone who wants variety, even if the gameplay doesn't always provide it.

Don't let that scare you into thinking this requires a time investment like that to truly enjoy. Dead or Alive 4 is the first classic of this new generation, capable of entertaining for 10 minutes or 10 hours, in one or numerous play sessions. The few delays were worth it, and it shows you why the moment the controller begins pushing out viscious combos.

(***** out of *****)

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