Thorny subject this one. Fighting games are difficult to review in the first place – it's easy for many of the subtleties of a game to go over the head of a casual player, leaving it perceived as a load of button bashing shite. But it's easy to see why – honing your skills to get the split second timing and precise movement to an almost obsessive level in order for those subtleties to come into play might be construed by some as not the best use of their time. That not being enough of a problem, Dead or Alive adds the issue of the starlets of the show being young women with enormous breasts, all modelled with the correct, ahem, 'bounce physics'. Is it a legitimate marketing tactic, or is it just the brainchild of some developers who really need to get out more? So with the 'damned if I do, damned if I don't' whining out of the way, I'd just like to say ‘bollocks to all of you’, I'm scoring this how I feel about it.
The first thing that stands out upon loading up Dead or Alive is how nice it looks. The levels are gorgeous, and DOA4 is arguably the prettiest thing on the Xbox 360. The seaside market level is especially nice, full of market stalls that can be destroyed in different ways when hit by the flying body of a fighter. The stages vary in size – some are one small arena, others have multiple large areas, each one accessed by pounding a fighter off a precipice or through a barrier with sufficient force. The only blemish on the graphical side of the game is the look of the characters themselves – they mostly look as if they're plastic models, not lifelike figures at all. It's a disappointing artistic choice and very much gives the impression that the game has only been given a bump in the resolution of the graphics, rather than actual detail over the original Xbox's Dead or Alive Ultimate. The increase in detail is there, but only in the backgrounds and some of the costumes.
Like DOA Ultimate the animation is superb – breathtaking at times when a fight really gets going. Clipping of fighters into one another during contact animation is non-existent, and every throw and counter is executed perfectly. It's fast, it's smooth, and it's what I want more of in this generation of consoles. Again though, there is one minor niggle, and again, it's with the characters – the long hair on some characters, and the furry bits on others' costumes looks well, crap. The prime example is Kokoro's hair - instead of rolling neatly over her shoulders, it slides across her in big, blocky clumps – at odds with the beautiful fabrics of the character’s clothes and an ugly spot in a game that sets the bar so high graphically, but it's certainly nothing to affect your enjoyment.
Of course, as 'Rise of the Robots' taught us many years ago, it doesn't matter if a game looks fabulous if it's unplayable tripe. DOA4 is a lot of fun, but a bit more technical than previous editions, with the series' famed reversals being made somewhat harder to perform. For a start, they have to be timed a lot more accurately, but also you now have to anticipate correctly out of four different types of reversal: high, low, mid punch and mid kick. It means that because of the extra damage that you can take if you try a reversal and miss, they're now only a usable tactic where the opponent likes to abuse certain moves or predictable combos (and therefore pretty much useless against the AI opponents). However, the game does seem to have expanded on the offensive side of things with a greater number and range of different combos, and the lower chance of being countered means that it's really worth learning a few for use against human opponents.
If you don't have anyone that likes DOA that you can play against then you may want to ignore DOA4, unless you have an Xbox Live Gold account. The only solo option with anything to attract the player is the story mode – but even that is short (less than ten minutes a character if you're don't lose fights that often), and there's so little actual story there it's really not worth bothering about, apart from the lovely CGI sequence you get at the end of each story. Worst of all though is the A.I. – or the seeming lack of the 'I' part of 'A.I.'. Unlike a real player it won't fall for any dummies, it doesn't tend to have any slightly predictable strategy, it will pull off moves and even reversals completely randomly, and doesn't learn how to counter any strategies you may decide to abuse other than pulling off a lot more reversals. The game actually throws its own rulebook out of the window for the 'Alpha-152' character that is the final boss on many of the characters' stories – it will teleport itself out of any dodgy situation (Tip: don't back it into a corner, it will teleport behind you when you throw a punch and pound on you from behind), and pulls off 9 and 10 hit juggle combos that are not possible with any other character. The high difficulty levels just make the AI fighters perform flawlessly, so instead of improving your advanced techniques you're much better off being cheap and trying to fluke as many reversals as you can.
If you do happen to have friends who want to play you on DOA4 then the game absolutely shines (You'll still have to beat the story mode with all the initially available characters to unlock some of the characters though). You don't need to be an expert to get the most out of DOA4, but a little practice in the sparring mode to pick up some new moves every now and then will reap rewards when trying to beat down your mates.
If you don't know anyone who wants to play you at DOA4 then Xbox Live is a more than worthy replacement. The game plays very well on Xbox Live - with a good connection it's indistinguishable from offline play, but even a little lag will rapidly reduce the game to a clunky mess – and like many Xbox Live games, it's the community that really makes it. There's a big community out there, of all different levels of player, and finding like minded players adds tremendously to the experience. I'm not a great player, but I found plenty of people out there at a similar level and who have an appreciation of DOA4 as a fighting game rather than a button hammering game. You certainly learn a lot more about how to play the game from getting online – you can see other players using effective moves, and then you can hop offline to try and master those moves yourself for use in online bouts later.
The fact that my 10 hour play time achievement badge popped up way before I started writing this review says two things: 1) I'm thorough and 2) I enjoy Dead or Alive 4. If you want to make an issue over the whole ‘boobs physics’ side of things then you're welcome to, but personally it didn't even cross my mind as something that should be even mentioned in the review until our editor mentioned the juvenility of it just before I started typing up this review. I can say, hand on heart, I've assessed the game purely as a fighting game, and as that alone it stands up with the best of them. It may not be as deep as some of the superhuman Virtua Fighter 4 players might like, but it's got plenty more moves and techniques than I'll ever use. Players without others to play against and no Xbox Live Gold account may want to stay away altogether from DOA4, but those with either would do very well to have a look.