Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is the third entry in publisher Atari and developer Dimps' fighting franchise that's based on the classic anime series. While the Dragon Ball Z series has had spotty luck making the leap to games over the years, the first entry in the Budokai series gave fans a reason to believe that the dark days of half-baked games that coasted on the license were ending. Unfortunately, the promising series hit a bump in the road with 2003's second entry in the series, which tweaked the simple formula that was introduced in the first game by adding a board-game structure that bogged down the solid action.
Fortunately, Atari and Dimps appear to have learned their lesson with Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3, a game that takes a back-to-basics approach that regains the simple appeal of the original game while adding new mechanics and a broader roster to it. We tried our hand at a work-in-progress version of the PlayStation 2 game to see if the series has truly regained its magic.
You'll find four modes in the game: dragon universe, duel, world tournament, and training (plus there's a locked dragon arena mode). Dragon universe is the expected story mode that lets you step into the role of characters from Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball GT to play through key story sequences from both series. You'll find the usual suspects--such as Goku, Piccolo, Gohan, Vegeta, Recoombe, and the rest of the gang you've seen in the previous games--along with some new faces. The universe mode offers a deeper character development system that blends the skill capsule system with a role-playing-game-like experience system that lets you earn Z points you can distribute to your fighter's stats. You'll be able to increase your brawler's health, ki, attack, guard, arts, ability, and com levels (we'll explain what "com" is in just a second).
While the adventure is still basically linear, in terms of the way the story is told, you'll have some measure of freedom in how you go through it. An onscreen world map will show you the key locales you'll have to reach and then poke around in to get the story to progress. However, if you just stick to that, you'll miss out on hidden battles, skill capsules, and interactions with other characters. Duel is your standard versus mode, which lets you duke it out with a friend or an artificial intelligence-controlled opponent. World tournament sends you through a series of battles, at different difficulties, that lets you earn money you can use to buy skill capsules. Finally, training brings you up to speed on the game's fighting system.
In addition to those initially selectable modes, you'll also be able to unlock the dragon arena, which is a slick mode that's one of the game's most pleasant surprises. At first blush, the mode looks like another variant on the duel mode, because you'll be able to battle computer-generated opponents. The nice twist is that you'll be able to earn experience to level up your character. The experience you earn will be based on the level of the opponent you choose. But that's only part of what the mode has to offer. If you poke around a bit more, you'll discover that you can input passwords that you'll find on the game's Web site to earn the right to fight against other players' characters. You'll notice that as you customize your fighters in the game, you'll receive passwords for them. If you post these passwords on the Web, then anyone can input them into his or her game to fight against your character. If your character's com stat is high, your character will be a butt-kicking machine when imported into someone else's game.
The gameplay in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is shaping up to be a truly winning mix of old and new concepts. The core fighting system from the previous two games returns, although it's seen some very cool additions. The basic system revolves around a four-button layout that lets you punch, kick, guard, and fire off ki blasts. You'll be able to perform simple combos, throws, and common and unique special moves that you'll access once you've equipped the proper skill capsule.
This time out, Dimps has tweaked the system to include a counter--specifically, the teleportation counter--that lets you avoid damage through carefully timed presses of the guard button. While it's just one move, the counter significantly changes the fighting in the game for the better by adding some depth to it. The counters are tied to your fighter's ki bar, and they use up one block for every use. Furthermore, they can't be used indefinitely, which forces you to balance using ki to either power up your fighter or perform special attacks. In addition, you'll find an impressive array of new special attacks that are taken straight from the anime--most notably beam struggles, which let you to try to overpower an opponent's ki blast if you both fire off simultaneous attacks.
The graphics in the game represent a serious improvement over the previous entries in the series. Dimps has apparently gotten quite skilled at refining the shading techniques that give the polygonal characters looks that are comparable to their animated counterparts. The other crucial element to the game's visuals involves the animation, which just nails the look and feel of the crew, especially during special attacks. The strong visuals are complemented by fresh, cinematic camera angles that are in the spirit of the anime and that help sell the action beautifully. The one change in the game's presentation that isn't an improvement revolves around the use of static screens for the story sequences. It's hardly a major point, but we have to admit that we miss the real-time cinematics from the first game. Still, that loss is acceptable when you take stock of the particle effect and lighting systems in the game, which both look outstanding.
Dimps hasn't just focused on the game's characters and their attacks; you'll find that the environments are impressively designed and feature rich detail and a whole lot of destructible elements. One nice touch you'll see in relation to the environments is that whatever over-the-top damage you do--such as, say, knocking your foe through a mountain--will be reflected in the environment for the whole battle. The game's frame rate remains fairly stable and high, although you'll find the occasional bit of slowdown during your brawls, which is negligible. Even the incomplete version we're playing purrs along well enough to let us lay the smack down on our opponents with ease.
The audio in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3, which is always one of the highlights of the DBZ games, holds true to the high standards set by the previous entries in the series. Plan on hearing the anime's voice cast in full force, which definitely brings the colorful cast to life. In addition, you'll hear familiar tunes, which are heavy on rock, that accompany the over-the-top action. The effects for the various attacks aren't quite as crisp as they could be in our preview version, but they're still fine.
Based on what we've played so far, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is looking like a promising return to form for the series. The enhancements on the already solid fighting system add a welcome bit of depth that should please fans who are hoping for a meatier fighting experience. The expanded roster will obviously please players who wish to see one of their favorites make an appearance. Finally, the assortment of game modes and the liberal use of authentic voice both help to keep the game good and real for fans. If you were a fan of the original Dragon Ball Z: Budokai but were underwhelmed by its sequel, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is definitely worth a look. If you've ever been curious about the series, now's the time to try it, because Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is shaping up to be the best entry yet. Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is currently slated to ship this November for the PS2.