Gohan, defeat your dad... if you can!

Bandai and Atari have consistently shown that they're dedicated to making their annual line of Dragon Ball Z games better than the titles that have come before them. Year after year, the team has carefully listened to fans and critics alike and addressed concerns and complaints to make a much more playable product. This year continues that trend with Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi, the fourth straight fighter to follow Goku and friends in their search for the mythical Dragon Balls.

Of course, one of the reasons that the game is better this year compared to last is because the production team has been switched out to keep things fresh. No longer developed by Dimps, the latest DBZ foray is handled by the action and grappling experts at Spike (Crimson Tears, King of Colosseum, and Fire Pro Wrestling). This means that while there are definite similarities in the mechanics and design, this Budokai is noticeably different than the ones we've had befoBest described as a mix of Virtual On and Budokai 2, Tenkaichi has lost a lot of Budokai 3's flashier special techniques like the Dragon Rush and Hyper Mode, but retained the much more important Teleport counter to avoid your opponent's power strikes. The kick command has been removed from the control scheme too, and your assault types are now modified by the other buttons in conjunction with the generic attack button. Since "Kick" was taken off the control map, it has been replaced with a "Dash" command that plays a much more significant role in the gameplay than in past iterations.

The reason that the Dash is so important this time is because of how one-on-one fights are structured. The traditional side-plane fighting game view with occasional alternate camera angles has been axed in favor of a fixed view that looks similar to Katamari Damacy or Armored Core. The big difference compared to those two, though, is that the camera can't be adjusted by the user and rotates on its own dependant on the action. Because of this factor (in conjunction with the larger size of each free-roaming stage) the dash button becomes a terrific offensive and defensive tool. Offensively, rushing forward not only allows you to get closer to your opponent, but it also lets you perform Dragon Dash special attacks which take off more damage. On the defensive side, the dash command makes escaping from your foe and hiding behind obstacles much easier to do (be careful, though -- just about anything in the environment can be destroyed).
re.This setup alone changes the feel of head-to-head battles compared to the last games pretty noticeably... especially since players can actually fly and descend on their own without the need to be launched (finally!). That flying technique is particularly useful when competing in tournament mode with "Ring Outs" turned on since one technique you can use to avoid the cheese tactic is to sail up into the air. Despite this new perspective and true ability to fly, however, fans that liked the multitude of attacks found in the last version may be a bit disappointed in this more simplistic setup. Even so, I have to admit that the action plays out a lot more faithfully to the anime under the current schematic.Another positive aspect to Budokai Tenkaichi is the ramped-up AI. Even when playing on the medium difficulty, the CPU is a brutal and merciless bastard. It can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with, it doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear -- and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you're dead. Despite that, the lower challenge settings are a bit more tolerable (with the easiest level being less of a pushover than your average fighter) and the number of moves that the computer will use to mix it up against you is pretty respectable. Nothing beats playing against another human being, though. Tenkaichi is an impressively fun two-player contest that has plenty of options to choose from.In fact, it's DBZ's list of options that really pushes it over the edge. There are a great number of things for gamers to do here regardless of whether or not they're by themselves or hanging out with their friends. That statement goes beyond the expected Practice and Duel modes too, as there are also a number of supporting features that can provide a great deal of fun. Evolution Z, for instance, gets rid of the tried and true "item shop" setup from the earlier games and allows you to upgrade and customize your characters in an infinite number of ways without having to deal with a shopkeeper. Now you gain special upgrade capsules for beating any match at any time -- eliminating the tired process of amassing enough good stuff to get the better items. You can fuse items together to create new ones too, so there's never a lack of goodies for you to uncover.

My favorite mode is the "Z Battle Gate" story option. It's the successor to last year's Dragon Universe, and allows you to relive popular moments in DBZ history by playing through various plot-driven (and branching) scenarios. The cool thing is that almost every single Dragon Ball Z saga has been included in the festivities -- from the Maijin Buu and Frieza sagas to the Fusion and Cell Games sagas -- and there are even a couple of bonus stories thrown in for good measure. What's more, is that players can also look up character profiles with complete histories from the original Dragon Ball to the end of GT and learn firsthand just how many times the cast of DBZ seems to die on a regular basis.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, however, that Atari still hasn't included an online mode for players to duke it out over their broadband connections. And with most other recent fighters supporting this kind of feature, it's pretty disappointing that it has yet to appear in a DBZ title. At least hotseat players can build their own tournaments for community play, though, and the fun Ultimate Battle has a unique Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution feel to its ranking motif.

Oh and before I forget, Budokai Tenkaichi's presentation is excellent. Much like last year's Greatest Hits version of Budokai 3, Tenkaichi also offers the original Japanese voices in story mode and on menu screens. Of course, English speakers should be happy to know that there's full voice-over for everything in both languages as well, and that every character is played by the same actor that portrays them in the U.S. dub. The visuals are equally good with accurate cel-shaded character models and arenas, and the overall look of the game is ripped straight out of the TV series. Unfortunately, progressive Scan and widescreen modes go unsupported.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi may not have the combat depth of competition like Tekken and Dead or Alive, but there's still some definite finger-busting appeal to its simplistic fighting mechanics. And while it's true that it's large environments and dash-heavy gameplay may draw out the length of most contests and cause occasional camera problems, it's still fun -- and that's what matters. Throw in a massively deep list of modes and features, more than 50 playable characters, and customizable goodies for your fighters and you have everything necessary to please both Dragon Ball diehards and fighting game curiosos alike.