Back in 1996, Virtua Fighter 2 was widely considered to be the deepest, best-playing 3D fighter around. For the most part it was, although the learning curve was considerably steeper than, say, what a Tekken player would have to accomplish to master Tekken. Tekkens, Toshindens, and, er, Criticoms aside, Virtua Fighter 2 was the hard-core gamer's ultimate bastion, due to its endless layers of depth and extensive move list, which only the most erudite could master. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Tecmo, of all companies, licensed the same Model 2 hardware that Virtua Fighter 2 used. Until that point, no other third-party company had used the Model 2 board to create a game. That Tecmo was not only licensing it but apparently developing a Virtua Fighter clone brought, at the very least, smirks from the gaming community.
Three factors separated the uncomfortably familiar Virtua Fighter-like characters from their well-respected brethren. The first was the addition of danger zones, which surrounded the perimeter of each arena and caused any character who stepped into the zone to explode skyward, causing significant damage in the process. The second gameplay twist was the addition of a hold button that lets the fighter use his opponent's attacks against him by way of reversals. The third and final "enhancement" was the implementation of an obnoxious "breast physics engine" that caused the female characters' chests to defy the common laws of gravity with a panache never quite seen before in a video game. It was only the danger zones that affected the gameplay, but the novelty of the third enhancement struck a nerve far and wide with young male gamers everywhere. The arcade experience was ported home (well, Japanese homes, anyway) to the Sega Saturn with remarkable accuracy, minus real-time shadows and a few background details. What was retained, however, was the slick 60fps rate, along with the modified Virtua Fighter combat engine. A wealth of replay value was stuffed into the Saturn port, with each character having a plethora of hidden costumes that were unlocked with each replay of the game. Dozens of new outfits were unlockable, with some of the female characters' outfits bordering on "racy." Sadly, despite desperate pleas from US gamers, the Saturn version never made it to the States, although the subsequent PlayStation version did. The PlayStation version, which took training-dummy Ayane and made her a playable character, also added a couple of outfits, although the gameplay wasn't as razor-sharp responsive as the Saturn version had been.
Now a few years have gone by, and Dead or Alive 2 hasn't exactly been a secret. Using Sega arcade hardware, this time the Naomi board, Tecmo once again has raised the bar on its own expectations by adding not only multitiered levels, but lightning-quick tag-team action as well. While the arcade version, seen in little peeks over the last two years, evolved into something quite substantial, it was widely thought to be running on two Naomi boards. This was due to the huge multileveled environments, whooshing by at 60fps, with up to four characters onscreen at one time. Team Ninja, Tecmo's in-house development team, declared that it ran on one Naomi board and that the entire game would be ported to the Dreamcast, with little to no loss of quality. Well Tecmo has finally completed that daunting task, and Dead or Alive 2 has finally hit American (and strangely, not Japanese) shores. The Dreamcast has no shortage of fighting games, with Soul Calibur heading the list and Virtua Fighter 3tb, Power Stone, Tech Romancer, Star Gladiator 2, Psychic Force 2012, and Street Fighter III all having their merits. Does DOA2 bring enough to the table, to usurp Namco's Soul Calibur as best fighting game on a system replete with fighting games? In some ways, it most definitely does.
Although the original DOA for the arcade, the Saturn, and the PlayStation all played well enough to hold their own against comparisons with Virtua Fighter 2, it still wasn't nearly as deep as Sega's flagship fighter. The combo system was limited, and the depth of moves wasn't nearly as limitless as in VF2. Another criticism was that the hold mechanism made the game too easy and caused inordinate turtling, especially in two-player games, due to the ease with which a frontal attack could be shut down. Dead or Alive 2 addresses that issue and raises the curve on the requirements needed to master the new system. While it seems simple, it basically triples the difficulty in trying to parry an opponent into leaving himself open. Instead of just letting the press of the hold button (Tecmo refers to it as the "free" button) do all the work, you must now determine whether an opponent's attack will arrive at a high, medium, or low level. Only if you've eyeballed the correct point of entry will you successfully deflect the attack. Timing is also crucial to the successful reversal of an incoming attack, as attempting to use the free button too early or too late will simply leave you open to attack. Luckily, proper use of the free button lets you launch a heavily damaging counterattack on your opponent. In fact, many battles are decided this way, as some characters are a little too good at reversing your attacks on you, forcing you to rethink your full-frontal assault.
DOA2 has caught up with the Joneses and has integrated full 3D movement into the game. DOA2 allows movement into and out of the foreground by way of the analog pad, although the digital pad and a press of a trigger will achieve the same results for those who like the precise feeling only a D-pad can give you. The 3D movement doesn't factor into your success nearly as much as it does in Soul Calibur, but it most certainly helps. The environments in DOA2 also affect your strategies depending on whom you're playing against. Multitiered environments are certainly a big part of it, as your proximity to a ledge or stained-glass window can be the difference in about a sixth of your life bar should you take a hit that sends you flying over a ledge, five stories to the ground below. While some arenas can send you or your opponent plummeting three or four times, some levels offer uneven surfaces on which to fight. The final boss, Tengu, has a stage similar to Aoi's snow-stream stage in VF3. While there's no water running on Tengu's stage, it supplies dips and mounds that affect where your blows will land. It also affects when you need to use the free button, since an opponent standing slightly higher than you will require careful consideration as to where you'll want to parry. The danger zones are less prominent in the game, appearing only on certain stages and in less obvious ways. The stage with churning pistons, for example, has fuel canisters lining the walls, and if one character lands a particularly forceful blow on another, close enough to the wall, it will cause the canister to explode, multiplying the damage factor of the attack. These factors, combined with the quickened pace of the gameplay, result in a far superior game than the one that first appeared in '96. However, despite the excellence of the regular single-character game, it pales in comparison with the mighty tag-battle mode.
Like Tekken Tag Tournament and Street Fighter EX3, DOA2's tag-battle mode lets up to four characters engage in an onscreen melee. Unlike TTT, DOA2 does it in rapid-fire machine-gun fashion. With a snap of the tag button, you can rifle back and forth between characters almost as fast as you can push the button. The only thing that will interrupt a tag is if the character trying to leave is getting hit. The character not currently fighting will recover health, similar to the characters in Marvel vs. Capcom. When one character is knocked out, his life bar will crumble, forcing the other team member back into action, making it a fight to the finish. Certain characters, such as Bass Armstrong and his daughter, Tina, can combine for special tag attacks that are nothing short of devastating. Finding a good balance between tag partners adds a lot of replay value as you try out different teams of slow and fast characters and brawlers and grapplers and even pairs as simple as girls and boys. As you become more comfortable with your team, you'll begin to discover the wide range of combo possibilities. For example, let's say you pick Ayane and Jann Lee, two fast and hard-hitting characters. If you were to start a combo with Ayane, you could switch mid-hit to Jann Lee, who could rocket in and finish the combo with three more punches and a kick. Before your opponent even hits the ground, you could switch back again to Ayane to add a slap and a sweep or two. It all depends on how well you know your characters and their moves. Amazing. In case it seems as if fights are over a little too quickly, you can always adjust the damage levels for longer, more satisfying battles. The real fun starts when you have four people playing at once. For perhaps the first time, aside from Sega's sports lineup and maybe Chu Chu Rocket, you have a real reason to plug four controllers into the front of your Dreamcast. If you have a balanced team that knows how to use the free button effectively, you could stall as your teammate regains his health on the sideline, switching back and forth as necessary. Matches often seem like a tug of war because only the players at the top of their game will survive. Unlike other 3D games on the Dreamcast, button mashers don't last long in DOA2, requiring you to really learn the nuances of the game. There is also a throw button that, if landed, will unleash some highly damaging moves. It doesn't take notice of location as much as Soul Calibur does (throwing from the side or back usually results in the same throw). Beyond the fighting principles of the game, the replay value and presentation have also been well thought out. Acting as the resident arcade mode is the story mode. This so-called story mode functions as little more than an excuse to toss in some awkwardly translated one-liners reminiscent of an SNK game. While certain characters preface their fights with a little in-game cinema using the game engine, the story mode is really nothing more than a single-character one-player game. There are also a time-attack mode, a survival mode, the aforementioned tag battle, a team battle (which, even though it can feature up to ten characters, doesn't have loading pauses), a sparring mode (read: training), a two-player versus mode, and a generous options mode that lets you fine-tune options for every mode available. The same cast of characters from the original DOA returns, with two slight changes taking place. The first is the replacement of Bayman with a character named Leon, whose move list and control mirror Bayman's to a tee. Why this change was made is a mystery. The other change is the replacement of Raidou with a legendary Japanese mythological character called Tengu, who, like most fighting-game bosses, is fairly cheap and very powerful.
Unlike many other games, Dead or Alive 2 stands out in the polish department. It's not enough that the in-game character models look better than the prerendered intro movie models from DOA, but they also look better than anything this side of Soul Calibur. While the bodies of the combatants aren't as finessed as Soul Calibur's roster, the facial models in DOA2 are simply outstanding. Best viewed while watching the in-game cinemas, the facial detail is as good as the CG models Tecmo had rendered to promote the game. Character detail aside, the unbilled stars of the game are the environments. Running in resolutions so high they would make Sonic weep, DOA2's arenas vary from realistic snow fields to transparent marble and glass floors, all of which are truly stunning in their clarity and detail. Wooden mountain temples, industrial towers, and castle regalia adorn the game, many with three or four different looks depending on how many tiers are available. The beauty of the environments doesn't apply to mere visuals either, as actual onscreen elements will affect the fights as well. Characters standing in the snowfield will occasionally slip if they catch a hot one while standing in the wrong place. Likewise, if you're fighting on the waterfall stage, a low kick may cause you or your opponent to lose your footing, opening the door for a decisive extra punch. It doesn't happen enough to get annoying, but these elements are all over the place, to the game's benefit. Other details, like characters clutching their stomach after a particularly vicious body blow or holding their nose after having had it broken, help elevate the game from merely good to great.
While there are a few costumes to select from for each character, there aren't nearly as many available as there were in the first game. In tag battle, you'll find a few outfits not normally available in story mode, but how these are unlocked remains a mystery. The sound is supercrisp and resonant, although you'll probably want to turn the obnoxious rock soundtrack way, way down. The voice acting is all in Japanese, although gamers have the option of turning on subtitles should they feel the story is of importance.
While the awesome fighting engine is the kernel from which everything good about this game sprouts, it's the little details that make this truly a cinematic fighter (broken mirrors, particle effects, specular highlighting). Plus, there's something intangibly good about the game. Unlike Virtua Fighter, which, despite its depth, has always felt floaty and lacked the "punch" that Tekken has always provided, Dead or Alive 2 lets you feel as if you're really landing your punches and kicks. When you slam someone, you know you've slammed him real good. Perhaps the best thing about the game is how fast everything moves. Especially in tag-battle mode, no other 3D (or even 2D) fighter matches DOA2 for sheer intensity and speed. This game is for hard-core gamers only. The story mode is a bit laughable, and like the first game, Tecmo's idea of a game ending is a quick cinema that explains almost nothing about your character. While the game doesn't have the deep cache of options and unlockable rewards that Soul Calibur offers, minor quibbles aside, it makes up for it with reams and reams of gameplay. If you have enough gaming friends to maximize the tag-battle mode, you'll be hard pressed to find a better 3D fighter out there. This is, after all, just a fighting game, but it represents its genre like an ambassador at the ball. Tekken Tag Tournament looms, but until it adds truly 3D environments and some new game mechanics, Dead or Alive 2 is the hardest-hitting game in town. A must, must buy.