Dragon Ball is one of those properties that's had its ups and downs when it comes to game adaptations. And when I say downs, I'm talking about pretty incredible lows: bottom-of-the-barrel material like Ultimate Battle 22 and Final Bout that frequently turns up on "worst games ever" lists. But it's had some highlights, too: The Budokai series made a lot of fans happy, hitting on a formula that satisfied what buyers crave from an anime-flavored fighter: a comprehensive cast, true-to-the-source visuals, and fighting that made you feel like a hyper-powered Super Saiyan.
Sadly, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is not Budokai, instead following in the underwhelming footsteps of more recent DBZ efforts like DBZ Kinect. It's a confused, overly chaotic mission-based action game that tries to recreate the team-based camaraderie oft seen in its source material, but more often than not falls flat on its face.
Battle of Z offers three gameplay modes: a single-player, mission-based story mode that follows the various story arcs seen in the anime/manga series, a co-op multiplayer mode, and a versus mode. The multiplayer modes become available after playing a short ways into the single-player mode, but you'll probably want to play through a good amount of single-player to unlock characters, items, and status-augmenting cards you can equip on your Z fighters before going online. I say "going online" because there is no local multiplayer available: if you want to play with friends, you must play online.
You'll jump into single-player mode first--since you don't really have much choice. Once you navigate through confusingly-designed menus and get into the actual game, you immediately notice that while the character models themselves look fantastic, the environments are sparse and dull. To be fair, the anime wasn't exactly known for its lushly illustrated backdrops, but the fighting arenas in Battle of Z rarely go past the likes of "craggy, rock-laden environment" on the inspiration scale. You'll also likely struggle with the controls, which map everything to buttons that don't really make a lot of sense (such as ascending and descending via the face buttons), and have you executing special skills with further badly-thought-out button combinations.
Once you achieve some measure of competency with the controls, however, you start to see the way combat flows in the game. You and a posse of pals (either human or AI-controlled) zip around arenas pummeling waves of foes with your various superpowered attacks until you've finished them all off. Cooperation amongst your team is key: players can give and share energy and revive fallen teammates, as well as coordinate to execute high-damage team attacks like the meteor chain, which ping-pongs an opponent between fighters. Characters fall into four types--melee, support, ki blast, and interference--which helps determine both the effects and the effectiveness of their individual skills. Individual characters can also receive bonuses and special abilities through equipped cards and items, which can be either won during missions or purchased with points earned throughout the game.
The team-based focus is an interesting idea, but it just feels messy in practice, mainly because Battle of Z's combat feels unfocused on many levels. You have a decent arsenal of attacks at your disposal, but for most characters, only a few of these skills are actually effective in dealing damage to foes--the rest exist solely to help you regain meter to execute the aforementioned effective strikes. It leads to a frustrating cycle in which you try to land basic hits on an enemy to replenish SP energy--which can be quite difficult on some of the bosses--in order to actually perform the attacks needed to cause significant damage, all while your AI teammates seem to have no idea what they're actually trying to accomplish. Sometimes even knowing what you're trying to accomplish is hard enough--the camera can be dizzying, target lock-ons drop or fall behind objects for no good reason, and oftentimes there's just so many ki strikes and special attacks and characters flying in from offscreen that it's difficult to get a handle on just what the heck is actually happening.
Ultimately, every moment in Battle of Z feels is a struggle--not to overcome challenges, but simply to enjoy the game. After you wrestle with the controls and menus, you're faced with stage timers and tedious encounters in which you deal piddling amounts of damage with each attack, all the while battling a targeting system that actively hates you, and AI teammates dead set on not helping you when it matters most. Dragonball Z is all about straining, training, and eventually overcoming unfathomably powerful foes, but this is not so much an entertaining depiction of developing your latent talents as much as it is a simulation of a year's intense training in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber.
It's a confused, overly chaotic mission-based action game that tries to recreate the team-based camaraderie oft seen in its source material, but more often than not falls flat on its face.
You don't have to complete the missions alone; you can gather a group of online warriors together to attempt the game's tougher missions. Unfortunately, even a god-level Super Saiyan cannot overcome the overwhelming power of lag, which is common enough to ruin a sizable chunk of attempted multiplayer sessions. This goes for the multiplayer versus fights as well. It's hard to get a good rapport going, even with skilled, involved teammates, when every action taken just seems to be straining to make its way through a series of tubes into our consoles.
There are some other complaints to be levied here--such as every transformation being a separate character variant rather than a state you can enter mid-battle. But what ultimately sinks Battle of Z isn't the little fan nitpicks, it's just ill-conceived design as a whole. It's certainly not the worst DBZ game ever released, but if there's ever been a statement that's damning with faint praise, that would be it.