Fighting games were ubiquitous in video arcades for more than a decade, until the video arcades themselves began to die off. Home console technology surpassed arcades, and so we lost our incentive to play games in public. And though we've since been treated to arcade-perfect home conversions of some truly great fighting games, if you've ever been thrilled to play these games in a competitive environment, then you know it's just not the same to play them at home against the computer or even with the same group of friends. No, fighting games are all about taking on all challengers. And now the true spirit of fighting games is reemerging in games like the new, online-enabled Guilty Gear X2 #Reload. Online play is definitely the main attraction here, despite a few apparent issues with the implementation. But, make no mistake: This is a great 2D fighter even if you don't take it online, and it features all the depth, creativity, and responsive action you'd expect from a top-quality game in this vein. Factor in a budget price point, and Guilty Gear X2 #Reload becomes a genuine must-have for fighting game aficionados.
Let's talk about online play right off the bat. It features the standard assortment of Xbox Live options, including quick match, optimatch, and leaderboards. You've also got a good amount of options when setting up a match, and you'll be able to find competition from both the continental United States as well as Japan, so there's no shortage of people to play against. We tested the game using a high-speed T1 connection as well as a more-down-to-earth DSL connection, and in most cases we experienced smooth, lag-free gameplay. However, we experienced frustratingly laggy sessions from time to time--even when the game estimated an "excellent" network connection to the opponent. We also occasionally had trouble connecting to other players' games altogether. Other players have anecdotally reported similar problems, so it's safe to say that the game's Xbox Live support isn't perfect. Nevertheless, the effort of finding a lag-free session against an opponent of similar skill level proves to be very well worth it--time will fly as you fight match after rematch after rematch. Guilty Gear X2 #Reload is a fast-paced, well-balanced fighting game with lots of depth and variety, so it's an excellent game online. And it has plenty of offline options, too.
For the record, Guilty Gear X2 #Reload is an upgrade to an upgrade of Guilty Gear X, which itself is a fighting game sequel originally released several years ago. Fortunately, this latest version of the game doesn't look or feel particularly dated--probably because it features a classic-style design inspired by countless other 2D fighting games from Capcom and SNK. Yet while the basic structure of Guilty Gear may be conventional and fairly familiar, its cast of characters is pretty exceptional. In this game, you've got everything from a pirate girl wielding an enormous anchor, to a hunched-over white-clad doctor who seems to be wearing a brown grocery bag on his head, to a debonair vampire smoking a pipe, to a scantily clad witch wielding an electric guitar, to an androgynous British lad who looks and sounds like a lass and fights with a yo-yo. You know we couldn't make this stuff up if we tried, and it's good to see that the designers of this series decided to keep moving in the direction of "weird," adding characters in subsequent installments, rather than introducing more straightforward sorts of characters. For good measure, this upgrade to Guilty Gear X2 packs in several more playable characters, including two powerful boss opponents who may fortunately be disabled for online play for balance reasons.
The game is brought to life with vibrant hand-drawn 2D character sprites and backgrounds, making Guilty Gear X2 #Reload look as much like an anime episode as a video game. In fact, the legions of fans of anime series like Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh! really ought to take notice of Guilty Gear, which has a similar sort of style and sensibility to it. Meanwhile, the presence of a hard-rocking electronic guitar soundtrack further helps set this game apart. Although the tracks may not sound drastically different from one to the next, it's still great that the designers have given Guilty Gear X2 such a cohesive musical style.
In addition to the usual modes you'd expect from a fighting game, including arcade, versus, training, and survival, Guilty Gear X2 features a mission mode, a story mode, and a variation on the survival mode in which big combos earn you medals, some of which restore a little bit of your health. The story mode is unique to each character and consists of a scripted series of battles interspersed with verbal exchanges between your character and his or her next opponent. The speech is all in Japanese, a point that many of the game's fans will probably appreciate, and the story mode helps provide a better sense of all the game's various personalities. The stories for the characters can even branch off at particular points, depending on certain conditions of your performance during the battles. The story mode isn't terribly complex, but fans of the game's character design will definitely want to spend some time in it.
The mission mode is another good diversion, offering dozens of scripted stand-alone battles that can be extremely challenging. The game's computer opponents can put up a very tough fight at higher levels of difficulty, and most of the missions not only pit you against some of the toughest levels of artificial intelligence, but also handicap you in certain ways, forcing you to defeat your foe in a much shorter amount of time than usual or preventing you from jumping during the fight, among other things. You can choose to play the missions in any order, and they're a fun bonus for advanced players. Accomplishing missions, finishing the story mode with various characters, and playing through the arcade mode allows you to unlock lots of artwork for your viewing pleasure in the game's gallery, and some hidden characters are waiting to be discovered too.
Of course, the actual gameplay needs to be very good for any of this to matter. Guilty Gear X2 #Reload controls smoothly and precisely, and it is suitably rewarding either as a casual pick-up-and-play kind of game or as a strategic and competitive game--or somewhere in between. Newcomers to the series may initially be put off by the fact that characters tend to walk very slowly, but they can jump very high and very quickly, and most of them can also dash forward and backward (even in midair) at remarkable speeds, which gives the game a distinctly fast-paced feel. Four main attack buttons are used during play, letting characters punch, kick, and execute regular and heavy slashes. The "dust attack" move from Guilty Gear X has also been mapped to its own button now, allowing characters to quickly trip their opponents up with a foot sweep or launch them into the air to set them up for an air combo.
Beyond that, the game borrows just about every successful gameplay tweak seen in Capcom's and SNK's fighting games from over the years. Characters have numerous defensive moves for countering overzealous attackers, yet the game effectively penalizes overly defensive play as well. The fact that every character has an impressive "instant kill" move that can be unleashed in every round also ensures that dramatic comebacks are possible. However, these devastating moves leave you wide open, so they're not overpowering (even so, you can disable them in online play if you wish). You get the impression from Guilty Gear X2 #Reload that years of 2D fighting know-how went into its design, and the resulting game plays great. Hardcore players who've stuck with Guilty Gear over the long haul will notice improvements in the overall gameplay balance here, especially in the way the relative sizes of the characters are not just a graphical thing, but are also integral to their ability to sustain and cause damage.
The game has a couple of shortcomings that are worth mentioning. Many of the characters' moves are animated so strangely that it can be difficult to see exactly what's going on. Along those lines, the feel of the game isn't always spot-on. There are some relatively damaging moves, but they just don't seem to pack the visceral punch you'd expect. One could also nitpick about how some characters' speech becomes annoying as you hear them utter the same catchphrases while they execute their special moves over and over. Or how not all the animation is as smooth as it probably could have been, though the characters themselves are crisp and rendered at a high resolution. The game supports progressive scan displays--a standard television doesn't do full justice to the look. Unfortunately, the progressive scan mode is not properly implemented with widescreen displays; the edges of the screen get cut off, which is not necessarily detrimental in a fight, but disappointing nonetheless. On a happier note, the loading times are nearly nonexistent.
The bottom line is that this is one of the most highly evolved 2D fighting games yet--and not just from a gameplay standpoint, since Guilty Gear X2 #Reload is also among the first online-enabled home fighting games. That makes it very easy to recommend to any fan of the genre, except maybe for those who expressly dislike the game's anime-inspired character design. Considering all that it has to offer, and that it offers all this for just a fraction of a typical new game's retail price, Guilty Gear for the Xbox is a winner by a landslide.