Dead or Alive 4 Final Hands-On

Over the holidays, we've been hammering on the retail-ready version of this long-awaited Xbox 360 fighting game. Read our final impressions as we prepare our full review.

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Tecmo's promise that Dead or Alive 4 would be in stores before the end of the year started to look less and less likely to come true as the final days of December whittled away without any news of the game's completion. But today, the company confirmed that its highly anticipated Xbox 360 fighting game will ship to stores on December 29, so you should be able to find a copy by New Year's Eve--talk about cutting it close. We at GameSpot are among a fortunate few to have early access to a retail-ready version of the game, and we've been putting it through the paces over the holidays. Look for our full review at 12:01 a.m. PST on Saturday, December 31, and keep reading to get our latest impressions of how the game finally turned out.

Master of drunken kung fu Brad Wong knocks Bruce Lee knockoff Jann Lee clear off his feet in DOA4.
Master of drunken kung fu Brad Wong knocks Bruce Lee knockoff Jann Lee clear off his feet in DOA4.

In short, we've been having a great though familiar experience playing this latest installment in the series, both against the computer and online against other players around the world. Dead or Alive 4 features the fast, smooth gameplay the series is known for, and includes all the familiar characters plus a few new ones who fit right in with all the rest (with one heavily armored exception). It's also loaded with all the conventional modes you'd expect from a fighting game--precisely the same ones as what were found in 2004's Dead or Alive Ultimate for the Xbox. In fact, the new game's menu system is nearly identical to that of DOAU.

DOAU introduced online play to the series, making it the most significant update since 2000's stunning Dead or Alive 2 for the Dreamcast. Meanwhile, Dead or Alive 4 doesn't mess with success, instead building on DOAU's formula with an expanded character roster and some more options. And of course, the game looks better than ever on the Xbox 360, though given how great DOA2, DOA3, and DOAU looked, returning fans won't be in for too many surprises from a graphical standpoint. Most of the characters look and animate pretty much just like they used to (we went back and played DOAU again just to be sure), though the game's fantastic fighting stages are all new. Not much has changed from an audio standpoint, either, though the hard-hitting punch and kick effects and fast-paced music fit the game as well as ever.

The Dead or Alive series was once considered substandard by fighting game elitists who'd poured hundreds of dollars into Virtua Fighter and Tekken machines. The first installment in the series was relatively shallow, and since these games have always flaunted their full-figured female fighters, some fighting game fans simply assumed that DOA never grew up. But that was then and this is now: DOA4 is by all means a complex and interesting fighting game that longtime fans of the genre should enjoy as much as anyone else. While it's still very easy to pick up and start playing, most characters have about a hundred unique moves, and tons of different options when facing all kinds of different opponents. In other words, you'll be able to quickly spot better players when competing online. A little luck might help you along, but to play this game well is absolutely a test of skill.

The series' trademark reversals are back, of course, which means that any fighter can counter an opponent's punches or kicks with the proper timing--or rather, with the proper guesswork, because most moves come out far too quickly for you to be able to reactively reverse them. Still, the timing of reversals seems to have been tweaked somewhat, such that you can now reverse an opponent even as you're taking hits midcombo, as long as your feet are still planted on the ground. So if you're playing against a reckless opponent who's happened upon an effective string of punches and kicks and keeps using it over and over, it's quite easy to punish the repetition. This game definitely encourages you to mix up your moves and to stay on the offensive.

The main offline modes include a rudimentary story mode, a time attack mode, a team battle mode, a versus mode, a sparring mode, and a survival mode (plus tag battle variants for most of these)--all familiar territory for DOA players. What's nice is that because the Xbox 360 automatically integrates leaderboard support, you're able to see how you stack up against other players in stuff like time attack mode. Also, the game's achievements are tied to both offline and online play, and much how we've been addicted to unlocking as many achievements as possible in other 360 games, we quickly gravitated toward these. We're not anywhere near getting 100 successive wins in survival mode, but that's what it takes to earn one of the tougher achievements in the game. Other achievements are tied to unlocking hidden characters and to earning successive victories online, as well as to your online rating, which is based on your relative wins and losses. Only the best players will earn the S or SS ratings online, and thankfully, the online matchmaking system should prevent most of us from ever having to face them (because you're typically going to be matched against players with similar ratings).

Dead or Alive 4's new online lobby system is one of the most unusual aspects of the game, but it's not as significant as you might expect. Basically, you can have your own goofy-themed lobby and unique avatar online, and players will initially show up in your lobby when you create a match. (Look in our screen gallery to see examples of some of the lobby themes and avatars--they're pretty amusing.) There you can all cavort around, performing various silly animations or even watching matches on a television in the lobby. However, as soon as you elect to actually participate in the fighting, you leave the lobby environment and head straight into what looks like conventional gameplay--so, unless you feel like watching Dead or Alive 4 more than playing it, the new lobby system is easy to dismiss.

The action's been fast and smooth online, even when playing against opponents across the globe. Sometimes there's noticeable lag when watching other players competing, but the gameplay's noticeably smoother whenever it's your turn to fight. As with any quality fighting game, matches against human opponents tend to be much more exciting than matches against the computer, though for what it's worth, even at the normal difficulty setting, DOA4's artificial intelligence puts up a pretty fierce fight.

Hey Kokoro, Akira called and says he wants his Stun Palm of Doom back.
Hey Kokoro, Akira called and says he wants his Stun Palm of Doom back.

We should also mention Spartan-458, the Halo-inspired not-so-hidden character. She looks exactly like Halo's Master Chief, though she's (obviously) got a woman's voice. She's physically imposing, standing significantly taller than all but the biggest fighters, and her attacks are mostly just hard-hitting punches and kicks. She's definitely got fewer moves than most other characters. By far her best-looking move has her shoving one of those blue-glowing plasma grenades into the opponent's stomach and then kicking the poor fool to the turf just before the grenade goes off. She's also got optical camouflage, which causes her to turn semitransparent, but the effect isn't very subtle--so don't think she's capable of turning invisible or anything like that. The rest of the hidden fighters are familiar faces from past installments of DOA.

We've logged a good amount of time with Dead or Alive 4 already, but there's always more to learn and experience when playing online, so we'd best get back to it. For now, we can safely guarantee that Dead or Alive fans won't be disappointed by this latest game in the series. Look for our full review right around the time the game hits stores.

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