Dead or Alive 3 Review

Once you get past its graphics--and you will--you'll find that Dead or Alive 3 doesn't offer much of anything that hasn't been done in other 3D fighting games.

Though Nintendo will have none of it, seemingly every game system since the 16-bit days has premiered with a flashy 3D fighting game in its lineup, which serves not only to appease fans of the genre but also to show off the power of the new hardware. The PlayStation 2 had Tekken Tag Tournament. The Dreamcast had Soul Calibur. The original PlayStation had Battle Arena Toshinden, while the Saturn had Virtua Fighter. Proving it can play that game, Microsoft secured exclusive rights for the latest game in Tecmo's Dead or Alive series to premier on the Xbox simultaneously with the system's launch. Along with the impressive shooter Halo, Dead or Alive 3 is the most highly anticipated of the Xbox's starting lineup. That's largely because, for a long time, it's been the game that has showcased the power of the Xbox hardware and has done a fine job of it. Make no mistake: Dead or Alive 3 looks absolutely stunning. It's the best-looking home fighting game ever released, and it looks better than anything in the arcades too, with the possible exception of Virtua Fighter 4.

Then again, there's an adage in gaming that graphics aren't everything, and Dead or Alive 3 is a good example of this. Once you get past its graphics--and you will--you'll find that Dead or Alive 3 doesn't offer much of anything that hasn't been done in other 3D fighting games, particularly its own predecessors. In fact, Dead or Alive 3 plays almost exactly the same as last year's Dead or Alive 2 and inherits most of the previous game's characters, moves, combos, and timing. That's not necessarily a bad thing--the 3D fighting genre has remained relatively unchanged over the years because it's so well refined, and Dead or Alive 2 was an outstanding game. Dead or Alive 3 features mostly the same cast of interesting, memorable characters, all of whom have dozens of moves--punches, kicks, dodges, throws, holds, reversals, and more. However, Dead or Alive 3 lacks some of the polish and the frills that made for timeless games like Namco's definitive Dreamcast port of Soul Calibur. Indeed, because of predictable computer artificial intelligence, limited gameplay options, questionable character balance, and more, you'll likely find that Dead or Alive 3 doesn't have much to offer in the long run, even though it is fun to play for a while and is definitely easy on the eyes.

The Virtua Fighter and Tekken games have long since established themselves as the rival kings of the 3D fighting genre, and the Dead or Alive series, from its inception, was clearly intended to surpass them both. That's because it's always been technically on par with those other games, as well as basically enjoyable to play, but clearly inspired by each of these series in turn: Dead or Alive borrowed Tekken's over-the-top fighting moves, along with some of Virtua Fighter's more detailed character graphics. Dead or Alive's single gameplay innovation was that it gave every character the ability to perform reversal attacks--impressive, damaging moves you could execute to catch the opponent's punches and kicks and then counter them. Previous games had long since included reversal moves for certain characters, but Dead or Alive's idea that any fighter worth his salt should be able to perform reversals was an interesting one. For better or worse, this turned the gameplay of Dead or Alive into a fancy version of rock-paper-scissors. Punches and kicks could be countered with reversals, which could in turn be countered with throws, which could in turn be countered with punches and kicks--and around and around you went.

It also bears mention that the most noticeable feature of the original Dead or Alive game was that its female characters were, let's say, unusually well endowed. Still, the game's PG-13 content wasn't anything more objectionable than what you'd find on the anime shelf at Blockbuster. In fact, the colorful anime-style characters of the Dead or Alive series--not just the females--are what give the series a lot of its appeal.

If you played much of Dead or Alive 2, you'll be in familiar territory here. Last year's game added lots of new moves, 3D movement (in the original, characters were stuck on a 2D plane), and one particularly novel feature: extremely detailed, interactive fighting arenas. Suddenly, the environment could be used as a weapon--a well-placed hit could send an opponent crashing through a wall, careening off a cliff, or slamming into some obstacle. Dead or Alive 2 also added a tag team mode in which you could readily switch from one character to another in midbattle, much like you can in many other more-recent fighting games to date. These impressive additions, along with significantly enhanced graphics, made Dead or Alive 2 a surprisingly worthy contender to Soul Calibur, which is still perhaps the reigning champion of fighting games. Dead or Alive 2 was first released for the Dreamcast and later for the PlayStation 2 as Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore.

In light of the advancements made in its predecessor, Dead or Alive 3 seems underachieving. It too has a tag team mode, a survivor mode in which you keep fighting opponents one after another, a team battle mode in which you must defeat all the characters in your opponent's lineup, and a sparring mode that teaches you the ropes. The gameplay is identical to that of the previous game, save for the addition of some new moves and several new characters. There are 16 total, three of whom are new: Hitomi, an unassuming girl who happens to be a karate master; Christie, a busty assassin with white, feathered hair; and Brad Wong, a practitioner of the drunken fist style. These new fighters are fun to use and look as good as all the rest.

The game uses three action buttons: one for punches, one for kicks, and one for blocking and reversing. Special moves are easy to execute--most of them require either pushing the digital pad in a direction while simultaneously pressing a button or pressing a few buttons in sequence. A few moves require Street Fighter II-style circular motions, but even these are simple. Some of the game's most spectacular, most damaging moves and combos still aren't difficult to execute--partly because the controls are very forgiving--so that even a rough estimation of the proper command tends to execute the desired attack. Likewise, since reversals are extremely easy to execute--you simply press back and the block button--Dead or Alive 3 really doesn't have a steep learning curve. It's great for people who haven't played many fighting games before, as they'll be able to pick it up, jam on the punch and kick buttons with their character of choice, and come out looking more or less like seasoned pros.

Dead or Alive 3 makes it easy for beginners to pick it up and start playing, but that's not to say they'll have an easy time beating experienced players. Actually, the game rewards fast reflexes and good timing more than anything. Reversing an overly aggressive opponent, or throwing an overly defensive one, is the way to win. Landing big combos helps too, and Dead or Alive 3 gives each character plenty of moves that you can string together in rapid succession, moves that can stun the opponent, and moves that launch the opponent into the air, letting you juggle him or her with attacks on the way down. In tag team battles, you can even tag in your partner right in the middle of a combo for devastating results.

Despite that each character has an arsenal of moves, the balance in Dead or Alive 3 is suspect. Faster characters, such as the runaway ninja Kasumi, the Bruce Lee knockoff Jann Lee, and Ninja Gaiden veteran Ryu Hayabusa are extremely powerful, whereas slower fighters, such as the burly Leon and the militant Bayman, need to work harder to win. Their slower attacks are easier to counter, whereas the faster characters can execute very damaging juggle combos easily. If Dead or Alive 3 were an arcade game, and if lots of people still played arcade fighting games competitively, then these balance issues would be serious; as it is, they aren't obvious, since every character can basically fend for himself or herself.

As with any fighting game, the best way to play Dead or Alive 3 is with a friend. You can actually play with up to three friends in the tag team mode, though it's a better game for two. You'll have plenty of fun for a while, trying all the different characters and seeing what sorts of objects you can send your buddy crashing through in the various stages. Though it's to be expected that the computer isn't as fun or challenging to fight as a qualified human player, unfortunately, the computer opponent in Dead or Alive 3 has some fairly serious problems that make it somewhat boring to play against after a while. Even at the highest difficulty, the computer falls for the same tricks--most notably, it seems incapable of blocking a recovery kick executed as you get up from the turf. So any time you're knocked down, you'll know you can always give the computer some payback. The computer still isn't easy--it has an unnaturally good ability to reverse your attacks, especially at the highest setting. This forces you to change up between regular attacks, throws, and reversals of your own--good practice for when you take on human opponents.

Dead or Alive 3's story mode is only referred to as such because characters exchange a few bits of inane dialogue before the battle begins. The bouts last one round, you face the next opponent, and so on, until you're fighting the game's last boss, who's all decked out in samurai armor and wielding what literally looks exactly like Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber. This bozo's keep-away tactics are fairly easily thwarted once you get used to the strange, skewed camera perspective of this final bout. Once you take care of him, you'll be treated to a surprisingly lavish ending cinematic. These ending movies--one for each character--aren't very long or interesting but sure must have taken a serious amount of time and effort to put together. It's unfair to call the effort wasted, but considering some of Dead or Alive 3's deficiencies, you'll probably wish that the same energy instead went into putting some other extras into the game.

Once you've finished the game with every character--and you can do this in an evening--there isn't much left to discover in Dead or Alive 3, at least not for a while. By comparison, Dead or Alive 2 featured multiple hidden outfits, unlockable hidden characters, and more, all of which were reasonably easy to find. Games such as Soul Calibur and Tekken Tag Tournament also had tons of secrets that could be readily unlocked, lending some additional sense of reward to extended play. But in Dead or Alive 3, things like finishing the story mode without continuing or at the highest difficulty apparently yield nothing. Completing the tag team mode unceremoniously dumps you back to the title screen. The game seems to have only a few hidden bonuses beyond the ability to unlock the character endings, which aren't really worth watching more than once or twice. There's a helpful (though somewhat difficult to find) training option that lets you practice each character's moves, one by one, and completing this for some characters does give you access to a hidden outfit. The game probably contains other secrets hidden deep within the game--the hidden features are probably set to be unlocked after you play as a character a certain number of times or after enough time has elapsed--but most players will find little long-term reward for continuing to play against the computer, since the computer is a pushover.

Dead or Alive 3 certainly looks impressive. The characters are very well animated (though no differently than in Dead or Alive 2) and incredibly detailed--especially their faces, their clothing, and their articulated hands, although they do look a bit too glossy. There's no polygonal clipping--the characters' various special attacks are remarkably fluid, and the hit detection looks right on. That is to say, the fighters actually look like they're hitting one another--and hard--though their clothes and perfect complexions of course never show so much as a scratch, even after the fighters fall 100 feet off a cliff. Not all the backgrounds in Dead or Alive 3 look that great (simplified backgrounds are used for the tag team matches), but the larger ones found in the story mode can be downright gorgeous. These huge arenas, complete with multiple levels, realistic lighting effects, and tons of detail, capably demonstrate the sheer power of the Xbox--evidently more power than any other home system to date--as well as the talent of the game's artists. Dead or Alive 3 also sounds very good, and anime fans should appreciate that all the speech is in Japanese, subtitled (loosely sometimes) in English. The game's synthesized, up-tempo soundtrack is right on, though the Aerosmith songs in the intro and end credits seem very out of place.

If you want to show off the power of the Xbox, then Dead or Alive 3 is your ticket. Screenshots don't do the game justice. Its subtle details are the most impressive: the texture of leather clothes is easily distinguished from denim or silk, and the characters' hair flows smoothly and realistically. Clearly, tremendous effort went into the game's 3D engine and into the character endings. Beyond all that, Dead or Alive 3 is basically very similar to its predecessor. So if you've already mastered previous Dead or Alive games, let alone other 3D fighting games, then you may find that there's very little new for you here. On the other hand, if you've never played a Dead or Alive game before, then this is great place to start--all the characters have plenty of moves for you to learn, and they're all basically fun to play. Still, regardless of how experienced you are with other fighting games, once the first impression wears off, you'll eventually reach the conclusion that Dead or Alive 3 isn't quite as remarkable as it looks. It can last you a while if you have some friends to play it with, but even then, this isn't a game that should justify your decision to buy an Xbox.

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