The fighting game genre is a tough one to break into. You've got your hardcore Street Fighter fans, your Tekken heads, your Virtua Fighter nerds, your Soul Calibur geeks and often very little crossover. That's partly the nature of the games, as it takes discipline and dedication to master the moves.
The Dreamcast's Dead or Alive 2 never really took off among hardcore fighting fans due to its relatively simple combat system and somewhat limited depth. Still, few games looked better and none conveyed the same cinematic qualities of fighting we enjoy in the movies. DOA managed to find its own little niche.
And now, it attempts to eke out even more space for itself by being the first fighting game available for the Xbox. Dead or Alive 3 sticks to the basics by adhering strongly to its past with only a few minor gameplay tweaks. While a bit disappointing, it still looks like a million bucks and plays well, leading to a solid first entry.
Despite the fact that this is the third official game in the series, no one has bothered to actually work out any sort of discernable story. You pick one of 16 characters with whom to smite the evil Genra, a bad guy who may or may not be a demon named Omega. Along the way, you'll be utterly confused by what has to be the most completely nonsensical excuse for a 'plot' since the 70's Italian horror flick Nude for Satan. But at least that had Satan, and, well, someone nude for him.
Seriously, how about just a little effort next time? You don't get any opening movies to explain the characters, nor are their comments before each match insightful at all. Some fight for money, some fight for honor, some fight for tip$, and some fight so that at the end they can get half-naked and prance around. They're transparent and basic and the whole game makes as much sense as watching an episode of Twin Peaks backwards.
But it looks a helluva lot better. DOA 3 is probably the best-looking fighting game yet, with much more exciting and vibrant environments than past DOA games. Witness the flock of birds flying around as you scuffle on the beach in front of a gorgeous sunset. Check out the deformation of the snow on the 'Snow' level as you scoot around. From the terrific water effects to the fantastic sun glares and lighting, this is really a top notch effort.
The new levels are pretty cool, particularly the 'Lost World', in which you begin fighting atop a cliff only to eventually plummet down, down, down. While not all the stages feature breakaway walls and multiple levels, most do, and it's very rewarding finding the hot spots.
Character animations, though, are pretty much the same as DOA 2. In fact, many of the fighters have almost identical move lists with just a few additions. When you take into account that there are only 3 new characters out of the 16, it means there isn't a whole lot left to discover if you've played earlier DOA games.
The combat is also relatively unchanged. Each character has a nice assortment of kicks, punches and throws, and the simple control scheme makes pulling off seemingly tricky moves a snap. As always, the high mark of the combat system is the art of the move reversal, which is all about timing. Catch a punch in midair and watch your character twist your opponent's arm around and kick him in the head in one smooth turn.
I've always enjoyed the simple controls of DOA 3, and the inclusion of the reversal thwarts excessive button mashing. But you can't help but notice how thin everything feels when compared to the Tekken or Virtua Fighter games. The learning curve ends pretty abruptly; the hardest moves are really only a few simple moves strung together. You don't get anywhere near the kind of combo depth or intricate technique found in other fighting games.
You also don't get a very satisfying single player game. Though there are 16 total characters, each one only fights about 6 others before reaching the boss, Omega. Someone decided to change the view when fighting Omega, switching it to a sort of three-quarter behind cam. It's awful. And despite his cheap projectile weapons (he's the only one in the game with fireball ability), he is one of the biggest wussies in the game. Whack him a few times and down he goes, and away you go to watch another completely mystifying (albeit gorgeous) winning FMV. Worst...boss...ever.
The other game modes are also a little on the flimsy side. You get Versus, Team Battle, Sparring (training), the silly Watch mode (where you just watch the computer fight itself), Survival and Tag Battle. Tag Battle seems so good on paper, but they make you fight Tag matches in static arenas that don't have the breakable walls and varying levels. It winds up being a little boring, though the tag team moves are still plenty cool..
Too bad you don't get rewarded for kicking ass. You'd figure the developers learned their lesson when they released DOA 2 Hardcore, the PS2 version of the original DOA 2 filled with plenty of new outfits and a few characters to unlock. Well, what you see is what you get with DOA 3. After beating the game with every character, you don't get much. Perhaps after playing for a million hours you get some new shoes or something. All I know is that you should get rewarded much earlier.
DOA 3 certainly has its cinematic moments. Imagine kicking a guy off a cliff, jumping down after him, kicking him off another cliff, following him again, then kicking him off a third cliff into a pool of shimmering water. Name another game where you can punch a guy though a wall, smack him off a rooftop and toss him through a burning torch. I guarantee you'll at one point or another actually yell out, "[expletive] yeah, baby!"
What it doesn't have, however, is enough new stuff to warrant a better grade. This game is so similar to DOA 2 that calling it a sequel should only refer to the graphics. How about allowing Tag matches to take place on any level? How about letting you actually perform an attack while jumping down after your opponent? How about adding some kind of extra incentive to play the single-player? If I'm playing by myself, I'd still rather play the original Soul Blade.
DOA 3 is a prime example of graphics taking center stage over gameplay. The hype machine has been working overtime on this one, and though it's very far from a bad game, it's not particularly close to an amazing one, either.