Matt Conzen

Dead or Alive 4

January 6, 2006

With the launch of the Xbox 360, there’s a new generation of games being released from a variety of existing series. Developers are working hard to give gamers’ favorites a graphical upgrade and add new features for the next-generation console. In an undisclosed location in Japan, Team Ninja has developed the latest iteration of their Dead or Alive series. This is not another eye-catching volleyball game, but a legitimate fighter in the vein of Dead or Alive: Ultimate. At first glance, Dead or Alive 4 might not look like much more than Dead or Alive 3 with prettier environments. Thankfully, this is not the case. Significant changes have been made to ensure that the game can be taken seriously as a fighter, and not just function as launch time eye candy. Not only does Dead or Alive 4 feature the same intense fighting, deadly combos, online tournaments and outrageous cutscenes, but a new and tougher counter system. Dead or Alive 3 and Ultimate matches often resulted in quick skirmishes where players did nothing but trade counters. This was because the window to perform a counter was very long, with the counter animation lasting several frames.
In Dead or Alive 4, the counter system has been tightened up quite a bit. The shortened timeframe available to perform counters results in a tougher and more rewarding counter system. Team Ninja also gave Dead or Alive 4 a 4-point counter system, instead of the previous 3-point and 2-point systems used in the series. In the 4-point system, there are four types of counters. High kicks and punches, low kicks and punches, mid punches, and mid kicks, each requiring a different button input to perform the counter, all before the attack hits you. This may sound daunting at first, but after a little practice, the counter system becomes a deadly tool that can make or break any fight.

The game also features improved graphics. On a standard definition television, Dead or Alive 4 looks a lot like Dead or Alive 3. The character models look a bit more detailed, and the environments are prettier for sure, but otherwise the game doesn’t look much different. This is mostly due to the more anime style art direction Team Ninja has gone with the series. However, when plugged into a high definition TV, this is where Dead or Alive 4‘s graphics really shine. The game looks fantastic at 720p or 1080i, and runs at a silky smooth 60fps. With high definition support, it’s easily the best looking fighter on the market right now.

The game modes available in Dead or Alive 4 are your standard fare for a fighting game. Time Attack lets you try to beat your own times while fighting through eight stages of computer controlled characters, and Survival Mode allows you to take on a barrage of enemies, gaining life back through dropped food and a small bonus at the end of each round. Both are fun, but the real meat of the single player game comes from the Story mode. Story mode lets you go through each character’s story, and unlock a gorgeous, and sometimes hilarious, ending cutscene for each of them. However, actually finishing story mode has shown to be a bit of a problem for some players. While Team Ninja has easily bested the earlier Dead or Alive games with this one, they forgot to bring over one simple feature–an easy mode. The AI on normal is brutal, sometimes ridiculously so.

At the higher tiers, and while fighting the game’s new boss character, the AI can counter moves and perform holds with lightning accuracy, far better than any player I’ve seen. To some, this is good. It provides a significant challenge, even on normal difficulty, and there are still hard and very hard modes for players who master the default setting. To others, it results in something of a roadblock in the game’s learning curve. It’s already difficult enough to get down the counter system, and the increased difficulty makes it even harder. Spending ten or even twenty minutes trying to defeat one character in Story mode, while learning the mechanics of the game, can be very disheartening. Luckily enough, Team Ninja has included an excellent Sparring mode in Dead or Alive 4. You can set the computer on any difficulty level, from Level 1 to 8, or set them to repeat a certain move or combo in order to work up your offense and defense against them. Sparring mode also has the excellent exercise feature, which runs through a majority of your character’s move list, and has you complete them in sequence. Spending time in Sparring and Exercise mode is the best way to improve at Dead or Alive 4, and you’ll need the practice to hold your weight in the Dead or Alive Online mode.

This is where the game really shines. Online Mode hosts a variety of different game modes for you to play against players around the world. Some of the modes offered for online play include Winner Stays, Loser Stays, and Survival. It also has an innovative lobby system so players can sit in a lobby with virtual avatars while socializing and watching the fights go on. The lobby system helps usher in the new generation of online play in a fighting game, making it more like a social arcade experience than a traditional online pairing mode.

The game also does a fairly good job at matchmaking, since every player is ranked, and every fight counts toward your rank. The point of the ranking is not necessarily to prove which players are better than others, but so you can fight players of your own skill level, making the game a fun experience to play online. Currently, a lot of fighters, good and bad, are ranked around a “C”, because that is what the game starts you out at. However, I’d expect the rankings to even out a bit as players get more accustomed to it and play more games, and the rankings should help ensure you can find a competitive match with your skill level almost every time you play.

Aside from gaining and losing rank while playing online in Dead or Alive 4, you also earn or lose Zack dollars to spend at Zack’s Shop. Zack’s Shop sells a ton of new things, from new lobby avatars, to customizations for lobby avatars, to new lobbies and upgrades, to unlockable costumes for use in-game. Unfortunately, Online Mode isn’t entirely smooth sailing, because of some glaring bugs that exist in the current version. The game will outright freeze if any player leaves the game by turning off their Xbox 360, and sudden unexplainable spouts of lag can slow down fights to an unplayable pace. It’s nice that these glitches and bits of lag are not the norm, but they are still frustrating to run into, especially after the numerous delays the game had prior to its eventual release.

Dead or Alive 4 is a great experience, that adds a lot to the series. With the new counter system, and tons of moves available, this is the first Dead or Alive game, aside from Ultimate, not shunned by hardcore fighting fans. Though the learning curve can be tough for some to overcome, most feel it’s worth the effort. Dead or Alive 4 is most definitely a game that carries the “easy to play, difficult to master” label, but is well worth mastering in the long run. A varied and innovative online mode just fuels the fire that Team Ninja set forth on the Xbox 360 community. It easily trumps the previous versions, and is still the only console fighting series with a decent online mode. With deeper gameplay and improved graphics with HD support, Dead or Alive 4 is a must play for any fighting game fan.

Score: 91%

In 1997, Tiger Woods won his first major championship, which happened to be the most prestigious championship in the golf world, The Masters. He began a stride of winning more championships by a wider spread than any other professional golfer the world has ever seen. Nine years later, and Tiger’s popularity has not yet begun to wane. He’s still playing in tournaments, still endorsing products, and the videogame series with his namesake is now in its fourth incarnation. But with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2006 on the Xbox 360, we’ve finally reached the next -eneration of console golfing simulation. Or have we?Obviously, the word of the day for games in a console’s launch line-up is graphics. A new generation means new shader techniques, improved polygon counts, anti-aliasing, and in this case, higher definition. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 looks great in 1080i, offering the best looking golf game around. But take away the expensive high definition TV set, and most gamers already experienced with the series will be significantly less impressed. The courses and environments have gone through a notable visual upgrade, offering great looking shadows and lighting on top of the already beautifully modeled courses, but the player models leave much to be desired. Most of them look like their Xbox or GameCube counterparts, with a slight texture upgrade. It’s no where near the kind of visual leaps we’ve seen in other sports franchises, such as NBA Live or Madden 06. Still, the visuals are improved, if not as breathtaking as we’d expect from a next generation game.

In golf, a “cut” refers to a shot where the ball moves from left to right during flight. In videogames, it refers to what EA has done with every game in their 360 lineup. Yes, Tiger Woods 06 was another victim of the feature loss in EA’s next-generation sports lineup. If you’ve played the game on the Xbox or PlayStation 2, you may have remembered the fourteen different and beautiful courses, tons of game modes, and intuitive controls. Well, in making the leap across the generational gap, the game lost the very things that made the series great. The fourteen courses were cut down to six, providing golfers with scenery from Pebble Beach, Riviera Country Club, TPC at Sawgrass, Turnberry, Pinehurst, and Carnoustie. Though these are excellent and challenging courses, it leaves much to be desired when compared to what is available in current-generation versions.

The game modes suffered the same fate, taking the various modes from the previous iterations and mashing them into one Career Mode. The idea of career is to take an amateur golfer and raise him through the ranks to become a major-winning PGA Tour Pro. The concept of Career Mode seems great, but it should have been offered alongside the other game modes, instead of replacing them entirely. Removing the option of going through the game the old way along with playing some mini-games along the way has removes a lot of the fun from the series. Another major problem with the Career Mode is the sheer repetitiveness of it. You’ll often end up playing the same courses over and over again, which, at the end of a 72-hole marathon, can exhaust any drive you may have previously had to keep playing the game.

Golf is a game of patience and attitude. Perhaps if EA had the right patience and attitude regarding Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 on the Xbox 360, it would have been the best golf game we’d seen to date. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a mere shadow of its current-generation brethren. Improved graphics are always great, but at the cost of features and fun, it just isn’t worth it. At ten dollars more than the PS2, GameCube and Xbox versions of Tiger Woods, there’s almost no reason to pick up Tiger Woods on the 360. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it managed to be overshadowed by itself.

Score: 70%

Madden NFL 2006

December 17, 2005

Football fans, rejoice. A next-generation version of the ever popular Madden franchise is upon us. EA has some pretty big shoes to fill, since they’ve eliminated all other competition by securing the exclusive rights to the NFL players and teams. They’ve done a good job keeping fans happy on the other consoles, but how did they do on the Xbox 360?First and foremost, the graphics are astounding. The players and their animations look more realistic than ever. EA has made the game even more immersive and realistic by adding weather effects and night games. This is one of the 360 launch titles that really proves we’ve entered the next-generation of graphics. The game looks even better if you have a chance to play it on a high definition television, as it supports resolutions up to 1080i, providing the most realistic looking graphics in a football game we’ve ever seen.

The improved visuals are accompanied by a complete overhaul of the menu system. The new menus both look better, and are more intuitive, once you get the hang of them. For long time fans of the series, however, it could take some getting used to. The biggest change here is in the Playbook section of the game, where plays are now organized not only by formation but by types, such as quick pass, inside run, and outside run. This makes choosing an effective play much more accessible to newcomers to the series, because they can choose the play they want without having to know the formation it uses or the names of less obvious plays. The other big change in the interface is the X Menu, which is brought up by hitting X when the menu’s icon is available in the lower left corner of your screen. This shows the last menu you’ve accessed, the active profile, and offers the options in the main menu, from almost any point in the game. This enables the player to drop what he or she’s doing and start a new franchise, edit rosters, or log on to Xbox Live, without having to navigate through lengthy information screens and load times to find their way back to the main menu.

Aside from the graphics and interface, the biggest draw of the Xbox 360 version of the game is the Xbox Live functionality. This version of Madden offers online leaderboards, quick player matchups, and custom matches, all with the blazing speed of Xbox Live. While playing online, lag is mostly a non-issue, though can cause some problems while attempting to kick the football. Aside from the rare lag spikes during a kickoff or while attempting a field goal, the game plays smooth as butter online. It’s also a fun and competitive experience that both hardcore Madden players and casual football fans alike can enjoy, as long as they don’t mind losing a few games. Late night games of Madden have provided some of the most enjoyable experiences the Xbox 360 launch has to offer. As with all Xbox 360 games, EA has provided achievements for players to strive for in the single player game. Once these achievements are reached, they are displayed on your Gamercard for any friends and potential opponents to see. They are also offering premium downloads on the Xbox Live Marketplace, such as team-based themes and gamer pictures, for football fans looking to display their team pride, even while not playing Madden.

Unfortunately, this is where the string of praises ends for Madden NFL 06. It had the potential to be the best console iteration of a football game yet, but instead falls short of it’s current-generation brethren. The reason for this is simple – the game is missing features. And these are not throw-away features we’re talking about, but rather many that were made standard months or even years ago in the Madden franchise. The popular Mini-Camp has been taken out, ridding players of a method to improve their own abilities and their player’s stats in franchise mode. Also missing is the ability to challenge a call made by referees, a feature which has been in the game for years. Superstar mode, which allowed players to create a player and bring him from a rookie to an NFL superstar, is mysteriously absent. The only available modes of play are Play Game (Exhibition), Play Online, and Franchise. Franchise mode retains most of its features from the other console iterations, but the lack of other modes of play just makes this version seem lackluster at best, especially at an MSRP of $10 more than the game on other platforms. Fortunately, the new gameplay mechanics introduced in Madden NFL 06, such as QB Vision, the Truck Stick, and Precision Placement are still available.

Overall, Madden NFL 06 makes some great improvements to the series. The graphics are fantastic, and the presentation is more realistic and immersive than ever before. However, there’s no excuse for the gutting of the very features that made the Madden series great. It’s a shame that EA made what had the potential to be the best version of the game, and subsequently sut it to the point of being the worst. It seems they just don’t understand that no matter what the game looks like, the gameplay is the most important, and cutting gameplay out in order to make time to improve the graphics is about the worst decision a developer can make. If you’re only looking to for the prettiest experience in videogame football, or if you don’t have any other consoles that can take the game online, the Xbox 360 version of Madden NFL 06 might not be a bad purchase. Otherwise, it’s a safe bet to wait for Madden NFL 07, which will hopefully look just as good, but ship with all of the franchise’s content intact.

Score: 70%

Sony’s new PSP seems to be the system of choice for reviving an old series, and Twisted Metal is certainly a series in need of rejuvenation. After hitting its peak with Twisted Metal 2, the series rock-bottomed with the subsequent sequel. Some redemption was found in Twisted Metal Black for the PS2, but that was more of a dark re-imagining of the series than a genuine return to form. Luckily, Twisted Metal: Head On has now arrived, and fans are likely to receive it as a breath of fresh exhaust fumes. It returns to the light-hearted art and gameplay style of Twisted Metal 2, and it even includes a few levels from that game. Updating old franchises for newer generations can be a dicey proposition, but Head-On succeeds by adding enough new content to make the trip worthwhile.

If you’ve played Twisted Metal, the concept shouldn’t be anything new to you. Vehicular deathmatch is the best way to describe it. Twisted Metal takes the Demolition Derby concept and adds guns, rockets, upgrades, and undead bikers. The gameplay formula isn’t anything special, but it’s a lot of fun in practice. Players can choose between ten classic characters at the outset, and there are also a few more hidden within the game. Head-On looks and plays great on the PSP, though it is a bit difficult to get used to. The analog stick is very sensitive, and this leads to a bit of a learning curve for controlling the vehicles. After a few matches, though, you should be able to exercise the right amount of pressure on each turn and dominate the competition. The graphics look fantastic, complete with awe-inspiring weapon effects and great-looking levelsA

Darkstalkers Chronicle is a bit of an oddball in the PSP launch line-up. Sharing shelf space with the latest and greatest in portable 3D gaming, this beefed-up port of a four-and-a-half year old 2D Dreamcast game certainly stands out. Normally, this sort of dichotomy just wouldn’t make sense, but the Darkstalkers series has a fervent fan base that will consider its launch availability a big plus for Sony’s new handheld. The series was never a mainstream hitA