Developer: Team Ninja
Review Date: 2/1/03
After winning the "Dead Or Alive 3" competition, Zack (!!!) took his winnings to Las Vegas and won enough money to buy himself a tropical island. He decided to host the fourth DOA contest on his island, but shrewdly only invited the girls (Kasumi, Lei-Fang, Tina, Ayane, Helena, Hitomi, Christie, and newcomer Lisa). After realizing they've been tricked, the girls decide to relax and enjoy their vacation by playing volleyball, gambling, shopping for swimsuits, and playfully frolicking in the sand.
Like every other game in the "Dead Or Alive" series, this one is graphically spectacular and is one of the best looking games available for the Xbox. (which is saying quite a bit) The character models look like the same ones from DOA3, and they're quite attractive and well rendered. The character animations are smooth, realistic, and very playful. The control scheme is quite simple, and playing volleyball only requires two buttons (making it twice as hard to play as "Beach Spikers"). Mastering the subtleties of the volleyball controls can be rather tricky, but matches aren't so fierce that you don't have time to think about and set up your next shot. Character cut scenes are brief and innocuous, and never irritating or disruptive (unlike "Beach Spikers"). The one major flaw with the volleyball engine is with the camera, which almost always obscures one character (and most often, mine). The game is optimized for the HDTV aspect ratio, so it's probably not a problem there, but it sure can be tricky to see what's going on with a regular old TV.
But what the game is REALLY about is shopping for swimsuits and accessorizing your character. Once you figure out the volleyball engine, playing volleyball is a fun and carefree distraction that primarily serves as a way to win prize money, which you can go shopping with. Matches are also good for checking out and showing off your new duds, and the voyeuristic aspect of the game is a fun and safe way to watch women that you would have no chance in hell of ever seeing or meeting in real life doing things and wearing outfits that you only see on TV (or in Victoria's Secret catalogs). And with over 300 swimsuits to choose from, you'll be busy for quite a while...
And that's where the ESRB stepped in and gave the game a "mature" rating. The presentation and execution of the game is very innocent and playful, but it's also exceedingly Japanese and potentially confusing to Western audiences. And by god, if the ESRB can't understand what's going on, then it must be dirty! I can only imagine them thinking that it's perfectly fine for teenage boys to watch bikini clad babes playing volleyball, but having them shop for swimsuits, hats, and nail polish is downright perverse. Although I must admit, the teaser movie is utterly scandalous and alone could have warranted the "mature" rating. I'm not quite sure what Team Ninja was thinking with that.
Before you can play any volleyball, you have to find a partner to play with. Relationship dynamics are based on the characters' natural dispositions towards each other, your performance on the court, and what kind of gifts you give to your partner. If you don't make a lot of mistakes and shower your partner with presents that she likes, she'll probably stick with you. It becomes more difficult if you try to pair up characters who don't like each other, like Kasumi and Ayane, or Christie and Helena. Christie is probably the hardest character to play, because she's a bit of a loner and no one likes to play with her.
Character interactions are fairly simplistic and menu driven, which is a bit of a disappointment. But the mechanism works and is pretty effective in getting the job done. The heartbreak that you feel when a girl rejects a gift or refuses to partner with you is tangible and real, as is the thrill of giving a girl a gift and seeing her wearing it on the court the next day. Depending who you team up with, there's also motivation and pressure to play well so you don't lose your partner or disappoint her. Seeing your partner pout or throw you a mournful glance when you screw up is devastating. (or maybe I'm just overly sensitive about it)
Even though DOAX may quite possibly be the best game ever made, the most frustrating and disappointing aspect of the game is realizing what it could have been. While solid, the gameplay is rather shallow, the menu driven navigation and interaction is unfortunate, and there's simply just not enough to do on the island. The aerial view teases you with all of the neat places and things on the island, but there's no way to get to most of them. Just being able to freely roam around the island to take in the sights would boost gameplay considerably - even if you couldn't really do anything there. (sort of like the adventure stages in "Sonic Adventure") Heck, just being able to freely roam around in your hotel room would improve the gameplay considerably. Since the game is totally freeform, doesn't have a beginning or end and has no real goals, random navigation and exploration would fit in perfectly. It's a tropical vacation simulator afterall.
For all intents and purposes, the island is completely deserted, and it would have been really nice to actually see the other characters either poolside or in the casino. If nothing else, you should see the elusive Zack dealing cards or something. As it is, he's nowhere to be found. There aren't even clerks at the stores that you visit. This gives the game a cold and isolated feel despite the warm and sunny locale. The lack of a four player versus mode is also disappointing.
And finally, just like in "DOA2: Hardcore", the first thing you need to do when you start the game is turn off the awful English dubbing. Even though Dennis Rodman is the only English voice actor in the cast, he totally misses the mark and spoils Zack's goofy charm. (ironic, since Zack is actually a parody of him in the first place) It's rather interesting how in Japanese, the opening movie of Zack purchasing the island is gut-bustingly funny (I was in tears the first time I saw it), but in English it just comes off as dumb.
For what it is, the game is quite wonderful and surprisingly addictive (as I gave up both food and sleep to keep playing). Your mileage will vary depending on how much you like and buy into the entire DOA franchise, your emotional investment in the characters, and your desire and comfort level with female role playing. Fans of the series will certainly enjoy seeing their favorite characters in a more playful environment, and the game is strewn with classic DOA elements (including the return of the bounce gauge and the ever so amusing awkward English translations). When it comes right down to it, I would play any game that featured the DOA girls, as long as the presentation stayed true to the franchise's roots. "Dead Or Alive Fishing" anyone? Bring it on!