Sparring mode does a good job of teaching you everyone's moves, though it could have done more to introduce you to some of the complexities of DOA4's gameplay. While anyone can pull off plenty of fancy-looking strings of attacks by mashing the punch and kick buttons, with experience you pick up on a lot of nuances, like the right times to use the four types of reversals, how to recover from critical hits and getting knocked down, the damage potential of the two types of counterblows, various arena-specific tactics, and much more. Dead or Alive may not have always enjoyed the good reputation of longer-running 3D fighting series like Virtua Fighter and Tekken, but today it's at least as sophisticated.
You'll notice when playing against the computer in DOA4 that the enemy artificial intelligence puts up a very good fight, even at the default difficulty setting. It'll perform some slick combos on you when you leave yourself open, and it'll use throws and reversals effectively but not robotically. It'll exploit your poor tactics if you rely on the same moves over and over, too. If anything, the default difficulty will probably seem a little on the hard side for most players, and for whatever reason, there aren't any easier settings to fall back on. But since you can retry a match whenever you lose (except in survival mode), victory is really only a matter of time. Besides, you might just learn a good trick or two from playing against the computer, especially at the tougher two difficulty settings.
Challenging artificial intelligence and a good number of offline modes give DOA4 some real lasting value even when playing solo.
Online is where the real action is. As in Dead or Alive Ultimate, DOA4 offers a variety of different online play variants, all centered around the concept of a virtual arcade. In the ancient days, when lots of people played fighting games in actual video arcades, there were fewer arcade machines than people, so you needed to wait your turn. All the anxious waiting around, as well as the thought of spending more quarters than you wanted to, gave you more incentive to win when your turn came up, which helped inspire fierce competition. DOA4 evokes this same feeling with its virtual arcade concept by letting up to 16 players compete in a single lobby. That's way too many people to wait around for in most cases, but if you set up or find a match with a limit of around three to five players, it's a great balance where players can catch a breather in between fights but never have to twiddle their thumbs for long. The default "winner stays" gameplay variant is best suited for the virtual arcade format, but some of the other variants are also worth checking out, like kumite, where the host of the session keeps taking on successive challengers, win or lose.
We rarely experienced significant lag when playing online, even against overseas opponents, though the game did occasionally lock up or hang up for long periods of time in between fights, especially when we tried to access the Xbox guide. We confirmed that other players had also run into this, but the problem cropped up maybe once in 50 matches, so it didn't really hurt our experience. It's still a little discouraging, and hopefully it'll be patched. As in Dead or Alive Ultimate, there tends to be noticeable lag when you're watching a match rather than participating in it, but as soon as your turn is up, you can expect comparably responsive gameplay to what you get playing offline. Even when there is some lag during a match, it still doesn't seem to prevent your moves from registering or anything too drastic. It's well worth shrugging off these types of issues to get to play this game online.
Before you can host an online match in DOA4, you need to get yourself a lobby. Your first one's free, but to get others, you'll need to spend currency you earn from beating other players. The game offers a bunch of different-themed lobbies as well as numerous quirky avatars that'll represent you when you're in a lobby. Some of this material is actually pretty funny, provided you think ghosts and chickens dancing around in a space station with a big-screen TV showing DOA4 matches is funny. But regardless of what sort of good intentions went into this concept, it's not particularly well implemented. Specifically, you can hang out in the lobby only if you're content to be a spectator rather than a participant in online combat--you leave the lobby environment as soon as you elect to join a match, not just when it's your turn to fight. So unless you're really into watching other people play fighting games as opposed to playing them yourself, DOA4's lobby system won't do much for you, even though you'll probably get a few laughs out of it. On the other hand, the unlockable achievements in DOA4 are generally well thought out, enticing you to explore and keep coming back to key aspects of the game. A few achievements relate to achieving win streaks and high rankings online, making them attainable only by very skilled players, so you'll know not to mess with people who've earned these. Overall, this is one of the better sets of achievements so far in an Xbox 360 game.
The new online lobby system is mildly disappointing, but getting to play live opponents around the world is by far one of the best things about DOA4.
DOA4 is also one of the best-looking Xbox 360 games yet. Vividly detailed characters and environments, smooth and believable animations (including many new ones), and crisp textures all add up to a stunning visual presentation. A few specific rough edges do stick out, so let's get those out of the way. The flowing long hair some characters have can sometimes flow in weird ways, in thick ribbons rather than strands. Some unsightly clipping issues also crop up with some characters' alternate outfits and during some grappling moves. But such flaws are as easily forgivable as they're unfortunate, since the game looks so impressive overall.
Granted, DOA4 does look a lot like previous Dead or Alive games. Although DOA4 looks its best in high definition, where every little visual detail seems to clearly stand out, the character graphics look a lot like those of Dead or Alive Ultimate even in HD. Everyone's got a complexion as smooth as the game's frame rate, which makes the characters look less like real people and more like dolls or action figures (you know, depending on gender). Still, these are some great-looking characters, and some of the subtle details, like how Jann Lee's veins pop out when he's flexing or how La Mariposa's glittery outfit literally sparkles, show tremendous attention to detail. Too bad the characters don't have as many outfits as they did in Dead or Alive Ultimate, and that some of the alternate outfits are just color swaps; but all the variety in character appearances is remarkable anyway. The environments probably look even better than the characters, too. You wouldn't know just from looking at them that most of these arenas are from a fighting game. In fact, they're so filled with life that you'll almost wish you could just walk around and explore them rather than be limited to smashing your opponents into and through parts of them. Also, even though there's so much going on visually, loading times are nearly nonexistent in DOA4, and briefly come up mostly just when there's a change of scenery rather than a change of characters.
Razor-sharp, ultrasmooth visuals highlight every aspect of the experience, especially if you're set up to play in HD.
Great audio highlights the presentation, though it too is very similar to previous games in the series. All of the fighters, with the exception of Spartan-458, speak Japanese with English subtitles. It seems as though they should have spoken in their native languages since they hail from all around the world, but the Japanese voice actors fit their parts well. The game's enthusiastic female announcer also does a good job, but in a nice touch, you can replace her with just about any of the game's fighters after you unlock their "system voice" in the sparring mode. More importantly, the effects for punches, kicks, snaps, and slams are all spot-on in DOA4, sounding plenty painful especially when some sort of wall or railing is involved in the exchange. The game also makes surprisingly good use of surround sound, which doesn't have much impact on gameplay but makes a lot of the arenas seem that much more real, what with believable ambient effects happening all around. To top it all off, there's a fittingly upbeat soundtrack to go with the action, featuring memorable themes for some of the characters. And yes, for better or worse, Dead or Alive fans may look forward to more use of Aerosmith in the game's introductory cutscene.
It's simple: If you like fighting games, DOA4 is for you. Between its great selection of powerful fighters, its terrific action, and its addictive online mode, there's an awful lot to sink your teeth into, learn, and master in this latest and greatest installment in the series. That the whole thing looks so good certainly doesn't hurt, either. Any subsequent fighting games for the Xbox 360 now have a very tough contender to beat.