Girls! Girls! Girls! When you pick up a Dead or Alive fighting game, you know what you're getting, and you can measure it in inches of bust, waist, and hips. Dead or Alive 4, now surgically enhanced for Xbox 360, is no exception. If only it could be a little more fun.
Conceptually, there's certainly nothing wrong with the one-on-one battles. Combatants batter one another around using Lucha Libre, Jeet Kun Do, Ninjitsu, and several other styles of formalized hurt that are as tricky to master as they are to pronounce. Unusual and interactive levels include a seaside fruit stand, a prehistoric paradise, a destructable dojo, and an electrified wrestling ring. You might smash through a wall into a completely new room; you might be brawling in the street and get hit by a car. Where do you want to have your ass kicked today?
Storywise there's a couple of excitable ninjettes being all shrieky at each other and a main thread featuring cloning. DOA regulars will find these melodramatic goings on as surprising as the cast's textbook erotic appeal. Yes, the men too. And no, we don't. But whatever your posture, it's really all about sub-titled smack talk and impossibly sexy people kicking each other in the implants.
There are more than ever now, too. New characters include Mexican wrestler babe La Mariposa, gorgeous geisha-in-training Kokora, and Eliot, the beautiful, barely-legal blonde apprentice who turns out to be an upsettingly pretty dude. Expect to feel a bit wrong.
Of course, it's tough for anyone to appear ugly in this game; DOA4 unspools all the high-quality prerendered cutscenes you can handle, and graphics don't lose their luster when the intros are over and the cats start scratching. Petals fall softly on the air, colors and bustlines burst forth from ornate dresses, and loose cargo pants ripple in high winds (hair still moves like wet spaghetti, though). DOA4's blood-free battles and visceral visuals represent a perfectly perverse world of violent eyegasms.
And then, you lose. Brutal computer players bash you relentlessly with uninterruptible combo attacks, leaving you helplessly flailing in the air. Once the computer gets its first bitch-slap in, you can usually put the controller down and go get a sandwich, because the only thing you can do now is wait for the ambulance to arrive. The lowest Story mode skill setting is Normal; it only goes up from there.
To do well (let alone survive online in Xbox Live matches), you must learn how to counterattack. It's easy enough in theory but quite difficult for a casual player to pull off on purpose. Reading and responding to your enemy's moves roughly before they happen will come with practice; until you get the timing down, prepare to be abused. Of course, you can simply pair up with a clueless friend or three (try the four-player tag-team matches) and just mash buttons, and you'll have the time of your ignorant lives.
Of course, if your mashing becomes skilled enough to march through Story mode and beat the computer characters at their own petty, frustrating game, you'll be rewarded with sexy unlockable costumes and secret characters like Halo universe guest star Spartan-458. Who, by the way, looks like Master Chief on the outside, but is all woman on the inside. The more you unlock, the more enjoyable the other game modes: Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle, practice, and Watch Mode (because you know you like to). This is in part because of the fresh goodies and in part because you actually start to feel like you know what you're doing. Suddenly those cinematic smashes through stained-glass windows and bone-crunching tumbles down marble staircases mean something.
Don't buy Dead or Alive 4 unless you're willing to become its student. It's a great looker, but it's a sourly aggravating game until you learn its ways. However, if you take the time to get some technique wrapped up in those fists, you'll start to enjoy the depth behind the startlingly pretty face.