Although there have been umpteen "fans-only " (read: deplorable) games based on the Dragon Ball animated series, last year's Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi was a step in the right direction, delivering a fast, accessible fighting experience that you didn't have to be a fan to enjoy. Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2 is the same game at heart, but it packs in a raft of new additions, refinements and improvements.
For this round, you can fight as nearly 130 spiky-haired characters from previous games and TV shows, starting with Dragon Ball and spanning through Dragon Ball Z to Dragon Ball GT (that’s about 20 years of DB history). It’s a DBZ fan’s dream - although, with a roster that huge, it's hardly shocking that there usually isn't much difference between the various characters; Vegeta plays a lot like Goku, Goku plays like Frieza and so on. For the most part, only their moves and fighting animations seem to be different.
To compensate, a bit of role-playing has been mixed in, with upgradeable "Z Items" that help enhance specific moves and character traits between battles. It adds a bit of depth, and you can even create your own Z Items, although that proved to be a counter-intuitive chore.
Like the previous games, Budokai Tenkaichi 2 seems to have little interest in a learning curve or gradually increasing difficulty. The first hour or so of the Dragon Adventure story mode is frustrating enough to turn off most casual gamers, with uneven opponents who range from laughably easy to nearly impossible to defeat. In that short time, however, we discovered a pattern of attacks that beat nearly every opponent, making the game a little more fun - at least until we started feeling cheap from hammering down so many foes the same way.
The game becomes strangely addictive after that first hour, thanks to dizzying attacks and explosive blasts fierce enough to take out huge swaths of whatever planet you're fighting on. It also helps that the action keeps up a rapid pace, mixing crazy projectile attacks and incredibly mobile characters with in-your-face punches and kicks, as well as a zillion counters and counter-counters. And once you find your groove, it works well even for non-DBZ -heads.
It's nice that DBZ has so many fans too, because BT2 is most fun when you're button-mashing against a real-world opponent. They're a little less likely to pin you down in an inescapable flurry of attacks, and they rarely fall prey to the easy patterns that thoroughly thwomp the computer.
The same core commands are used throughout, making it pretty easy to learn a few moves that work for any character. Of course that also means there is little variation, which can then result in an increased feeling of repetition after only a few hours.
As Atari promised, the storylines are pretty short, but the many, many battles make the game surprisingly lengthy. This obviously won’t be an issue for DBZ fans who appreciate the stories, but non-fans will need to learn to tolerate a lot of yelling, overacting and seemingly unnecessary excitement before every bout (and even on the menus).
All 16 of the game's huge, freely explorable arenas look pretty good even when zipping around at high altitudes - though they're most enjoyable when smashed to bits with an opponent’s body or an insanely big blast. More impressive still are the cel-shaded characters, which look almost identical to their anime counterparts. Even better, you can activate character transformations right off the bat (after building up a bit of in-battle Ki), enabling your plain-looking characters to wig out and become various magnitudes of glowing blond supermen, gigantic apes or a variety of other weird monsters.
As with most DBZ games, this is still a bit of a hard sell for non-fans, with tons of content but more than a few rough edges. Its unique, hyperactive fighting does have a lot to offer, however, and players can at least enjoy button-mashing through two-player battles for a little while until the repetitive, high-speed action and identical beatings get dull.
For fans, however, this is easily the best of the franchise yet, with tons of playable characters, a slew of storylines lifted from or inspired by the show, and one-of-a-kind fighting. In short, it's pretty much everything you’d expect from Dragon Ball Z, only good.