Despite the name, Dead or Alive Ultimate, it turns out, was not the last word in Tecmo's bouncy beat 'em up series. As soon as Dead or Alive 4's Aerosmith theme tune kicks into effect on the title screen and your head starts bobbing in time, it's apparent what this game is all about. Dead or Alive 4 is what all fight clubbers have been waiting for, more so than previous DOAs - it really is a rocking fighter.
Team Ninja has obviously expended a huge amount of effort to make DOA4 a beautiful game. Character animation is uncannily lifelike and the level of detail here puts the competition to shame. The skin of the fighters has an astonishing richly pored texture; on some of the more muscular male characters you can see veins between the ropes of muscle. Clothes and hair move around with a lovely fluid motion, just like the real stuff. Most importantly, the characters' eyes show how they're feeling and - if you use your imagination - what they might be thinking. With this showcase release, Tecmo has done a fine job of moving beyond the realm of polygons and into a stunning new virtual reality.
The play areas offer a rich mixture of environments - like last time, most stages have interactive elements and are multi-tiered, so where you begin a bout isn't necessarily where it will end. The Ninja Hideout stage is set inside a traditional Japanese house, with paper walls and fragile furnishings to obstruct battles. In the Vegas-esque Gambler's Paradise, the game is played on the path outside a casino, but the action moves into the middle of the road where cars and taxis drive past, and, if you're not careful, over your character.
Thanks to DOA4's ingenious level design, you never know where a fight is going to end up. The action in Waterfall Valley, for example, moves from a rickety rope bridge to the ravine below as soon as one character knocks the other through a gap in the bridge. And while that keeps things fresh and interesting, tactical use can be made of obstructions and other hazards (leopards and dinosaurs!) while the fight proceeds. Dead or Alive 4 has the most well-thought-out stage design we've seen in a 3D beat 'em up, and we've seen a few.
As much as any of the Xbox 360's launch titles, Dead or Alive 4 is a show-off. It shows off just how much detail it's possible to cram into impossibly elaborate stages such as these, and how everything can be displayed in HD glory without even seeming to push the hardware towards its limits - there are no frame-rate issues whatsoever.
What, then, of the all-important button-bashing? Firstly - unless you're using a dedicated arcade-style joystick - it's important to (re)master the use of the D-pad. Control on the Left analogue stick may seem fine at first, but it really doesn't give the precision that's needed to play at a decent level and to perform the move you mean to.
Fans of the series will be relieved to know that DOA4 sticks to the basic, uncluttered system the series is renowned for. The A button grabs, B kicks and Y pulls punches. Combos are triggered by sequences of D-pad and A/B/Y taps. The rest is dictated by D-pad control and the X button, which, when used together open up the world of counter-moves. It's tricky but even a novice can pick it up quickly.
Learning to guard against attacks is an important part of the DOA experience, but it's not quite so crucial in DOA4 because the balance of play has been shifted to increase gameplay speed and focus on attacking play. By pulling away from your opponent you can deflect many moves, but if you pull away at the right level and tap X as the hit is about to be received, you can effect a counter-move and quickly scupper the other player's plans. These are hard to pull off, but spar a bit and you'll soon be able to attempt them.