This review was hard for me to write, because I've been unable to adopt my (normal) detached mindset towards Dead or Alive 4, as I have a personal history with the franchise that goes back almost ten years. So while you will find that I was impressed with this game, please keep in mind that Dead or Alive on the PlayStation and later Dead or Alive 2 on the Dreamcast were games that I played heavily during what I would consider the "formative years" of my taste in video games.
In my mind, the Dead or Alive games have always been the intellectual superior to concurrent Tekken games. This viewpoint has landed me in a lot of nerdy arguments over the years, but I remain convinced that I am correct, and this is my reasoning: while Tekken may have more specific combos and more detailed counters, it still plays very much like a traditional fighting game. I think approaching the Dead or Alive franchise as a series of traditional fighting games is disingenuous, because the emphasis is placed so firmly on flow and rhythm that gameplay is for me more reminiscent of games like Rez, Parappa the Rappa, and Nitrous Oxide. Since I've just tried to cast Dead or Alive among a bunch of twitchy music-and-rhythm games, I suppose I could cede that Tekken is a better traditional fighting game, but only because I've taken Dead or Alive out of that category.
Dead or Alive 4 continues in the footsteps of the previous couple entries in the series (Dead or Alive 3 and DOA: Ultimate, both for the original Xbox system), in that it offers arguably minor cosmetic upgrades to the appearance of the game, and slight variations in game mechanics. The first thing that an experienced player is going to notice is that the slightly dumbed down combo system introduced in Dead or Alive 3 has been replaced with the system used by the earlier games (as well as DOA: Ultimate). A single button is used for punches, and another for kicks, and they can be thrown at high, medium or low altitudes. There is a corresponding counter attack for each attack, and an attempt to "high counter" a low or medium kick will mean taking one in the ribs. In general, by the time I consciously register where an attack is coming from, the window of time in which it can be countered will already have elapsed, so the game requires a queer sort of precognition. I do not believe, sadly, that Dead or Alive 4 and it's predecessors have given me psychic powers, but I've found that when I'm doing the best at the game, I'm thinking about it the least. My hands disconnect from my line of thought, and my eyes tend to unfocus slightly and fixate on the entire surface of the screen. When you add in throws, which cannot be countered but can be reversed by other throws, you end up playing 'rock, scissors, paper' on several levels simultaneously.
I don't mean to imply that Dead or Alive fighters don't have complex moves; they do. From Ryu Hayabusa's (of Ninja Gaiden fame) teleport moves to Bass's devastating three and four stage throws, there are a lot of extremely powerful moves which will for the most part need to be learned through painful memorization in the game's "sparring" mode, and then integrated into play during actual matches. This has never been my forte, and is probably one of the things keeps me from being ranked terribly high in the XBL stats. Which is all fine and good, but I've still seen more people online who lose trying to use those moves due to poor timing, than people who win consistently because they've mastered them.
Everyone from previous Dead or Alive titles is present here (although many will need to be unlocked), as well as a small group of new characters. My favorite among them is Brad Wong, a drunken boxer who throws punches from angles never seen previously in a Dead or Alive game, which should keep even experienced veterans of the series on their toes for a little while. Almost all of the unlockable characters will be available after getting through the game's "Story" mode with each character, but this means numerous battles against "Alpha 158", a sort of holographic clone of Kasumi who has an arsenal of annoying teleport moves and extremely powerful throws.
Xbox Live! play is relatively free of lag issues, once you find a good server to connect to, and is really the main thing that makes this title worth the money for me. With a whole world of opponents to get into, there's nearly infinite replay value here for people addicted to the game. At "Zack's Store", you can use Zack Points earned in game to do things like upgrade the avatar that shows when you're in an online lobby waiting to play, as well as make new lobbies available to yourself when you host.
You may have noticed that I've strayed away from saying anything about the graphics or sound, which has been intentional as I think they are weak links in an otherwise durable and reliable chain. The player models scarcely look better than they did in DOA: Ultimate. The backgrounds stand out a bit more, and most were clearly built from the ground up for the 360, but I am still left with the feeling that Team Ninja could have done a lot more, and didn't either because they're holding back for DOA5, or because they know that Dead or Alive fans would probably continue to buy the games even if they gradually reverted to NES-quality graphics. Likewise, the sound effects have been ripped almost unchanged from previous games for the most part, and the soundtrack is forgettable and unbalanced. If you don't elect to listen to your own background music when you play this game (as I generally do), you'll find unsettling jumps between mopey ambient soundscapes and frenetic electric guitar.
Dead or Alive 4 is a game that will remind fans of the series why this is, quite simply, the best game in existence that centers on two people beating kicking the hell out of each other - and most likely it will fail to convert nonbelievers. If you're a DOA fan, then you'll find a lot to love in DOA4; if not, skip this and wait for the true next-gen edition of my favorite fighter.