Review: So is there a topless mode after all? Sure, you just have to get the girls really drunk first. No seriously, go try it.
Tecmo has always been known for their extremely loyal ? almost rabid ? fanbase. And it's not hard to see why, as the company has been responsible for several all-time classics, including Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl, and Rygar, with honorable mention handed down to the infamous Dead or Alive fighting series, which has managed to leave its mark on the industry in a slightly different way. In fact, the series' implicit sexual overtones and unrealistic depiction of the fairer sex has served as a never-ending topic of debate over the years, and yet each new entry into the series continues to push the envelope of acceptability. With that said, Tecmo has gone out on a limb with Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. They've created what could be considered the ultimate in ?fan service', giving the general public exactly the type of game they've been too timid to ask for all along.
Team Ninja is well-aware that they are dealing with what is mainly a male audience, and they're not out to hide the fact that the game's center of attention is indeed focused on big-breasted girls hopping around in bikinis. The game's content never borders on pornographic, though in some instances it's still far from innocent. There's no nudity to speak of, aside from the hazy outline of Christie's unclothed body as she dives into a pool during the game's opening cinema, but certainly not enough to warrant the game's M rating (at least not in my eyes, although I could see how some might find it slightly offensive, perhaps even degrading). You almost get the sense that Tecmo has created the game to be a beer-and-pizza type of an affair, almost like watching a Britney Spears video with the TV muted, or tuning into one of those sleazy Showtime movies that air at 2:30 in the morning. It's crude, unabashed fun, and it's most certainly not for everyone.
Following a trend set by the first three games in the series, DOA: XBV's plot is nothing spectacular. Basically, after winning the third Dead or Alive tournament, Zack takes his winnings to a nearby casino, where he earns himself enough scratch to purchase his very own tropical island. He sends out invitations to all the DOA girls, and they fly in expecting to fight in the next Dead or Alive tournament. They all show up only to realize that they've been duped, and that they're to be stuck on the island for the next two weeks. But instead of letting it get them down, the girls choose to make the best of the situation by using the time to unwind and play a few nice, unpretentious rounds of beach volleyball. In all actuality, the story has very little relevance to the actual game outside of an opening and closing cutscene featuring Zack and his girlfriend Nina, though it's nice to see that they put at least a minimal effort into it.
DOA: Xtreme Beach Volleyball represents an assemblage of a handful of different genres. It is, first and foremost, a beach volleyball simulator; and a pretty decent one at that. However, it's also an interactive casino, a relationship sim, and even a virtual dress-up game, all wrapped up into one slightly-misunderstood package.
In essence, it's the close correlation between these different play elements that makes the game so interesting. Your relationships with the other girls affect how they play and react to one another on the court, which is in turn dictated by the gifts you buy for them. Winning matches or laying bets at the casino earns you money that can be put towards purchasing and trying on any of the game's three-hundred some-odd swimsuits, which actually turns out to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. So you see, without all the quirkiness and perversion that has supposedly been thrown in merely to please the masses, the volleyball itself simply would not be enough to sustain the game on its own.
Though there is an Exhibition mode, which allows players to set up specific match scenarios (i.e. - court location, costumes, even the attitude of the other girls), the game's main offering is the two-week single-player vacation on Zack Island. You simply select from one of the eight girls (including the newcomer Lisa, a stockbroker and former college volleyball player from New York), and you're dropped off on the island via seaplane with only a moderate amount of cash in your pocket. By default, Lisa will offer to be your volleyball partner at the beginning of the game. That is, unless you've chosen to play as Lisa, in which case you'll automatically be paired off with Tina. Either way, it's up to you to ensure that your partner stays satisfied, both on the court with your volleyball skills and off the court with the gifts you buy for them. The game is unique in that it has no clear ending - after the two weeks are up, you're treated to the same video clip featuring Zack and more of his antics, and then brought back to the title screen to do it all over again. Once all is said and done, you're bound to get the feeling that there must be something more to the game, only later to come to the realization that there really isn't.
With DOA: XBV, Team Ninja has devised a beach volleyball system that manages to be both exceedingly simple and yet measurably deep at the same time. First-time players will have no problem jumping right into it, since the controls can be picked up in only a matter of seconds and the game tends to be very forgiving in terms of timing your shots. Of course, one can't get by in the game knowing only the basics, but the learning curve is such that a new player can easily pick up the controller and have some fun with it.
The button layout is about as easy as can be. The A button sends the ball to the other side of the court, while the B button sets or bumps the ball over to your teammate. It's important to note that both of these buttons are pressure-sensitive. If you're set up for a spike and you mash down on the A button just as the ball meets your hands, you'll deliver a crushing blow capable of literally knocking the opponent down. Conversely, a light tap will send the ball fluttering just over the net, which is often effective in faking out the other team. The left joystick controls your character, and can also be used in conjunction with the A button to control the direction of a shot. The right joystick gives you minimal control over your teammate, allowing you to order them to either hold the backline or go up front and play the net. There are three different types of serves ? the underhand, overhand, and jump serves, and each have their own unique timing involved. While on defense, you can jump up to block a spike by pressing A. Although the move is difficult to time and risky if misused, it's often the best way to score with some of the more inherently-defensive characters. Overall, it's a solid volleyball engine with all the fluidity and ease of control we've come to expect from the Dead or Alive series, though unfortunately its overly-simplistic nature holds it back in terms of replay value.
Team Ninja has opted for DOAX to employ the American rules of the sport, deeming them to be more suitable for the type of game they wish to create. Matches are played two-on-two, and the first team to hold a two-point lead after seven points takes the game. You needn't worry about serves or volleys falling out-of-bounds, since pretty much any shot that makes it over the net must be played. According to the rally point system, the serve goes to whichever team last scored. Also, in this same right, it's not necessary to have served the ball in order to score a point.
The casino is open only at night, and must be accessed from your hotel room. It offers a selection of traditional parlor games, including DOA-themed reproductions of roulette, poker, blackjack, and slots. The roulette is pretty much standard fare; you can lay bets on specific numbers, colors, columns, or even split bets between multiple numbers. Poker offers the option to double-down after winning a hand, and blackjack throws in the options to split, surrender, and purchase insurance when the dealer is showing an ace. Also, each girl has her own uniquely-themed slot machine, which help provide some excellent clues that can be used to determine the girls' individual tastes in clothes and accessories. While it most certainly isn't the greatest simulated casino ever put together, at least it provides a worthy distraction from the rest of the game.
Your relationships with the other girls play into the game in a big way. First and foremost, you need a partner in order to play volleyball. But before you can ask one of the girls to be your partner, you must win over their approval by purchasing gifts for them. And not just any gifts ? they must be in line with the girl's specific tastes and interests, or else they'll simply throw them away and grow to dislike you. Once you've found a steady partner, you'll have to work extra hard to keep them happy. This happiness then carries over to the court, which results in better teamwork and elevated play. If your volleyball game should start to sag, it's a clear sign that things are going downhill. But even the longest losing streak can be overcome with a steady supply of the right gifts, so getting to know your partner's likes and dislikes is absolutely critical to your success.
There are three different shops that sell gifts on the island. The Accessory shop sells small items such as hats, suntan lotion, and nail polish. The Sports shop sells every type of bathing suit under the sun, although the selection is different for every girl. Zack of all Trades specializes in selling character-specific items like desserts and birthstones. Upon buying an item, you're given the option to either wrap it up or leave it as is. If you plan on giving it as a gift, it must be gift-wrapped. If it isn't wrapped, the item can only be used for personal means.
The concept of time works a bit differently on Zack Island. You're given four ?moves' per day (one for morning, daytime, afternoon, and night), with which you must fit in all the activities you wish to get done during that period of time. Most any activity you take part in, whether it be playing a game of volleyball or giving someone a present, exhausts one of these moves. The only exception comes when visiting the store, which can be done without burning up one of these ever-important time slots. In addition to the constant time constraint, you must also keep in mind the costs of the items you plan to buy and the present disposition of your teammate or the girl you're currently pursuing. The game demands that you find new ways to balance out your schedule and fit into it everything that needs to be done. From this standpoint, anyone courageous enough to dig deep into the game's inner workings will find DOAX to be an intriguing, oddly-strategic volleyball simulation.
If you happen to find yourself all alone on a beach, the game runs what are known as ?Gravure' movies. These 30-second long clips show your girl of choice engaging in various activities that change depending on the time of day and the character being used. These include things like stretching, riding a bike, and splashing around in the water, to name only a few. And thanks to the adjustable camera angles and zoom function, these movies afford you with some excellent opportunities to get up close and personal with everyone's favorite pixilated females.
But once you've gotten over all the hoopla and the visual splendor of the game, what's left is something less than desirable. No matter how much you enjoy gawking at all the different bikinis, or how highly you may think of the volleyball, the game eventually turns into an exercise in boredom and repetition. The lack of unlockables is one of the biggest complaints, since it gives the player little to look forward to and even less reason to continue playing after the first two weeks is up. In fact, the game's only valid semblance of replay value is the bathing suits, but after you've seen a few of the skimpier ones you start to get the feeling that you've seen them all. Unless you happen to be a rampant item-collector, DOAX offers very little in regards to long-term replay value.
The visuals in DOAX represent a marked improvement over the already-gorgeous Dead or Alive 3. The character models are easily the best ever seen in a videogame, with unprecedented levels of detail and fluid, convincing animations. However, they all share a somewhat unnatural, plastic-like skin tone that makes them look more like Barbie dolls than real girls. The sand is also quite impressive, as it kicks up and deforms in accordance with the objects that come into contact with it. And the FMV clips, what few of them there may be, are looking better than ever. Overall, the game offers an incredibly solid visual package that beats just about anything else on the market.
The soundtrack features a nice variety of pop tunes from artists such as Christina Aguilera, Reel Big Fish, and even Bob Marley. Although the typical self-respecting man wouldn't be caught dead listening to half of these songs, they actually fit in very well to the game's laid-back feel and atmosphere. Of course, not everyone's going to feel this way, so the Xbox's custom-soundtrack feature has been included as well. The in-game voiceovers have been kept in their original Japanese form, and only the after-shot reactions include subtitles. It would have been nice to have their voices translated to English, but sometimes you just have to take what you get.
With the exception of the half-warranted topless mode and a few mini-games here and there, Xtreme Beach Volleyball has made good on all its promises; no more, no less. Those that were expecting something more out of it, in addition to the hundreds upon hundreds of bathing suits and better-than-average volleyball mechanics, were only setting themselves up for disappointment. But once you dig beyond the semi-nudity and all the fluff that comes with it, it can be very difficult to appreciate the game for what it really is.