Dragon Ball Xenoverse Review
It's been a little while since I have had the pleasure of reviewing something with the Dragon Ball name attached to it, and I'm thrilled to be back in the game. Of course I loved Battle of the Gods, the new full length film, and I'm super excited for the new film, Resurrection of F, which releases in Japan this spring and features the return of Freeza (yay!). But there hasn't been a Dragon Ball game since the decent Battle of Z hit PS3 and Vita months ago. Now, after months of hype, we have Dragon Ball: Xenoverse, a game that bravely plays with the established Dragon Ball lore in a fun and extremely intriguing way. But is it any good? Or is this just another "for fans only" anime game?
Author's Note: This review is applicable to both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. The two versions are completely identical, with the exception of needing to pay a subscription fee to Xbox Live for online play, versus the totally free online on the PS3. Everything else is exactly the same.
Xenoverse has two main hooks - the all-new storyline and the ability to create your own character to take through both the story and some surprisingly fun online play. Let's start with the story; it's an important place to kick off because, with a few minor exceptions, the story for every Dragon Ball game has followed the manga/anime and thus been exactly the same every time. Not so with Xenoverse. The story this time starts after the events of the recent Battle of the Gods film, which takes place a little while after the end of the Dragon Ball Z series and Goku's victory over Kid Buu. As the game opens, you are treated to a glimpse of some tutorial type battles that represent the series' greatest fights - Freeza, Cell, etc. but you quickly find yourself in Toki Toki City and greeted by the instantly familiar Trunks. It seems that someone has been messing with history, altering the events and battles that have become so familiar, with devastating consequences. Trunks informs you that you have been selected by Shenlong, the eternal dragon, to join Trunks' Time Force team, which is tasked with going back through history and setting things right. So what you get is essentially an all-new storyline, complete with a few new characters, that cleverly pays homage to the established Dragon Ball lore. And watching how small changes in history affect everything has a "what if?" feel and is at least 10x more interesting than any "what if" battle in a previous Dragon Ball game. What if Piccolo missed Raditz with his Makankosappo (Special Beam Cannon) attack? What if Gohan never powered up to Super Saiyan 2 and was unable to kill Cell? What is Mr. Satan (Hercule) was an actual force to be reckoned with? What if Broly and Bardock fought side by side with Freeza and Goku, respectively, on a dying planet Namek? All the scenarios and a bunch more are explored, and I loved seeing what the new villains, Towa and Mira, were able to do with the established timeline. The original story of Dragon Ball is great, but seeing it from this non-canonical new point of view was absolutely fantastic.
The second major hook speaks to something I've wanted to do since I was about 12 (I'm 33 now): build my own Dragon Ball character. Your Future Warrior, as he/she is called, can be assembled from one of five races; Earthling, Majin, Saiyan, Namekian and Arcosian (Freeza's race). You pick facial expressions, hair (if applicable), size, base outfit and even the voice for your character. For hardcore fans, this is worth the price admission alone; I spent well over an hour fiddling with my different options. What is even cooler is that as you play through the game, you'll earn tons of new outfits and accessories that can be equipped on your character, sometimes changing their look completely. Want a female Majin wearing a scouter and Saiyan armor? You got it. Creating a character and changing his/her look while collecting trinkets was my favorite part of the experience, and I didn't stop pushing until I'd acquired nearly every item in the game. And as an added bonus, your personal Future Warrior appears in all the game's cutscenes! Neat!
Even with these two groundbreaking features, all is not peaches and cream when it comes to the actual gameplay, specifically the fighting system, in Xenoverse. Players can battle opponents in large 3D arenas where they can fly, smack each other around, teleport, fire off energy attacks, etc.; everything you'd expect of a Dragon Ball game. The problem is that your actual attacks aren't all that varied, with only two attack buttons and various other moves like energy shot, block, throw, etc. The combo system isn't quite as deep as I'd have liked it to be, and that would be a little more forgivable in a 2D or 2.5D fighter. Here, you'll spend most of your time chasing opponents around and scoring the same hits over and over, and believe me, computer controlled enemies will spam the same attacks ad nauseum. When you are up close, things have a much more frenzied and energetic feel, but distance combat just doesn't work all that well, even with teleports and the like. I want to fight Freeza, not play grabass with him, and that was what I felt like I was doing by having to chase him all over the place.
Those thoughts led me to a conclusion I hadn't come across before - Dragon Ball fighting games, and most fighting games in general, just work better in 2D or 2.5D. The Budokai series, the Supersonic Warrior series, Ultimate Butoden, Super Dragon Ball Z, the old SNES games... these are the best Dragon Ball fighting games. The Budokai Tenkaichi series, Xenoverse, Battle of Z and most of the others lose that something special by forcing players into 3D world were movement controls are dubious and confusing, and attack options are limited by that fact. The 3D games, Xenoverse included, aren't bad per se, but fighting games simply work better on a 2D plane. I know some will vehemently disagree, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em.
The 3D fighting does feel a little more natural when the bouts are more than "two man enter, one man leave." When playing with other players online or fighting in teams against one or many opponents, 2D wouldn't work at all, and the amount of combatants is directly proportional to the time spent dashing, flying, changing altitude and (probably) missing your opponent with that next attack. Because of the game's MMO-lite online play, you could argue that fights should mostly be more than 1x1, and I definitely set aside my mild distaste for 3D combat in these varied and fun encounters.
So let's talk about the online portion of the game. After progressing the story a bit, you'll be able to visit the Toki Toki hub and see other players from all over the world going about their business. You can chat (sorta) or gesture to one another, set up vs. or co-op matches or even check the stats of all the other players in your area. It's easy and almost lag-free to find a stranger, agree on a task and dive in, which makes the game feel like an MMORPG with a single player campaign. Anyone who has ever read my reviews can tell you I have no use for multiplayer, online or off, but the Dragon Ball universe I so love, the create a character, the mission-based game structure and the loot up for grabs softened me on online play in this title. And guess what? Even after I finished the main campaign, I was still going back to play out missions and side stuff with players from around the globe. The luster wore off after about 10 hours of this, but I can see myself going back to the game on a regular basis to check out the world and the other fighters in it.
I'm realizing I didn't mention the other part of what makes Xenoverse more an RPG than a straight up fighting game - the missions. The story progresses through a mission structure that allows for a lot of side missions and extra stuff to do, making it feel more like an open world RPG or action game than a fighter. These side missions and tasks are ALWAYS rewarding as they usually come with prizes in the form of new clothes, accessories and the like. And the missions can be tackled with friends, online or offline, and it adds up to a very connected single player and multiplayer experience with lots to unlock and collect.
For Dragon Ball fans, there is plenty to love about Xenoverse. I loved the story and character creation, and the loot and mission systems made playing through a joy that bordered on a compulsion. All those aspects add up to the best Dragon Ball game ever made, but the 3D fighting and movement knock the game down just enough to set it squarely behind Super Dragon Ball Z as my favorite game based on my favorite franchise. So it isn't number 1 in my book, but it's still up there in the top 3. Perhaps most amazing of all was the game's ability to sway me on my deep-seated hatred for online multiplayer, a task only a handful of games have ever accomplished. Xenoverse is a must buy for serious and casual Dragon Ball fans, though it gets less of an endorsement when it comes to non-fans. I suspect most will find something to celebrate in Xenoverse and the game definitely doesn't carry the "for fans only" stigma attached to so many other anime/manga-based games, but I still feel like the Dragon Ball game franchise has one or two more baby steps to go before they hit perfection.
Final Rating: 86%. Surprise, it's not just for fans.