Tecmo's Dead Or Alive series has, unfortunately, always been the Frank Stallone of fighting games. The original was released to a small Japanese audience on the short-lived Sega Saturn, and its subsequent 1998 release on the Playstation played second fiddle to Namcos blockbuster Tekken 3. Its acclaimed sequel, exclusive to Segas Dreamcast console (also short-lived), was overshadowed by the popularity of Namcos masterful weapons extravaganza Soul Calibur. Now, however, Tecmo is trumpeting its third installment in the series as a flagship title for the young XBox console. The Dead Or Alive series has always been a bit of sleeper hit, having never gathered the following of franchises such as Tekken or Segas Virtua Fighter. However, its understated presence belies the ingenuity of its refined fighting engine that is striking in both scope and balance. Perhaps now the game will finally get the attention it deserves.

Dead Or Alive 3, though not dramatically different than its predecessors, is a thoroughly perfected and substantially in-depth hand-to-hand fighting game. Initially, it seems to be quite the opposite; the speed of the game is considerably faster than that of Soul Calibur or the Virtua Fighter series, so timing attacks and counters can seem very random and is rather difficult to become accustomed to. However, a little time spent learning the nuances of the game will reveal a complex system of combinations, throws, stuns, reversals, feints, and counterattacks. The series calling card—the "free" button, which is used for blocks, dodging, and reversals—gives the game a balance between depth and accessibility that is unrivaled in the genre. While some patient studying will pay off with more complex combinations and faster reflexes, the ease of control coupled with balanced offense and defense lowers the learning curve considerably.

Thirteen characters have returned from the previous Dead Or Alive installments, with three rookies being thrown into the mix. Once again, the female characters are scantily clad and well endowed (although interestingly, the game lacks an "age" meter, which in Dead Or Alive 2 could be used to adjust the bust size of the female fighters). They all have interesting and well-varied fighting styles (I was particularly impressed with the new character Brad Wong, who uses drunken-style kung fu), and no particular fighter—save perhaps the Bruce Lee clone Jann Lee—stands out as being either too weak or unfairly strong. Each character has well over 100 moves and combinations. Also making a comeback (albeit un-dramatically) is a completely incoherent "story mode," in which a weird and incomprehensible plot is told via terse dialogue prior to each match-up. Complex plot devices are generally a bit of a joke in fighting games, and unlike Soul Calibur (which, through its unlockable art cards, told a coherent and interesting story), Dead Or Alive 3 continues the lackluster tradition.

The fighting engine itself is remarkable. Ive often heard that the Dead Or Alive engine lacks the depth of its kin, such as Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur. However—as both a fan and knowledgeable veteran of those games—I contend that Dead Or Alive 3s depth not only rivals that of its brethren, but in many respects surpasses them. Dont be fooled by the brisk pacing and ease of use—this is a game where knowledge, practice, and strategy are far more valuable than frantic button mashing.

The system shares structural similarities with both of the aforementioned fighting games. Attacks are divided into high, mid, and low. Each character features a staggering arsenal of punches, chops, elbows, kicks, knees, stomps, throws, holds, and counters. Certain moves will cause an opponent to stagger, opening them to additional moves or throws depending on the situation. Other moves will momentarily stun the character, again leaving them vulnerable. Timing and distance affect the amount of damage incurred by blows and counters, and certain moves can be used to break down an opponents defense, opening them up to further attacks. The entire system of counters further adds to the challenge. Inevitably, players who fail to vary the timing and distance of their attacks will find themselves face down in a hurry.

In structure, Dead Or Alive 3s engine is well balanced, well varied, and complex while not being overbearing to the novice. In practice, Dead Or Alive 3 is a remarkable tour de force of quick thumbs and adept strategy. As with the Dead Or Alive 2, the environments are multi-tiered, interactive environments filled with obstacles and uneven surfaces. However, the role of the environment has been significantly expanded. There are now more throws and combinations that utilize walls and other objects in the environment, and there are even more objects scattered throughout each level. For example, some levels feature slippery surfaces that will throw opponents off balance when certain moves are used. Set up your opponent at just the right angle, and your character will send them flying into a tree or rock for extra damage. The characters even have the ability to rise at an angle to the wall when they are cornered, allowing them a momentary defensive edge. When the increased role of the environments is factored in with the complexity of the fighting engine, the depth of the game really begins to show through. A skilled Dead Or Alive player knows not only when to execute the right combinations and counters, but how to integrate the environments to his or her advantage.

Lastly, it would be a cardinal sin to overlook Dead Or Alive 3s stellar graphics. While the game certainly looks impressive in pictures, the superb lighting and smooth, lifelike animation has to be seen in motion to be truly appreciated. Just listing all of the subtle graphical details could fill a small book. Effects such as fire, water, reflections, sunlight, and debris are of unrivaled quality. Ive often succumbed to a deadly blow or two while being momentarily distracted by the richness and realism of the environments.

With such an exceptional fighting engine, gorgeous-looking interactive environments and varied characters, what keeps Dead Or Alive 3 from scoring even higher? Unfortunately, it lacks the creative variety of options available in other fighting games. To its credit, the team battles are very well done and the games practice mode is by far the best in the genre. However, an overall lack of unique features (not to mention the outright laughable story mode) gives the game limited value for solitary players. Nonetheless, it is not only the pinnacle of the series, but a challenging fighting game whose exceptional melding of accessibility and depth makes it both enjoyable and rewarding. Despite its quiet history, Dead Or Alive 3 is here to be heard. Rating: 9 out of 10

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