The team at Dimps deserves a lot of credit. In the span of three Holiday seasons, it's managed to take a fun but flawed weekend rental and turn it into something a lot more enjoyable. I'm speaking, of course, about Dragon Ball Z Budokai 3
-- the most recent in the fast line of Atari's head-to-head brawlers that has consistently improved year after year. If anything else, this recent installment proves that the development crew behind it has gone the extra mile to listen to suggestions and complaints brought forth by the fans, which is a feat that few other companies can unfailingly make a claim to.
Though last year's sequel was an obvious improvement in terms of presentation and modes, Budokai 2 was essentially the same experience that its predecessor was. Granted, it did make a couple of small gameplay enhancements here and there (and all of them were for the better), but it still wasn't the mechanical leap that hardcore fighting experts needed it to be. So while it's true that Dragon Ball Z fans absolutely loved the game, mentioning Budokai 2 in the same breadth as something like Dead or Alive 3 or Virtua Fighter 4 would get you scoffed at.
Budokai 3, on the other hand, is definitely on its way to being taken a little more seriously. Though it's still far from being on the same technical level as the 3D fighters mentioned above, it still has a number of significant improvements worth enjoying. In fact, this particular follow-up has implemented a lot more changes than your typical fighting sequel normally does, and that's got to count for something. So while it's true that the same basic four-button layout that powered the previous titles is still in play here (Punch, Kick, Block, and Ki), the number of things you can do with that schematic has dramatically increased.
The most obvious and beneficial change to the gameplay system is the all-new teleport counter. This much-needed addition really adds some diversity to the flow of a match, and allows for an extra layer of strategy we didn't have before. Tapping Block and Towards on the Directional Pad at the proper moment is all you'll need to activate it, and once you've done so, you'll instantly appear behind your opponent for a quick back attack. If your reflexes are fast enough, you can even teleport following an air-launch for a cool zigzag Tornado strike that can grab you some extra damage during a combo. In an effort to keep things balanced, however, your opponent can do a teleport counter of their own to counter your own initial teleport move -- so don't think you'll be able to abuse this too frequently.
The new additions to Budokai 3 don't stop there. There's also a large collection of hot special attacks that really power up your character beyond their previous levels. Hyper Mode, for example, is accomplished by pressing all four face buttons at the same time when your Ki bar is completely filled (which can now be done manually by double tapping away and holding guard simultaneously), Once activated, the Hyper Mode gives your character a temporary offensive boost to all of his attack, but it's at the expense of a slowly-dissipating Ki gauge. To further the benefits of Hyper Mode even further, players can also perform what's called "Dragon Rushes".
Similar to the melee attacks from Budokai 2, Dragon Rushes allow players to perform some of the coolest moves in the game once activated by pressing the Ki button after a knock-back in Hyper Mode. Somewhat based on the rock / paper / scissors mentality, Dragon Rushes are played out in three very cinematic sequences. The player that initiates the rush can then press one of the four face buttons to perform a specific attack within that phase, but it will be blocked if his opponent presses the exact same button before the move can be carried out. Should the initiator pull off all three Dragon Rush attacks successfully, however, they'll do an incredible amount of damage and be treated to some truly crazy in-game cutscenes. Unfortunately, these scenes are almost identical among most of the characters.
Hyper Mode also opens up the possibility of doing Ultimate Attacks, and these are even more spectacular than the Dragon Rushes. Ultimate Attacks can seriously kill your rival in a single shot, so they're somewhat difficult to pull off and need special circumstances just to be used. For starters, your opponent's newly implemented fatigue meter has to be completely expended in order to use them (hint: Dragon Rushes are great for this) and you'll have press all four face buttons the moment your foe is tired.
Once the Ultimate Attack process has begun, players will then have to enter into a button tapping war with their opponent and hit the proper keys the precise moment they appear on screen. The first player to win three rounds of this competition wins the right to either block most of the Ultimate Attack or to perform it. And once it's performed, you should sit back and enjoy the fireworks. Sadly only a handful of characters actually have an Ultimate Attack that can be used (Vegeta, Goku, Piccolo, and Hercule), so you won't get to see it too often. But at least most of the other characters have a consolation maneuver known as an "Ultimate Move." And while they're not as damaging or elaborate as the Ultimate Attacks, these Ultimate Moves are still pretty cool and give lower tier characters a shot at some major damage.
Believe it or not, there are a bunch of other new additions to the gameplay as well. The ability to partake in Beam Struggles, for instance, provides a fun alternative to the original Ki Deflect from previous games (don't worry, those are still in here too). Simply launch a powerful Beam attack at the same time as your opponent and the Beam Struggle initiates -- once it has, rotating the analog stick faster than your opponent treats you to an insane back and forth tug-of-war that comes complete with spectacular special effects. It's really cool.
Another new extra is that each character can now use pre-equipped items in the middle of a match by tapping down twice with the guard button (that's also the new taunt command), and they can also perform more subtle modifiers such as falling rolls, guard crashes, and more effective sidesteps. When coupled with the pre-existing gameplay mechanics from Budokai 2, it makes for a surprisingly strategic and satisfying gameplay experience (even if it's still reliant on special moves and canned combos to make up the lion's share of a contest).
The new DragonUniverse feature will no doubt feel familiar to fans of Mortal Kombat Deception, as it's built on a fundamentally similar to concept. That is, once the mode has been started, players can take control of a character in a free-roaming 3D environment and travel all over the Dragon Ball Z universe to take part in multiple story bits. Rather than just focusing on one or two sagas as was the case in the past, however, Budokai 3 brings most of the sages together for one big ongoing experience. And unlike Deception which just followed the exploits of a single character, DragonUniverse allows you to play through with different personalities. It's even managed to add an RPG-like element by incorporating experience points and a Champions of Norrath-like upgrade system. You can even take passwords associated with your newly created Saiyan and plug it into an Atari website for indirect character trading with other players.
The DragonUniverse Mode is where almost all of the secret characters can be unlocked, so expect to spend a lot of time plugging your way through it. Expect to run into a few issues when exploring with this mode, though, as the long load times and somewhat unresponsive overworld control can be a little bothersome. I myself preferred the board game navigation of last year's Dragon World mode in Budokai 2, but the added freedom of exploration here definitely has its benefits.
Speaking of benefits, the all-new cinematic approach to the game's visuals is a nice step up. While not much better than Budokai 2 in a technical sense, the cool camera angles, more animated backgrounds, and slightly improved animations go a long way towards creating the illusion that we're playing an anime, not a videogame. Of course, the cel-shaded character models and environments have a lot to do with this, but the over the top special effects help a lot too. I do have to admit, however, that I think Dimps may want to rethink its character animations for the future -- because as improved as they be, they're still pretty stiff by other fighting game standards. It's also rather disappointing to see that the game doesn't support widescreen or HD televisions for the third year in a row.
It's similarly disappointing to see that Budokai doesn't take advantage of any high-end sound technology either. Dolby Pro Logic or any of its variations is nowhere to be found (making my surround sound system feel rather lonely). It's also kind of a bummer to see that Atari still hasn't given us an option to listen to the original Japanese voice actors, either, but at least we're treated to complete lineup of American vocalists. So that's a plus. The authentic ballads and rock songs from the anime series, on the other hand, sound terrific.
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