Per­fect Bal­ance

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Dragon Drag Ball FighterZ proves that true e fight­ing-game beauty is much m more than skin-deep skin- deep

Games are born in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of rea­sons, but it’s tempt­ing to imag­ine Dragon Ball FighterZ’s gen­e­sis in very sim­plis­tic terms. A Bandai Namco ex­ec­u­tive sees footage of Arc Sys­tem Works’ gor­geous

Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign, un­til now the clos­est a game has got to the con­cept of a playable car­toon. He glances at the Dragon Ball art­work on the wall. A light­bulb comes on be­hind him, and his pupils turn into dol­lar signs.

Dragon Ball FighterZ may seem like some­thing of a no-brainer, but be­neath the im­me­di­ate, ir­re­sistible lure of its el­e­va­tor pitch is a game of many lay­ers. It is, as you’d ex­pect from the maker of Guilty Gear and Blazblue, an enor­mously deep, mon­strously tech­ni­cal fight­ing game. Yet it is also pleas­antly ac­ces­si­ble and easy to un­der­stand – a nec­es­sary move given its li­cence, which is fa­mil­iar to and beloved by count­less mil­lions around the globe. Bal­anc­ing those two very dif­fer­ent camps is no mean feat, but our lengthy hands-on ses­sion at Bandai Namco’s Tokyo HQ, in­clud­ing a first look at the game’s story mode, sug­gests Namco and Arc might just have cracked it.

And if you’re in nei­ther of those two camps, per­haps you’ll be hooked in by the sim­ple fact that Dragon Ball FighterZ is one of the best-look­ing games ever made. It’s a three-on-three, note-per­fect repli­ca­tion of the source ma­te­rial which bor­rows the Xrd games’ stun­ning hy­brid fight­ing engine to re­mark­able ef­fect. To re­cap: this is a 2D game in name and ap­pear­ance only. Both char­ac­ter mod­els and stages are cre­ated in 3D, the cam­era sat in a fixed side-on per­spec­tive. At points where most fight­ing games load in cin­e­mat­ics – for su­per-move and KO an­i­ma­tions, for in­stance, or, in this case, when a new char­ac­ter joins the fray and the two op­po­nents surge to­wards each other for a mid-screen clash be­fore the ac­tion re­sumes – the cam­era un­hooks from its mount­ings. In­stead of a canned an­i­ma­tion, you see a re­al­time, in-engine ef­fect – dur­ing which, Arc con­firms to us, ev­ery in­di­vid­ual frame is hand-lit by the de­vel­op­ers. And while the game runs and reads in­puts at 60 frames per se­cond, only hand-posed keyframes are shown, a high-fidelity way of mim­ick­ing the lo-fi look of the orig­i­nal anime.

The ef­fect is as­ton­ish­ing whether you’re a fan of the source ma­te­rial or not, and this hy­brid ap­proach – of a 2D game that’s re­ally 3D, of one that looks to be run­ning at 15fps when it’s re­ally be­ing ren­dered at 60 – is a use­ful way to think about the game as a whole. This is a fight­ing game of deep com­plex­ity, that is also easy to get into and play. It’s all but guar­an­teed to become a fix­ture on the tour­na­ment cir­cuit, but will also be bought by anime fans, who may have never thrown a fire­ball in their lives, in their droves. Just as Arc has used in­dus­try-lead­ing tech­niques to make a game that looks like a 28-year-old car­toon, so it has made a game that sat­is­fies both ends of the skill spec­trum, with­out mak­ing ei­ther one feel like their ex­pe­ri­ence has been com­pro­mised.

Take, for in­stance, the con­trol sys­tem. “There are a lot of fight­ing games out there that have su­per-dif­fi­cult com­mands and com­bos, but we didn’t want that,” pro­ducer Tomoko Hiroki tells us. “We be­lieve the fun of fight­ing games isn’t just about con­trols – it’s about the mind games. So in terms of con­trols, we’ve made it rather easy. We’re try­ing to cre­ate depth, but not just through the dif­fi­culty of the com­mands. We’re try­ing to cre­ate a gate­way [to fight­ing games] for ca­sual play­ers.”

To that end, FighterZ fol­lows the cur­rent genre vogue for a one-but­ton auto-combo; mash the medium-at­tack but­ton and your char­ac­ter will per­form a ba­sic string in­clud­ing an aerial com­po­nent which ends ei­ther with you smash­ing your foe to the ground, or a su­per combo, de­pend­ing on whether you have any spare su­per me­ter. Throws have great range, and take the form of a for­ward dash and flurry of punches end­ing in a launcher, car­ry­ing you up­wards with your op­po­nent to be­gin an air combo. Com­mands have been sim­pli­fied, with spe­cial and su­per moves ac­ti­vated us­ing only quar­ter-cir­cles for­ward and back, while the combo build­ing blocks are univer­sal across the cast. This is made clear dur­ing the combo tri­als, which rather than ask you to per­form com­plex, mad­den­ingly im­prac­ti­cal and res­o­lutely char­ac­ter-spe­cific strings that you’ll likely never use in a match, in­stead teach trans­fer­able skills that work with any char­ac­ter, en­cour­ag­ing you to move around the cast in­stead of stick­ing to the hand­ful you’ve put time into fig­ur­ing out. In­stead, the com­plex­ity comes from learn­ing how to use those shared foun­da­tional el­e­ments with your cho­sen team. One fighter’s su­per might hit from an an­gle that’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate for an air combo, for ex­am­ple, so the string may re­quire some tweak­ing to fit – or maybe, with the right as­sist move from an off­screen ally, you’ll be able to get your op­po­nent into the po­si­tion you need.

Per­haps the purest expression of Dragon Ball FighterZ’s dual fo­cus on ac­ces­si­bil­ity and depth, how­ever, is its treat­ment of the pro­jec­tile, ar­guably the most vi­tal move in any char­ac­ter’s ar­se­nal. Here, a sim­ple tap of X is all that’s re­quired for your char­ac­ter to fling some plasma across the screen; mash the but­ton, and you’ll un­leash a vol­ley of the stuff. If you’re a hard­ened fight­ing-game player read­ing this, you might be wor­ried by the Ki Blast. But it can be coun­tered in style by an­other sim­ple at­tack, a move avail­able to the whole cast which grants full in­vin­ci­bil­ity to pro­jec­tiles and homes in on your tar­get (an­other gives you a tele­port that moves you be­hind your foe). Pro­jec­tiles may be es­sen­tial in this genre, but while mind­lessly spam­ming them has never been eas­ier, nei­ther has pun­ish­ing those who do so.

And while the shared combo in­puts may make it easy to ex­per­i­ment with new char­ac­ters, this is a ros­ter of tremen­dous range and in­tri­cacy. Two newly an­nounced fight­ers make that abun­dantly clear. First is Nappa, an old, burly ally of DBZ stal­wart Vegeta. “When you look at a char­ac­ter like Nappa, nor­mally you’d imag­ine him be­ing a grap­pler that fights up close,” Hiroki says. “But we’ve tried to make him a lit­tle bit trick­ier, a bit dif­fer­ent to what you’d ex­pect.” One of Nappa’s moves sees him briefly stoop to the ground, plant­ing a seed. A se­cond or so later, a small sprite, fa­mil­iar to fans of the anime as a Saiba­man, ap­pears; it walks up to the op­po­nent, jumps to­wards them and, if it lands, ex­plodes. Any grap­pler player, in any fight­ing game, would kill for such a pow­er­ful ranged abil­ity. Once again, this is Arc walking the tightrope of this game’s dif­fer­ent au­di­ences, us­ing some­thing faith­ful to the anime to add a twist to fight­inggame con­ven­tions to de­light the genre faith­ful.

Cap­tain Ginyu, mean­while, is some­thing else en­tirely. Hiroki asks the demon­stra­tor to call up the com­mand list; ap­par­ently, Ginyu has only four moves. Yet as in the anime, Ginyu fights with an army – in this case, a set of four al­lies, sum­moned us­ing the Ki Blast but­ton, com­ing out one at a time in a set ro­ta­tion and each per­form­ing a dif­fer­ent move. The com­mand list may im­ply sim­plic­ity, and in­deed, fans of the source ma­te­rial can just mash a sin­gle but­ton and watch the sparks fly. Yet the veteran will need to re­mem­ber which min­ion was called out last, and which

“W E BE L IEV E THE FUN OF F IGHT ING GAMES ISN ’T JUST ABOUT CON­TROLS

– IT ’S ABOUT TH E M IND GAM ES ”

will come next, in or­der to op­ti­mise their com­bos. As for his Ul­ti­mate At­tack, his most pow­er­ful su­per move, well. It’s a body swap, bor­rowed from the anime, not only ex­chang­ing char­ac­ters with your op­po­nent, but life bars as well. “We’re hop­ing that the core fight­ing-game au­di­ence will re­ally master Ginyu – he’s a very tech­ni­cal char­ac­ter to use,” Hiroki says. “If some­one used him in a tour­na­ment, and used the body change at the last minute when they were about to die… well, that would be huge.”

Arc’s ef­forts to sat­isfy all play­ers in Dragon Ball FighterZ’s bat­tle sys­tem would, how­ever, count for noth­ing with­out the right modes. If all a be­gin­ner player can do is waltz once through ar­cade mode be­fore head­ing on­line for a bat­ter­ing, all the de­vel­oper’s good work be­neath the sur­face would likely count for noth­ing. Fur­ther­more, Arc’s genre peers have al­ready shown that there’s more to a fight­ing game’s sin­gle­player com­po­nent than sim­ply bang­ing a load of cutscenes to­gether and stick­ing them in be­tween fights. Given the source ma­te­rial, you’d al­most un­der­stand if Arc went down that route. Yet, mind­ful of the need to ac­com­mo­date the lesser skilled, it has once again put in the ef­fort to strike a bal­ance.

“The Dragon Ball games we re­leased in the past were mostly fo­cused on the re­pro­duc­tion of the orig­i­nal story,” Hiroki says. “You would play as Goku, and play the story that he lived. But for this game, we’re try­ing a new ap­proach. We built a com­pletely new, orig­i­nal story for this game, and you’re ac­tu­ally go­ing in­side Goku. In a fight­ing game, since you use a spe­cific char­ac­ter for a long time and de­vote a lot of time to each one, play­ers see those char­ac­ters as rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them­selves. That’s what we want to ex­press in the story.”

It means the fourth wall is torn asun­der within sec­onds, the anime-per­fect cutscenes show­ing Goku as­sailed by some un­seen force, talk­ing di­rectly to what­ever is now con­trol­ling him. When the first op­po­nent turns up, they ac­knowl­edge it, say­ing they can tell Goku’s not his usual self, and that they’ll re­frain from us­ing lethal force. And it’s a fac­tor else­where, first through a lev­el­ling sys­tem that boosts a fighter’s stats the more you use them to re­flect the strength­en­ing bond be­tween you, and then back into the story, with a char­ac­ter open­ing up to you about their feel­ings from time to time.

Else­where we see a clear ef­fort to make a mode of va­ri­ety, flex­i­bil­ity and re­playa­bil­ity: a story com­po­nent that is built to last. Skill pick­ups will al­low tweaks to a war­rior’s core stats, boost­ing speed, dam­age and so on, or grant­ing them unique abil­i­ties. The ac­tion is split over map screens, each con­tain­ing a num­ber of fights on mul­ti­ple paths. One might lead to a fight against a pow­er­ful en­emy, yield­ing a hefty chunk of char­ac­ter XP and per­haps a new skill; an­other will lead you to an ally in need. Save them, and they’ll join your party and become con­trol­lable in bat­tle. The mode is split into three chap­ters, or arcs: the first puts you on the side of Goku and the good guys, the next on the bad­dies, and the third on the an­droids, in par­tic­u­lar An­droid 18, the all-new char­ac­ter cre­ated for the game.

It’s a gen­er­ous thing, all told, and while Hiroki es­ti­mates that a skilled player, tak­ing the straight­est path through the nar­ra­tive, could see the cred­its in around ten hours, most will take a lot longer than that. And the hope is that most will stick around for longer still. “There are a num­ber of routes, a lot of op­tions, a lot of choices you can make. You can fo­cus on re­cruit­ing new char­ac­ters, or gain­ing spe­cific items or skills. Since each story may not be su­per long, we wanted to add in dif­fer­ent things so play­ers can ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing new each time. We have a bit more to say, but I can’t get into it right now.”

Fight­ing games are, like Dragon Ball FighterZ’s story mode, split into three arcs. There’s the bit for be­gin­ners, which does the job of eas­ing a novice au­di­ence into the ba­sics of the game, and the genre. At the other end of the scale is a re­quire­ment for dizzy­ing com­plex­ity, a

“W E WANT ED TO ADD IN D IF F ERENT TH INGS SO PLAY ERS CAN EX­PER IENC E SOM E TH ING N EW EACH T IM E ”

seem­ingly in­fi­nite skill ceil­ing and enough high-oc­tane thrills to en­sure a game is loved by the hard­core and thrives on the tour­na­ment cir­cuit. Yet per­haps the most vi­tal el­e­ment sits in be­tween the two, the bridge be­tween the on-ramp and the endgame, the path from fight­ing-game new­bie to fight­ing-game god. And it is here that most games in this genre fail. The ex­perts dive into train­ing mode and try things out, lean­ing on their genre ex­pe­ri­ence to learn the game. The be­gin­ners hap­pily mash their way through the con­tent that’s been tai­lor-made for them, hit a wall, and cast the game aside. From what we’ve seen, Dragon Ball FighterZ does a better job than most of cater­ing for the two very dif­fer­ent ends of the spec­trum. Whether it can fix the genre’s long-stand­ing prob­lem with the mid­dle ground re­mains to be seen, but given the work it’s done else­where, we’re cau­tiously op­ti­mistic.

Our im­age of the Bandai Namco exec and their light­bulb mo­ment is, as Hiroki tells it at least, a lit­tle wide of the mark. To un­der­stand FighterZ’s gen­e­sis, you have to go back 25 years, to the run of three 2D fight­ing games, sub­ti­tled Su­per Bu­to­den, that Bandai made for the SNES. “We started re­ceiv­ing a lot of feed­back from fans that they wanted an­other 2D fight­ing game [like those],” Hiroki says. “Re­cently we’ve re­leased a lot of 3D Dragon Ball fight­ing games. Be­cause we’d fo­cused a lot on 2D in the past, we’d done ev­ery­thing we could and 2D fight­ing was get­ting a bit old, so we shifted to 3D. We worked with Arc Sys­tem Works on Dragon Ball Z: Ex­treme Bu­to­den [a 2D fighter for 3DS], and we thought they’d be able to de­liver to play­ers a new type of 2D. That’s what I al­ways say: the evo­lu­tion of 2D isn’t 3D. It’s a new type of 2D. That’s what we’re try­ing to re­pro­duce in this game.”

As we watch Goku de­ploy his most pow­er­ful at­tack, a se­ries of su­pers strung into each other which costs six en­tire gauges, the screen ex­plod­ing with spec­ta­cle as Arc’s re­mark­able engine surges into top gear, we’re in­clined to say it’s job done. It’s been easy to dis­miss Dragon Ball games in the past; they’ve been made at speed, within a lim­ited bud­get, and aimed at an au­di­ence we’ve never re­ally been part of. It’s been an ef­fec­tive strat­egy for Bandai Namco – at the last pub­lic count, li­censed Dragon Ball ti­tles had sold over 40 mil­lion copies world­wide – but FighterZ has the chance to be so much more. With Cap­com’s re­cent ef­forts dis­ap­point­ing and Nether­realm long since set­tling into a solid, but never genre-beat­ing groove, there is a gap in the mar­ket for a fight­ing game of truly main­stream ap­peal. This has the looks, the style, the fa­mil­iar­ity and some­thing of an ob­ses­sion with eas­ing novice play­ers in; if there’s any jus­tice, we may be soon to crown a new genre king.

And if not, then Hiroki at least hopes FighterZ will change peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of big-brand games. “When you look at a li­censed game, a lot of peo­ple think that the qual­ity is not that high – that it’s made just to sat­isfy the fans. With FighterZ we want to con­vince play­ers that even though Dragon Ball is a world­wide brand, we can cre­ate a game on its own terms. We want to cre­ate a fan­base for Dragon Ball games, and be able to say that the peo­ple play­ing these games are peo­ple who know qual­ity.” Well, we know it when we see it. And it’s here, on full dis­play, the cam­era twirling and ca­vort­ing through the air in one of the best-look­ing games we’ve ever seen.

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