Friday, November 6, 2015

Dragonball Xenoverse: Why Do I Enjoy This?

Video games, like any artistic medium, are highly subjective in quality.  Reviews try to objectify their critique as much as possible, neatly placing positive and negative features on both sides of a scale and extracting the numeric solution. But games are more than the sum of their parts, because every person weights these pros and cons separately. If you really hate something a game does, you may dislike it even if it’s widely adored. If a game feature scratches an itch like no other, you may engage subconscious blinders that keep you from seeing the roiling sea of feces surrounding your island of enjoyment. This phenomenon inspired me to start what may become a reoccurring feature on this site. Or not! Consummate professional that I am, I haven’t planned that far ahead. Regardless, it’s called Why Do I Enjoy This, or Why DIET if ur dwn w abbrevs.

Simply put, I’m going to examine mediocre games and determine specific things they do really well and/or really poorly. This gauntlet of guilty gaming pleasures begins with Dragonball Xenoverse. Dragonball Xenoverse, released back in February this year, is an aggressively average game. Yet it sold a huge number of copies (over 2.5 million) and was met with a generally positive response. I heard of the game. I knew how mediocre it was, and yet I bought it on a Steam sale. I proceeded to play it for over a couple dozen hours. A completely valid question to ask at this point is: Why? Am I just an easy-to-please simpleton?

Well I found this image hilarious, so that gives away the answer.

Yes, but we’ll have to go into a little more detail.

+ The Subtleties of Face-Punching

Have you ever punched someone in the face so hard they flew into a mountain? Well I didn’t know they allowed internet access in maximum security prisons, but good for you. For the rest of us, we’ll have to stick to virtual fisticuffs. I’ve played some Dragonball Z fighting games before, and the one thing they always get fairly well is that punching people is FUN. As fun as you might expect from the world’s most popular source of face punches. The animations are punchy, the sound effects satisfying, and people go flying across the arena in spectacular displays of aerodynamics. There could stand to be more destructible scenery, but there’s still enough to plow some people through small houses, and the impacts against walls and floors are fun to watch.

When you can actually see what you’re watching, of course.

Lasers and energy attacks are similarly satisfying. Obviously Dragonball has a ragnarok rainbow raring to go and they leverage it appropriately. Multi-colored murder rays of every shape and size gouge gaping gashes in the earth and blast foes to smithereens. The audio design is also on point with an incredible breadth of ways to make a laser go “ptchoo”. In short, shooting lasers is also fun. This is good, because I spent a hell of a lot of time doing it. Perhaps even too much, but that’s a point for later. For now, know that the game feels fun to play. Moving, dodging, punching, throwing, and blasting are enjoyable enough that this feedback alone does a lot to sustain the game.

The game certainly isn’t sustained through variety. The only type of mission that isn’t “high-velocity murder” is “high-velocity murder in between collecting balls”.

+ Creating Your Own Face-Puncher

As important as face-punching is to Dragonball games, it alone hasn’t guaranteed the series’ many other games success. So what’s different about Dragonball Xenoverse? Well for one, it has an in-depth character creator. That’s right; the game is all about creating your own Dragonball Original Character (tm), and then having them travel through time photobombing series highlights. The character creation is pretty robust too. The preset features like hairstyles are somewhat limited, but the ability to change around the colors of anything nets it some serious mileage. You choose from five races of the Dragonball universe before getting to the nitty gritty sculpting, and those races have notable effects on your characters stats.

Did I mention there were stats? That’s a rhetorical question, of course I haven’t. I would know, I’m the one writing this. I was only bringing them up to transition into talking about them, obviously. Dummy.

+ The Many Ways to Punch a Face

Dragonball Xenoverse has notable RPG elements injected into it, which along with the character creator grants it more long-term appeal. Completing fights, whether they’re story missions or the optional side quests, will grant your character experience and cash. Leveling up allows you to upgrade your characters stats and cash allows you to buy new clothing and special skills to equip. The stats are significant too, making high-level characters are several times stronger than beginners. You can go back to earlier fights and wipe the floor with hordes of disposable mooks without a second glace. Or if you’re a filthy min-maxer like myself, you can do that all the time from the get-go.

Above: The correct way to play.

Body size affects your stats as well. So to be the best at blasting I had to come up...short, elsewhere.

Unlocking abilities was of particular interest to me. There are hundreds of different ways to shoot lasers and punch faces in the game. Plenty of them behave similarly, but effort was made to have a fair amount of distinct attacks that are fun to collect and experiment with. Finding the perfect combination of skills for my created character was a large part of what kept me playing. Though some of them can be bought, most skills and equipment comes from completing side missions. The side missions can be completed with friends or AI partners, and you as you fight characters in story mode you unlock them to both play and partner with.

Fight alongside the strongest fighters in the universe! Also these guys are here!

The game also features a dozen or so mentors. By signing up with these mentors (important characters like Vegeta, Hercule and Frieza) you can gain their favor over time by winning missions, especially if you bring them along. They periodically teach you new skills of theirs in exchange, along with items to make their abilities stronger. You can also collect the titular dragon balls through random drops on side missions. Using them lets you make a wish from a specific list, unlocking things like skills, stat resets and secret characters.

I was GOING to show a picture of summoning the dragon here, because I was only one ball away. But that didn’t pan out, so here’s a picture of one of the many assholes who refused to drop the thing.

Point being, there’s a lot of things to unlock in this game. A lot of things that are actually interesting to see because they affect the character you’re building. So the game has a nice feedback loop of simultaneously pursuing story missions, side missions, things you can buy, equipment and move drops, and raising your status with a mentor. All of this does a good job giving you goals and keeping things interesting against the monotony of the base gameplay. Speaking of, let’s talk about some of the reasons I don’t enjoy the game.

- RNG Is Not For Me

RNG stands for Random Number Generator, used in games to describe when things are determined by random chance. I expect a certain amount of randomness in RPG systems with lots of things to collect. However, Xenoverse has too much for my taste. Whether side quests drop certain items or skills is entirely random. I’d prefer if we didn’t draw out gameplay like this, and instead just unlocked one new thing from the list each time. However, it doesn’t bother me much. The drops are very rare, which does bother me. But the most annoying piece of RNG for me is the Ultimate Finishes.

Finding dragon balls by going on crazy adventures? Nah! You just do one of the easiest side missions over and over until another player randomly shows up as an NPC. Then after fighting him you have another random chance of actually getting a ball.

Each side mission has a hidden condition in it, like completing it within a certain time limit. If you complete this condition, then some extra challenge occurs at the end of the fight, typically having to fight another enemy or two. Clear the bonus challenge and you get an Ultimate Finish for that mission. Apart from giving something for perfectionists to aim for, some drops are impossible without getting an Ultimate Finish. Here’s where things get Whether or not you get an Ultimate Finish is random.

Say the condition is to complete the mission in under 5 minutes. You can move your fingers past the sound barrier, blink before everyone is dead and ride a chariot of flaming corpses across the laser-blasted hellscape that remains, and it doesn’t matter. The mission may just end and decide not to give you the bonus challenge. I find this infuriating. There’s already chance in play to decide if you get rewards from a mission, sometimes insultingly low chances. There’s no need to give us a chance, to prove ourselves, to get an even lower chance to trigger! Without looking up a walkthrough it’s impossible to tell if you’re even doing the right thing to trigger a bonus condition. I’m okay with grinding to unlock something, which I know some other people dislike. But I draw the line at all this random bullshit keeping me from making consistent progress.

- The Simplicity of Face-Punching

Despite being fun, the combat is simply too basic to have staying power. Your available basic attacks are very...well, basic. You can’t get by with random button mashing, but once you find out the right buttons to mash in the right order the majority of your problems are solved. If you’re using a ranged build instead of a melee one, it’s quite different. In that case you find the attacks with the biggest numbers then alternate between spamming them and running away to charge energy.

Let me give a visual summary of my recent gameplay. Here I am firing Perfect Kamehameha on Namek!

...and here I am firing a Perfect Kamehameha into a mountainside!

...and here I am firing a Perfect Kamehameha in a cave!

...and here I am firing a Perfect Kamehameha in the city!

...and here I am CHARGING a Perfect Kamehameha in the city!

...and here I am firing a Perfect Kamehameha on Namek! Again!

A little extra complexity would go a long way. Add more basic attack combos and more ways to mix things up. Add more ways to break out of combos and keep yourself from being infinitely stunlocked. Bump up the AI so they aren’t always standing around while you pose for the laser-camera. (Granted, that one is pretty accurate to the show). There are probably other things I’m missing or easier ways to handle this. I’m no expert on building 3D fighters. All I know is that the combat is shallow and gets old very fast. Were it not for the satisfying feel of blowing people away and the constant flow of unlockable goodies, I would’ve stopped playing much sooner. Even with those, I tired of the game before too long.

- Nitpicks

Finishing a fight doesn’t lead to victory poses. It doesn’t even lead to cool camera angles. Instead, everyone on the battlefield just stops whatever they were doing until the mission complete screen shows up. This doesn’t bother me much, but it can look a little...awkward.

“ Vegeta. Now that Ginyu’s dead...yeah. That’s a thing. Probably happy about that, yeah? Yeah. Cool. So I uh...gotta go and...y’know. Yeah. Bye!”

When you buy something, you can’t preview what the item looks like. I can’t really see a reason for this. If I’m going to be spending ludicrous amounts of cash on an item with high stats, I’d like to at least make sure it doesn’t feature me wearing a speedo and bright pink vest.

Though there are a ton of different pieces of equipment to buy, most of them don’t allow you to edit the colors. There’s a small portion of clothing whose color you can edit, but since stats are also a factor there should be far more color-friendly vestments. I didn’t particularly want to wear Piccolo’s clothes, but there were only like three outfits with capes so options were limited.

Notice that only one of all of these has editable colors.

This one is tiny, but drives me a tiny bit insane. The game features combat that’s often pretty freeform, moving from fight to fight in large arenas. Due to this, fight music stops playing when you get far away enough from opponents. Thing is, given how often people get blasted back, retreat to charge, or snipe from long range (especially me); this means the soundtrack is constantly fading in and out. This game doesn’t have amazing music, but it’s alright and songs like this are trying to set a very different tone than the mediocre passive music that starts playing nigh instantly EVERY TIME you leave combat.


You’ll enjoy Dragonball Xenoverse if you like...

Character Creation: There’s a fair amount of options here, and it’s genuinely fun to mess with.

Leveling and Collecting: Like seeing numbers go up and amassing a bunch of pretty fireworks to throw at people? Well you’re in luck.

BEATING PEOPLE UP: If you’re looking for some dumb yet fun spectacle, this will certainly do. Xenoverse provides a wide array of ways to cave in computer-generated faces.

You’ll hate Dragonball Xenoverse if you dislike...

Repetitive Combat: Looking for a subtle, nuanced combat system that offers a complex, interesting one-on-one fighting experience? Xenoverse doesn’t have that. You’re going to do the same thing an awful lot, and changing your flavor of energy beam only helps so much.

Grinding and Chance: Despise random loot drops? Hate filler content with a burning passion? There’s a chance this game will bug you.

Dragonball Z Original Characters: Are you deeply offended when some kid on deviantart tries to push Ultimate Warrior Vegorta as his unique creation? You might wanna stay away from the online lobby in this game.

Dragonball Xenoverse is a game that is ultimately disposable. Unless you’re a serious DBZ fan or obscenely wealthy, I don’t recommend this game at full price. But for the rest of us, it’s worth a look on sale for some dumb fun.  If nothing else, Xenoverse is a decent way to kick back and kill some time with spectacle. And judging by the sales and potential sequel hook in-game, there’s gonna be another one. Here’s hoping they learn from their mistakes and make a well-rounded, well-designed experience.

Realistically though, it’ll be another shallow slug fest that I buy on sale months after release. Hey, better than nothing!

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