The biggest problem with Dragon Ball Z games, from a fan perspective, is that it's historically been a bit of a bitch to come up with original content between the games. I mean, it's a story that's been told to death, and once you do it so many times, it starts to get a little stale. Some games, like Budokai Tenkaichi 3 (my golden standard for the franchise) strike the right chord, by including the movies, tons of characters and a smattering of different modes, on top of some rather intricate gameplay. Others, like Ultimate Tenkaichi, go for bland retellings and looks over substance and content.
Still, like people who pick up every incarnation of Madden come hell or high water, I have played essentially every entry since the PS2 era, because I am a hopeless fucking nerd for any and all things related to Akira Toriyama's ridiculous opus of bulging muscles and glorious manes. As such, I have seen the series wax brilliantly and wane most horribly. With a new developer, focus on online play, and an addition of new content from the recent Battle of Gods movie (which, if you haven't seen, shame on you), does Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z overcome its stupid name and failings of the last three tepid offerings? Read on to find out.
Have you played a Dragon Ball Z game or watched any of the related material, or read the original manga? If so, you pretty much know the story. If you don't, it's pretty simple. There's this really strong guy named Goku and he has a group of strong friends, and they get into a bunch of violent hi-jinks involving aliens, demons and other baddies that often result in the destruction of towns, cities, and whole planets. It's a pretty epic saga, spanning lifetimes, worlds, and even dimensions. Usually, I'd say that players could follow the story pretty easily if they were unfamiliar with the series, but this time around, I'm going to have to recommend newcomers (as if they would consider getting this in the first place) get familiar with the lore beforehand. Why?
Well, for one of the rare times in one of these games, canon is officially broken in favor of jamming characters into places they don't belong. That is to say, Gohan is never kidnapped by Raditz, Gohan goes full ape to fight Vegeta, Nappa and Raditz (the latter of two can still be alive at this point in the game), and other entirely non-canon events. This is both a good and bad thing, in my book. People unfamiliar with the franchise will be getting an entirely inaccurate depiction of the story, but fans who are sick of seeing the same plot points getting regurgitated over and over again are treated to something new. So, overall, it's a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the story, but as a fan, I was satisfied.
But then again, most people playing this won't be doing so for the story. No, the focus of most Dragon Ball Z games is on the combat, and that hasn't changed a bit in Battle of Z. The big marketing bullet point for this entry has been the added emphasis on cooperative gameplay, as well as a simplified combat system that's easy to get the hang of. This is partially the reason, it seems, for the significantly altered narrative, as scenes that were previously 1-on-1 fights now have to accommodate several players. I'm pleased to report that instead of coming across as inauthentic shoehorning of co-op, this move actually makes the game feel fresher than any entry in the franchise has for quite some time.
The problem with this entry, however, is that it ultimately suffers from the same issue every DBZ game since Budokai Tenkaichi 3 has: lack of content. Other titles, like Burst Limit and Raging Blast, were enjoyable and versatile enough to make you forget that there weren't nearly as many characters as that Wii/PS2 entry. The problem with Battle of Z, though, is that it's a one-trick pony. With not a lot of moves to master, and a relatively small roster, not to mention an incredibly unwieldy and bothersome menu used to navigate the single-player side of things, all that's really left after clearing the missions is multiplayer. True, there are a decent amount of missions, along with some interesting side-stories where players get to play as franchise villains, but it's not a truly substantial amount of content. Again, BT3 managed to have a thorough campaign, tournament mode, 161 characters, and a huge amount of other content... and this was back in 2006. Putting this little on a disc for sixty dollars in 2014 seems a bit silly.
That isn't to knock what this game does right. Artdink has successfully taken the Dragon Ball Z franchise into the online world, something that past entries have stumbled with for an entire console generation. The environments are expansive and varied, and the fact that they can house eight characters with no noticeable lag is an impressive feat, especially considering how pretty this game is (arguably the prettiest one yet, really.)
Especially nice is the Vita's support of Ad-Hoc multiplayer, meaning that you and a couple of friends with the system (all five of us) can get together and wail on each other, or work together. While this is one of the more skimpy DBZ titles in terms of content, it is arguably the best in terms of core gameplay, technical craftsmanship, and multiplayer capability, even without the inclusion of offline co-op or versus.
Ultimately, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is not a bad game. In many respects, it is a very solid one. What really makes it not worth the full price, though, is the fact that banking all of your money on the longevity of online play hinders the core experience. We've already seen Namco-Bandai make this mistake with Soul Calibur V, with its absolutely awful excuse for offline content, and it's even more egregious here considering the niche appeal of this game. But still, in spite of some glaring flaws, Battle of Z is still very much worth it for franchise diehards, especially if you opt to get it after a price drop (or at the Vita's more reasonable $40.)
While you might not sink as many hours into Battle of Z as you have with past games, you'll more than likely enjoy of the time spent with it.