Dragon Ball Z holds a special place in every anime fan’s heart. The series was an entry point for most western teenagers into the awesome world of Japanese animation during the '90s and early '00s, and it remains one of the most influential animes of all time.
I could pretend this was because of its close-to-nonsensical storylines, but the truth is that it was because it had the most ridiculously over-the-top and entertaining fights I’d ever seen – forget Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, Goku versus Freezer’s where it’s at.
That's why any game carrying the series’ hallowed branding has some pretty big shoes to fill. Luckily for budding Super Saiyans, Xenoverse 2 generally delivers top-notch fighting worthy of the Dragon Ball Z brand that will put any fan of the series on a serious nostalgia high. However, for those who didn't spend the past two decades throwing phantom Kamehamehas at their friends, the game may not quite deliver.
Xenoverse 2 is, at its heart, an open-world battle RPG designed from the ground up to deliver that sense of nostalgia to Dragon Ball fans. The premise is as ridiculous as you’d expect: a bunch of baddies appear and are trying to muck with history to ensure the heroes lose. It’s your job as a member of an elite group of Time Patrollers to ensure they don’t succeed, and that Dragon Ball’s history remains untainted.
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It sounds silly, but it works to great effect and gives Bandai Namco free rein to let you revisit pretty much every iconic battle in Dragon Ball’s rich history. This is basically an officially licensed fan fiction that lets you create your fighter and take part in Dragon Ball’s most iconic moments.
The character-creation system adds to that premise. You can choose your race, which includes everything from Saiyans to humans and Freeza folk, and from there you can edit your face, hair style, height and body type as you see fit.
The choice of race is the only important one, since it will directly affect your character’s core stats. Saiyans have high attack but low health, Freeza folks have high spiritual energy but poor defence, and humans are all-rounders.
With my character made, I was dropped into Conton City. The city acts as the main hub where you pick up various missions and can chat to NPCs. Missions pretty much all revolve around combat, which for any Dragon Ball fan is no bad thing.
Combat is pretty much a carbon copy of the anime series, so unlike in traditional beat-’em-ups, such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, in Xenoverse fights happen in 3D arenas and can involve multiple enemies and allies at once.
From the start your character is gifted with enough abilities to give Superman a run for his money – you’ll be able to fly, launch energy balls, teleport and punch your way through solid steel.
As a result, fights are lightning-fast and victory hinges on perfect timing and Ki management. Ki is the fuel used for special super-attacks, such as Goku’s Kamehameha or Krillin’s Destructo Disc.
What makes the combat interesting is the way it faithfully recreates the flow of Dragon Ball’s TV conflicts. Using teleport you can quickly jump behind an opponent while they’re mid-combo, breaking their flow and letting you get back on the offensive. Or you can use it to extend your combo after hitting them with a power attack, teleporting yourself into their path after knocking them skyward to land a follow-up strike.
Dragon Ball battles have always been about over-the-top super-attacks, and it’s no different in Xenoverse 2. Simple punches and kicks do barely any damage and only serve to let you position your foe for a finishing super-attack – which can knock as much as a quarter off your enemy's health bar. However, most of the enemies you face are as powerful as you, if not more so, meaning at any time the tide of battle can turn.
This is especially true given the diversity of super-attacks on offer. Each character has their own arsenal of special strikes. Freezer has his famous purple laser attacks, Goku his Spirit Bomb, Piccolo his Hyper Explosive Demon Wave – the list goes on. Each is unique and is most effective at different times. Some work best when fighting up close and personal, while others are better at range. The variety makes each battle a unique experience and a challenge.
The system works a treat and will be a delight to fans, but what makes it really shine are the historic settings in which each battle is staged and how accurately Xenoverse 2 recreates the tone and excitement of the original cartoon.
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Within three hours, I’d already intervened in Piccolo and Goku’s epic battle with Raditz, witnessed Goku’s iconic transformation into a Super Saiyan during his fight with Freeza, helped kid Gohan take on Vegeta and Nappa, and nearly passed out from excitement more times than I care to admit. The settings offered a true incentive for me to move from mission to mission, and left me with a strong desire to find out what’s next – even when the plot verged on becoming unfollowable nonsense.
The game’s robust training system aided my ongoing nostalgia trip, and offered a great incentive for me to explore Conton City between story missions.
You can pick up training missions by talking to one of the numerous characters from the series littered around Conton City. The missions are specialist fights that require you to beat your opponent in a specific way. Training with Krillin, for example, one mission required me to defeat him from a distance using his Destructo Disc ability. Another tasked me to take out Piccolo using his super-beam cannon. Each mission rewards you with a new super-attack, which can then be used in battles.
The ability to use one of the main cast's abilities mid-fight is one of the best parts of Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2. I can't begin to describe the joy I felt taking Vegeta out with one of Goku’s Kamehameha energy blasts during a mission.
The special abilities also add an element of depth to the already deceptively deep combat. Special attacks fall into either Ki or physical categories, and can be both offensive and defensive. Knowing which category is which is important, since the character-levelling system has separate upgrade arcs for both, which generally means you'll become more powerful in one or the other. This makes planning your path an important factor and can be the difference between victory and defeat in each battle.
The nostalgia value is important, as the single-player campaign’s gameplay doesn’t offer any variety. Missions never develop past "go to this area, beat these enemies", which means, even for a die-hard fan such as myself, things can get stagnant after the first few hours.
This would be fine if the multiplayer mixed things up, but sadly it doesn’t. Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 offers two main types of multiplayer: versus fights and cooperative Parallels missions.
The Parallels missions are special events that let you team up with other players online and complete special challenges. These range from Royal Rumble-style fights that task you to take out numerous enemies in a specific time, or big-boss battles that pit you against one super-powered foe, such as Vegeta in his great ape mode.
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The missions on paper should be super-fun, but in general I’ve found them to be a bit of a drag, as the mode doesn’t tweak the fighting mechanics at all. Every mission I took played out exactly the same way – fall into map, rush at enemies and lay into them until their health runs out. The only difference was that there were a few more human-controlled players on my team – none of whom seemed particularly interested in working together.
The versus mode is a little more fun, especially when taking on equally skilled foes, but the matchmaking isn’t too smart. All too often I’d find myself taking on a complete n00b or a person radically more skilled than me, and consequently suffering through a completely one-sided battle.
The multiplayer is indicative of a wider problem with Xenoverse 2 that will limit the game’s appeal. Bandai Namco has made no effort to make the game accessible to new players. The story assumes a lot of foreknowledge, and to non-fans the gameplay will feel chaotic. Playing the versus mode with a mate with no prior knowledge of Dragon Ball felt like shooting geese in a barrel.
As I understood the ebb and flow of Dragon Ball fights, I loved the fast-paced combat and ability to easily break combos. But to my newbie cohort, the combat felt like an unbalanced mess, full of random reversals, overpowered attacks and cheap deaths.
Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 is the ultimate fan experience. The game magically manages to retain the anime's epic feel, and faithfully recreates the fast-paced combat using surprisingly intricate fighting and character-development systems. If you’re a Dragon Ball fan, Xenoverse 2 is an awesome game.
However, to anyone else Xenoverse 2 will be a difficult pill to swallow. Combat is fun if you know how Dragon Ball works, but newbies will struggle to get their bearings, as Xenoverse 2’s tuition system is, at best, hit-and-miss. This, coupled with a lack of different gameplay modes and a difficult-to-follow story, make it a poor choice for more casual gamers looking for a decent fighting game or RPG.