There’s an article that’s stuck with me as a critic writing about videogames these past few years, written by Film Critic Hulk over at Badass Digest. Hulk describes an encounter with Quentin Tarantino in which, to offer the abridged version, he argues against ever hating a film, because even the bad ones have something to teach.
I’ve tried to apply that to every lackluster game I’ve ever played since. It is, without question, fucking HARD, especially the more egregious and malignant a game’s mistakes. And yet, the satisfaction of figuring something out about yourself as the person being catered to by such a game, and about the process that led to the game happening, is immeasurable. It’s given me a healthy respect for everything that’s come down the pipe as a result, even if I do, eventually, have to tear it the hell apart.
So, the fact that Dragonball Xenoverse is both an okay game, and also happens to be the most important game I’ve played this generation, isn’t necessarily a surprise.
On its own merits, Xenoverse isn’t bad. At its core it’s a pretty rudimentary fighter that rides quite a bit on the painstaking representation of Dragonball Z the cartoon. Dragonball games cater to a pretty specific audience who’ll snatch it up based on the license every single time, without fail, and Namco will keep churning them out based on that fact. It’s a series that doesn’t necessarily HAVE to innovate. And yet, to my immense surprise, Xenoverse does, and it does it in ways that shame AAA games and should inspire numerous games to come. While I might not recommend Xenoverse to anybody not well-versed in Dragonball Z to begin with, there are five hard lessons Xenoverse can teach every new game as we move through the new generation.
1. Canon is not the Bible.
The main premise of Dragonball Xenoverse is that a strange time anomaly has screwed up the Dragonball Z timeline in a dozen or so crucial places. You play a fresh new recruit to the Time Patrol, led by series mainstay Trunks, who’s tasked with helping to repair the damage. Which means, going back through time to all-timer moments in the Dragonball Z canon, and finding out what went wrong, which usually involves characters dying when they shouldn’t, or a villain showing up years ahead of schedule, and joining the worst possible side. And then you look at how many times a Star Wars game has visited Hoth, or Normandy Beach being used as shorthand for the horrors of World War II, or how Assassin’s Creed gently started morphing into post-Victorian Forrest Gump, instead of showing a screwy subversion of history. Granted, if you make a set of rules for your stories, stick with ‘em, but especially as it concerns fanboy-beloved properties, the best way to keep a series from stagnation is to flip the whole damn thing on its head. Play around with expectations. Never let your audience see where you’re going, and you can lead them around by the nose.
2. Sex appeal is unnecessary in a game that’s not about sex.
Surprisingly, in looking over the absolutely insane list of Dragonball games, only one of them—Ultimate Tenkaichi—allowed you to create a character, which seems ludicrous for a property as insanely prolific as this. Still, Xenoverse’s character creator is a relatively deep one, allowing you to choose from five different races, with three offering options for females.
Going through each of the options, you’ll quickly notice something amazing: The complete lack of oversexualization. Granted, Dragonball isn’t exactly known for this kind of thing, but not feeling like my appreciation of beautiful women is being pandered to in a game where I smack around aliens and crazy-haired megalomaniacs is refreshing. Even with all the numerous clothing options. Even if you try to be pervy about it, the bare minimum you can strip a female character down to is a sports bra/athletic short combo. The basic options put female Saiyans in martial art gis, female Buus in sorcerer garb, and plain Jane humans in either martial artist clothes or in flowy stuff appropriate to the tropical climate the Dragonball Earth takes place in. You actually feel dirtier by the insane seven-foot-stack-of-canned-ham design of Nappa than you do by the ridiculously super-powered women running around here. Meanwhile, give me 30 seconds in DC Universe Online, I can have a female hero in an outfit that would make a Bunny Ranch employee blush.
3. Multiplayer is a side dish, not a main course.
I’m positive we’re all going to lose this battle, if we haven’t already. Regardless, if we can’t stop multiplayer from becoming a silly requirement, we can at least make sure it’s done properly.
And by properly, we’re talking about a multiplayer mode that enhances the single player campaign, not clearly meant to override it. For some, it’s less of a big deal, but there are many who have to answer the all-consuming question of “why” when we step outside of the straight story. Valve aces this, because even something like Team Fortress 2 has so much personality in its characters, it’s impossible for every match to tell a fun, Termite Terrace-y story. Portal 2’s multiplayer dovetails right off of the single player’s final moments. Meanwhile, the two factions facing off in The Last of Us’ multiplayer are the least interesting thing about that game by leaps and bounds, and Destiny’s story is so willfully obtuse that it ceases to matter. And then there’s Call of Duty which just shouldn’t even bother at this point. All that money digitizing Kevin Spacey could probably be better spent elsewhere.
Xenoverse gets it right in that while it does have a main hub world, much like Destiny, unless you’re heading off to fight PvP, you’re only hitting up multiplayer if you have a particularly difficult stage to tackle, and you want to bring backup. It’s a cool option, not a requirement, meaning that the game remains accessible to everybody, not just groups of friends who buy the game like it’s an Oprah’s Book Club selection of the month. Speaking of which…
4. If you ARE going to make missions multiplayer, let us recruit.
For the exact same reasons as above. Not all of us have friends who will rush out and buy the same game and play it for months on end. But the ability to go out, on any mission, and just find new folks to adventure with is invaluable. Xenoverse’s lobby so quickly reminding me of Destiny’s just exacerbated the frustration of not being able to do specific Raids alone, but also not being able to screen and recruit mercenary friends to come along. Here, it’s a matter of walking up to the booth, finding a player, and making an introduction. No fuss, no muss, and the game’s hardest fights still get to remain challenging.
5. Keep It Simple, Stupid
For the vast majority of modern fighting games, your enjoyment is contingent on commitment. Modern fighting games are a world of Roman Cancels, Combo Breakers, health rankings, and other randomness that really only matters if your game is going pro. Even Smash Bros, while it does plenty to remain accessible to everybody, makes concessions to a higher end fighting crowd.
So there’s a simple pleasure to something like Xenoverse, which plays more like an airborne, supercharged Powerstone rather than Street Fighter. Two melee attacks, one low-powered fireball button, a block, and a button for Supers. In addition, all the special moves are customizable depending on how you want to play it. It’s got flaws, and even though you gotta respect a game that has you fighting 100 foot apes, the logistics are a bit of a nightmare. But it encourages experimentation—flashy maneuvers are a matter of timing and imagination, not twiddling around the D-Pad like you’re trying to solve the Lament Configuration. There’s a comfort to that, without feeling like the game is insulting my intelligence.
Ironically, the only thing keeping Xenoverse from being a perfect pick-up-and-play title is by very nature of being a Dragonball Z game. A basic knowledge of Dragonball Z lore is required for virtually anything to make a lick of sense, and it’s not an imperative for anybody that’s been out of high school more than five years to get caught up. And yet, the game quietly provides respite from the industry’s weakest design decisions, all while allowing those who DO have semi-fond memories of Dragonball Z to smile at the ridiculousness of it all. There will be better polished, higher profile games that hit this year that will fail at one or more of these items. And it’ll ironically be this game I go back to when I want to get away from it all.
Justin Clark is a freelance games writer living and freezing in Rochester, New York. Formerly at CHUD.com, his work can currently be found at Slant Magazine, Gamespot, and Joystiq. He can be found on Twitter at @justinofclark.