Pros: Truly captures DBZ fighting; replay-heavy story mode; 'toon-quality graphics
Cons: Story mode plot can be erratic; still needs more high and low moves
The Japanese have invaded -- our TV programming, that is. You can't flip to a channel on Saturday morning without seeing some spiky-haired, large-eyed protagonist fighting evil or getting into misadventures. Their numbers are even on par with the amount of infomercials for acne medication, juicers, and ab-enhancers! Props must be given to one of the originators, though -- Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball series has been around a long time, and is still immensely popular in all corners and orifices of this planet.
Third Time's a Knockout
Dragon Ball has had more than its fair share of licensed video games. While the core subject matter may be gold, the development hasn't always been refined. It's like tossing a juicy filet mignon into the microwave. Things just don't work that way. You have to prepare games with meticulous care and attention to bring out their full flavor.
In Budokai 3, Atari and developer Bimps finally get things right. The fighting engine has been sharpened to a razor tip, with all the trademark Dragon Ball moves and insanity. Battles start on the ground, but quickly take to the skies -- generally staying in midair until one person/monster comes crashing to the ground, defeated. There's a staggering number of crazy, cinematic ways to turn your opponent into a skid mark on the sidewalk: You can smash them through mountainsides, engage in dazzling beam struggles, and pick away at them in a rock/paper/scissors-style beat down where they must guess your button press to defend. These are in addition to the already over-the-top special moves that fill the screen with particle effects.
With most titles in the fighting genre, defense usually stands for some picketed barrier that you throw an opponent through. Budokai 3 makes blocking and dodging almost as fun as burying your foot in someone's ribcage. Almost. Rolling and sidestepping are nothing new, but expertly timing your block can deflect blows. Taunts actually serve a purpose, reducing an opponent's Ki meter, which fuels special attacks. It's even possible to teleport behind your foe to deliver a counterattack. Reactive players are going to have a blast with these techniques.
The Plot Ain't Dragon
Budokai 3 features one of the best story modes in recent memory. It entails rocketing around the surface of various planets (no in-flight movie, but the price is right), hunting for dragon balls, and fighting Frieza and other baddies. Called dragon universe, the mode expertly mixes exploration, story development, and battles. The ability to level-up your character is implemented well, too. Each fight has a base experience reward, but parameters in dozens of other statistical categories can give you a boost. You'll need all the help you can get, because grabbing balls isn't as easy as it sounds. Needless to say, this mode usurps Budokai 2's board game interface in every conceivable way.
Six characters can be chosen for dragon universe, and each one has a different twist on the overlying plot. Goku's quest is obviously deeper than Krillin's, for example, but there are rewards for completing each character's -- including unlocking more fighters to play through dragon universe with. The only negative with this mode is that the drama is spread a little thin -- no doubt to squeeze each person's tale onto the disc. Several events seem to happen in a blur, and those who don't have a PhD in Dragon Ballology can easily get lost and confused.
Play the Cartoon
Cel-shading seems to be as prevalent in games as a pause menu, but it really works here. Budokai 3's graphics are impressive, and appear to be lifted right from the animator's drawing table. The stages are vivid and bright, and the new special moves only serve to further immerse you in the Dragon Ball lore. Fans of the anime will be pleased to know that all their favorite voice actors (over 25 in all) provide vocal talents for their respective characters.
Its Got Balls
The Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series has never wanted to square off against the hardcore fighting franchises like Tekken or Soul Blade, but it's refreshing to see a lot more effort put forth in Budokai 3 to craft a high-quality product. Dragon Ball fans will fall in love with the fights, modes, and large character list set before them here. The thing is, even gamers who don't know Gohan from any other spiky-haired anime kid will smell what Budokai 3 is cooking. That means this game may bring more people to the DBZ fold, instead of just feeding off of existing fans -- which is what most Dragon Ball games could be accused of.