It’s been almost 7 years since Dead or Alive 4 released on Xbox 360, and in that time, a lot has changed. The flagging fighting genre has undergone a renaissance of sorts, with the Street Fighter, Tekken, and Mortal Kombat series all undergoing key iterations that have gained footholds in the mainstream, while the Dead or Alive series has only managed to spurt out a mini-game collection and a portable remake. Can the franchise that’s most famous for its busty leading ladies grab the attention of fighting fans that are so spoiled for choice?
Dead or Alive 5 is immediately accessible, thanks to its simple control scheme. There’s a face button each for punching and kicking, blocking/countering, and throwing, and one move flows into another in such a way that combos are easily discovered through careful button-mashing. The series has always had a unique fighting system, and this instalment has refined it and kicked it into overdrive. The much touted ‘triangle system’ is best thought of like a game of rock-paper-scissors. Punches and kicks beat throws, throws beat counters, and counters beat punches and kicks. To successfully counter you must successfully guess not only which limb will be coming your way, but also if it will come in high or low. Previous games were overly generous with the timing windows on the counters, but now a failed counter leaves you defenseless for a second.
An extra element of depth has been added to this core system - advanced players can use a ‘critical burst’ to leave their opponents incapable of countering while they set up a life bar-sapping combo. Also, once a character’s energy bar has dropped below 50%, the ‘power blow’ becomes available: a high-risk high-reward super combo that takes a few seconds to set up, but dishes out a ton of damage in a dramatic fashion when it hits, launching victims into environmental hazards that bend, buckle and explode.
Each of the fights in Dead or Alive 5 are quite spectacular, owing in part to the detailed character models that animate fluidly, and animations that really sell the pain that’s being inflicted. The sound design is incredible - bones are heard crunching and snapping during throws, the sharp smack of fist-meeting-face is wince-inducing, and even the dull thud of successfully blocked punches conveys the power behind each of the attacks.
The way the fighters interact with the environments is a key part of the DOA experience, and Team Ninja haven’t disappointed. There’s the usual assortment of exploding power generators to knock opponents into, obscenely high ledges to push combatants off of, and some stage-specific elements that really up the ante. On one level alone, players can be pushed in front of a charging tank, launched into an airborne helicopter, or shoved into a sandbag pile that is hit with an RPG. While the levels are certainly more packed with interaction, I did miss some of the depraved madness of battling through DOA 4’s multi-tiered stages - the fun of tumbling down one interminably long staircase after another is still unmatched.
The sheer amount of content crammed into Dead or Alive 5 is staggering. Each of the 20+ characters have a distinct fighting style, and come with a plethora of unlockable costumes. The three hour long Story mode is an absurdly high quality production; even if the contrived excuses to get each of the warriors together is laughable, each of the 71 missions are worthwhile for the way they each highlight a facet of the fighting system and reward players for mastering them.
Other than that, there’s the genre-standard selection of time attack and survival modes, each of which come with their own unlockables and leaderboards, and a versus mode that supports four players in the tag-team mode. The training mode is fully-featured, with the command training particularly helpful for mastering each character’s many combos and myriad stances. The mode is so in-depth that it has an option to simulate varying qualities of connection quality to help you learn how to deal with increasing degrees of input lag.
This game has plenty of potential for online play, and presents plenty of options for those willing to take their skills to the global stage. There are lobbies with spectator support, ranked matches with battles for letter grades, and quick matches for fun. Anyone encountered can be added to a register and challenged to a ‘Throwdown’ if they’re online, but an AI approximation of their fighting style is available otherwise.
Finding a match online to test the multiplayer was a bit of a crapshoot, which can be attributed to my playing the game before it went on general release. However, I was regularly connected to players continents away, and was impressed by how playable the game was, with not a single one of the 20 or so games I played disconnecting, even if some of them would lock up for a second every now and again.
This is clearly a product that has an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach in terms of back-of-the-box features, but at its core, beneath the flashy presentation of skimpy outfits, gigantic gelatinous breasts and cartoonish explosions, there’s a very technical fighting game. When two skilled players get together, there are many tense stand offs as they analyze one another’s style, scrutinizing for which muscle twitches first to prepare the appropriate counter. It’s regularly thrilling stuff, but if you’re a newcomer up against someone with a sophisticated understanding of the system, you’re going to be put through the grinder until you get time to explore the intricacies on your own time.
Thankfully, Dead or Alive 5 has enough style to attract the newcomers, a clever design that trains them in its many systems inoffensively, and enough worthwhile content to keep them hooked long after they’ve got a firm grasp. It’s a worthy sequel, and an affirmation that if you weren’t taking Dead or Alive seriously before, you should now.