Dead or Alive returns with the first installment not directed by Tomonobu Itagaki, and the first opportunity for Team Ninja to bring some truly new gameplay to the series. The bad news is what's been added feels gimmicky. The good news is what's been tweaked feels like a step forward for the series, bringing it up from its button-mashing roots into a more respectable fighter.
- Action-packed environments with lots of interaction
- Redesigned characters look better than ever
- Fleshed out training mode that tailors to pros and newbies
- Power Blows feel gimmicky and out of place
- Could give more instructions outside of training
- Nonsensical story that feels like a four-hour tutorial
Dead or Alive 5 Review:
You'll notice right away that Dead or Alive 5 has been given a makeover treatment, and everything from the environments to the hair on characters' heads looks better than ever. Body proportions may still be absurd, but you can nonetheless pick out small details like freckles and pores on a fighter's skin. I can't believe I'm writing this, but I swear the jiggle physics have also been toned down from earlier games. Crazy!
DOA Is Sexy And It Knows It
It's a step away from the airbrushed anime look the characters previously had, and some fans may not approve. It's all going to be personal taste when it comes to looks, but I like the direction DOA5 took with the characters. If nothing else, faces are now more unique and recognizable, though they could stand to be more expressive.
Stages too have improved in graphical fidelity from previous games in the DOA series. There's also a lot going on in them: a fight may start on the top of a building that's in the middle of construction, but soon steel beams begin to swing and knock down pieces of the scenery, or you might knock your opponent into them and they'll crash down, tilting the entire level.
The downside is that Dead or Alive 5 has ditched some of the wackier environments in favor of darker, dirtier locales. There's still the occasional bright spot, but by and large the jungles, shrines, and opera theaters of yesteryear are left in the cold, replaced by oil rigs, alleyways, and construction sites. Get used to the oil rig, because you'll see it a lot in Story mode.
Yep, There's A Story Mode
Fighting games have never been known for their compelling narratives, and Dead or Alive has been even more nonsensical than others. Mortal Kombat won't win any Oscars for its writing, but at least it's straightforward with who everyone is, why they're around, and what the threat is.
Dead or Alive, by contrast, is about a family of ninjas, a fighting tournament run by a corporation named after the tournament, cloning, brainwash, and gratuitous cheesecake. And for some reason they all go to an island and rub lotion on each other sometimes. It's not exactly the classiest game on the market.
Before, if you wanted to get the whole story of what happened, you typically had to find information pulled from a wiki or manual. Dead or Alive: Dimensions was technically the first to have a Story mode, but DOA5 is the first for consoles. Both of these games have tried to make sense of why a biker/wrestling superstar is punching his model/actress/rock star daughter, who then team up to fight ninjas and trolls, but it's just too crazy to pull together.
It's a shame, too; with Itagaki gone and the overhauled look of the characters plus the “I'm a fighter” ad campaign, this could've been the perfect time for a reboot.
The Story mode makes due with what it has, but as mentioned above, you'll be seeing stage repeats quite often, particularly the oil rig. I swear that thing must've been blown up twenty times by the time I was done. Where are the safety regulations?!
Each stage of Story comes with a challenge designed to teach you the mechanics of the game, but they often lack clarity or useful instructions. Sometimes the challenge will literally say things like “a certain move.” You won't know what that move is or if you're performing it correctly unless you back out and head into training, which can be a pain.
Little things like a visual demonstration or step-by-step walkthroughs would've been a big help, and some more variety in challenges would've kept things interesting. Instead, the Story feels less like a plot and more like a four-hour tutorial with some shoehorned set pieces and voice acting.
Story tends to not be a major focus for fighters, but when other titles are putting major effort into their plot, DOA5 looks lazy by comparison, and the challenges that make it feel like a tutorial get in the way of enjoying the game.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
The Dead or Alive series has, up to DOA4, been regarded as a button-masher full of “How did I do that?” moments. DOA5 still gives each fighter upwards of 100 moves, making it far easier to transition into combos than many other fighting games, but there's more focus on precise timing and to become a master of the system you'll need to learn that the thumbstick is just as important as the face buttons.
Damage has been scaled down so that counterattacks no longer completely dominate, and battles last a bit longer, giving players more opportunities to make a comeback. The system feels more balanced, which reflects Team Ninja's desire to make DOA into a franchise that can stand toe-to-toe with Street Fighter in the fighting game community. It also feels a bit slower than Dead or Alive 4 – not by much, but enough to be noticeable. Players turned off by that game's lightning-fast pace will feel more at ease here.
The big new addition with Dead or Alive 5 is the Power Blow. When a character reaches 50 percent or lower health, they can perform this charge-up attack that, if it lands, automatically confirms several more hits and sends the target hurtling across the stage. It's designed to be both dramatic and useful as a tool for turning the tables against a dominating opponent, but they're not as visually satisfying as X-Ray Moves from Mortal Kombat or Hyper Combos from Street Fighter, and there's no reward for playing well, only for losing.
What's more disappointing is that you may not even realize what a Power Blow is or what it does if you want to skip the game's story and jump straight into some versus matches. Training doesn't teach them, and neither the online character select screen or standard versus menu show how to perform them. If you follow the Story mode, you might even, as I did, think that the input for every character's Power Blow is the same. Here's a tip: They're not.
For a game that's aimed at bringing new life to the series and inviting newcomers, there's a frustrating lack of instruction and information present in most of the game. The training mode is the exception, with plenty of information to help newcomers and pros alike.
You'll be able to set the CPU into standard pre-sets or record a move or combo for them to perform, and a HUD can be toggled on and off to show exact stats like damage, hits, and number of frames it takes to perform each move. A guided practice mode will take you through every character's move list, and there's even a setting that allows you to simulate for poor network conditions.
Alive, But Not Well
Team Ninja wanted to make Dead or Alive a more respectable fighter that could be seen as a worthy contender of the genre and less of “that game with the boob physics.” Dead or Alive 5 takes some right steps in that direction and misses a few others, but in doing so the game leaves behind a lot of the fun and silliness that's contributed to the franchise's appeal thus far.
It feels like Team Ninja, or publisher Tecmo Koei, got scared halfway through development that the game was straying too far, or perhaps the opposite, that it was remaining too zany for a new audience. The end result is a game that, while is a perfectly acceptable fighter that does a lot right in terms of balance and game play, doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a silly anime-style ninja soap opera? Is it a serious sci-fi drama? Is it a mystery thriller with the colorful cast of a Coen brothers movie? I don't know, and I get the feeling the game doesn't, either.
If you're looking for a refinement and re-balancing of Dead or Alive 4, then Dead or Alive 5 will suit your needs just fine. It's also the most welcoming to newcomers, so if you've been curious to try DOA, this is the time to get in. If you're a hardcore DOA fan though, keep your expectations in check and don't hope for too much.
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Editor's Note: Dead or Alive 5 was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.