Dead or Alive 5
“I’m a fighter.” That phrase is the slogan for the latest entry in Team Ninja’s venerable franchise, Dead or Alive. Those words represent the idea that DOA is no longer an exclusive club solely for hardcore fighting enthusiasts, but rather a piece of “fighting entertainment”, a game for the masses. In Dead or Alive 5, I’m a fighter; you’re a fighter; we can all be fighters. It’s a simple mantra, one that is as powerful as it is silly.
DOA has always been regarded as the zany alternative in the 3D fighting space. In Dead or Alive 5 though, Team Ninja wanted to reset the franchise, setting a new tone and direction in the wake of Tomonobu Itagaki’s exit. But, like it or not, the name DOA carries certain expectations, and although the team spoke frankly pre-release of its desire to move away from the cheesecake the series is widely associated with, the end result is still a game where Tina touches her ass for the camera (and viewer) while celebrating her victory.
When it comes down to fighting, Dead or Alive 5 will feel satisfying and familiar to vets of the series. What has always made the games unique, beyond exaggerated breast physics, was the hold (read: counter) system, which allows players of varied skill levels to punish the use of mindless attack strings and mashing. The system returns with the traditional three-point variant, requiring specific inputs for high, mid and low holds to be successfully activated. In previous iterations holds have sometimes felt like a win button, but the damage scaling and activation windows have been tweaked sufficiently, making holds the natural extension of the system they were always meant to be.
One of the major features Team Ninja attempted to play up pre-release was the increase of stage interactivity. The results aren’t all that different from games past, which have had their own multi-tiered stages and danger zones. It’s true that it hurts to be slammed into a passing car or nipped by the occasional circus tiger, but it doesn’t figure into match play nearly as often as early game footage suggested, and even considering the massive damage you might sustain, it’s hard not to laugh off the absurdity of it all.
Even though this is the fifth proper DOA game, there’s still a noticeable level of insecurity that permeates the title. One of the new characters, Mila, is an obvious nod to the Western market as an MMA fighter. She, along with fellow newcomer Rig, feels conservative when compared to the over-the-top designs and larger-than-life personalities of the core cast. Both characters are fun and unique to use but Team Ninja is clearly trying to step out of its quirky past and hopefully speak to a larger global audience. Their inclusion, however, feels like a half-step, rather than a full on stride in a new direction.
In addition to Mila and Rig, a trio of Virtua Fighter characters (Akira, Pai, Sarah) make their unlikely DOA debuts. Transitioning from one three button fighter to another, each character makes the leap as faithfully as one could reasonably hope, extensive move lists included. But, again, like the brand new fighters, their appearances don’t quite mesh with the existing DOA palette. To Team Ninja’s credit, both the Kokoro/Akira story fight and the Tina/Sarah face-off are well-executed, but it does little to hide the overall feeling that the Virtua Fighter cameos are obviously here to claim a little of that series’ prestige.
Still, Dead or Alive 5’s identity crisis doesn’t preclude it from being a solid, fun genre entry. Tag team fighting returns and is still the most enjoyable way to experience the manic pace of DOA – especially with three friends on the same couch. Though ludicrous, due to the preposterous, convoluted nature of the series’ fiction, the story mode offers an engaging, occasionally hilarious and ultimately long-winded trip through the game’s cast. Each fight has a non-essential goal to complete which slowly teaches beginners the vast array of move types and systems at play. Admittedly, the slow-drip of a multi-hour story mode isn’t an ideal place for a tutorial, but it does spice up the otherwise straightforward progression of fight, cutscene, fight, etc.
Following the footsteps of other recent fighters, Dead or Alive 5’s online suite comes with many of the expected bells and whistles, including unlockable titles, fight requests and the normal slew of lobbies, player matches and ranked matches. Some of the smaller additions are the most welcome, like seeing your opponent’s menu actions following a match or being able to add them to your ‘Fight List’. Both options give you a better opportunity to get to know players within Dead or Alive 5, rather than friending them over PSN, which is rarely the road to healthy online gaming relationships.
The online fights themselves are fast and responsive in my experience. Like any other fighting game on the market, matches can run the gamut depending on the latency of the player you’re connecting to and their region. But, unplayable matches were definitely in the minority. Given the counter-centric nature of DOA it’s a relief that most of the games you’ll find run well enough to keep holds not only viable, but still remain the essential tactic they’re meant to be.
“I’m a fighter.” In this, again, the franchise’s fifth game, it’s hard to read those words as intended, rather than a cry for validation. Dead or Alive 5 is just as unique as it is awkward. On the surface it still wants to be the kooky, over-the-top brawler that is known more for its breasts than it is its fists. However, underneath that façade is a high-quality fighter still struggling for acceptance within the fighting game community. In the post-Itagaki days Team Ninja must find its identity, because balancing the sexy, the silly, and the serious is no short order.