It’s been seven long years since Dead or Alive 4 hit the Xbox 360. Since that time, developer Team Ninja has undergone something of a transformation and the fighting genre has seen a sudden spike in popularity. Rather than its fast paced action and lovely graphics, the Dead or Alive series has always been most famous for its jubilantly jiggling female fighters. Dead or Alive 5 proposes less of an unabashed focus on bouncing boobs and more of a focus on a solid, technical fighting system. The result is a fairly new DOA experience.
Similar to past series entries, one thing Dead or Alive 5 gets right is its visuals. The game boasts wonderfully detailed 3D graphics and beautiful characters and environments. The new visual style is one thing I would call a direct improvement compared to Dead or Alive 4. The female characters in particular have smaller eyes and more distinctive facial features. Where female fighters in past games looked almost like clones of each other with different eye colors and hairstyles, each fighter now looks unique and more detailed. Each girl is still undeniably sexualized, but this has been toned down in general.
All of the costumes – even the collector’s edition swimsuits – are much tamer than before. No longer do the girls’ assets bounce all over the place ridiculously. There is a new sweat and dirt engine, however. Fighters now show wear and tear over the course of a battle, collecting sweat on their faces and dirt on their clothes. It’s a nice new mechanic and it keeps things spicy, even if the game never reaches the borderline soft porn status of Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball. Once you witness a dirty, sweaty Ayane land a dramatic power blow and send an equally unkempt Kasumi through a wall, off a building or into a tank, you’ll fully realize the ‘Fighting Game Entertainment’ Team Ninja has been peddling all along.
The story mode is the most fully realized in any DOA game yet. That isn’t to say that it is in any way good, only that it is longer and much more substantial than in any previous series installment. You’ll unlock new fighters and titles for use online as you complete the 5-6 hour campaign. The story itself is unfortunately very tenuous. Events from past games are touched upon and one of the new characters appears to be involved in a sinister plot by the end of the game. At the core of the tale, it’s just another world tournament to determine the greatest fighter, like in Tekken, King of Fighters, etc. Series fans probably won’t be disappointed by this, though, since the story has never been a strong component of a Dead or Alive game.
I thought the game’s soundtrack was fair. It’s overflowing with generic metal, which is expected, but there are also some enjoyable tracks. I’m particularly a fan of the tracks in the techno and dance veins. The sound effects are a bit loud for my tastes initially, but you can edit this in the settings menu. The English voice acting in the game is pretty awful. Listening to Helena, Tina and various other characters speak is totally irritating. Helena sounds completely ridiculous. It also doesn’t make sense why she’s the only one with such a severe accent when almost every character has a different nationality. If Helena sounds like this, then shouldn’t Lei-Fang or Gen-Fu have awful Engrish? What about Elliot, who’s British and doesn’t even have a hint of dialect? I was inclined to quickly change to the Japanese audio track and read subtitles.
The fighting system is very similar to past games, but there are some important changes. Firstly, holds/reversals have been seriously toned down. Back in DOA4, a couple of well-placed holds could change the course of a battle in moments. Some characters, like Hayabusa, could dish out enormous damage with very little risk. Holds have been changed in three important ways. First off, the timing is much stricter. In the past you could spam a mid-hold and you would eventually catch your opponent. Tight timing wasn’t at all required. That is no longer the case. Now you need to time a hold very carefully, because if not you’ll just keep eating blows and that could lead to a very undesirable critical burst, which I’ll explain in a moment.
The second major change to holds is that there are now four different kinds. Before there was a three point hold system: lows, mids and highs. Now, mid-kicks and mid-punches must be reversed in different directions. Instead of back and block, you must now use forward and block to reverse a mid-kick. Back and block will still hold mid-punches, though. This means that you now have to be even more specific with a hold. High and low punches/kicks can still be reversed with the same motion, but you’ll have to read mid-strikes better now to successfully reverse them.
Finally, holds take less damage in general now. Even Hayabusa’s notorious Izuna Drop reversals aren’t as game changing anymore. A couple of holds could easily snatch you from defeat’s jaws in DOA4, but I doubt that will happen as frequently without some seriously skilled play in Dead or Alive 5. There are also new expert holds for each character. These holds have excellent effects, such as stunning or launching an opponent, but are more difficult to execute in return. This change to the holds initially makes the game seem a tiny bit slower than DOA4, but it is truly still very fast paced.
Another new mechanic is the power blow. This works something like a ‘comeback’ mechanic. Once a player’s stamina has been reduced to about half, their character’s power blow is enabled. These attacks take a while to startup, but they deal huge damage. Once you’ve connected a power blow, you’ll be able to choose precisely where you want to send your foe flying. This is useful not only because it alone is very damaging but it also allows you to engage the new interactive stages. You can aim your power blow to knock your opponent into a car, a tiger, a missile or any of various other environmental hazards to cause extra damage.
Environmental damage has been toned down as well, especially from Dead or Alive: Dimensions, where getting knocked from a certain cliff would eat more than half of your character’s stamina. You can also knock your opponent from certain ledges to initiate the new cliffhanger mechanic. This allows you to deal some extra damage by throwing or striking you opponent down a couple of stories to the stage below. The victim can avoid taking too much damage from a cliffhanger attack by properly guessing whether their opponent will attempt to strike or throw them from the ledge.
The power blow takes a while to startup, so it can be very difficult to land. You can connect one much easier if you first hit your opponent with the all new critical burst. A critical burst occurs after your opponent receives a certain amount of damage after first being hit with a critical stun, which fans should already be familiar with. During a critical burst, your foe is a sitting duck because they can’t block or hold and this window of time is fairly long. Because of the amount of damage required, a character may get knocked to the ground well before a critical burst occurs. For this reason, a critical burst is only really viable if your opponent is misses a couple of holds/reversals during a combo.
So, you begin a combo with a critical stun and you follow up with four more strikes that your opponent tries and fails to reverse. You strike them again with a certain attack for a critical burst. This state lasts long enough for you to connect a power blow. Combos like this can easily eat more than half of your stamina, so you should always try to avoid a critical burst. In summary, the biggest game-play changes in DOA5 are the refined holds, the power blows, the critical bursts, the cliffhangers and the ‘controllable’ environmental hazards. Other familiar components of the game, such as enormous juggled combos, damaging combo throws and changing, interactive environments, are still intact. The damage adjustment and new systems combine to make this the most technical DOA game to date. The wonderful tag battles from past games are back in full force.
Dead or Alive 5’s online suite is competent. You can create lobbies and fight in ranked and unranked matches. You can also spar online. You can wait for a match while you train. While in a lobby, you can chat with other players. You can also collapse the chat box if you wish. While viewing a fight, you can return to the lobby to chat and back to the fight, which I thought was kind of cool. There is no option to kick someone from a room, which means someone with a poor connection can enter a lobby and ruin everyone’s experience and there’s next to nothing you can do about it. The netcode itself seemed stable, but certainly not great. I definitely experienced lag in some of my matches, but others ran smoothly enough.
On average, I ran into lag more often than not, which is unfortunate. Tag matches or matches in crowded lobbies can run really slowly.
An online feature I thought was pretty neat was the fighter list. Each time you play with someone, you have the option to register them to your fighter list. You can then send them in-game invites to matches and stuff. This is cool because the alternative would probably be to add a player you liked to your friends list, and that isn’t always the best thing to do. Rather than fill up your friends list with players that you’ll only enjoy one game with, you can create a kind of in-game friends list, which I found rather effective. There’s also an online leaderboard for the ranked match.
Unfortnately, Dead or Alive 5 feels a tad bit light on general content when compared to other new games in the genre. Single player modes include story, arcade, training, survival, time attack and free battle. The extras include a replay viewer and a gallery where you can view titles you’ve unlocked for use online. This list of modes pales in comparison to those found in recently released fighters like Persona 4: Arena or Street Fighter X Tekken. It is missing a challenge mode to teach some basic and advanced essential combos, a gallery to view all the cool cutscenes, and various other features that have become standard genre fair since DOA4’s release. Practically every new 3D fighter has some way to customize your character’s costume or appearance, but this game does not. The game feels rather bare bones and there are way more things to do in other new fighters.
In the end, though, Dead or Alive 5 accomplishes what it sets out to. It revitalizes the Dead or Alive brand with new visuals, new systems and a new attitude. It’s simple to pick up and play but it offers more competitive depth than any series entry before it. It’s gorgeous visuals make it a treat to watch and every battle is rife with exciting explosions, collapsing stages and dramatic, slow-motion attacks. While it hits its high notes with nary a fault, the game suffers from a general lack of content and an unimpressive online mode/code. This makes it harder to recommend next to more fully featured new fighters. Still, Dead or Alive 5 puts on an entertaining show and it is one that series fans will certainly not want to miss.