As a series, Dead or Alive has always been Virtua Fighter's prettier, dumber sibling--the one that cruises through modeling deals to the family's praise while the other isn't getting any appreciation for their PhD. Despite having a strong fandom of its own, every iteration of DoA has been maligned by the hardcore fighting game community... until now. Dead or Alive 5 builds and improves upon the series' past mistakes to create a fighter that still feels fast and fun, but provides a worthy competitive experience at the same time.
Dead or Alive has always been one of the best-looking fighters around, and DoA5 continues this trend admirably. Dead or Alive 4 was a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005, and while it still looks really good, it's starting to show some age. DoA5's characters look better than ever, now with small details like dirt, ash, minor battle damage, water, and sweat showing off the intensity of matches. Faces are more detailed and more expressive, so the female characters especially feel less like blow-up dolls and more like actual people.
With a respectable cast of 24 characters, featuring two new faces and five unlockable fighters (including three guest-stars from Virtua Fighter), DoA5 may not have the massive roster of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but makes up for it by having each character stand out individually. Even characters with the same fighting style, like Bass, Tina, and La Mariposa (all of whom are pro wrestlers) have different strengths, weaknesses, and aesthetics--for instance, Bass does more power-style moves and resets, Tina uses more technical chain throws and counters, and La Mariposa has an arsenal of high-flying aerial attacks and ropewalks. Each character also now has a Power Blow--the DoA equivalent of a super move--where you can charge up a preset combo that sends opponents flying. Because charging up a Power Blow is so obvious, landing one is a lot harder than it sounds, as you have to either hit an opponent while they're stunned, or have perfect timing and catch them unawares.
Early shots of DoA5's stages looked pretty bland, but thankfully that's not the case in the final version--a drab Modern Warfare-esque battlefield and oil rig are joined by a river raft straight out of a Disney ride that leads to a lush jungle, vibrant Big Top battles, and a chaotic, crumbling construction site. A main feature of Dead or Alive's stages (since the second game) has been "Danger Zones," special areas of stages where opponents can be knocked into for more damage. They can be as simple as an electrified floor, or as random and lethal as traffic in front of a Vegas casino. DoA5 adds "Special Danger Zones" to stages--successfully land a Power Blow and you can launch an opponent into helicopters, giant snakes and more for massive damage. Players wanting a true test of straight fighting skill can also turn Danger Zones off. Some stages also have Cliffhangers, where if you or your opponent get pushed off a ledge, the attacker can strike or throw their victim off--unless the victim defends wisely, and then they can turn the tables.
Believe it or not, it wasn't DoA's simple, lifted-straight-from-Virtua Fighter controls or its goofy, sexy presentation that gave it such a bad name--it was actually Holds, the game's central countering mechanic and what separated DoA from other 3D fighters. In previous games, a fight could easily be won by playing defensively and countering a handful of times with well-placed Holds. You could Hold counter out of critical stun, you could break a combo by Hold countering (as long as both feet were on the ground), and you could actually cancel out of many unsafe moves by starting a Hold, which often allowed you to recover into a neutral position before your opponent could actually fight back. Now, Holds require better timing, and have a smaller "safe" window of attack, leaving you wide open if you mis-time them--Holds are now the domain of skilled, experienced players who have practiced and studied.
You're not exactly supposed to be rewarded for losing a match
Despite early talk about classing up Dead or Alive, I can safely say that Team Ninja lied. Dead or Alive is still the silly, sexy romp it always was, and in some ways it's actually worse. Remember how I was talking about water and dirt and sweat affecting how characters looked? Yeah, when you have two female characters in thin, sheer material grappling in ankle-high water, the end result is less "black eye and a swollen nose" and more "clingy shirt and oh look, Helena's not wearing a bra." Older games let you set your "Age" from 17 to 99, adding more bounce the older you said you were, but while DoA5 actually has more realistic bounce (and no Age setting), chests will jiggle and sway at the slightest movement, and stay jiggling for a while after. Boobs don't exactly work like that. Maybe it was all misdirection--the expectation of a less-sexy Dead or Alive actually made me notice the fanservice more.
Strangely, new character Mila doesn't get caught up in all of this--her most revealing outfit is a sports bra and match shorts, and while she's pretty curvy, most of her outfits are full-body affairs--a roadwork sweatsuit, plaid shirt and jeans, and her very normal diner outfit and apron. The other new face, Rig, is a roughshod oil driller (and taekwondo master) who fits right in with the rest of Dead or Alive's men with equal parts cool and ridiculous. Three guest stars from Virtua Fighter--Akira Yuki, Pai Chan, and Sarah Bryant--round out the roster, and VF fans will feel right at home. Each VF character controls exactly like they do in their home title, but their controlled, less-flashy movements and technical nature (like Pai's stance-shifting and misleading movements) can really throw off players who are unfamiliar with the forefather of 3D fighters.
Instead of giving individual endings to characters in Arcade Mode, DoA5 has an extensive, several-hour-long descent into madness Story Mode that lets you play as most of the characters all the way up to the final, brutal series of boss fights against Alpha-152. Yeah, the bitch is back, but she's been severely toned down since DoA4--you'll only fight her a few times at the very end of Story Mode, and you won't see hide nor hair nor gel of her in any other mode. Story Mode also serves as something of a tutorial or training mode, giving you the option of practicing certain aspects of gameplay that can range from simple (do a 2-hit air juggle) to "pray for the best" (land an Izuna Drop counter against Alpha-152). What can get especially infuriating is when an optional lesson asks for one thing, like "do five throw escapes," and then the CPU doesn't freakin' try to throw you. As a training mode for new players, it's incredibly lacking, especially after the brilliant tutorials (that can also serve as refresher courses for advanced players) that we've seen in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Persona 4 Arena.
Yes, most of the female characters have optional glasses for their outfits
DoA5 also has plenty to unlock--characters and a few outfits are unlocked by playing Story Mode, and the bulk of the game's huge wardrobe is unlocked by playing Arcade, Time Attack, and Survival Mode across multiple difficulty levels. So far, I've come across seven difficulty levels, but it's pretty inconsistent--you can be cruising through a match on Rookie, the lowest setting, and all of a sudden the CPU will use an advanced string that eats up 50-80% of your health. Another thing to consider--I have high win ratios with Tina and Mila against actual people, but die regularly against the computer on higher difficulty levels.
Inconsistent AI aside, there are a few other nagging issues that screw with enjoyment of the game. You can't save your options, so if you want to experience the game's all-star Japanese voice cast (including Houko Kuwashima, Hikaru Midorikawa, Yui Horie, and Maaya Sakamoto), you'll always have to change the language setting every time you start up the game. The English cast isn't bad at all (although Helena does sound like the feather duster from Disney's Beauty & the Beast), but it's frustrating having to change it every single time. A strange, still-unfixed day-one bug wouldn't let me fight online or even post scores to online leaderboards if my system's parental lock was off--I had to go in and manually "allow" every setting before the game would let me use its online features. Finally, online play is kind of a mixed bag--about half the matches I've played have been very laggy, and this is on the 360. I can't even imagine what it's like on PSN--until online gets patched, it's probably best to avoid opponents with less than a four-bar connection on either system.
Thanks to Street Fighter IV and the resurgence of interest in fighting games, we're facing a market with a staggering amount of choices in the genre for fans of both 2D and 3D brawlers. Dead or Alive 5 may not be as intelligent or competitive as Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown or Tekken Tag Tournament 2, but it's an immensely fun 3D fighter that easily stands tall as the out-and-out best of the Dead or Alive series.
+ Solid cast of varied characters with unique and fun fighting styles
+ Battle it out in chaotic, unpredictable stages--or turn off stage hazards for a straight-up duel of skill
+ Changes to the Hold system make DoA more competitive and balanced than ever before
+ Plenty of unlockable content, including characters and a huge wardrobe of costumes
+/- Still the same old sexy Dead or Alive... but still hilarious and over-the-top enough to not be creepy
- Compared to other fighting games, the online is pretty poorly-implemented
- Unusual bugs and glitches hamper an otherwise seamless experience