Dead Or Alive 5 review: Style over substance

Dead or Alive 5 reviewWhen it first debuted, Tecmo Koei’s Dead Or Alive series seemed like a relatively standard 3D fighter in the vein of Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or even Battle Arena Toshinden. Over the years though, the various fighting franchises were forced to evolve and stake a claim to their own particular brand of virtual combat. Virtua Fighter went for hyperrealism, Tekken went for demons and kangaroos, and Dead Or Alive went for, well, spectacle. To the extreme. Exclamation point.

However, the series’ developers at Tecmo Koei have also steadily been building a fun, intuitive fighting system underneath the glossy T&A exterior. At this point it’s no longer fair to simply dismiss Dead Or Alive as a franchise that panders to juvenile male gamers, and Dead Or Alive 5 is the perfect proof of that. That’s not to say that the pretty ladies have all been draped in modest clothing, but it does mean that this is the perfect time for a new player or lapsed Dead Or Alive fan to get back into the series.

We’ll come back to tackle the huge, heaving pair of elephants in the room a bit later, but first let’s discuss the game’s mechanics and content.

Be Like Water

Like Virtua Fighter, Dead Or Alive 5 relies on a very simple set of controls. You have a punch button, a kick button, a throw button, and a fourth button that allows you to both block and counter, depending on which direction you happen to push alongside it. By combining these various attack buttons, different directions and proper timing, you can launch into pretty solid combo attacks with any fighter. Unfotunately, this level of accessibility also has a dark side: Dead Or Alive has always been one of the most “button-masher friendly” of the 3D fighters, and DOA5 proudly continues that tradition. It isn’t just possible to beat both computer-controlled characters and real, living opponents by merely smashing your palm across the gamepad, it’s actually pretty easy.

Dead-or-Alive-5

However, this is where that fourth button comes into play. Tap that button and a certain direction, depending on what sort of attack your opponent is using, and instead of blocking, you’ll counter their attack and hit them back (usually in a visually spectacular fashion). Though this is a very simple mechanic, it’s also incredibly valuable to the Dead Or Alive experience, as pulling off a successful counter is one of the most thrilling things you can do in a fighting game. Instantly turning an incoming punch into a broken elbow for your foe is one of those things that the vast, vast majority of us will only ever experience inside a video game, and it definitely offers ample reason to practice your defensive skills as often as your offensive ones.

You’ll notice that I’ve been discussing mechanics as a universal system, and failing to address how individual characters can/should react to in-game situations. Normally that’d be the case simply because we don’t have the time to cover every single character’s best strategies, but in this case it’s because, despite aesthetic differences, the basic attack/throw/counter mechanics make all of the fighters surprisingly similar. If you’ve mastered your counter timing and are able to vary high and low attacks, you can use any character effectively. As a result, though the basic mechanics are phenomenal and intuitive, they also necessarily hamper the game’s potential depth (and now you know why the Dead Or Alive games have never been as popular as Tekken or Virtua Fighter with the hardcore fighting game tournament crowd).

Enter The 36 Chambers

So if the game’s characters are so similar, then why bother playing? In a word, spectacle. No hyperbole: Dead Or Alive 5 is the prettiest fighter to date. Not only because the game’s graphics and animation routines are amazingly fluid and polished, but also because the game features the most “realistic” fighting arenas available. Here in the flesh-and-blood world, if you’re asked to step outside for an impromptu street fight in the nearest alley, you’re bound to see trash and detritus lying all over the cement. Most fighting games strip out this sort of miscellaneous crap, but Dead Or Alive 5 renders it all in surprisingly sharp detail. Fortunately, the boxes and traffic cones littering the ground won’t actually affect the combat, but having seen this detail in DOA5, I find myself missing it when I play other fighters.

Dead Or Alive 5 -- Tina, Bass

Though the random garbage won’t affect your fights, the Dead Or Alive series has a long-standing tradition of including explosive, dangerous elements in certain arenas. Dead Or Alive 5 continues this tradition as well, and its hazardous environments are as gimmicky as imaginable. In one stage, you can kick your opponent through a pile of steel girders onto the ground below where a tanker truck hits two cars, jack-knifes, flips onto its side, and explodes to cause massive damage to your unlucky foe. I know I said “gimmicky” just a moment ago, and I totally stand by that, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the spectacle of using the world around me to hurt people. It’s silly, it’s over-the-top, and like the rest of the game it’s entertaining specifically because the developers at Tecmo Koei are in on the joke. They know this game is totally ludicrous, so instead of trying to compete against the other fighting franchises for the best depiction of reality, Dead Or Alive 5 just goes straight for goofy fun.

Drunken Master

Unfortunately, Tecmo Koei doesn’t have the same level of experience in working with modern-generation fighting games as Capcom, Sega, and Namco Bandai, and in certain crucial aspects of Dead Or Alive 5 that becomes quite evident. The online multiplayer portion of the game, while functional, is nothing spectacular. Lag is a depressingly common occurrence, especially given the amount of loading time that elapses between the start of each new online fight. Both Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown offer virtually lag-free online experiences, and while Dead Or Alive 5’s connectivity might have been acceptable on home consoles three years ago, in September 2012 it leaves a lot to be desired.

In fairness, Tecmo Koei has shared plans with us to release a Day 1 patch for the game that should improve the online multiplayer component (as well as streamline a few other rough spots in the game), but as is the experience is frustrating.

That’s a real shame too, because technically speaking, the relatively poor online game is DOA5’s only fault. It offers a wealth of game modes, its combat is fast, fluid and most crucially, engaging, and the number of extra stuff to unlock in the game is simply massive. The bit that impressed me most was the game’s Story Mode, which doubles as something of an unofficial tutorial.

Like most Story Modes, the game shows you a few moments of CGI plot before tossing you directly into a fight. Though these fights can be fought in the standard fashion, they also offer “Bonus Missions,” such as countering low attacks a certain number of times, or hitting your opponent with an aerial throw. None of these Bonus Missions are mandatory, but if you play through the entire story while completing the Bonus Missions, you’ll find yourself very well versed in the game’s various nuances. It’s one of the more compelling in-game training modes I’ve seen in a fighter so far. Playing through the Story Mode is also how you unlock the three special Virtua Fighter cameo characters (Akira, Pai and Sarah Bryant), but the Bonus Mission training mode is just so useful that these extra fighters are simply icing on the cake.

Dead Or Alive 5 -- Rig, Christie

UPDATE: During the course of the review you just read, you may have noticed a brief mention of a patch that Tecmo Koei released for Dead Or Alive 5 the first day it was available at retail. As we didn’t get a chance to experience the post-patch version of the game prior to writing up the evaluation, it only seemed fair to take a quick glance at the state of things following the patch, if only to see whether or not Tecmo Koei’s developers were able to improve the online multiplayer experience. Prior to the patch, playing online was a frustrating, lag-filled experience that couldn’t hope to live up to other, recent 3D fighting games, but with that being the game’s only truly fundamental flaw, I’d hoped that the patch could quickly amend the problem and maybe boost the game’s review score a few notches after the fact.

Unfortunately, the patch doesn’t really change the important parts of the game. Yes, it does streamline a few minor rough spots in the game’s overall usability, and offers more comprehensive options when attempting to connect to an online match, but once you’re in the fight the lag issue is as prevalent as it was in the days leading up to Dead Or Alive 5’s retail debut. Any improvements made to the actual performance of the game’s netcode are negligible at best and through 50 post-patch online matches only a handful of my fights were free of connectivity issues.

I will grant that the patch does seem to make connecting to other players a bit faster, and that’s a worthy improvement, but it does nothing to cure the game’s primary ailment. Given how entertaining Dead Or Alive 5 has been even with a wonky multiplayer component, I’m genuinely hoping that someone at Tecmo Koei can figure out how to deliver a smooth online experience, but despite the recent patch the game is simply not there yet. 

Don’t Think. Feel!

I said we’d get around to it in time, so let’s just get this over with: Dead Or Alive 5’s female cast is disturbingly well-endowed. Overt sexuality is nothing new for the Dead Or Alive games — this is the same series that debuted on the original Xbox with a commercial starring slack-jawed teenaged males gawking at inadvertent panty shots — but the anatomical anomalies in Dead Or Alive 5 go beyond “sex sells” to what I’m sincerely hoping is winking self-parody. 

Try this: Start any game mode in Dead Or Alive 5 and pick literally any of the female fighters. Win the match, then take your hands off of the controller. The post-match victory screen will zoom in to a portrait of your chosen lady. Now I want you to count how many seconds elapse before her breasts stop moving. Keep in mind that these portraits only appear in full once the character has finished her victory animation, so there’s absolutely no physical reason for her bosom to continue heaving, yet these arguably sentient mounds of flesh continue quivering for five to ten seconds after the end of the match. They’re less like actual human flesh than agitated bowls of jello, except that the flesh-colored texture work is so lifelike that the entire scene could pretty easily segue into an impromptu David Cronenberg movie.

Dead Or Alive 5 -- Tina

Is this sexist? Yeah, it is. The male characters are all peak examples of fitness, and pretty attractive fellows to boot, but none of them is as blatantly defined by key sexual characteristics as the female cast. That said,  the game is so over-the-top and silly that it goes beyond sexist and loops around to be simply cartoonish. You think you should be appalled by what you’re seeing, but it’s just so ridiculous that these hyper-sexualized women are impossible to take seriously. As a result, this may be the first Dead Or Alive title that is not glibly defined by its pandering to hormonal teenage boys.

Conclusion

Despite gorgeous aesthetics and a solid refinement of the Dead Or Alive fighting system, Dead Or Alive 5 arrives on store shelves with a number of strikes against it. Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is far deeper, and a more realisitic, functional 3D fighter, while Tekken Tag Tournament 2 simply overwhelms any competition with its sheer number of fighters and rock-solid gameplay. Objectively this seems like it should render Dead Or Alive 5 instantly obsolete, but Tecmo Koei’s fighter is just such stupid, crazy fun that it offers an entirely separate, niche experience for those who prefer to be able to pick up a fighting game and instantly pull off some awesome combination of kicks and punches. 

Dead Or Alive 5 is not the best fighter on the market. It’s not even the best fighter to be released this month. However, it is very entertaining, and far more suited for friendly party play than any of its rivals. I can’t rank it as highly as the recent Tekken Tag Tournament 2, but despite this I want it to be known that I do recommend this game for fighting game fans. It’s a novel take on the genre, the counter system is fun and offers a solid amount of strategy (without a massive learning curve), and the entire package is aesthetically and aurally phenomenal. Go in with realistic expectations, and you’ll have a blast.

Score: 7/10

(This game was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy provided by Tecmo Koei.)

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