As was the case with Tekken Tag Tournament 2 , comfortable familiarity is a key element in Dead or Alive 5 . TTT2 tweaked a bit more but for the most part, both new fighters cater to the long-time franchise fans by remaining recognizable while upping the technical ante. Both still feel resistant to newcomers, despite strides taken to better educate the n00bs, but both are perfectly happy with retaining that which made them so popular in the first place. And I respect that.
As everyone remembers, Dead or Alive has routinely been a bastion of top-notch visual presentation. The lines have always been so clean, the animations so fluid, and the coloring and shading always so perfect. And it’s true that the character designs and animations in DoA5 stand out but in other ways, the game shows this franchise's age. The background textures are surprisingly mediocre and although it remains painfully smooth and even pristine, there doesn’t appear to be quite as much detail as one would find in TTT2. But of course, the girls are still awesomely hot. …no problem for all red-blooded males, I'm sure. 😉
The audio doesn't just suffice; it's borderline impressive. The sharpness and clarity of each strike comes through your speakers beautifully, and the soundtrack – which I actually like, although my expectations were low – kicks things up a notch or two (pun intended). Other elements of the sound category might get a free pass in the eyes of the ardent series fans; voice acting has never been a highlight and it isn’t here, either. But really, with a solid and invigorating music selection and almost flawless effects, that isn’t much of an issue. Besides, such gorgeous ladies don’t need to talk.
It’s easy to make comparisons to the other big fighter, the aforementioned TTT2. And right off the bat, we come to one major discrepancy: Namco opted to ditch the traditional Story Mode in favor of the Fight Lab, which isn’t quite the same thing. But Tecmo has kept the Story Mode in DoA5 and as you might expect, it isn’t exactly well written or well acted, but it works. Helena has taken control of DOATEC, a major corporation that, as far as I can tell, is just a faceless corporation. Still not sure what it does. But hey, it’s celebrating something so here comes a tournament!
And yes, each combatant comes to the tournament for a different – and usually personal – reason, which is perfectly traditional. Just about every fighting game ever made utilizes the same formula and to be blunt, I’m fine with it. I really am. A lot of people might condemn the game for staying too much in the past, but these days, I’m more interested in developers who are in touch with their fans. As I said above, I respect game makers who understand that the fans they’ve accumulated want to play Dead or Alive , not some “modern,” ultimately bastardized version.
Anyway, moving on to a similarity to TTT2, DoA5 also has a tutorial of sorts. It’s part of the Story Mode, too; as you progress, you’ll learn more about how the combat works. You’ll also experiment with different characters, as each fighter has a chapter to explore in the story. The only problem is that towards the end, the tougher tasks assigned to your bout feel like added annoyances; all you really want to do is win the difficult match, and to hell with trying to finish it with a critical burst. Furthermore, much like TTT2, you’re not really told quite enough, which once again makes the learning aspect a little too frustrating.
But the combat itself is fantastic, and appears to be an exercise in traditional, in-depth fighting mixed with a sheer, almost minimalist presentation. The latter emphasizes those great character models and cool effects, while refusing to clutter up the screen with a ton of meters and bars and what-have-you. So even though many of the modes may feel generic (Arcade, Survival, Time Trial, etc.), and you’ve got the standard seven difficulty levels (hell, that’s old-fashioned; remember the seven stars in Street Fighter II ?), it’s tough to call out the combat. It appears to be extremely well-balanced.
Basically, you’ve got your punches and kicks in one category, special holds in another category, and the third category consists of throws. As you might anticipate, one category neutralizes another; if your opponent is trying to hold you, execute a series of blows and combos. Chaining normal strikes together still inflicts the most amount of damage, while holding and throws can often be great counters and defensive maneuvers. There was a time when counters were more important in this series, but now they feel as if they’re better implemented and don’t take center-stage as they once did.
Then there’s the addition of the new critical burst and the power blow, each of which can leave your opponent off-balance and very much at your mercy. Critical bursts make combos last longer but more importantly, they cause your opponent to become dazed. During this time, you can’t be held and you can finish off the combo with deadly accuracy…you know, provided you’ve got it down. This game takes practice, remember. The power blow can only be used once per round and only when you’ve dropped below 50% health; it’s the flashiest of all the moves in DoA5, as it’s very cinematic and ends with a massive environmental bash-attack that’s quite the crowd-pleaser.
One of the reasons you have to practice, however, is due to that sheer presentation that focuses so keenly on the fighters and the action. At first, it’s difficult to tell if you’re even executing a combo after successfully performing a critical burst. Furthermore, because holds are almost purely used in a defensive mindset, the timing required involves a certain amount of experience. Then, at the end of the day, you realize that you still can’t bypass learning the more complex combos because ultimately, mastering them will allow you to win the majority of your matches. In this, there may be a slight balancing issue.
I do like the “danger zones,” parts of the environment that can cause you a big problem if you aren’t careful. They’re not overused and they add some flair to a game that already has an abundant supply. Beyond that, this is DoA, plain and simple, and some will complain that it’s too “plain.” Maybe Tecmo really hasn’t done enough with this series over the years, and maybe it feels a little too familiar, even for the fans. But I maintain that most will enjoy this new effort and on top of which, the online component seems to work just fine. Just make sure you’ve got a decent connection (denoted by a five-star ranking) so there's no irritating lag.
Dead or Alive 5 is, to be precise, a game without any identity issues. It knows what it is, it knows its fans like it that way, and it doesn’t want to change too much. The tutorial part really isn’t all that great, and a lot of it might make you go, “been there, done that,” but DoA is DoA. Plus, we’ve got some new mechanics that really work quite well, the environmental stuff is cool (if a tad underwhelming), and all your favorite characters are just waiting for you to master their movies. Me, I’ve always been partial to Helena and Hitomi; I still remember owning people in DoA2: Hardcore with Helena…yeah, back when I played fighters more.
The Good: Brilliant character models and beautiful animations. Crisp effects and a kickin’ soundtrack. Rock-solid combat that feels quite balanced. Plenty of depth without intrusive meters. Online multiplayer works well.
The Bad: Background textures are subpar. Tutorial aspects lacking. Could spark feelings of déjà vu.
The Ugly: "DoA? Ugly? NEVAH."