After the departure of Dead or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagaki from Team Ninja in 2008, many were concerned about the future of the series. For fans, Itagaki was DOA. A lot of the designer’s personality had been injected into the games and Itagaki has called DOA’s female characters his ‘daughters’ in the past. Nothing was heard about a sequel for several years following DOA4’s release. Now nearly seven years later, Dead or Alive 5 is here and brings some welcome improvements to the table, yet plays it safe.
The most noticeable change is in the graphics and presentation. Textures and lighting are the best the series has seen. Characters have undergone a major makeover. Gone are any round faces or large, flat anime eyes. Instead characters now have more slender faces and eyes with depth, sparkle, and moving pupils. It is a very noticeable evolution, especially when looking at Kasumi or Ayane. Some fans may be adverse to the new design; I was at first but it grew on me. New character perspiration and water effects can soak into clothes, affecting their appearance (e.g. Hitomi’s white tank top becoming translucent). At other times the result is more subtle resulting in damp hair or wet skin. Characters also undergo gradual battle-damage so they look dirtier as a match goes on. Each character’s animations are unique and now have more nuances that reflect his or her personality and fighting style, from Kasumi’s elegant and graceful style to Hayabusa’s calm, decisive composure. Everything feels fluid and runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. The end result is characters that are more believable and alive rather than a cast from an old arcade fighter.
Much of the same can be said for the environments in Dead or Alive 5. Every stage is filled with background animations and objects that can influence the battle. In a Middle-Eastern battleground stage, bullets ricochet around the fighters with sand and dust being kicked up as they move. There are destructive elements as well like crumbling buildings and explosive oil rig containers. Certain spots in stages called Danger Zones will trigger an event that deals out damage to the character that bumped into it. DOA’s signature multi-leveled stages are back too. Players will have to be aware of their characters’ surroundings if they want to survive. Dead or Alive 5’s stages are the most awe-inducing spectacles ever seen in a fighting game.
Not everything is great about DOA5’s presentation however. Two aspects of Dead or Alive Dimensions (3DS) have been carried over: a new camera style named “Action” and “hit effects.” The ”Action” style features a camera that moves around more than in previous games to add intensity and appeal to newcomers and spectators. This can be switched to the “Classic” camera but “Action” is the default. Likewise, “hit effects” are on by default and emphasize where a character was hit by exaggerating the point of impact with an air ripple effect. This helps newcomers by making it easy to distinguish if an attack is high, mid, or low and makes for a showy, possibly distracting visual. A number of the background objects also have low polygon counts or muddy textures. For example, a particular monkey in the campaign looked like it was from a PlayStation 2 game. Last but not least are the infamous breast physics. Team Ninja’s team needs to retake physics class because DOA5’s breasts are the least realistic part of the presentation; they move like the softest gelatin known to man and often times it looks like the clothes are a part of the breast. At times, the breasts look so bizarre that it almost gives off the appearance of a visual distortion filter over the chest of the female fighters.
Audio is nothing special nor bad. The soundtrack, while generic, gets the job done. Bi-lingual audio tracks, a first for a numbered game in the series, are present. The American voice actors are appropriately cast but still do not beat the iconic Japanese cast. The fighting sounds great with punches and kicks sounding like they have weight to them. Something I especially enjoyed is the environment’s surround sound effects that further enhance each stage’s personality. There were often times when I heard a voice or a sound from DOA5 and at first believing it was in my house.
Gameplay stays relatively the same as previous entries in the franchise plus a few additions. Attacks still follow a rock-paper-scissors system. Strikes beat throws, throws beat holds, and holds beat strikes. Hence, players benefit from reading your opponents moves. Out of the three attack types, the hold has been tweaked the most. The timing required to execute a hold against your opponent’s strike is the pickiest it’s ever been. This is probably for the better – in the past it was not an uncommon site to see a player deal out an unreasonable amount of damage by using hold after hold. Several new characters are added to the DOA series, whose styles include MMA and Taekwondo, along with three Virtua Fighter characters. New gameplay moves are side-stepping, “Power Blows” and “Critical Bursts.” Sidestepping is a quick dodge to your character’s left or right. A Power Blow can be executed when a character’s health is below 50% to help turn the tide of a battle by dealing a large amount of damage. While this may sound like it could harm the balance of the game, a full Power Blow is not easy to pull off and the timing has to be right. While attempting a Power Blow, a character is fairly exposed to attacks. A slow motion cinematic animation occurs that allows you to deal damage and control where your opponent is thrown to. The key is to trigger the Power Blow and send the opponent into destructible objects or a Danger Zone. A move with “Critical Burst” leaves your opponent absolutely defenseless: he or she is unable to block or hold.
Dead or Alive 5’s story is the best one yet, filled with intrigue and surprises. Set two years after Dead or Alive 4, the story sees Helena Douglas rebuilding a new DOATEC that is rid of the evil influence of Victor Donovan, a former DOATEC leader. The campaign is setup in a linear fashion where you switch between characters in a set order. Almost the entire main cast is included as characters you play as for at least 3 matches each. Each match has a “bonus mission” which involves pulling off a specific move as an effort to educate the player. A large part of the story is spent on the Dead or Alive 5 tournament in order to facilitate this structure. Beyond the tournament lies a tale of corporate espionage that is at times nonsensical, but interesting. The ending takes an unexpected route and is like one found in a Metal Gear Solid game. Regardless, DOA5’s story is far from perfect and gets dragged down by choppy and confusing storytelling. There are a lot of time jumps and re-watching of the same cutscenes here and there due to playing as multiple characters.
Offline game modes include versus, arcade, time attack, survival, and training. Training definitely is the most improved with features such as a command training to assist you in learning your characters moves. Another new setting in training allows setting a virtual Network Speed to practice as if you were facing less-than-ideal online conditions. In all the offline modes, Move Details can be turned on in the Fight Screen Info of the pause menu that displays real-time stats like stance and even frame numbers. The online mode is what you would expect with unranked and ranked games. Lag seems to be a problem but is less common when selecting to fight players in the same region. Any matches played in DOA5 can be saved for further review to help the player improve.
When I spoke with Dead or Alive 5 Director Yohei Shimbori and Team Ninja Studio Head Yosuke Hayashi at E3 2012, they emphasized their key goal was to make “fighting entertainment” that could be enjoyed by hardcore and casual gamers. DOA5’s tagline, “I am a fighter” continues this theme. Overall, I would say they succeeded in what they set out to do. There is not a whole lot of complexity yet the depth is there. All the new training tools will encourage new and long-time players to keep improving. Despite its shortcomings, DOA5 is the best Dead or Alive period.