Dead Or Alive 5

Year: 2012
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Koei/Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Genre: 3D fighter
Review Date: 10/20/12
Rating: ****

It's been seven years since "Dead Or Alive 4" came out, and the departure of series creator Tomonobu Itagaki made the future of the franchise uncertain. Thankfully, DOA5 is a thoughtfully crafted game that brings the series back to its roots and helps wash away the bad aftertaste of DOA4. After rescuing Helena from certain death at the end of DOA4, the perpetually goofy Zack has become her lackey and ardent admirer. Attempting to distance herself from Donovan's mad schemes, Helena rebuilds DOATEC and hosts the "Dead Or Alive 5" fighting tournament as an act of good will and to promote her reformed image. The Tenshin Mugen clan (Kasumi, Ayane, Hayabusa, and Hayate) want nothing to do with the tournament, but have their own reasons for slinking around and getting involved. Helena may not be as clean as she claims to be, and there are rumors of Alpha-152 running around and causing trouble. The entire ridiculous story takes place as one long linear mission, with individual chapters dedicated to specific characters. While it's an interesting approach, I found it overly frustrating and annoying to have to play through as every character in order to make progress. Or nearly every character - Christie's story is inexplicably absent, which is odd because she introduces some intriguing plot elements that are never resolved.

The biggest flaw in story mode is that each fight has an associated mission objective assigned to it, which serves as an advanced tutorial of sorts. In addition to interrupting the flow and breaking immersion, the game doesn't indicate that you don't have to actually complete the missions in order to make progress. All you have to do is win each match. This caused me several hours of aggravation and comes across as a severe game limiting design issue. It turns out that the only purpose missions serve is to obtain titles. I was about to give up on the game altogether until I figured that out. Another problem with story mode is that the motion capture animation looks awkward, and the female characters don't move with the grace and poise that you would expect. It wasn't until Lei-Fang's chapter that I actually started enjoying and appreciating the game, which turns out to be quite clever and funny. Still driven by her quest to defeat Jann-Lee, we see a more playful side of her as she trains with Hitomi and nervously stalks Jann-Lee like a frightened schoolgirl. The conclusion of her chapter is both a tease and a clever follow-up to the unfortunate treatment she got in DOA4, and manages to redeem her character. In fact, all of the characters' endings in this game manage to wipe out the unpleasant memories of DOA4.

For the most part, the characters are enjoyable and entertaining. Zack is extremely amusing this time around and is a comedic foil for pretty much everyone. After being a fashion model, actress, and rock star, Tina decides to get back into the ring and run for governor (but mostly just to annoy Bass). Lisa shows up as both a wrestler and a bio-engineer working for Donovan, but her agenda and motives aren't clear. It appears that Kasumi is no longer a hunted renegade, and her differences with Ayane, Hayabusa, and Hayate have been worked out. However, a shocking twist in her storyline made me drop my controller in disbelief. Brad Wong is more annoying than previously, but his interactions with Eliot are amusing. Leon is missing from the roster and two new characters are introduced. One is an annoying bruiser named Rig (who turns out to be Donovan's son) and the other is a feisty young MMA girl named Mila. While I could care less about Rig, I always welcome more female fighters into the fold.

There are several unlockable characters in the game, including the venerable Gen-Fu. Three characters from the "Virtua Fighter" series also show up, which is a pleasant surprise. Since DOA was originally based on the VF fighting engine, a cross-over with that series makes perfect sense. The characters themselves are a good fit, as opposed to "Halo's" Master Chief (or rather, a female version of him) inexplicably showing up in DOA4. (which is nearly as wacky as Spawn, Link, and Darth Vader showing up in the "SoulCalibur" series) The VF characters consist of Akira, Sarah Bryant, and Pai Chan, and they look fabulous. In fact, they look much better than their actual "Virtua Fighter 5" counterparts, which just confirms the fact that DOA5 is the best looking fighter on the market.

The character models themselves have been completely overhauled and look fantastic. Kasumi, Ayane, and Helena are absolutely gorgeous, but Lei-Fang has lost some of her cuteness and Hitomi is cross-eyed. I'm not sure how that managed to slip past QA. Christie also wears way too much blush, which is distracting and reduces her impact in close-up shots. Hair looks great and the legacy ribbon effect is hardly noticeable. Flowing fabric also looks much better, allowing the characters to wear long coats, skirts, kimonos, and untucked shirts. An unfortunate hallmark of the series is the notorious bouncing breast feature, and the ridiculously huge water balloon breasts are once again prominently on display. The breast animation is overly distracting and annoying, and it's unfortunate there isn't a way to turn it off. An even greater disappointment is that the game originally featured much smaller and more realistic breasts, but that decision was reversed due to fan feedback. It's a sad comment on the game's fan base, and makes me embarrassed to be counted among them. It's also unfortunate that this outrageous sexualization also limits the potential audience for the game.

On the plus side, the costumes look great and there are more to choose from than in DOA4. Lei-Fang finally gets some cute clothes, although her traditional black shorts outfit is missing. For whatever reasons, poor Hitomi gets stuck with a ridiculous clown suit. Most of the girls have options for different hair styles, accessories (glasses, hats), and oddly enough, underwear color (although I've yet to see any panty flashing in the game). The unlocking criteria is reasonable and simply involves playing through different game modes at different difficulty levels. Surprisingly, Lei-Fang has the most costumes this time around, which requires additional effort. Lisa, Helena, and Christie all have a racy deep-V swimsuit outfit that can only be unlocked by the hardest of the hardcore players, which I will never have a chance to get. However, there are a number of costumes that you can download, and the collector's edition of the game comes with additional swimsuit costumes. The free costumes include some classic outfits, like Zack's outrageous alien costume and Helena's red coat. Other downloadable costumes include Kasumi's classic overalls, Tina's cat suit, and an adorable panda hoodie for Lei-Fang. Still no Hawaiian shirt for Gen-Fu, though.

Visually, the game looks great and lives up to the high standards set by previous games in the series. However, you can definitely tell that it was made with a tighter budget, as a lot of Itagaki's conceits and contributions are missing. There is no attract mode or teaser animation, which is both unusual and disappointing. In fact, there are no pre-rendered movies at all, and all of the story elements are engine driven in real time. The music varies from bad to good, but thankfully Aerosmith is nowhere to be found. Story mode also recycles music from all of the previous games, which comes off as a bit odd and unsettling. One of the new visual flairs that the game promotes is the addition of sweat and dirt, if you're into that kind of thing. I found it annoying, but fortunately this can be toggled on and off (unlike the seismic breast wave feature). There are also visual hit effects that you can toggle, as well as two different camera settings, depending on how cinematic you want the experience to be.

The game mechanics continue to promote juggling as an offensive strategy, but it doesn't seem to be as severe as in DOA4. Additionally, the difficulty has been considerably cranked down in DOA5, so the AI opponents aren't as cheap and aggressive. The re-introduction of "easy" and "rookie" modes is a welcome return to form, and allows access to a much broader audience and promotes more casual play. For me, "easy" is the most comfortable setting to play on, while "normal" is a real workout. I can't even imagine the punishment that gets dished out at the higher levels. Wall jumping has been removed, which is nice because I could never perform it in the first place. Side-stepping is a nice defensive enhancement, and power bursts have been added to give players with low health an offensive advantage. Unfortunately, the controls seem sloppier than previously, recalling bad memories of the analog controls in "DOA2: Hardcore." Perhaps it's due to the Xbox controller's maligned D-pad, but often times the output seems random. I've seen Lei-Fang perform at least three different moves for the identical input of back-forward-punch, which can severely affect your strategy and performance. With the juggling mechanics, defending yourself is very difficult, and allowing an opponent to hit you even once often times leads to complete disaster.

Unlike DOA4, "Dead Or Alive 5" actually improves the longer you play it, but it still suffers from some pretty significant problems. For the first time since DOA2:HC, the game features an English voice cast. Naturally, the dubbing is terrible and inappropriate, but thankfully there's an option for the original Japanese audio. However, the language setting isn't sticky for some unfathomable reason, so you have to reset it EVERY time you start the game. It's the only option that isn't sticky, so it's unclear why it behaves this way. Regardless, it's infuriating. Even MORE infuriating are the constant reminders that you're offline. It's insulting and severely interrupts the game flow. Anyone who's playing offline knows that they're playing offline, and doesn't need to be told that over and over. Plus, if you're playing a single player game, why in the world would you want to go online in the first place? Totally pointless and extremely irritating.

Another sore point is the command training in training mode, as the input commands are completely illegible. Seriously. The glyphs that are used for left and right look the same, and it's impossible to distinguish between press and press-and-hold. The lack of a legend doesn't help, either. This makes command training an impossible exercise in frustration, and the sloppy controls make it even worse. The final insult is that the command list is missing critical information and definitions. For instance, Lei-Fang has a number of moves that can only be performed "during Unchu." What the hell is "Unchu?" There's no mention or definition of Unchu anywhere in the game, and I had to buy the strategy guide in order to get any sort of insight. Thankfully, the only reward for completing command training is unlocking additional system voices, which I couldn't care less about. Curiously, the default system voice is now male, while historically it's always been female.

Another example of poor messaging is when you play the game for the very first time, it asks you if you're a pro or casual gamer. It's a bewildering question since you don't know how either choice will affect the game, but you're told that you can change this setting in the options screen. However, there is no pro/casual setting in the options screen, so you're left wondering what the hell is going on and what irreversible state you've put yourself in. Through online research and experimentation, it turns out that "pro" and "casual" are used interchangeably with the "classic" and "action" camera styles. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense and only results in creating a sense of paranoia and distrust in the player.

Still, for all of its problems, I found "Dead Or Alive 5" to be a delightful return to form, and a deep technical fighting game that only improves the longer you play it. The characters have reclaimed their original charm and the tone is more fun and playful. It's unclear what the future holds for the franchise, but this at least seems to be a step in the right direction.