The Dead or Alive series has always felt like it was my fighting franchise. From the moment I first button-mashed my way to my first counter in the 1997 Sega Saturn import, I knew that I had found the fighter for me. I was entranced by the flow of battles, the block and counter, the wondrous fluidity. Update: multiplayer played, grade revised from Not Yet to Yes.
I've maintained my love affair with the series over the years, but the series has not loved me back. Since Dead or Alive 2 it's felt like each successive sequel has been more of the same. Recycled stages, reused plotlines — the games were good, but not all the different.
If Dead or Alive 5 is anything, it's different.
For starters, the new Dead or Alive strays somewhat from the series' lecherous roots, toning down the over-the-top physiques of its female characters in favor of slightly more realistic forms. Tina in particular has changed drastically, morphing from a meaty amazon into a lean, mean wrestling machine, and while there is indeed bikini downloadable content, one of the unlockable costumes for new character Mila is a full set of sweats — more clothes than she normally wears. It's like bizzaro world up in here.
It's still a rather chesty bunch of women battling side-by-side with men with abs you could grate cheese on, but the gratuitous cleavage shots are delivered in a very self-aware fashion.
The majority of said shots take place within the longest, most-involved story mode ever seen in a Dead or Alive game. The 71 chapters of intrigue, espionage and general silliness tell the story of the fifth Dead or Alive tournament, an event the has historically served as an elaborate backdrop for a boarder tale of industrial espionage and bio-weapon development. This is a disjointed tale aimed at showcasing the fighting styles of each of the game's core combatants rather than a real attempt to further the plot of the series. Every character gets a chance to shine, and thankfully the poorly-voiced and badly written cutscenes can be skipped. Just make sure you watch the cinematics in Brad Wong's portion of the story — the fight choreography is pretty spectacular.
One might be tempted to skip story mode altogether, but there is value here beyond playing with each character. Each chapter in story mode features a fight with secondary missions, special objectives that require the player to master increasingly complicated moves. It's a teaching tool that, over the course of five or six hours, schools players in advanced techniques not taught by the game's practice mode.
While newcomers to the franchise should appreciate the many ways to learn the ropes in Dead or Alive 5, it won't take much effort for returning players to get up to speed. Not much has changed in the fabled fighting system. There's the Power Blow, a launcher that activates when a player dips below 50 percent health, giving players a chance to both come back from certain defeat while taking advantage of the vastly entertaining environment hazards sprinkled across each stage. There's also the Critical Burst system, a method that involves building up enough stun to completely incapacitate an opponent for a brief moment.
Otherwise Team Ninja has left the fighting system established in previous entries of the Dead or Alive franchise largely intact, which suits me just fine. As long as the flow remains the same, then I'm a happy fighter, as long as I don't have to kick another opponent down the stairs in Helena's damn burning opera house stage.
There is no opera house in Dead or Alive 5. Team Ninja has created a series of exciting new stages for the new title, packed with explosive features sure to keep the game's incredibly resilient roster flying through the air and plummeting dozens of feet to the ground. From the circus stage with its charging lions and gigantic human-firing cannon, to the mean streets of New York and its flying train cars, each new arena is packed with secrets to discover and use to your tactical advantage.
Fresh new faces also liven up the game. Spunky MMA fighter Mila, as I predicted, has quickly become one of my favorite characters, much more exciting to play than the brutastic Rig, who feels more like a Bayman clone than a completely new creation. Add cameo characters from Sega's Virtua Fighter series and there are plenty of new people to punch this time around.
Unfortunately I didn't have an opportunity to punch those people online, as only the review community has had access to the game. I look forward to giving Dead or Alive 5's online multiplayer modes a good thrashing over the coming days, and will update the review when I'm done.
Update: Online multiplayer in Dead or Alive 5 works much better than I expected it to, give Tecmo Koei's past fumbles with the series. Multiple online matches went off with little or no lag, robbing me of the chance to blame latency on my numerous defeats. I'll probably stick to spectacting in the 16-player lobbies, making silly comments via the handy text-chat feature.
While Dead or Alive 5 is far from a complete overhaul of the series, it charges into the fighting game scene with all the spirit of a completely new game. The departure of the series original creator, the infamous Tomonobu Itagaki, might be the best thing that could have happened to Dead or Alive. Rather than resting on past successes, Team Ninja has to prove themselves all over again. Seeing as they've rekindled the passion in my relationship with the franchise, I'd say they've done a fine job.