It’s been a while since we’ve seen a proper Dead or Alive game, and since DOA4 released way back in 2005(!), Team Ninja has gone through some considerable shakeups. Most impactful of which was the departure of outspoken lead designer Tomonobu Itagaki. I’d largely written the series off as a dumping ground for gratuitous boob physics and fan service, but surprise, surprise: Dead or Alive 5 is quite good, almost despite itself.
The story mode is about as close to a trainwreck as you can come. Since last year’s Mortal Kombat reboot paved the way for fighting games to have an entertaining story, expectations have risen, and DOA5 tries to step up its game. Rather than tell a seamless storyline, DOA5 is content to slap several short cutscenes together to set up the plot, and then string together 4-fight blocks for each character, with the short pre/post-fight one-liners serving as exposition. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. Dialogue is banal and repetitive, and while the ridiculous is ramped up to eleven, it didn’t do much for me.
While never the most technical of fighting games, the DOA series has always been one of the most entertaining to play due to its flashy nature and destructible, multi-tier environments. DOA5 mixes up things a bit by adding tag moves and a new hold moves to the already slick counter system the series is known for. The new environments are entertaining as hell (my favorite is one that takes place in the thick of a middle-eastern warzone, complete with helicopters, gunfire and tanks), and the old favorites have had new areas to punch your opponent into.
Strangely enough, DOA5 features three guest characters from the Virtua Fighter series: Akira, Sarah, and Pai. While Virtua Fighter is a vastly more technical fighter than DOA traditionally is, they fit the gameplay well, and other than making absolutely no sense when showing up in the story mode, are welcome additions to the roster.
The real meat of any fighting game is the versus experience, and here, DOA5 does an admirable job. While playing the story mode, you can open your play session to “Throwdowns”, allowing online players to interrupt your playtime and get a quick match in. The netcode for online play seemed fairly stable, but as with every fighting game I’ve ever played online, lag issues would creep in every few matches.
While we’ve been spoiled by story-heavy fighting games in the past year or so, it’s a shame that Dead or Alive 5 misses the mark so spectacularly. Fortunately, the fights themselves are as entertaining as ever, and the added complexities to the counter system bring a great deal of more depth. Check out the versus modes and online play for the best experience, and bring plenty of adult beverages if you dare brave the story mode.