There is no doubt that fighting games shaped my childhood. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, Killer Instinct, Darkstalkers, and many more pulled every quarter I had directly out of my pocket and delivered pure entertainment. Tomonobu Itagaki jumped into that pool in 1996 and gave us the first Dead or Alive game. Known for eye-popping boobs and scantily clad women paired off against behemoth muscle men, the game was fast paced, 3D, and focused on countering, combinations, air juggles, and the ability to tag in another fighter in impressive bouts that required a lot more than button mashing. The game was a hit and has spawned 16 direct and indirect sequels, an “Xtreme Beach Volleyball” offshoot, and even a fairly terrible movie. Even though Itagaki may have headed off to forge his own path, Team Ninja is alive and well – it’s time to see if they still remember what makes the DOA series so great.
The game opens with five soldiers in some urban area walking through bombed out rubble. They stumble upon a kid who runs off just before they are ambushed. At the same time we see Zack and new MMA-focused character Mila squaring off in a boxing ring working their Muay Thai in downtown New York City. You’ll take control of Mila to learn how to play the game, walking you through the most basic of things like landing 5 punches. After the fight we jump back to the bombed out town to see something ninja-like flash through, taking out all of the soldiers. A few days later we are suddenly on a yacht in the middle of the ocean listening to Helena and Kasumi chatting about Kasumi’s clone, Alpha-152, and her potential whereabouts. Flashing over to a DOATEC helicopter, we see Hayate and Zack waxing poetic on the assault on DOATEC several years prior. Heading over to Taylor’s Bar (an oil derrick) we see Bass working on his motorcycle in the salt sea air before squaring off for a fight with new Tae Kwon Do fighter Rig (seriously? Rig? C’mon now…) which will teach you how to land 5 kicks. Finishing this off unlocks the intro and let’s you play as Kasumi. Her story kicks off with little fanfare, immediately tossing her into the ring with Lisa. Beating Lisa drops in Ayane for a fight with almost as little story. In Antarctica a few days later, we see Ayane in a shiver-inducing outfit for the obvious temperature squaring off against Bayman. If none of this is making any sense and seems extremely stilted…well…welcome to DOA. The whole storyline revolves around Helena setting up the fifth DOA tournament. Anything beyond that will just cause a brain melt, so don’t bother. Let’s rest our weary heads and talk about boobs.
DOA doesn’t feature a lot of ring-out opportunities – Itagaki referred to them as ‘cheap’, so instead the series has always featured multi-level fighting stages. Smashing an enemy into a gate may cause it to give way to another area, or it could cause you to careen off of a cliff to take additional damage when you hit the ground. These stages have always been detailed and gorgeous, but they’ve all gotten a makeover. The stages stand out against nearly every other fighting game out there, giving players the chance to juggle opponents into electrical boxes, fiery circus rings, laser barriers, and far more. These brutal stage traps serve as a great juxtaposition to the beautiful landscapes featuring falling Japanese cherry blossoms and detailed landscapes.
Beyond how (absurdly) pretty the Dead or Alive series is, and has always been, a technical fighter. To raise the bar a bit, DOA 5 has added a few features gleaned from other fighters. To that end, a power-up attack called a “Power Blow” that leaves the fighter vulnerable before unleashing it for massive uninterruptable damage against their foes. These Power Blows are typically what you need to use to trigger stage events or push players into the Danger Zones (these are WAY over the top, including fire, angry animals, missiles, and much more) that have become a signature staple of this series.
The first DOA title introduced the counter system but it has evolved quite a bit over the series. In DOA 5 you’ll find that the whole system is pretty accessible and easy to pick up. You can use throws to interrupt a counterattack, you can use a counterattack to beat an incoming strike, and a quick snap kick to the face usually takes the wind out of any throw attempt. This counter system gives the game a little dash of depth that might not be readily apparent. Thankfully the game is willing to walk you through mastering it. The completely nonsensical story system will give you a bonus objective in your fight. These objectives start off very simple asking you to only land 5 punches, but as you move along you’ll be asked to pull off some of the aforementioned counters mid-combat. You can go back to any stage and replay it, so the opportunity to practice isn’t just limited to practice mode.
Beyond the story and versus system there is also a spectator mode. I’m completely confused on the purpose of this mode. It allows you to just let the AI control two fighters and lets the player move the camera around and take pictures. If you are thinking back to the paragraph on the hooters in this title, you might have an idea of what this mode is likely meant to accomplish. Creepy.
For fans who just come for the character roster, you’ll find plenty to like here. Every character from the previous titles have wandered in to play, and we also get two folks from Virtua Fighter. Mila and uninventively-named Rig join the DOA cast proper and act as serviceable entrants to the series. It’s nice to see a good MMA character join the fray.
DOA 5 could easily get overlooked in the deluge of upcoming titles, but it shouldn’t. Despite the departure of Itagaki, Team Ninja manages to take DOA 5 up a notch. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, the counter system adds a new layer of depth. Toss in the upgraded stages and the accessibility offered by the story-lead training and you can almost forgive said story for making almost no sense at all. The game remains accessible, pure fan-service, and most certainly the best looking fighter of this generation.