Is it possible to create a fighting game without releasing a bunch of questionable expansions? Apparently not, as Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate marks the second retail update to Tecmo's popular 2012 fighting game. Cynical cash grab or not, this enhanced version of Dead or Alive 5 offers enough new content to warrant a second look.
For the budget price of $39.99, Dead or Alive Ultimate comes with all of the characters, stages and story found in last year's release. In addition, this expansion features five new characters, including two from the Ninja Gaiden universe and one from Sega's Virtua Fighter franchise. This version also includes new modes, gameplay tweaks and a complete overhaul of the online tag-team battles. It's a good deal for anybody who missed out on the 2012 model.
For those who haven't been following this long-running series, Dead or Alive is best known for its accessible gameplay and roster full of busty beauties wearing revealing outfits. But gamers who are able to overlook the blatant sexism will find a rewarding fighter with some of the most impressive levels the genre has to offer. As goofy as it is, this is one series that shouldn't be dismissed.
This fourth sequel keeps things simple, refusing to radically change the core mechanics or add too many new characters. In fact, all of the characters you've grown to know and love return for another go at the DOA tournament. We get Bayman the soldier, Bass the motorcycle-riding pro wrestler, stoic Hayate and a very drunk Brad Wong. But wait, you can't forget the women that ultimately dominate this roster. We're given fan favorites like Kasumi, Helena, Tina, Christie, Ayane, Leifang and Hitomi, all with plenty of outfits to try on.
New to the roster are Mila (a spunky young MMA fighter) and Rig (a dark man who wears a hoodie). Sadly, neither of these characters are as colorful as Zack or Kasumi. Rig's bad temper left me cold and I could only handle so much of Mila's chirpiness. Also new to Dead or Alive are Akira Yuki, Sarah Bryant, Pai Chan and Jacky Bryant, all from Sega's Virtua Fighter series.
On top of the Virtua Fighter characters, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate also includes the return of Ryu Hayabusa. But he's not the only one from Ninja Gaiden, as Rachel and Momiji join the cast. I don't think I need to explain why Rachel is a perfect fit next to Tina and Christie.
In crafting Dead or Alive 5, Tecmo decided to take a page from the wildly successful Mortal Kombat reboot and include a lengthy story mode. In short, the plot revolves around Helena trying to rebuild the shattered DOATEC by funding (surprise!) a brand new fighting tournament. Oh, and she might be building an army full of cloned super fighters to help her take over the world.
I imagine that at some point the game's plot was written out just like that. However, somewhere between creating the story and fitting it into the game, the script shattered into a million little pieces when it was accidentally dropped on the floor. Unfortunately, nobody at Tecmo could figure out how to put it back together, leaving us with a scatterbrained narrative that makes no sense. Dead or Alive 5 suffers from a severe case of ADHD.
We're fed pieces of the story a little at a time, cutting between characters and events in the most jarring way possible. Characters will seemingly teleport from country to country for no reason. Early on, Ayane travels from the United States to China to Antarctica without a single word of explanation (or wardrobe change). Even when the game eventually wraps back around to show the same events from a different point of view, it doesn't explain how everybody is able to travel great distances without concerns about money.
Also confusing is the tone of the story. At times it's deadly serious and full of personal drama. And yet, other times, it's so laughably goofy that I almost expect Porky Pig to jump out and do his best to say "That's all, folks!" This is a soap opera full of good looking people with devious plots. Unlike One Life to Live or General Hospital, here the characters don't have mad passionate sex. Instead they fight.
The reasons why characters fight is comical at best. Half the time it's for something so petty that it wouldn't even provoke an argument, let alone fisticuffs. Granted, a bit of that is to be expected in this kind of story, but it's hard to take any of Dead or Alive's story seriously until it's too late. The real tragedy is that the schizophrenic editing actually undermines what should have been an emotional ending. It all just left me scratching my head in utter bafflement.
On top of the convoluted story line, there's a barebones single-player mode to keep you busy. This Ultimate edition also features the training mode found in the PS Vita game. This mode takes players through quite a few practice drills, teaching the ins and outs of the fighting mechanics. It's not much, but it's a lot better than what was found in the vanilla Dead or Alive 5.
With only one punch and kick button, Dead or Alive is one of the most accessible fighting games on the market. It's easy to pull off really impressive moves by doing nothing more than button mashing. But don't think you can take the lazy way out, because any experienced player will be able to disarm the button masher in short order. The mechanics are deep, yet fluid and easy to control.
This time around Tecmo has tweaked the reversal system. Here we're given a hold button, which is the first step to turning a series of devastating attacks around on your opponent. The idea is to judge what kind of attack is coming and then hit the hold button and the appropriate direction. This takes a little getting used to, but is easy once you know what you're looking for. However, it's not so easy that you can exploit it through the entire round. Finally the Dead or Alive reversal feels balanced.
What has always set Dead or Alive apart from the other fighting games is the way the various stages will change and expand. Most of the backgrounds are interactive in ways you might not even expect. You are often able to hit the enemy over railings and through walls. One stage has the floor under your feet twisting and turning as the background explodes around you. Even when you can't knock somebody through a window or down a set of stairs, there's a lot of detail in the background to keep things interesting. At their best, these stages feel like you're fighting in the middle of a giant set piece from Uncharted 3.
Forget the single-player content, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate's real draw is the online multiplayer mode. Beyond fixing up some of the connectivity issues, this expansion offers major changes to the two-on-two tag team battles. It's also easier to find players to spar with, thanks to a new point system and filtering options. Players can even get into lobbies with large groups, a staple of the Dead or Alive series.
It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the best looking fighting games of this generation. The character models really shine, even if they're not going out of their way to impressive. None of the outfits feel overdesigned, as is the case with so many recent fighters (I'm looking at you Konami). Tecmo keeps it simple, allowing for the incredible backgrounds and stunning animation to do the work. Just one caveat: Team Ninja continues to design certain body parts as if they were filled with helium. Even if it doesn't offend me, I still find it distracting.
With its sizeable roster, good looks, crazy story mode and accessible gameplay, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate is a great deal for gamers who somehow missed out on this 2012 fighter. Whether or not there's enough new content to double dip is debatable, but I suspect many fans will come back for the improved tag-team mode and more stable online play. Ultimate or not, Dead or Alive 5 is not to be missed.