Poor Dead or Alive. No matter what Team Ninja does with the series, it just can’t seem to escape criticism. Some might ignore it because of the series’ allegedly shallow fighting system, and still more might say, “Isn’t that that one series with the beach volleyball games?”
Despite this, Dead or Alive has soldiered on, through multiple console generations and many iterations, most recently Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate, Team Ninja’s second iteration on 2012’s Dead or Alive 5 following Dead or Alive 5 Plus, which released earlier this year on the Playstation Vita.
As you might expect, all of the features, characters, and modes from the previous games are here, and the sheer amount of content on display is impressive.
The game’s story mode is still one of the highlights in Ultimate. It allows players to play as nearly every character on the roster as they train for the newly announced Dead or Alive 5 tournament, fight in said tournament, and in the cases of some characters, work to uncover the continuing conspiracies of the ever-shady DOATEC corporation.
The story mode is fully voiced and features absolutely gorgeous cutscenes, but the most interesting thing about it remains the way in which the tale is told. Since you’ll be sticking with one fighter until their section of the plot is done, and you only be playing the fights that they win, the story skips back and forth in time. It an interesting narrative device that the game pulls off well, while balancing Dead or Alive’s trademark silliness with the more serious elements of the plot. It’s also a great jumping on point for new players who aren’t quite sure which member of the 29 character roster they’d like to play with.
Of course, the story mode isn’t the only draw. Dead or Alive 5 Plus’ Tutorial and Combo Challenge modes have made the transition to Ultimate, and they’re very welcome additions. The Tutorial mode allows players to practice key moves, techniques, combos, and strategies. Each section consists of multiple lessons which build upon one another, followed by a mission in which the player must put their new skills to good use in a live fight against a computer controlled opponent. While some missions are too challenging or could be explained better, this is largely an excellent way to learn to play the game.
Players looking for additional training can check out the Combo Challenge mode, which allows them to practice moves and combos unqiue to each character. There’s also a standard Training Mode, as well as a Command Training mode, which allows you to play through each character’s command list, complete with demonstrations so you know when you’ve done it right. Combined, these modes mean Dead or Alive has one of the best training modes in the business, and many other fighting games should be taking notes.
Once you’ve knocked out the story and gotten your skills up to snuff, there are a variety of other modes to explore, including genre standards such as a versus, arcade, and time attack, as well as a survival mode and a team fight mode which allows you to duke it out with teams of up to seven characters.
These modes are, for the most part, fantastic, but the extreme difficulty spikes that sometimes crop up in the arcade mode can be frustrating. All of the game’s modes are playable as a Tag Team, which provides a nice change of pace from Dead or Alive’s standard one-on-one gameplay.
Like much of the game, Tag Team gameplay has seen several updates in Ultimate. Players can now play two-on-two battles online. A new mechanic called Force Out has been introduced, which allows fighters to knock their opponent’s current character out of the ring for a set period of time, thus forcing them to fight with their back-up character. New tag throws, poses, taunts, and appeals have also been added, some of which are unique to specific teams.
Ultimate has also made additions to the character roster. Jacky Bryant from Virtua Fighter has joined the fray, and Ein and Leon return to the series as playable characters. In addition, Ninja Gaiden characters Momiji and Rachel make their Dead or Alive debut, and both fighting styles make for varied and welcome additions to the roster.
The game works great online, too. Matches play smoothly, though some lag can be noticeable, mostly in character select. It’s a minor qualm, but it might cause problems for some players who are still getting used to where everyone is on the character select screen. Players can choose from ranked matches and unranked lobbies, the latter of which can hold up to 16 players and can be customized to for nearly any occasion.
Yes indeed, Ultimate adds an awful lot of content to Dead or Alive 5, but none of that would matter if the core gameplay wasn’t any good, or had been changed for the worse.
Thankfully, Dead or Alive’s gameplay is still as good as it’s ever been. It’s still a remarkably simple game in a genre that sometimes lets complexity go to its head, but the core of punch, kick, hold, and throw is still here, and it still feels great. Matches are still quick, satisfying affairs where one great counter can make all the difference, punches and kicks are still loud as a gunshot, and the feedback at play still makes for a very compelling fighter that will satisfy genre purists and newbies alike.
All of this is aided by wonderful sound design, some great music, well-designed stages that continue to be among the best in the genre, and of course Dead or Alive’s gorgeous visuals. This game is beautifully rendered, and little details like animations and beads of sweat on a character’s face make for an incredible level of detail. In short, Dead or Alive continues to raise the bar for what fighting games can and should look like, even if the breat physics are still a little ridiculous (though thankfully, you can turn them off).
All in all, Ultimate is a great addition to a great fighting game, especially at $40. Fans will no doubt love the changes Ultimate makes to Dead or Alive 5’s core formula, and it’s a perfect jumping on point for new players. Players wary of the game’s reputation can download Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate: Core Fighters, a free version which features four fighters and nearly all of the game’s modes, with additional characters available for $4 apiece and the game’s story mode available for $15. After all, what have you got to lose?
When Tomonobou Itagaki stepped away from Team Ninja, many people were worried, and rightly so, about Dead or Alive’s future. If the latest installment is any indication, Dead or Alive is in good hands, and will continue for a long time. Like the characters that inhabit its universe, it’s a hell of fighter.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.