Heeeeeeeey sexy shinobi, MMA, Ba Ji Quan ladies! From Tecmo Koei and Team NINJA comes the fifth installment of the fighting series known for high res character rendering, generous "physics," and thumb blistering button mashing. And while this one delivers on all of those points for the most part, it also reels in the "crazy" just a tad to ensure fighting is taken as the main event.
When I got my original Xbox for Christmas in 2001 (wow, has it really been over ten years ago?), I had two games to start: NFL Fever 2002 and Dead or Alive 3. I remember playing the first two DOAs on Dreamcast and thought it was the most fun I'd ever had playing a fighting game. While I liked fighters as a kid, I didn't appreciate anything past button mashing. Combo chains? Juggles? Countering? Ha! Who needs all that crap when you can just move your thumbs faster than the other guy. While I have come to realize my childish notions were routinely wrong and ignorant (noob, if you will), I still hold those old days of twitchy battles coming down to the last hit with high regard. And apparently so do a lot of other folks. Otherwise, we wouldn't have this one. The train would have stopped in '01. The Team NINJA folks observe this, and have done minor tweaks to the gameplay that "firm" things up just a bit so that skillful, practiced mashing will generally outshine chaotic, flailing punch and kick taps.
DOA5's controlling backbone lies within the Triangle System. This is a rock-paper-scissor input determination structure. Three variables are in play: Punch/Kick, Throw, and Hold. P/K "takes priority" over T, meaning you can thwart an opponent's grab attempt by a simple flick to the nose. T takes care of H, and H wins out against P/K. The first two are very feasible mentally and literally. It makes sense that you can just hit someone trying to put you in a grapple. Throwing a combatant that is "holding" you is also an easy thing to remember, and isn't a stretch to execute. The last 60 degrees of the equation (I'm assuming an equilateral triangle) is more tough to pull off. Timing attacks is hard, particularly observing the speedy heritage of the series. To make matters more strenuous, it's not enough to just hit X at the proper instance. A coordinated left stick/D-pad gesture must also accompany. H and back counter mid punches; H and forward counter mid kicks. But diagonal back-up is the measure for high P/K and diagonal back-down is for low P/K. I think the theory of the system is hard to utilize as it is, much less needing to be just "that much" more attentive to your left thumb dexterity. I personally think simply up and down would have sufficed.
But I can understand why this portion of the counter shape is so rigid. Without the high skill demand, the person who strikes first would be a heavy favorite to win the match. If the fighter that got stuck first could have their P/K easily swatted, matches would routinely be decided by the initial "fastest finger" battle (more so than they are already). The importance of Holds becomes even more heavy when discussing the Critical system. Certain moves landed will enact the Critical Stun, in which the opponent can only perform a H to stop the onslaught. If the counter isn't landed, the Critical Combo can maximize the amount of damage done in that particular sequence. More still, the third and final level are Critical Bursts. This leaves the other guy/gal "completely defenseless" and opens the door for Juggles and Power Blows. This layering of different aspects to the gameplay has been going on for a couple of sequels now, but it still doesn't shoot things too far from their roots. Many times, battles come down to being the one that taps Y first in that last exchange. Or frantically pulling Y, praying that "super kick" registers quickly enough.
The modes in DOA5 aren't going to win awards for ingenuity, but they're pretty good nonetheless. Similar to Mortal Kombat, Story has you completing a number of contests with various characters like DOA favorites Kasumi, Ayane, Jann Lee (to name a few) and newcomers Mila and Rig under one progressive narrative arc. Short setup: DOATEC is now in control by the beautiful, but deadly Helena, and to prove the company's nefarious past is behind them, she hosts the Dead or Alive tournament under the organization's banner to showcase their new "principles and philosophies." But instead of this being the heavy "main stock" of the title, it's used for character intro/reintroduction as well as getting you familiar with all fight mechanics from throwing a punch to executing low Holds. And with this spanning 70+ missions, there is plenty to do and learn.
Arcade mode is pretty standard. Choose a character, and trudge through a ladder of fighters until completed. Time Attack is also back, as well as my favorite DOA innovation, Survival. Show off that controller endurance as you will take on challenge after challenge with no break between skirmishes. 20 KOs separate you and victory, but only a certain portion of they health bar is given back after each melee. For me, that is what makes this work the most. If you were given full health between rungs, it wouldn't be very challenging. No health returned would be much tougher, but isn't practical for most players to enjoy. The fluctuation of your health during the climb is the "it" factor. Domination, to cliff hanging-ly low levels, and back is the vehicle for Survival's emotional roller coaster.
Training is really nice in DOA5. It's probably the best "practice" suit I've ever seen in a fighting game. Pick all aspects (character, opponent, stage) individually, or hit Random to get it going. Then, be astonished by the overwhelmingly large list of options available. You can have the CPU do any move or stay in any position for an indefinite amount of time. Want an inanimate "dummy" to practice combos and such? Cool. Want to get better at that Hold stuff and have high kicks lobbed in your direction? Sweet. You can also set a difficulty level from 1 to 8 and put all these factors together in real practice. Command Training lets you run through the litany of combos each character is assigned by listing it at the top of the screen. Pull off the button puzzle correctly, and you'll move to the next one. If you want to get really good with a fighter, this is the best way to attain that level of competency. There is even an option that will simulate online connections speeds from Very Good to Very Bad. Mark me down as impressed. The last offline option of note is Tag. New in this fifth chapter, up to four locally can strap in and mix/match fighting styles for furious strikes, calculated throws and holds, or somewhere in between. With smooth "Tag Combos" and "Tag Throws," this initial effort is well worth having heated contests between friends centered around just it.
While it's not made completely obvious, I get the feeling that the online component should be your main focus with this game. It just seemed to be the most interesting and engaging during my play test. Simple Quick Match (Player and Ranked) is here, sure. And it functions just fine. But the real show is the Lobby types. Set different parameters, like max and min opponent skill level, and start searching for a suitable room that fits your mood. Up to 16 can be in an arena at once. Although most of the lobbies I was in usually had no more than 8 or 10. The round robin style, where the "winner stays" and the others become a revolving door is what most of the kids were doing. This is really fun, even if you're really bad (like me right now). All are welcome to watch the battles as they unfold. Because of how entertaining DOA5 is in general, it's a real joy to see two good players go back and forth in epic best-of-five frays and knowing that your shot to set the collective screens on fire is coming up. Bracketed tournaments can also be selected, which really incites that nervous feeling knowing you only have one shot (per Eminem) to survive and advance.
Additionally, the Online Dojo acts as a LIVE Training area. Connect with others, and practice battling against other Gold members. This probably goes without saying, but it's worth noting that it is very different battling online. While there was some network slowdown to the point of "screen freezes," even a really good connection is going to have lag. It's inevitable. To this, knowing combos and having set counter strategies is a must if you want to have success online. My favorite character in this game is Mila. With the lightening quick P/K strings, and just downright cool Throws, she came very natural to me. But my controller commands traveling hundreds and thousands of miles slows her down considerably. I routinely got my bottom handed to me by players using more deliberate and powerful choices. I hadn't played with Brad Wong more than a few minutes, and had more success with him than her. I hate that for me personally, but that's the name of the MO game.
The presentation is as great as ever. The lady character models have actually been toned down (I guess in this case, toned "up") from previous installments. Don't get bent out of shape yet. They're all still quite "well endowed" and very beautiful in that uncanny valley sense. But they don't seem out of place when fighting. It's more believable the women can do what they do in DOA5. And agree with it or not, that's just better design. Same with the fellas. While Bass and Bayman are big guys, they don't appear to be stunt doubles for the Hulk either. And karate enthusiast like Jann and Zack have suitable models for their chosen discipline. The animations seem flawless to the naked eye. Perhaps this is helped by the break neck speed of the action. If so, that's to the games benefit, and therefore is a positive. The level design is absolutely phenomenal. From multilevel sky scrapers, to circus tents with tigers, to electric rope tied octagons, it's sometimes tempting to sneak a peak at everything while the other chump is picking himself up off the ground. Oh yeah, and all the stuff I just mentioned act as Danger Zones. A proper strike will send fighters over the edge onto the street, into the claws of a hungry Bengal, or jolt them to the "extra crispy" treatment. These awesome visuals have a comparable audio vein running parallel. The English voice acting is actually pretty good and fits each character. The sound effects are spot on and sharp. And stages have their own chorus of chaos that ties all of this together.