Bring the battle, Ultimate style! Koei Tecmo and Team NINJA line up as tag team parters once again to bring us an expanded, more feature rich, version of last year's contender for fighting game of the year, Dead or Alive 5. While there aren't "extreme" differences between then and now in terms of gameplay, the additions do make this release better than it's predecessor and might be a worthy investment to hardcore DOA followers.
I guess a good way to start is to discuss the Dead or Alive 5 core. For those of you unfamiliar with last year's release, it was a step up for the franchise, but definitely stuck to it's guns (seriously, no pun intended). All the flash, all the glam, all the outrageous-ly designed characters and costumes. Every crucial pillar that makes DOA what it is was on full display. As it is in Ultimate. The basic gameplay principles for the game lie in a hit-to-counter system.
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.
Also back in Ultimate are the varied modes of play that were largely returnees to the series last September. 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 "one hit" low levels, and back is the vehicle for Survival's emotional roller coaster.
And of course, the breathtaking presentation is preserved in all it's blushing glory. 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 choruses of chaos that ties all of this together.
So, all of what made DOA5 a critical darling (overall) is back. What's new? Well, several things. Let's start with a quartet of new fighters! Before I get into the breakdowns, let me preface by saying these are not exactly "brand new." All of them are either from a previous DOA installment or made their appearance in another game. With that, meet Momiji. Getting her start in the Ninja Gaiden realm as Hayabusa's apprentice, she signs up for battle in this franchise for the first time. My initial impression of her wound up being better than I think she tuned out to be. She was the first character I picked up from the new crop, and thought she had quite a speed advantage. Then I remembered I hadn't played DOA5 in a minute, and unless fists and feet just look like blurs, the fighter isn't really "burning it up." To her credit, she is a very well rounded fighter. Nice and easy to execute combo moves with that deal out a decent amount of damage. Her throws seem useful to string along other attacks, particularly when coming out of a hold. Her best attribute is mixing in an aerial hit after opening up the opponent with one or two high strikes. Second on the slate is Leon. Yes, the big bruiser from DOA2 that has been consistently featured ever sense. As always, his class ranks up there with guys like Bayman and Bass. Heavy hands with punishing throws. Not the most interesting of types, to say the least. However, he can serve a good purpose in a tag match scenario. Sub him in to land a health crippling combo while the "swifter" of the two fighters grabs a quick seat on the bench.
Speed, speed, and more speed describes the next dude, Jacky Bryant. Based on just his appearance, he reminded me of the Alex Wright, the old WCW wrestler. Why that is I'm not sure, because they don't really look anything alike. What they do have in common is a pension for high flying offense! This Virtua Fighter alum hurls strikes a mile-a-minute. To the point that it's almost unfair how easy it is to effortlessly slip into a six to eight hit combo. Even dude's throw attacks are impressive, with cool animations to boot. When I would play through Time Attack or Survival, I hated seeing him queue up. Even if I had him, or used one of my favorite fighters like Mila, it's very difficult to properly counter his lightening quick strikes and throws. Unless you're a "try hard" and plan on doing serious battle online, you don't need extensive memory of his combo chains. Just a few basic ones with patient and intelligent countering will keep your buddies on the couch in full rage mode.
Ein is the second guy from the library of DOA2 entrants. Described as Hayate's "alter ego," expect more traditional karate influence. And boy, does it show. Getting the preferred range established with Ein was a hindrance at first. Because of his stature, I was wanting to play way to close up. Then I experimented with taking two steps back, starting the barrage from there. Then, it clicked; power kicks opened up for a flurry of varied attacks. Couple this with solid throws and good damage, you're looking at a great addition to the slate of brawlers. I usually plowed through enemies in a snap. Sometimes the round would end when I didn't expect it to because I was unaware of how rapidly I was dispatching the other side's health. The last of the new additions is Rachel. Not an exotic name, but this half fiend taken from Ninja Gaiden can seriously fight. While just a tick slower than Jacky, her delivery is forceful and pronounced. The aspect that makes her a "can't miss" participant is her insane amount of damage. Rachel's power stat is maxed out. You want to talk about making deep runs in Survival, I played a Tag round with Bryant at the point with Rach in relief. Stupidly, I forced the issue with Jacky and was out with him on the first match (which was Jann, if I'm remembering correctly). I proceeded to demolish the next 11 scrubs until being down in health caught up with me. Even on Legend difficulty, I made it past 5 baddies with maybe 30 minutes of Rachel controller time. If I had to give a possible negative aspect, it would be that she's not the best in the air. But for DOA, that's really of little consequence.
A few fresh modes make their way into Ultimate, and are undoubtedly the best contribution to this re-release. If a "next up" team mode on steroids sounds like fun, check out Team Battle mode. With up to seven combatants per side, pick a full slate of your favorites, and be prepared to push your thumbs to the limits. Unlike "tag" rules where you can switch out participants at will, this keeps the order in tact. As soon as a health bar is drained, the next entry is thrown in to the fray. This affords a great opportunity to try out the new Power Launcher moves for a plethora of characters in the same match. Similar to a Power Blow, you will have to be down by at least 50% on health. The difference is, as the name suggest, you'll home run hit the opponent in the air. Which opens the door to follow up with an extended combo after the fact to even the score very quickly.
DOA5U serves up a couple of ways to increase your playing fluency. Sounds like "filler" at first, until you actually play the choices. Combo Challenge works like a directed Training session. An inanimate opposing character acts as a punching bag to deliver a requested series of strikes. Every combination for each character is present, and knocking through all of them is enough to cause blisters. So go for 100% for all the fighters if you've got the fortitude and dexterity. Aside from straight up Training, Ultimate adds Tutorial. An awesome carry over from the Vita's Dead or Alive 5 Plus, 42 sections with a few to several detail intensive lessons are available. From basic movement and strike instructions, to intermediate stuff like juggles, on to advanced selections such as "Attacks that get through guards," any offensive or defensive command is covered. It even delves into stage specific maneuvers like cliffhangers. For anyone who wants to take their DOA game up a notch or two, this is definitely a great place to start.