Dead or Alive 5 review: Begrudge match

Evaluating the plot in Dead or Alive 5 is ultimately a waste of words. Oh, you can make a qualitative judgment – observe that it somehow manages to be a train wreck, a plane wreck and a car crash all in one. It's like watching all combustible vehicles on Earth hurtle into each other at a singular point of stupidity, and then burning in the consequent fireball of awkward, unintentional comedy.

But we survive, insulated by apathy. What matters is that Dead or Alive 5 is an excellent fighting game.%Gallery-166480% Team Ninja's approach has always been more inviting to me than other purveyors of pugilism, and not because the female combatants swing everything in addition to their fists. Dead or Alive 5 polishes and speeds up the unique traits that often become obscured by the lascivious camera work. The fighting is fast, multi-dimensional, and exhibits spectacular choreography that isn't as hard to pull off as it seems. It evokes a willingness to join in, rather than a creeping worry over the technical proficiency required to succeed.

That isn't to say it's a mindless mash toward victory. There's no shortage of frame data and high-level exploitations of the fighting system, should you choose to summon them, but they're offered with a different attitude. Much like Virtua Fighter, there's a deceptive depth beneath relatively few primary inputs (punch, kick, throw and the series-defining hold), and strategy that's built more on instinct than precise memorizations.

If Street Fighter IV asks for impeccably timed digital mastery, then Dead or Alive 5 begs for analogue thought. There are set combos and air juggles, some of which can be combined into vicious assaults, but you'll find yourself thinking in imprecise, natural terms. Playing Dead or Alive 5 instills a sense of flow, rhythm and position – all important in any fighting game, yet less formalized here.

Key to this is the returning hold system, which allows you to counter or dodge nearly any move in your opponent's repertoire, provided you can correctly suss out its timing and height. Considered on a primitive level, Dead or Alive 5's rapid combat connects in an exciting way because it's so easy and quick to categorize: it's really about sensing patterns and predicting the incoming sine wave of blows as they breach the high, mid, or low sections of your bikini-clad totem pole.

The easily discernible rules are empowering because you always feel like you have a fair way out. Strikes can be sidestepped, countered or blocked; mistimed counters can be punished with throws or strikes, and sidestepping leaves fighters exposed to throws and horizontal strikes.

Dead or Alive's approachable basics are given nuance by a diversified, ostentatiously dressed character roster. Everyone has discernible strengths and weaknesses, from Christie's pummeling snake-hand strikes (which make her combos predictable and easier to counter), to Tina's gut-crushing kicks and rasslin' throws. If you're up against a grappler, you'll want a good way to slip past judicious guarding, such as Elliot's low-and-close stuttering attacks.

Tournament newcomer and fastidious kicker Rig – named so because he works on an oil rig, you see – demonstrates some of the branching work Team Ninja has done in combos. Even if you're coming in from Dead or Alive 4, you'll be able to employ several new closers and change the height of your hits before a combo becomes too predictable. The characters on loan from Virtua Fighter also feel comfortable in this system, once you forgive the old, grating voiceovers that sound like they were captured from a Sega Saturn. (I'm also obligated to point out that Pai is still easy to pick up, like a piece of cake.)

The other star competing for your attention in Dead or Alive 5 is the vivid stage design, and it's still more elaborate and kinetic than any other game in the genre. Though the effect on moment-to-moment fighting may not be as important as simply contextualizing your position in a 3D space, it's worth noting that being pinned against a wall or tossed off a cliff is bad, bad news. Your physical trauma can now be further extended by context-sensitive throws and charged-up power blows, which direct victims straight into volatile objects in the environment (including tanks and, umm, piercing flocks of birds).

These entertaining, over-the-top displays fit within a mundane selection of modes. There's not much to be impressed by here, and though the online lobbies and matchmaking systems are adequate, I have yet to find a bout that didn't have minor, perceptible input lag. It varies, it's mostly acceptable, but it's not the best I've seen in recent years. The training mode is just as scrawny, and I can't decide whether the ability to simulate lag is helpful or just an unfortunate admission that you're going to encounter it from time to time.

Still, it doesn't deter from Dead or Alive 5's success as an energetic revitalization of the series, lecherous reputation and all. The eternally quivering breasts remain an inexhaustible source of embarrassment and self-loathing, and every cutscene regresses video game storytelling to 1917 – a point at which video games did not even exist. It is a shame that travels through time, but I hate and have to say it's fun despite all that.

In an ideal world I could do so without caveats, and we could all be upset when the story is what ends up ruining a fighting game. For now I'll happily mock Kasumi for wearing next to nothing in Antarctica, roll my eyes at Christie creeping on boys in an oil rig bar, and question the practices of Helena Douglas, a supposedly French CEO who dresses for sultry cabaret and literally beats up her employees. But it's a waste of words here, and words don't have much of a say in a good fight.


This review is based on the retail Xbox 360 version of Dead or Alive 5 provided by Tecmo Koei.

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