What’s the first thing you think of when you hear Dead or Alive? That question will without a doubt have a wide range of answers depending on who you ask, especially considering the fact that something called Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball exists. In my case, that game was my only exposure to the series until recently, and though I had a feeling that all Dead or Alive games were pretty much campy, shameless boob-a-thons, I felt like it was only fair to play one of the real entries in the notorious fighting series to at least give it a chance, and get a feel for what’s actually going on. After spending some time with Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate, I can confidently report that it too is shameless in its breast-centric visual presentation. That said, it’s a blast to play, it packs tons of content, and there’s a hell of a lot more going on here than just visual eye candy.
For those just jumping in for the first time, or for those who aren’t hardcore enough Dead-heads to know what’s up (yeah, so what if that term is already taken?), Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate is a followup to 2012’s fighting entry of the same name, minus the Ultimate moniker. That means that, by and large, when it comes to core gameplay, the story, and the other basic cornerstones of any fighter, what’s on offer here is largely the same. Though this year’s Ultimate doesn’t necessarily add any groundbreaking or must-have components compared to the original game, it manages to add such an enormous plethora of unlockables and other garnishes — characters, stages, outfits, just to name a few — that it’s almost definitely worth your consideration if you’ve sunk big-time hours into the first version. Are these extras worth the $40 price tag? Well, you may have to decide that for yourself. But more on that later.
The first item on Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate’s main menu is the story mode, and being the relative fighting-game buckwheater that I am, I decided to take that for a spin first. In a word, the story is downright hilarious and I actually mean that in somewhat of a good way. The main plot centers around the DOATEC corporation approximately two years after the events of Dead of Alive 4. Evil villain guy and former DOATEC head Donovan has been ousted (or so we at first think), and his daughter Helena, who played a large part in the destruction of the old, evil DOATEC, has managed to resurrect her father’s immense corporate entity and steer it in the right direction. Long story short, Helena is holding another Dead or Alive tournament, an excuse for all the game’s characters to gather, and Donovan as it turns out is actually still at large, and must be stopped. Oh, and series favorite Kasumi must hunt down and defeat her militarized evil clone. Don’t worry, it all fits together when you play.
I won’t spend much more time discussing the story, because it’s really nothing more than an exceedingly entertaining diversion, but there were a few nice touches that pleasantly surprised me. The voice acting, though not award-winning by any stretch of the imagination, is actually quite well done, and the blind, gung-ho enthusiasm with which lines are delivered makes it hard not to crack a smile. If there’s anything that detracts from the story overall, it’s not the voicework, but rather the exceedingly convoluted nature of the plot. This isn’t Inception or anything, but expect to be checking the Dead or Alive Wiki if this is your first DoA and you actually want to know what’s going on.
And now, the main event – the gameplay. Actually, a review of Ultimate — essentially a really beefy expansion pack — probably isn’t the best place to read up on the series’ central gameplay, but since I just dove in myself I’ll include a basic rundown. Dead or Alive is historically known for being less technical than fighting behemoths like Tekken and Virtua Fighter, and when I first began playing I could, to an extent, see why. The core mechanics are surprisingly standard – there are punch, kick, guard, and throw buttons, and stringing together combos is where your main bread and butter lies. Of course, anticipating said attempts from your opponent is just as key, and pressing the guard button at precisely the right moment in concert with a particular directional input will allow you to counter and send your adversaries flying.
And that’s basically it – I’ve no doubt that competitive DoA players will want to slap me for phrasing it that way, but I just mean that if you’re picking up DoA for the first time, or have only played in the arcade and now want to try your hand at home to hone your skills, that’s essentially all you need to know. As I spent more and more time with the game, I started to get the hang of the combo system, and there’s even a handy little table you can turn on that will sit in the bottom left of the screen and show you in real time which combos you have access to and how far along you are in their execution. For me this was actually extremely helpful, and though I’m not enough of a dojo master to make a final judgement call, I’m not really sure why DoA gets the snub on technicality when compared to other fighters. It may not be quite on Virtua Fighter’s level, but I don’t really think it’s leaps and bounds behind anymore either. It’s just different.
And therein lies what is possibly Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate’s greatest strength – it’s incredibly lively and endlessly fun to play. Before I hit up the game’s strikingly robust training mode to start actually figuring out what I was doing, I played through the entire story with no prior tutelage. Despite pretty much button-mashing my way through it, it wasn’t senseless button mashing, and that is a testament more to the game itself than to any skill I may or may not have brought to the table. As you start developing faculty at understanding how combat unfolds, you actually begin to acquire a rhythm and a sense of pacing as you fight. Your button presses over time take on a certain flow, even if you have no idea of which moves you’re specifically pulling off, and by the end of the story mode I was hammering enemies with timed and deliberate presses, despite not being able to replicate my onscreen actions at will. I don’t know of another fighter (besides maybe Super Smash Bros.) that allows the player to feel so good at a less than expert skill level. And unlike Smash, DoA contains astounding depth underneath it all. All said and done, it’s really quite impressive.
As I said early on, Ultimate is an update to last year’s game – so is it worth your money? From what I can tell, it seems like $40 is a little steep. I’ve been happy as a clam thus far, but I never bought the original, and when I stopped to really pick apart the differences in this version, it started to seem more like something that ought to be priced at $20 or $30. Ultimate brings five new characters: Momiji and Rachel from Ninja Gaiden, Jacky Bryant from Virtua Fighter, and another two fighters, Leon and Ein, who appeared in previous Dead or Alives. If you mastered last year’s characters and are absolutely itching for more, then this may be a selling point. On top of that, you’ve got new stages, including the highly-requested Forest and Lost World locales, and upwards of 240 outfits to unlock across all thirty roster members. There are some new modes as well, and they’ve even embedded the finer points of the recent Vita entry, Dead or Alive 5 Plus. It’s all here, it’s just a matter of whether you want to pay for it.
One final thing to touch on is the visuals. Though they haven’t gotten any worse and are still stunning at times, the graphics engine is unfortunately already starting to show its age in a major way. One area where it still shines is with character models, and specifically character faces. The faces in DoA 5 Ultimate are legitimately some of the nicest I’ve seen on consoles, and that’s not just because they’re pretty. Eyes shimmer like real eyes, sweat glistens and drips as characters fatigue or regroup upon defeat, and if it weren’t for the story being absolutely drenched in camp, you might go so far as to say that the characters are emotive. I love the goofiness of the story just the way it is, but it does make you wonder what Team Ninja could pull off if they combined their visual wizardry with some actual storytelling. Then again, once upon a time there was Metroid: Other M, and we all know how that went.
Because the faces and characters are so insanely high-poly, the rest of the game can at times look pretty bad. Environments are often wrapped in laughably low-res textures, and cutscenes with medium long to long shots really highlight this. Extreme long shots look great, but it’s hard to erase the blurriness of some sections from your mind. Cutscenes aside, the game still looks beautiful in motion, and between the detailed characters and the top-notch animation, it’s really just fun to look at. The gelatinous fleshy blobs that just so happen to be strapped to each and every female character’s chest are a distraction more often than they are a perk, partially because they tend to look comically unrealistic, but there are a few sexy scenes where Team Ninja actually achieves what they are presumably going for, which is impressive in it’s own right.
All said and done, despite being a questionable $40 upgrade for those who already own last year’s edition, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate is an enjoyable package positively brimming with content. Series fanatics will no doubt buy it no matter the price, and newcomers should absolutely buy this version as well since it has both the original game, content from the Vita edition, and the all new stuff exclusive to Ultimate. It’s no doubt the definitive version of the game.
As long as you know what you’re getting into ahead of time, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate is a goofy thrill ride that is more than capable of delivering a deep and robust fighting experience if you so desire. And if you just want to wail on people and stare at boobs, well – there’s nothing stopping you from doing that either.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game, which was provided to us.
Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate embraces the brazen camp and erotica the series is known for while providing a ton of extras, and sneaking in a robust fighter underneath it all just like last year's edition. If you already have that game and weren't a huge fan then you might want to think twice, but otherwise don't hesitate to grab this and dive in all over again. If you're new to the series, it's a total no-brainer - this is the definitive DoA 5 version.