Last year, the new Team Ninja showed that it could do justice to the developer's flagship fighting game with Dead or Alive 5. With some positive tweaks to the fighting system, extra visual flourish and a host of modes for both on- and offline play, it was a great game, especially since it was multiplatform for the first time in years. Months later, Dead or Alive 5+ was released with some tweaks to the core game, but it was more significant for being a good portable fighting game for the PS Vita. Tecmo Koei has now released a newer iteration, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate. It is the definitive version, but some unfortunate circumstances have dampened the game a bit.
Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate has the same modes as the main game. Story mode takes you through the different viewpoints of each fighter as they lead to the fifth Dead or Alive tournament. It also tells the story of how Donovan is trying to take over the world, even after losing DOATEC to his daughter, Helena. It is the same tale from the original version, so there isn't anything new here. Versus modes can be played both on- and offline, and they include solo and tag team bouts as well as the ability to watch CPU fighters duke it out. Arcade, Survival and Time Attack mode also return with the same structure, so they're more like score and time challenges rather than the more traditional modes. Training and Tutorial modes from the portable Dead or Alive 5+ also mark a return, so those who want to hone their skills can do so. Finally, each mode and set of actions award you with titles that can be displayed at the beginning of each online bout.
Perhaps the best thing so far is that the game reads the save files from the core Dead or Alive 5. Costumes, story progress and gained titles carry over without a hitch. The online records also carry over, so those who put in some work on the original game won't have to start over again. The entire roster of fighters is available from the outset, so even if you haven't unlocked everyone from the core game or are restarting, you can use anyone immediately instead of having to slog through multiple modes to unlock the full roster.
Though a bulk of the game is the same, the new additions make it even better. Some of the changes are rather small, such as new costumes and new winning and losing poses. You can also see the winning and losing poses in the movie viewer, and you'll also see a few customization options, like the amount of sweat and dirt for these scenes. New titles are available, and you can now change the music for every part of the game, mixing it all up with the DOA5 tunes or using tracks from the older entries in the series.
Other changes are much more significant. Power Launchers have been added, and while they're similar in nature to the Power Blow, they specialize in launching players into the air for air combos. Tag-team fights can now be played online in ranked and unranked play, with two human players per team. Items have returned to Survival mode, and while it may seem silly to more serious fighters, it has been a staple for the series for so long that a significant number of players complained. Tutorial mode has more detail, and there's now a combo challenge mode for those who want to learn more advanced techniques. Team Fight mode has also returned, allowing you to create a team of seven fighters and pit it against another team in an elimination-style bout. For those who enjoy online play, a new letter grade of U has been added above S, and there are character point rankings for individual fighters to let you know how often you use a fighter and how well you do with him/her. There's even extra GP to be earned thanks to a ranking system that kicks in after you win a number of consecutive fights.
One of the bigger additions is the fighting environments. Five environments were added to the game, ranging from fan favorites to new material. The Desert Wasteland is an expansive area with a few stone pillars to bang enemies on, but it'll be the variations in elevation that make for exciting fights. The Forest, a returning stage, acts in the same manner but with more trees to hit the player against and with the elevation changes being more gradual. The Aircraft Carrier is the simplest of the new stages; it's completely flat, and electric fences are holding people in. It is also rather large, so it takes some time before you can get anywhere close to the fences. Lost World is the other returning fan favorite, and it features small areas with no barriers, resulting in a chain of long falls if you hit things just right. Finally, there's Sin City Tokyo, which is based on the opening stage of Ninja Gaiden 2. The stage is somewhat small and square, but the railing toward the city edge features a large statue that throws you back into the fight rather roughly if you get hit with a Power Blow.
New characters make it into the game this time, and like the environments, the additions are both old and new to series fans. Leon is the first of the returning characters, and while he plays like Bayman with an emphasis on throws and holds, some power strikes have been added to his repertoire, though he remains a slow fighter. Ein is the other returning character who plays like Hitomi in that he adds speed to his power moves. While he isn't as fast as Hayate with this move set, he remains formidable and is a good selection for those who are learning how to play the game. Rachel isn't a new character, but she's from the Ninja Gaiden series. She's unusual for a female fighter in that her arsenal is nothing but power moves. She has a little bit of Tina in her in that she likes throws and holds, but she doesn't have much depth in that department. Momiji is another character from the Ninja Gaiden series, and she plays out like a majority of the females in the game, with high-number combos, flashy hits and quickness punctuating her fighting style. The final character is another guest from the Virtua Fighter series. Jacky Bryant is still a fast fighter and can easily be called a male counterpart to his sister Sarah in terms of speed and move set.
The already solid game is bolstered by these additions, and it would certainly be leagues better than the original release — if it weren't for a few things. The first has to do with the title's almost ludicrous amount of DLC. Granted, all of the DLC consists of cosmetic costumes, but the game has such a constant flow of it that you get the feeling a new version will eventually include all of the DLC in one package. This release comes with half of the DLC costumes, and the other half is already compatible with the game.
The second issue concerns online play in that it isn't terribly consistent. Sampled over a span of several days during the review period, the online play performance has a tendency to fluctuate wildly. Some days, you can find an opponent quickly, and other days, it can take upward of 10 minutes to find a match, even when you're using the widest possible search parameters. Sometimes, the lag makes the game look like stop-motion animation without the fluidity, and other times, it looks and plays as smoothly as an offline game. There's still a community for the title, but the inconsistent online play means that getting into a good game is a crapshoot.
For the PS3, the game has taken on an interesting alternative. Aside from being released on retail Blu-ray and digitally via PSN, there is Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate: Core Fighters, a free-to-play version that's exclusive to Sony's system. The game is exactly the same as far as core mechanics are concerned, and most of the modes are completely intact. The game also features no online gaming limits, regardless of whether you own the full game or Core Fighters.
The limits that are placed on the game, however, are pretty significant. For starters, the Story mode is locked and must be purchased separately for $15. While there are a significant number of backgrounds available, some are locked and can only be unlocked after playing a large number of ranked online matches. There are only four characters available (Ayane, Hayate, Kasumi and Ryu), with everyone else locked away for individual purchase, and the same goes for the various costumes for all characters. The game employs a system similar to League of Legends, though, where some characters are temporarily unlocked for a set amount of time, so it encourages players to give a few fighters a shot before making a purchase. Each fighter costs $4.
The approach is certainly different from its closest competitor, Tekken Revolution, but it is no less fascinating. By employing the same tactic as the upcoming Killer Instinct, the ability to create a customized fighting roster is there, and unless you want to have everyone available, it could also be a cheaper way to get the exact fighting game you want. Then again, if you plan on buying over 10 of the 25 fighters, purchasing the whole thing for $40 is the best way to go. Making Story mode separate also ensures that those who don't care about the narrative don't have to pay for it, though they lose access to the titles offered by the mode. What fascinates the most is how nothing here relies on the use of time as a limiting factor, something most free-to-play titles seem to adopt as a means of making sure impatient players will pay to stay with the experience. Time will tell if the League of Legends-style tactic can be adopted for a fighting game, but at least genre fans have two very viable systems to choose from.
Make no mistake: Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate is still a very strong fighting game. The offline game modes are excellent, and the mode and roster additions are very welcome, especially since they don't seem to upset the balance of the game. The presentation is still good, and the controls are as tight as ever. The fluctuating online performance and availability of the community, however, is something of a concern for those who don't have local players to fight against. The wide range of cosmetic DLC can make it very expensive for those looking for a truly complete version of the game, even at the title's middle-of-the-road price point. For fans of the series and those who adore competitive fighters, this really does live up to the Ultimate moniker — provided Tecmo Koei doesn't issue yet another full release before moving on to the eventual sixth title.
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