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“You like fighters, huh? So, what’s your main game?”
I’ve been in the fighting game community for about twenty years and have faced that question thousands of times. It seems innocent, but when it comes from certain fighting game fans, it’s loaded with a lot of prejudice. It’s a compatibility check and personal evaluation rolled into one inconspicuous chunk of small talk.
So what does it say about someone whose answer is Dead or Alive? The hackneyed punchline here is that the person is really into boobs. The more realistic answer is that this person plays single player fighting games.
Dead or Alive’s rep is that just a few fans take it seriously. A new entry in the series is something you play to screw around with for a month while in between sessions for other games.
I’ll admit, I go into this sharing that viewpoint. It wasn’t until my conversation with Team Ninja last year that I began to wonder if we all have it wrong. So I spun up a PlayStation 4 retail copy of Dead or Alive 5: Last Round and prepared to analyze the hell out of it. Maybe I’ll find out why the series isn’t winning over the competitive scene? Or at least have a good understanding of what a Dead or Alive player is when they answer the community’s trick opening question.
What you’ll like
Rock, Paper, Scissor, Attack, Block, Throw, High, Mid, Low …
Modern fighting games have a horrible design trend. It’s more of a devolution, where designers are trying to create depth by slathering convoluted systems and meter-management mechanics on top of otherwise solid foundations.
Dead or Alive 5: Last Round’s design goes against this complication trend by trimming out unnecessary top layer systems and building off of the genre’s tried-and-true philosophy of threes: rock/paper/scissor. In Dead or Alive 5’s case, everything revolves around these three core concepts: Throws beat Blocks and Holds. Blocks and Holds beat Attacks. Attacks beat Throws.
From here, the system breaks down into other sets of three. Attacks can hit high, mid, and low. This obviously turns blocking into its own set of three, which is crouching, standing, or activating a Hold (more on this later). Being knocked on the ground has three possibilities of wake up (a term for getting your character to stand back up): attack, roll, stand — which in themselves have their own set of multiple choices. You can technically play the game with a three-button stick, using only block, punch, and kick.
The number three is everywhere, and when it comes to decision-making, Dead or Alive rarely breaks from it. This keeps every critical decision just simple enough for anyone to competently play, yet it provides for complexity to flourish on the player side of the game. Depth is taken as far as the two participants are willing to push each other.
And I love it! The three system is an old-school way of designing a foundation, but it isn’t antiquated because it’s been proven over and over again to be solid.
The comeback mechanic, for once, is not completely stupid
To explain my hatred for one-shot supermoves, I’d have to answer the trick question posed earlier. My answer, if it wasn’t obvious already, is Street Fighter II. With that said, I’d be a hypocrite if I claimed I didn’t enjoy comeback mechanics at some level, because one of my favorite games is Super Street Fighter II Turbo — the game that opened the supermeter Pandora’s box and doomed the genre forever.
In modern games the comeback mechanic, believe it or not, has become even sloppier. Games often reward players for their mistakes with these big, powerful moves, which result in cheap and dirty upsets against those that play well. I’m staring straight at you, Street Fighter IV’s Ultra system.
In Dead or Alive 5: Last Round, Team Ninja is sticking with this “bad play” mechanic by permitting players to earn a “Power Blow” once their health has dipped below 50 percent.
However, landing the thing against a human opponent is tricky. For one, it’s slow out of the gate. A player performing this move has to commit to a significant wind-up while it charges, giving the opponent plenty of time to see it coming and do … something. Anything! Even if it’s just getting the hell out of the way!
And it seems to have a universal way to combo the move into a clean hit, but again, this setup requires mind-gaming the opponent into the situation in the first place.
This makes the comeback feature something that isn’t totally loosey-goosey. If you’re outplaying someone for 90 percent of the round, they can’t steal the win from you because of one Hail Mary supermove coming out of someone’s wake up. If you eat a Power Blow in Dead or Alive 5, it’s because you were significantly outplayed.
The Hold system is ingenious
Where I am most impressed with Dead or Alive 5: Last Round’s system design is in the Holds system. Think of Holds as a modified version of parrying in the Street Fighter III series. Parrying is a mechanic that enables a defensive player to nullify the damage output from a single hit by tapping forward just as a move is about to make contact with their character.
Unlike parries in Street Fighter III, however, a Hold kills the move dead in the water and does not put the defensive player in a counter attack situation (see the famous Justin Wong vs. Daigo Umehara match, where Daigo has to perform multiple parries for one move and is then allowed to counterattack). A successful Hold in Dead or Alive 5 will put the offensive player into a special throw, which grounds them — and kills their offensive momentum.
Team Ninja added a stroke of brilliance to this system: You can execute a Hold at any time, as long as the character performing the Hold is not in the air or laying on the ground. This includes permitting a player to perform a Hold while in hit stun, which is the small window of time where a character is stuck in their “reeling back” animation, which provides for another move to land (creating a combo).
This means that executing, or eating, a long set of combo strings does not create a break in the guessing game. The offensive player performing the combos can’t just stick to the same optimal bread-‘n’-butter list of moves repeatedly in a match. If they do, the defensive player is going to eventually wise up and predict a specific high/mid/low attack to Hold against in mid-combo.
If the offensive player wants to avoid having to mix up their combo, they can try altering their string into a move that launches, putting the opponent into the air and unable to perform a Hold. Yet, that creates a whole other mind game. The defensive player can anticipate that and try to perform a hold against that launcher.
Other games feature a similar design, where a player can break a combo and get out of trouble, but it is often tied to a meter or is considered a one time thing. In Dead or Alive 5: Last Round, you can always break out of an opponent’s combo. You just have to always be willing to make an intelligent guess at the right time.
This Hold system is an example of what’s beautiful about this game. Everything is simple, elegant, and geared toward never allowing the guessing game to slow down. At the surface, these systems look simplistic, and they are, but that simplicity allows players to concentrate on putting each other into situations that are complex in a way that is enriching. You must outplay the player, not the game.
The cheesecake factory …
Despite Team Ninja’s waffling on its art direction stance during the last few releases, the Dead or Alive series has never been deceitful about being a sexually charged product. Last Round still features over-the-top sexualized characters, including the infamous female breast bounce and impractical, revealing outfits.
It also has a selection of handsome boys and bearded hunks thrown in, although being a heterosexual male, I am making a wild guess that these characters are attractive. I know I wish I had their core strength, that’s for damned sure. I want to believe that Team Ninja is trying to appease everyone, but maybe that’s wishful thinking?
Overall, as an artist, I enjoy Team Ninja’s flamboyant take on the human body. The men and women on the roster are an unrealistic, yet sincere stylization of beauty, functioning as vessels for a variety of fantasies. In that context, I don’t see why Team Ninja should be ashamed of any of their exaggerations of the human form. I recognize that some people will disagree and find themselves repelled by the sexuality. That’s fine. I am not one of them.
What you won’t like
The narrative matrix
Narrative in fighting games is a weird situation. A character’s attitude and motives can some through their visual design, move set, play style, and in-game audio. As kids hanging out at 7-Eleven, when we saw Ken and Ryu, these cues told us that they not only had a relationship but that one was also much more disciplined than the other. We didn’t require a cutscene to make that narrative connection.
Yet a demand exists for these games to spin an epic tale through blunt techniques like cutscenes. In the case of Dead or Alive 5, the narrative isn’t tied to completing a character’s arcade mode and sitting through a cinematic. It’s rather a large, 72-chapter narrative matrix that sporadically jumps from character to character, revealing their relationships to their worlds’ epic crisis.
The story is a stitched together list of fighting game tropes: There’s a fighting tournament that’s a front for biological weapons research. Ninjas are involved. A mega-corporate CEO is the culprit. It peppers a very Japanese style of slap-stick irreverence throughout. Triple crosses and chaos ensues.
I appreciate Team Ninja’s attempt to try something new with the cutscene delivery, but the story feels slap-dash and is constantly leaping from one potentially unrelated plot point to another on a dime. This means changing playstyles as well. If you’re guiding a character you’re uninterested in, the experience drags. When you’re playing a character you enjoy, the sudden jump to another character can be aggravating.
Online mode needs some love
After my interview with Team Ninja, readers pushed me on why I didn’t ask them about fixing their net code. Apparently Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate’s online mode was really bad. Last Round is my first go at the netcode and, well, yeah, it could definitely see some improvements.
Keep in mind, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and play on a wired connection to my router, which is connected to an average-speed DSL line. I also make sure no one is streaming anything while I play. Not only is this the most basic setup for serious online gaming, but I live in a high-population area of the country that is going to get a lot of regional players online. If you’re running a wireless connection or someone in the house is prone to streaming videos while you’re playing, a superior netcode is not going to save you.
With this setup, I consistently found rooms in the 4-bar range (5 being the highest). Games weren’t optimal, and I wasn’t going to get frame-to-frame accuracy, but they were playable as long as I geared down my personal play mood from “serious business” to “just screwing around” (although no online fighting game should be taken 100 percent seriously).
The worst lag spikes hit whenever someone entered the lobby, which would damn near cripple the speed down to a chug for about 10 seconds.
My other big gripe with online is its unintuitive lobby interface. When you join, it is not visually clear that you’re not in line to play. You’re actually sitting in a sort of upper foyer, with the play lobby sitting one tier lower.
Once in the play lobby, the menu options flutter on and off the screen while spectating. It took a lot of blind button-pressing to figure out how the entire thing worked.
Then there are the instances of trying to search for a rank game or an open lobby and getting stuck behind an infinite game search prompt, with no back out option. I’ve had to soft reboot the PlayStation 4 several times, simply because the system won’t allow a back out, yet it hangs trying to connect.
Xbox One and PlayStation digital copy bugs
Luckily for me, I’ve been playing with the PlayStation 4 retail copy, but Xbox One users are reporting some really screwy bugs, such as the game randomly crashing and Mad Catz peripherals not working properly (which is supposedly an issue on Team Ninja’s end). Digital copies on all systems are also supposedly acting screwy.
Aside from what I mentioned with the connection hang ups, I haven’t experienced anything buggy with my retail PlayStation 4 copy of the game … yet.
Word is that a patch is in the works. Who are we kidding? With today’s new releases, a patch is always in the works.
So after all of this, what sort of person do I picture when they tell me they’re a Dead or Alive player?
Someone that is highly misunderstood.
I’m blown away by how well thought out the base design in Dead or Alive 5: Last Round is. The designers stuck with a traditional, no-thrills, rock/paper/scissor foundation that provides for depth and complexity to evolve on the player’s part. Then they managed to create a comeback mechanic that I can tolerate while creatively finding a way to keep the mind-game momentum rolling through the combo system.
If Team Ninja didn’t change much from Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate to Last Round, I don’t see what about these games would be a turn-off for a big chunk of the fighting game community. Granted, I’m only one man who spent a weekend analyzing the game. Fighting games are complex, requiring hundreds of players playing thousands of matches before revealing their secrets. Maybe it has something there that I just can’t see?
I just think it’s going to be a damned shame if something like Last Round winds up relegated to the fringes of the competitive community again. From my perspective, this game deserves a much larger following.
Dead or Alive 5: Last Round is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360 (digital download), and PlayStation 3 (digital download). A PC version is due out on Steam March 30. Koei Tecmo provided GamesBeat with a PlayStation 4 retail release.
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