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Since former Team Ninja head Tomonobu Itagaki left the company on less than friendly terms, the developer and its owner Tecmo Koei have slowly rebuilt the group and its franchises. We’ve seen much of Ninja Gaiden, with Ninja Gaiden 3 hitting PS3 and 360 in March and a Vita release of Ninja Gaiden Sigma planned for some time near that handheld’s February launch. Conversely, things had been relatively quiet with Itagaki’s other big franchise, Dead or Alive (save for an adequate 3DS title). Now the fighting franchise is finally ready to formally return with a new numbered entry, Dead or Alive 5, and its coming to both 360 and PS3.
Though we’d seen it at Tokyo Game Show this year, today was the first time press had a chance to actually play the game. For a series that had increasingly been known for its sex appeal instead of its gameplay, our first match showed the heightened emphasis on action. As rivals Ryu and Hayate entered the stage, we saw the battles were quick, the early combos easy to grasp, and it was all wrapped up in a package of shiny graphics including a new emphasis on dirty and sweat appearing on the fighters. But from the start the game had a tutorial, which didn't make much sense to us until we pressed the right shoulder button.
Programmed to that button is a charge move that (when pulled off correctly) sends the fighter and their victim into a cinematic auto-combo that pauses at the end, which initially confused us. Soon we figured out that the brief pause lets the player choose which direction they will launch their opponent in after the flurry of strikes, which added some strategy to the sortie. If you acted fast enough you could cause an explosion, a wall to fall, or even send your enemy flying off the stage. Then an extended rock-paper-scissors style quick time event happens as you try to launch your enemy off the edge of the platform for extra damage.
Down on the ground we got into even more involved exchanges, sending opponents flying into electrified fences and once even tossing them into a car that had been suspended in mid-air. The stage was full of little environmental touches like that, ones that could cause a dozen or so interesting moments on top of the standard combat happening in the arena. Sadly, the game seems to be in early development still, as the only stage ready to be shown was the same one that debuted in video form during TGS, but it was still fun to direct the action in it ourselves.
The other thing worth noting about this event was it was the first time Team Ninja had shown any of DOA5’s ladies, as series regulars Ayane and Hitomi were also playable. Obviously this is our initial look at them so we aren’t sure just how they’ll be treated in the final game, but by DOA standards their costumes and (how to put this delicately?) jiggle-factor weren’t as crazy as they’d been in years past. Both were there to fight (as opposed to play volleyball sexily) and they fought as down and dirty as the guys, with especially nasty combos using the action button. We’ll wait until we see how they’re characterized in the cutscenes before we make up our minds on the issue, but it seems Team Ninja has begun to tone down the fan service aspect of the series that lately had been overshadowing the fighting.
Our time with the four characters and one stage was brief, but we found the early product entertaining as well as easy to pick up after missing out on the series for the last few years. With a roster so far filled with returning characters, it looks the main attraction for Dead or Alive 5 will be the crazily involved, action-packed stages. Whether the new Team Ninja can succeed or not probably depends greatly on the different arenas being diverse enough and packed with over the top moments to hold you attention after playing through them dozens (if not hundreds) of times. As the game is saddled with a vague “2012” release date, DOA5 will probably have several more chances to convince us of this in the months to come.
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