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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Dead or Alive 5: Last Round (Sony PlayStation 4)

Dead or Alive 5: Last Round PS4 Review

Dead or Alive 5 has been a complete commercial success for Koei Tecmo. And, among those critics that can look past its hyper-sexualisation, it has also been regarded well as the edition in the series that took the franchise and injected it with enough depth that it works both as an accessible introduction to 3D fighting games, and as a game that serious fighting game fans can sink their teeth into.

That can't have been an easy balancing act; too often we see fighting games that aim for accessibility struggle once the player obtains a level of skill that there ceases to be any challenge left in playing it (or, worse, the skilled players discover characters that, with mastery, are impossible to beat). Conversely too many fighting games are so abstract and obtuse that players need to be experts in the genre before they even think of giving it a go. Where Dead or Alive 5 succeeded was it was immediately entertaining and very playable, but a definite learning curve rewarded players for jumping online and honing their skills. In this it sits in a small group of fighting games (that include, ironically, the very family-friendly Smash Bros.) as a fighting game that literally anyone can have fun with (again, in this case assuming the hyper-sexualisation doesn't offend them in some way).

From 2012 to now

Such has been the success of the game that Koei Tecmo has been able to continue generating revenue from it, years after it was originally released in 2012. There have been three full retail releases of the game - Dead or Alive 5, Dead or Alive 5 Plus on the PlayStation Vita, Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate - and now comes a next-generation re-release of the game in Dead or Alive 5: Last Round. In between those releases Koei Tecmo has produced a mind-boggling amount of DLC, both in terms of additional playable characters, and an obscene number of costumes that, were you to purchase it all, would run a tab into the hundreds of dollars. All of this would not happen if Koei Tecmo had not produced a game that is fundamentally good enough that people play it enough to get their money's worth across multiple releases of the same game. Furthermore, fans would not have continued to support the game if they were not connected to it the point that they develop favourite characters enough so that they want to play doll dress-up with them.

PlayStation 4 Reviews

And Dead or Alive 5: Last Round is easily the best release in addressing everything people found appealing about the base game. Not only is it a complete package, in that it comes with all the characters that were once acquired as DLC (and adds a couple more new ones for even more variety) but for a "HD remaster" on new generation consoles, there has been an impressive amount of subtle work done to make the now-creaky engine as visually impressive as possible.

Because let's face it, the hyper-sexualisation of Dead or Alive is a key selling point for this game, and therefore, the quality of the visuals - and specifically the characters - are important. Whether you are offended by it or not (and we'll get to that discussion in a moment), Dead or Alive 5: Last Round does not hide that it wants to be a sexy game, both in terms of the gorgeous, well-endowed women and the ripped men. In this context the extra power of the PlayStation 4 has been put to good use. Character models are smoother and better animated than previous editions of the game, and the details on their bodies are more pronounced. As with the previous releases, sweat rolls down the body as the fight wears on, but these trickles of water are more pronounced and clear than ever. Shirts become see-through as they get wet, offering a tantalising look at a bra underneath. Underwear actually creases and folds depending on the movement of the body. It's now even possible to choose what underwear is being taken into battle, along with changing hairstyles and giving the character glasses for additional variety. It's almost - almost - the realisation of everything this game aspired to be in its first, now relatively ugly and limited, release.

I say almost because the engine still can't quite keep up with the ambition. Because this is a fighting game with some spectacular feats of martial prowess on display, the characters distort when doing complex and nimble movements into positions that make horror films look painless. This is now even more pronounced because the character models are clearer and better defined, and these contortions compromise the sexiness that the developer is aiming. After all, human bodies that look like wet towels being wrong to dry is not sexy. Further to that, the moment you slow the game down to take screenshots and the like you will see the extreme clipping issues with regards to both costumes and fighters. You'll see characters with their hands through each other's chest like a bloodless re-enactment of that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Blood. Further, you'll see skirts and other loose material constantly having legs and arms sticking through them like they weren't there at all.

Fighting Game Review

I do suspect that Dead or Alive 6, which is inevitable, will have an engine native to the PlayStation 4 that will resolve a lot of these issues in some manner, but as a holdover from an old engine these issues are at least not noticeable in motion, and the improvements that have been made still ensure that this is the most attractive fighting game out there.

Gender, sex and things

To the question of exploitation, sexism, or whatever you want to call it, Dead or Alive 5 has been a game I have thought about a great deal in how it treats gender and sexuality. I continue to think about it, because it's a complex issue, and in many ways representative of the broader discussion of gender roles in games in general. I fluctuate between opinions on Dead or Alive quite a lot, and that's because I think most perspectives on the game are perfectly legitimate. People who argue that the game is completely exploitative of women are perfectly reasonable to make that argument, and it is supported by the DLC release strategy behind the costumes of the game. Male characters have a fraction of the number of the DLC costumes as the females, and, well, this game launches with costumes for a couple of women where the only thing they're wearing on top is a flower necklace. It's hard to argue against that when the rowdiest that male costumes get is standard swimwear that doesn't even really model the... bulge. There is a fundamental difference in the way a woman's figure is represented in the game compared to the male figures - this much is undeniable.

But then there are people that will argue that Dead or Alive is a satire and a deconstruction of gender roles, and I think this is a reasonable reading of the game as well. The sheer exaggeration of the character's bodies, and the ridiculous, hyperbolic premise that backs the narrative are certainly indicators that the sexuality of Dead or Alive 5 is not intended as eroticism, and I would suggest that's an important distinction to make, as it is a key difference between representation and deconstruction.

Koei Tecmo Games Review

Finally on this issue, not that I've seen anyone accuse Dead or Alive of being misogynistic as such, but it's also worth noting that the lead character of series is a woman, that within the game's narrative the center of the game's political and social power networks are women while the men are almost universally a combination of low-level thugs, lackeys, or hopeless wannabes (with one or two ninjas thrown in but not really that important in the grand scheme of things). That doesn't necessarily excuse the exploitation if you believe the game is too much, but it does show the game's design is not born of any particular ill-will towards women.

I was fortunate enough to meet Yosuke Hayashi, the game's director, last year when I interviewed him for my book, and he was very firm that Dead or Alive 5 doesn't sit on the wrong side of being offensive to the Japanese. And this is certainly a perspective that, on a completely anecdotal level, I can appreciate. Having spent many months in Japan (and when I stay in Japan I actually live there, rather than do the hotel-and-tourist-trail side of the country), the country's reputation for having more liberal attitudes towards sex and sexuality is well-founded. Without getting into a debate about whether Japan's attitudes towards gender and sex are healthy (or whether we sitting here in the west with hundreds of years of Christian conservatism driven into our culture are in any position to judge), the important takeaway is that the game of Dead or Alive 5 itself are not overly offensive to the Japanese, and in kind while I wouldn't necessarily whip it out as a party game, I don't feel particularly uncomfortable as I am playing the game. Even the flower necklace costume.

Related reading: Our interview from 2013 with Yosuke Hayashi (note, not the same interview that you'll see in the Game Art book).

But how does it play?

Of course, Koei Tecmo has realised that after three years of continued support from the core fanbase that the fundamentals of Dead or Alive 5 are sound, and with that in mind Dead or Alive 5: Last Round doesn't do anything substantial to re-work the experience. In other words, what you played three years ago is still fundamentally the same thing as what you'll be playing if you buy into this release. And while I'm not a professional, or even especially competitive player online, I have spent enough time with all the characters to know that if Koei Tecmo has done any rebalancing to character strength, it is incredibly subtle.

PS4 fighting game review

But it's worth noting that Last Round still has plenty of new material to offer players. As mentioned, there are new characters, and of these the most interesting addition is Honoka (yes, a school girl - surprise there, right?). Having spent a few hours with her now I'm still not entirely sure if she's the ultimate fighter for beginners, or the one that the most serious players will either love (if they use her themselves), or hate (if they don't, but run into her often enough online). Honoka is an amalgamation of every other fighter in the game - she borrows one or two moves from each character and mixes them together to arrive at her own play style.

On the one hand the attacks that Koei Tecmo have given her tend to be a powerful mix, and allow a newer player to pick her up and pull off a wide range of impressive moves from the outset. And this would also make her seem like a good choice for a serious player, as her range also helps her counter whatever opponent she might be facing, but at the same time the 'jack of all trades, master of none' rule applies to her and she's got no particular overwhelming strength that could make victory easy for someone that commits to really learning the moveset. Time will tell whether Honoka becomes a mainstay in the competitive scene, but I'm looking forward to seeing how people adapt to her.

There's also new environments to fight over, and as typical for the series, these environments are more complex than a standard arena. Danger zones (which are what they sound like) demand that you spend time on each stage in practice to learn how to move around it to have an advantage over your opponent - by avoiding the zones yourself and being able to push your opponent into them. Come across someone who is as good at the game as you are, and Dead or Alive 5 is a highly rhythmic game that puts as much weight on counters, feints, and blocks as it does attacks. This is the core of why I love the game as much as I do - it's not just about memorising long button combinations for spectacular attack sequences that your opponent can't do anything about; Dead or Alive 5 requires precision from its players, and for someone who doesn't have hands that can fly across the controller liker a madman, this gives me the opportunity to outsmart my opponents.

Dead or Alive 5 and sexism

The range of play modes hasn't really changed from Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate to this new game. You're looking at a largely nonsense story mode, as well as the standard local multiplayer, score attack and survival modes. And then there's the online play. Koei Tecmo's online infrastructure for Dead or Alive 5 has always been robust, and has managed to keep the lag right down, which is just as well, since in the case of a precise fighter like this lag is instant death to the experience.

Photos, videos and DLC

There's also, unsurprisingly, plenty of modes that are all about capturing, sharing and watching videos, screenshots and otherwise indulging in what can only be described as voyeurism. With literally hundreds of costumes now available to unlock and as DLC (don't worry, if you have already purchased DLC for Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate, you can transfer your DLC for free), the share button on the PlayStation 4 finds its most relevant game release yet, and I can see Twitter and Facebook being inundated with people sharing the exploits of their favourite characters.

It is of course not required to buy into the DLC to enjoy the game, and I certainly don't recommend you buy all of it as it is hundreds of dollars to do so. But if you have a favourite character (and they have enough individual personality that if you get into the game you will have a favourite), then it doesn't hurt to purchase a couple of costumes, either. It's the nature of the game so you may as well indulge in it.

DoA 5 Last Round Review

Koei Tecmo also has no apparent interest in slowing down on the DLC releases, and I wouldn't be surprised if the future release schedule for Dead or Alive 5: Last Round includes more costumes, or even more characters. It's worth mentioning at this stage that although Dead or Alive 5: Last Round is being released on the PlayStation 3 as well, Koei Tecmo is not committing to releasing all future DLC to it, so you will need to weigh up whether this matters to you before deciding to purchase that particular version of the game. One assumes that the Xbox One and future PC release of the game will have no such concerns, just as the PS4 won't be missing out on any future DLC releases.

It's truly impressive to see just how far this game has come from its original release back in 2012. Not just in terms of the costumes, but the additional characters, play modes, online/ sharing and interactivity and stages have all over time built Dead or Alive 5 into one of the most content rich and deep fighting games ever produced. If you're just stepping into the game for the first time in Last Round, then in many ways you're the lucky one; you're going to be absolutely blown away by just how much there is to do, experience, and master in the game.

I'm not the world's biggest fighting game fan. Those fighting games that I do enjoy (Blazblue, or Persona 4 Arena, for example) always offer something beyond the fighting mechanics to hook me in (narrative and characters, in those two examples). The fact that I've been playing Dead or Alive 5 for years now, and keep coming back for each new release (and continue to buy the DLC) is therefore proof that what is on offer here is something more than a simply entertaining fighting game. It might be decadent, and looking at the screenshots in this review will tell you if it's a decadence that make you uncomfortable, but the gameplay behind it is rock solid and perfectly precise. I can't see any scenario where I'm not still playing this for however long it takes for Koei Tecmo to get around to Dead or Alive 6.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: Dead or Alive 5: Last Round (Sony PlayStation 4)
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