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Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate dials down the cheesecake, to a point, but it's still bizarrely fascinated with its female characters' physiques.

By EMMANUEL LOPEZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Dead or Alive has had quite an image makeover in the past year.

In Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate, the latest installment of Team Ninja’s 3D fighting-game series, the emphasis is less on babes in skimpy outfits kicking butt and “advanced jiggle physics” and more on creating a top-notch fighter.

Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate is actually a compilation of last year’s game that incorporates material from the PS Vita port, DOA 5+; it adds yet more content in the form of new fighters and system tweaks. If you already have a DOA 5 save file, your save data and downloaded add-ons will transfer to Ultimate.

The roster of combatants is as large as ever. Dead or Alive mainstays Kasumi, Ayane, Hayate and Ryu Hayabusa (the protagonist from Ninja Gaiden, Team Ninja’s other flagship franchise), join a diverse cast of assassins, pro wrestlers and more. Returning from earlier Dead or Alive games are Ein (Hayate’s amnesiac alter-ego from DOA 2) and mercenary Leon.

Demon slayer Rachel and ninja apprentice Momiji cross over from the Ninja Gaiden series to join the DOA roster. Jacky Bryant brings the number of Virtua Fighter guest fighters (Jacky’s sister, Sarah, along with Akira Yuki and Pai Chan were introduced in the original DOA 5) to four.

If you’ve been keeping count, that’s a grand total of 29 combatants, each with his or her distinct fighting style.

The tutorial mode in Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate is extremely thorough.

Not sure where to begin? The meticulously in-depth Tutorial mode would be a good place to start. It covers everything from the fundamentals to more advanced material like combos, character strategies and setups.

Even veteran players will appreciate getting a refresher course or studying up on weak spots in their game. Players familiar with 3D fighters like Virtua Fighter or Tekken will feel at home with DOA’s fighting system, which borrows from both while adding a few bells and whistles. It’s a system that’s intuitive and accessible, yet deep and intricate as well.

Practice mode is the laboratory where you can experiment and learn to become familiar with whichever character you choose. The training dummy can be set up to respond to a variety of in-game situations, letting you test out possible combos and setups for your character. If you’re a frame data cruncher, you can enable that option.

When you feel you’ve got the chops, you can test your mettle in the standard offline single-player modes: Story, Arcade, Survival and Time Attack. The Story mode is virtually identical to the original DOA 5, a convoluted narrative that tries to shoehorn the entire cast into a plot that sort of makes sense. Each mode, with the exception of Story, can be played solo or as a tag team.

Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate's tag-team mode.

In addition to offline versus play, Ultimate’s various online modes will keep you well-stocked with opponents. The standard lobby mode is on par with most fighting games these days. In between matches, idle lobby participants can observe matches while chatting with each other. New in Ultimate that was missing in the original DOA 5 is the ability to play tag matches online.

The caveat, however, is that people who have the original DOA 5 or Plus won’t be able to play against those with Ultimate. As of this writing, there are no plans to introduce a patch to rectify that. Ultimate is compatible with the free-to-play version called Core Fighters, which is basically a stripped-down version of the full game available for the download on the PlayStation Network only. Core Fighters features four playable characters — Kasumi, Ayane, Hayate and Ryu Hayabusa — and all of the offline single-player modes except for Story, which can be purchased for $15. Additional characters can be purchased for $4.

Interactive, multi-tiered stages have always been a hallmark of the DOA games and the environments in Ultimate deliver the goods. Several stages feature uneven terrain, water or ice, which can affect your attacks’ properties.

Other areas have designated “danger zones;” hitting an opponent into them triggers a special environmental attack. Knocking someone into one of the rings of fire in the circus stage (yes, really) leads to… wait for it… them getting knocked into the air by a charging tiger. In the war zone stage, getting knocked into a danger zone means eating a missile. A MISSILE. It’s outlandish and cartoonish, but certainly in tune with DOA’s flamboyant style.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Dead or Alive game without a little eye candy and Ultimate continues in that fine tradition. It’s a flat-out gorgeous game to play. The characters carry a staggering amount of detail and the environment provides some stunning views. It’s often easy to overlook because of the fighting’s frantic pace. Thankfully, Spectator mode lets you construct a mock match, pause and capture the action to your heart’s content.

It’s a fighting game, but make no mistake, Team Ninja knows it’s the on-screen titillation that sets the Dead or Alive series apart, for better or for worse. What other game has an item in the options menu that lets the player select how much breast jiggle they prefer?

Dozens of costumes, mostly for the female characters, allow gamers to play virtual Barbie.

There are more than 200 costumes to unlock or acquire and not surprisingly, the ladies get the lion’s share. Although each character has dozens of outfits of varying skimpiness/shirtlessness, the character customization is rather shallow compared to Tekken or Virtua Fighter; you’re reduced to swapping entire outfits instead of building one from an assortment of shirts, bottoms, headgear, etc.

Gamers who already own the original DOA 5 might be hard-pressed to shell out $40 for Ultimate, but there’s enough new content for fans will enjoy. Those of us who have long been curious about giving DOA a chance will find Ultimate a good starting point, despite Team Ninja’s bizarre fetishization of its female characters. You might still have to pause the game when your spouse or significant other walks into the room though.

Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate, rated M, is $39.99 and available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. For this review, I played the 360 version with a copy provided by the publisher, Tecmo Koei, with a regular controller. DOA 5: Ultimate also supports all joysticks compatible with the 360 or PS3.

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