I am never going to be a competitive fighting gamer. I just don’t have the skill or dedication to immerse myself in a single game day after day, week after week. It doesn’t mean I don’t love the genre, especially when a game like Dead or Alive 5 comes along. When I spoke with the title’s Director, Yohei Shimbori, at E3, he told me how much he wanted this entry in the franchise to be something both new players and veterans could enjoy. I’m pleased to tell you that Shimbori-san and his team created just that.

I’ve seen Dead or Alive 5 played competitively. The series’ trademark “Triangle System” (Strikes beat Throws, Throws beat Holds, Holds beat Strikes) requires an understanding of your character and your opponent’s. As Matt Ponton, proprietor of the DoA community site FreeStepDodge told me, “It might look a player just guessed correctly, but really, he knew whether the next strike was going to be high, middle or low based on the combo.” At the same time, even in my unskilled hands, the game is a joy to watch and play.

The accessibility of the fighting, only made stronger by the 70-chapter story mode that serves as a concept-by-concept tutorial. While the narrative is convoluted, even after getting a story recap by playing Dead or Alive Dimensions, it does a great job of introducing players to the core concepts ramping up in difficulty from simple strikes to using the Critical Hit/Strike system to your advantage. Just as NetherRealm accomplished with the new Mortal Kombat, Team Ninja has also used the narrative thread to give players a brief sampling of many of the characters, their strengths and weaknesses. The bonus missions, which challenge players to do something specific in every fight, unlock a new title (300 of which are required to unlock the final character).

Learning the moves...

It also serves a great way to differentiate this latest entry, distancing the series from one of the chief complaints of Dead or Alive 4. Many players felt that game didn’t offer enough variety across characters and that the fighters all played too similarly. I challenge anyone to suggest that Jann Lee can be used the same way as Bass or that Christie can enter the fight with a similar strategy to Bayman. Whether you want your opponents launched or at your mercy on the ground completely depends on who you’ve chosen to bring into the ring (or any of the other attractive locales). Another big change is how precise you need to be to hold a strike. These counter moves need to not only be timed properly, but players need to read their opponents since there are four different directional presses that deal with different types of incoming hits. It’s a big change from the last entry.

The stages continue to be the omnipresent “third character,” making venue selection far more than just cosmetic. Some arenas are traditional, like the boxing gym, but so many more of them offer the kind of multi-tiered, dynamic settings that fans crave. There is a spectacle to Dead or Alive 5 that simply can’t be beaten by any other fighting game out there. My favorite stage starts atop a construction site, transitions into a burning mess and results in fisticuffs on the street amid exploding oil tankers, dropping girders. On stages like this, there is a little used (but oh, so enjoyable to watch) new mechanic called “Cliffhangers.” When a fighter is pushed to an applicable edge, he/she can hold on before falling with a button press. The attacker can then choose to strike or throw, with the vulnerable defender left to evade or counter. Additionally, slippery surfaces play a role, leading to easier stuns. This not only increases the strategy when selecting, but also when moving around your foe to get out of water or off the ice.

Tough guys (and gals) never look at the explosions.

Critical stuns and bursts are a huge part of the flow of combat. Each fighter has moves that can stagger opponents, leaving them vulnerable. The only way to get out of a stun before it naturally expires is to counter-hold. Building a string of attacks before activating the stun will give you more time to continue the combo and end with a critical burst that does significant damage.

There is also a new risky but powerful move for each fighter called a “power blow.” These only become active when you’re under 50% health and require a lot of time to charge. They can be released before fully powering up in case you come under pressure, but should you manage to connect, you’ll turn the tide of battle. Some stages have special zones like flying cars or a circus’ canon where opponents can be directed. These look amazing and can wipe out a foe’s health advantage in no time.

In the mouth, out the cannon.

What would a Dead or Alive stage be without the Danger Zones? Whether intentionally placed electrified ropes or naturally occurring rocks and icicles, these hazards further drive home the need to mindful of your footing and positioning. Wall pressure is an important aspect of the game, especially since it doesn’t seem like you can easily hold a strike when your back is up against something.