When Street Fighter II first debuted in the early 90s, it reintroduced the two-player competitive fighter in a big way and made the genre one of the most popular for years to come. The game was also notable for having only one controllable female character, Chun Li, amidst the cast of testosterone-filled hulking brawlers. Nearly a decade later and dozens of other entries into the genre, things have changed quite a bit. In Tecmo's newest Dreamcast fighting game, Dead Or Alive 2, the gender of playable characters has shifted dramatically to a near equal five to seven ratio; still in favor of males. While the difference is significant, could it also be signaling something more like a rising digital feminist revolution?
On paper, one might actually think that indeed a victory in the gender equality wars has been won, but after actually taking in an eyeful of the ladies that populate the Dead Or Alive 2 universe, you'd think otherwise. Rather than looking like self-empowered and self-assured candidates for N.O.W. (National Organization of Women), the women look more like immature comic book-styled sexual objects of desire. This imagery is only furthered augmented by the Victoria's Secret-type iconography in the form of bold cleavage, mondo bouncing boobs, gratuitous panty flashes and a lingerie-like wardrobe (in other words, the same kind of wet dreaming that gave birth to Lara Croft). Still, these ethical issues won't register with the pubescent and Maxim reading male demographic that Dead Or Alive 2 is targeted for. Nor do those issues detract from what is otherwise a well balanced and finely executed 3D fighting game.
All the sexual innuendo aside, Dead Or Alive 2 still manages to maintain its focus on high intensity one-on-one martial arts matches. Players choose a physical representative from the cast of characters and achieve victory by knocking out the opposing combatant. The simplicity of this goal is furthered emphasized by an extremely responsive and easily comprehensible single directional input (D-pad or joystick) and three-button setup consisting of a punch, kick and a multi-functional 'free' command. Using the D-pad in conjunction with the three buttons, players are able to launch a devastating barrage of combo attacks, throw an opponent off his or her feet, dodge about the three-dimensional arena and, most importantly, counterattack or reverse an opponent's strike. It's really the inclusion of the counterattack feature that deserves the most attention and separates Dead Or Alive 2 from its competitors the most. In most fighting games in the past, blocking meant taking a defensive stance for the duration of an incoming attack no matter how long a string of punches and kicks. Dead Or Alive 2 is different in the fighters can actually intercept certain blows in midstream and counterstrike with a timely press of the 'free' button. Such a feature along with the multi-tiered environments, where fighters can take huge hazardous falls into new zones, can really makes a huge difference in both intensity and the mindset of two competitors. Both participants are kept on edge and need to focus more strategically on offense as well as defense.
All the martial arts mayhem is facilitated into various play modes that Dead Or Alive 2 offers. Long-time fans of the genre will be more then accustomed to the more typical ones like one-player 'Story' mode, the two-player 'Versus' mode and 'Sparring' mode for practice sessions. There are some other modes that are slight variations like the 'Time Attack' mode that has players trying to complete eight rounds in the shortest amount of time possible or 'Team Battle' mode which increases the amount of combatants in a King Of Fighters elimination style tournament. But the one that stands out the most is the 'Tag Battle' mode where up to four human controlled characters can participate. Instead of the regular one-on-one style of match-ups, a pair of fighters can actually 'tag' in and out of an ongoing match pro-wrestling style. There are obvious strategic advantages like one of the two fighter being able to take a breather while the other carries on, but that's not the main sell. What really makes the feature such a standout is the incorporation of 'tag combo' moves. These 'tag combos' range from two fighters stringing together a number of punch and kick attacks to special double team moves reserved for specific pairs of fighters. These reserved moves are usually vicious beat down style of attacks where two fighters will gang up on the other and unleash some serious hurt.
Regardless of whichever mode I personally favored, I found the computer to be a poor challenge even on the highest difficulty settings. This meant that I would need some serious human competitors to match-up against fast if this game was going to hold my interest for long. Luckily, Dale proved to quite the worthy adversary and my favorite character, Jan Lee, against his choice fighter, Helena, were fairly evenly matched (unlike the brutal beatings I use to administer to him in Power Stone). It is worth noting that Dead Or Alive 2 is no different then from so many other fighting games in that its play-life is largely dependent on having some similar minded acquaintances with whom to do battle with.
Moving onto its presentation, almost everything about Dead Or Alive 2 reeks of craftsmanship. Aurally, Dead Or Alive 2 is more than adequate with its abundance of Japanese voice samples and diverse soundtrack; ranging from guitar rifting tunes to orchestra like numbers. But it's really the vibrant visuals in Dead Or Alive 2 that will have even the most jaded non-gamer doing double takes. Speaking of the several arenas where all the hand-to-hand action takes place, I was again amazed at level of detail in the environments which ranged from architectural spaces; indoors and out. The texturing of some particular stages seemed so beautiful and captured the essence of nature so well that I nearly had moments of sublime reflection in between all the punching and kicking. Though I did find the stages to feel a little sparse at times, that's more than understandable when you consider the sheer size of certain stages. I imagine some detail had to be sacrificed in order to facilitate the massive multiple levels by which matches can migrate toward from one area to another.
While I was amazed by the stage designs, I was even more in awe at the incredible amount of detail in the 3D characters and how incredibly smooth they animated. The motion-capture of all the surprisingly original martial arts moves and their seamless transitions during counterattacks are a major accomplishment on the part of the Tecmo's developers. Thankfully, all the technical wonder does not go wasted on poor character designs. The cast of Dead Or Alive 2 is a worthy one and I liked how each fighter not only had a distinctive style of fighting, but they each also had a distinctive look and style (even if their background stories and endings were nonsensical). I'd also be remiss if I didn't admit to not having very conflicting thoughts about the 'enhanced' proportions of the overly sexed-up gals.
It's rather appropriate that I end this review in reference to those mixed emotions. I have no doubt that there are real women like WWF pro-wrestler Chyna or chop-sockie star Cynthia Rothrock who could readily send me to the hospital; begging for mommy. But Dead Or Alive 2 is a case where reality and fantasy are far from matching. As much as I'd like to believe a 110lb, barely-legal babe like Lei-Fang in Dead Or Alive 2 could throw around pro-wrestler sized he-men, I know it simply isn't within the realm of possibility. It's that lack of credibility, along with all the sexual exploitation, that sets the digital women's movement (if you can really call it that) back another 10 years to when it first began with Street Fighter II. Still, there's no denying that amidst all the lusty thoughts and sweaty palms, this is one hell of a competent fighting game. Dead Or Alive 2 may not be revolutionary in its portrayal of empowered women nor even as a fighting game, but it is by far one of the most satisfying one in recent memory.