Pushing buttons: Borderlands 2 and Dead or Alive 5

Midterms may be just around the corner, but never fear, my fellow gamers, because so is the annual pre-holiday video game rush. Huge tent-pole releases like Assassin’s Creed III and Halo 4 are still a few weeks out, but the current crop of fall games already available (Borderlands 2, XCOM: Enemy Unkown, Dead or Alive 5, and Dishonored) should keep many-a-gamer’s thumbs very happy for the foreseeable future. I spent some quality time with Borderlands 2 and Dead or Alive 5 over the past few weeks, and came away very impressed with both.

Borderlands 2

It’s weird to think that the original Borderlands almost released with a more realistic art style, given the series’ iconic cel shaded look and off-the-wall attitude. As good as its predecessor looked, Borderlands 2 ratchets things up to 11, with a huge variety of environments and a much more colorful palette. You’re just as likely to find yourself mowing down bandits in a snow-capped mountainside as you are blasting through legions of robots in a futuristic city with enough aluminum and glass-covered surfaces to put Apple to shame. There may not be any major graphical enhancements made to Borderlands 2, but the fact that the game’s already beautiful engine now has the opportunity to flex its muscle outside of the brown and beige of the original desert environments does wonders.

To be honest, the only real issue I have with Borderlands 2 is its scattershot and oft-outdated sense of humor. Random enemy dialogue and a large majority of the side quests in the game feature clever writing and genuinely funny characters. It’s the lazy Internet meme references and main characters, like the game’s antagonist Handsome Jack, that fall completely flat. Jokes about a diamond-encrusted horse named “Butt Stalion” might play in a Danny Devito stand-up routine, but they come off as crass and unnecessary in-game. And that’s a shame, because as bad as the writing can be, the voice acting is generally very good in Borderlands 2.

Thankfully, Borderlands’ fast-paced shooting, creative character classes, and adictive loot-oriented gameplay more than make up for a few lackluster characters and cheesy puns.

Dead or Alive 5

In a lot of ways, Dead or Alive 5 is a game with an identity crisis. Deep, fluid combat and features like the option to display detailed frame data typify Team Ninja’s ambitions of making a serious, tournament-worthy fighting game. Yet, nonsensical cutscenes fraught with gravity-defying breast physics and a lack of modes echo the series’ dubious history. However, it’s these same oddities that add to DoA5’s charm. Watching Kasumi stare wistfully into the horizon, breasts swinging every which way, while Helena delivers some meaningless bit of exposition, breasts also swinging every which way, is just as stupidly humorous as it is perverse.

Thankfully, those aforementioned oddities don’t detract from DoA5’s excellent fighting system. The series’ trademark four-button, counter-based combat returns, and while the overall structure is largely the same, DoA5 feels a lot more fluid and responsive than previous titles.

With such a rich combat system and well-produced visuals, it’s too bad that Dead or Alive 5’s major mis-step is its lack of innovation. Where contemporaries like Tekken have incorporated RPG elements like character customization and individualized AI opponents, DoA5 offers the bare minimum in terms of ways to play.

Versus, Arcade, Time Attack, Survival and Training round out DoA5’s list of modes, and though each of them is great fun, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen a million times before. You can unlock Call of Duty-style tags for your profile, but you see them so seldom, you’ll likely forget that they’re even there.

It’s unfortunate that Dead or Alive’s reputation is so heavily based on its bouncy female fighters, because DoA5 serves up a deep, thoroughly enjoyable fighting experience that easily overcomes the franchise stigma. Gorgeous visuals, interesting environments and a goofy sense of humor give DoA5 a sense of personality previous entries were sorely lacking. With a lack of innovative modes and inconsistent connections online, Team Ninja’s latest offering is not without its share of issues.