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Team Ninja faces some uncertain times after losing its leader Tomonobu Itagaki. The studio known for its frenetic action games stumbled with the release of the disappointing "Metroid: Other M" and "Ninja Gaiden 3" and it left some wondering if the developer lost its edge.

Its third original game in the post-Itagaki era would be the most telling. "Dead or Alive 5" could signal a decline of Team Ninja or it could show that the developer has righted the ship. With a new artistic style, the studio showed some positive signs that this could be a potential reboot for the series.

It had a chance to depart from the "Dead or Alive" series' puerile past. It was fun to duke it out using heroines with unrealistic proportions, but after doing it for more than a decade, the act is getting stale and sophomoric.

Unfortunately, "Dead or Alive 5's" face-lift is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Sure the women of the game look more like realistic supermodels instead of Barbie dolls, but the studio still emphasizes elements such as breast physics and costumes that can pass as lingerie, thus clinging to the sexploitation themes of its predecessors.

That's clear in the story mode, which acts as a long tutorial. It introduces players to all the characters including such fresh faces as Mila, the MMA fighter, and Akira and Sarah Bryant, two "Virtua Fighter" regulars making a guest appearance in the game.

Taking place after the events of "Dead or Alive 4," the narrative makes more sense than its peers. It follows Kasumi's search for Alpha-152, a destructive clone made from her DNA, and Helena's hunt for Victor Donovan, the man responsible for using her company for world domination.

As it tells the story, the game tries to teach players the concepts of the triangle fighting system and the more nuanced concepts of its comeback mechanics. Fans should be familiar with how punches and kicks can be countered and how throws can be effective against those who block or rely on holds.

But the concepts of Critical Bursts and Power Blows need to be better instructed. Power blows can only be used when the health bar is low and it's better to stun a foe before using it because the move takes a while to unleash. These moves are also different for each character, but the commands are buried in the arcade mode. It would have been great to have them as an option during practice.

Along with the new moves, Team Ninja also integrated the tag-team concept into the fighting system. There are now special throws and combos available for two-member teams. There are even strong Critical Burst and Power Blow combinations.

One of the better improvements and something that the series has always excelled at is in creating environments. In "Dead or Alive 5," Team Ninja ups the ante and designs detailed multitiered stages that dramatically affect a battle. Players can knock foes off scaffolding or out of towers. They can punch them into electrified ropes or slam them into barrels.

Part of the reward of playing the game is discovering the hot spots of each stage. Players who know a level will have an innate advantage, forcing foes against walls so that they can pummel them in a corner or kick them off for extra damage.

Still, despite the graphics overhaul, "Dead or Alive 5" doesn't offer much in terms of innovation in online matches. The game offers the basics with ranked fights, players fights and lobby matches. But there is no stat system that's comparable to "Tekken Tag Tournament 2" and the online play isn't as flawless as Namco Bandai's game. When compared to its rivals, Team Ninja does enough with the face-lift and level design but it would have been helped by a more complete overhaul.

What fans have is a solid and serviceable fighting game that hits the marks that it's supposed to. But "Dead or Alive 5" doesn't offer the change that the series so desperately needs.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

"Dead or Alive 5"

*H
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Rating: Mature