In contrast to most fighting games, Dead or Alive 4 takes a fairly simplistic approach to the game. You have a throw button, a block/hold button, and a punch and kick button. There are no "special moves" like those from Street Fighter II where you can throw fireballs or do hurricane kicks. Each character instead has combo moves in which the right combination of punches and kicks and directional controls affects the manner in which the player fights. For example, three punches in a row may produce a different result than a kick followed by three punches. While one would expect this simplicity to lead to boring fights, the challenge arises from the ability to perform holds or counters in the game.
Taking a cue from the great martial arts films of in history, it is possible to catch your opponent's punch or kick and to use it against him or her. In the game, a counter often does substantially more damage than a standard attack with extra points being awarded for better timing. The difficulty is predicting the opponent's attack and timing your counter. This produces a very challenging and varied experience where it is crucial that your attacks remain unpredictable, making it difficult for your opponent to compete, and where it's also crucial to be familiar enough with your opponent's fighting style so that you can time your holds and counters appropriately.
In the previous version of Dead or Alive, the ability to counter an attack was too easy. You could win an entire battle simply by trying to counter every move. This encouraged "button mashing" where you would simply hope that the random inputs would somehow prevent your opponent from appropriately timing his counter. In Dead or Alive 4, the window of opportunity to pull of a counter is substantially less. Timing needs to be almost perfect. Due to the difficulty, you'll end up only using one or two counters per battle. Adding to the difficulty of the game is that it is an exceedingly fast game, perhaps the fastest of any fighter. This means that not only do you need to perfectly time your counter for it to be effective, but the rate at which opportunities arise and disappear is exceptionally fast.
Additionally, each fighting level has either an interactive component such as electrified walls and speeding cars, or multiple levels, where it's possible to throw or kick your opponent through a window, or off a bridge.
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The clip above takes place shortly after Kasumi (in blue and white) has kicked Ayane (in purple) off a bridge. Kasumi drops down and immediately does a two-hit combo kick, timing the attack perfectly just as Ayane is about to get up. This sends Ayane flying back. Kasumi chases after Ayane and attempts to throw another kick, however Ayane is able to counter the move and catch Kasumi's kick, using the momentum to throw Kasumi. Ayane attempts to make an attack from behind, but Kasumi is able to get back up quickly enough to strike back. All that happens in 5 seconds.