Developer Team Ninja has been making somewhat of an industry name for themselves since their Xbox arrival. With games such as Dead or Alive 3, and the recent Ninja Gaiden, Team Ninja has definitely learned how to best utilize the considerable power of Microsoft’s big black box. And now, with Dead or Alive Ultimate they combine everything they’ve learnt in an attempt to successfully create a massive, gorgeous, and addictive online fighter.
Dead or Alive Ultimate is actually a collection of two classic Sega Saturn games: Dead or Alive and Dead or Alive 2. While the original DOA remains largely unchanged from its 1997 Saturn counterpart, DOA2 feels almost like a completely different game. Team Ninja truly went to work on this disc with fresh characters, new arenas, a different graphics engine, a sway of unlockable goodies and, most importantly, an online mode–which is why the focus of this review will be on Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate.
The Dead or Alive franchise has never been popular with many hardcore fighting fans because its fighting engine doesn’t boast the same depth and polish so evident in many of its 3D brethren. Though you can assign shortcuts to multiple buttons on the Xbox controller, all DOA games basically boil down to three buttons: a punch, a kick, and a guard (which is called the ?free’ button). With only three buttons at your disposal, Dead or Alive Ultimate becomes extremely simple to pick up and run with. Unlike most fighters, someone relatively new to the DOA experience can cope relatively well playing this game after only a few hours. Being a huge Soul Calibur fan, I was hesitant to try Dead or Alive Ultimate because of its supposed lack of depth; however, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the game’s fighting engine does indeed have a certain amount of polish, and most of the playable characters are impressively balanced. Each of the 15 characters in DOA2U has roughly 70 to 80 different moves and combos, all of which can be viewed in-game; most of the combos are slight variations of one another in order to throw off an opponent’s guard. It is vitally important to perfect and execute as many of these combos while you fight due to the reversal system.
The reversal system has appeared in every DOA game thus far released, so, naturally, it makes a return in Dead or Alive Ultimate as well. Reversals are another controversial aspect to the ongoing DOA series because of their performance simplicity. Most fighting games that include a similar feature (such as Street Fighter 3’s parry or Soul Calibur’s guard impact) require precise timing; only working correctly when executed at the precise moment your opponent’s attack strikes home. In DOA2U reversals are initiated by pressing either up-back, back, down-back, or forward and the free button, each reversing its own particular brand of attack. Doing so puts your character in the reversal stance with his or her hands sticking out horizontally. Your character will stay in this stance for about a second and, for most of that second, if your enemy attacks you with the correct attack, then the reversal will succeed. Precise timing isn’t necessary, which makes this counter attack system extremely easy to use. What’s more is that, instead of opting for the traditional route where a counter leaves your opponent open for a moment–enabling a follow-up combo–all you need to do in DOA2U is ensure that your reversal succeeds; subsequently, your opponent instantly incurs a hefty amount of damage. This counter system is one of my biggest gripes with DOA2U’s fighting engine. Though Team Ninja did add a fourth control point of countering (DOA3 only required you to press up-back, back, and down-back), the timing of the counters, combined with the ridiculous amounts of damage they inflict, is absurd. Indeed, some characters have counters that can abruptly knock away one third to a half of your health bar. Initiating a reversal is even possible when your character is in mid-combo, meaning that almost every combo can be stopped midway by a reversal–which kind of defeats the purpose of a combo. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having reversals in the game, and they certainly do add another layer of depth to the fighting, but Team Ninja really should’ve tweaked its implementation a little further.
The game’s music is another big disappointment; basically, it’s the same strange techno-rock hybrid that we’ve been hearing from DOA games for years. While not overly annoying, it’s still rather odd that, after so many years, Team Ninja refuses to alter, change, or even modify the soundtrack of one of its best-selling franchises. How about, at least, a few more symphonic and orchestrated tracks to accompany the rock tunes? And, for goodness sakes, let’s try and change that old main menu tune, eh?. What’s even more puzzling is that custom soundtracks are not implemented in the game, but they were available in DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball. You would have thought that with Team Ninja being so adept on Xbox hardware, it would have been a no brainer for them to duly implement one of the console’s greatest features.
One worthy tradition that DOA2U continues is that of multi-tiered stages. At any point during a battle, it’s possible to knock your opponent from one level (of certain stages) and continue the fight down below. However, instead of just a few locations on a stage to hurl someone from, many stages now offer four or five. Also new to this game are the slopes, which you can knock someone down and see them tumble to the lower level. Each character also has an athletic slope move, which, when initiated at the correct moment, lets your character knock an opponent down a slope in a ‘special’ way. For instance, Zack’s slope move sees him leap on the back of his victim and ride him down onto the level beneath. Slopes effects range from tumbling down a small cliff to plummeting headlong down a huge flight of stairs; and while they are cool to watch (much like the counters), some of them penalize you with far too much damage. If you just knock someone down the steps in the Dragon Hill or Great Wall levels, they will lose almost half their life in a matter of seconds, which is much too powerful for my tastes.
If you don’t want to deal with suffering huge amounts of damage after being knocked from a stage, there are also a handful of enclosed arenas to do battle within. Of course, most of these aren’t completely safe, either, as the edges of the ringed enclosure are electrified, which means a solid body slam will result in big damage.
DOA2U brings back almost every included stage to ever appear in a DOA game since DOA2, though they have all received extreme makeovers of course. Team Ninja has given the game a complete facelift, adding interactive environments, more breakaway points, and making the stages all seem totally fantastic. In fact, these arenas even make those in DOA3 look suddenly mediocre. Almost every stage has something eye catching playing out in the background, be it a police car chasing someone in the Downtown arena, or a menacing lion watching over your fight in the Safari arena. What’s more is that most of the arenas are also extremely interactive too. Watch as you knock someone over a hippo and it squeals in discontent, or you smash an opponent against a street sign and it sign comes tumbling down onto your heads. Some environments also feature subtle, yet jaw-dropping effects such as hundreds of cherry blossom petals falling to the floor or, during the final boss battle, the changing of the seasons!
Of course, it’s not just the battle environments that look fantastic in this game, the character models all look gorgeous as well. The only area where the characters are perhaps lacking is that most of the males are seriously under designed in terms of originality. It’s as though Team Ninja worked their way down a long list of fighting game stereotypes and checked off each one during developement. Hmm?Black guy with a big attitude? Check. Hulking wrestler guy? Check. Bruce Lee clone? Check. Heck! Hayabusa and Ein look almost exactly the same! The girls, on the other hand, definitely received more careful thought and loving attention. Hailing from all different types of backgrounds, they truly stand out from the (usual) crowd. Ranging from the beautifully elegant Helena to the icy cold and brutal Ayane, the girls or DOAU definitely evolved through plenty of development nurturing.
Each one of the game’s 15 characters starts with two available costumes, but each time you run through the Story mode (or Time Attack for the secret characters), you unlock a new costume. Each girl has anywhere from 13-20 costumes while the boys have around 6-10 costumes in total. The final boss, Tengu, whom you can unlock, has 3 costumes. In total, there are hundreds of costumes to earn, so that means you’ll really have to pound away at the single-player mode’s longevity. This was a smart addition, especially considering that fighting games usually don’t have any real driving motive outside of running through the game repeatedly with different characters. In DOA2U? the costume attainment not only provides incentive for continually completing the single-player mode, but also means that you learn how to use, and perfect, each character. By going through the game a multiple number of times with all the characters, you’ll be able to see which one best fits your fighting style–then you can go hell-for-leather with that character and gradually perfect the ability to dispense some serious online beatdowns.
Of course, DOAU’s most talked about feature is its online mode. DOAU is the first online 3D fighting game, so there was a lot of worry about how it would play. Being such a gorgeous game, how could the online play truly function without some serious lag? And we all know that lag can completely destroy a person’s rhythm during a heated fighting game. Thankfully, Team Ninja (somehow) pulled it off, making the multiplayer relatively lag free while still running with the same beautiful look that adorns the single-player game. You heard me right: the online portion of the game looks pretty much the same as the offline portion–and with little to no lag included. Of course, there is lag when fighting someone out of your region, but there are so many matches available that it’s really no problem finding a room with people from your particular country to play against.
Dead or Alive Ultimate offers a different take on the online fighter phenomenon, perhaps more so than any other previous online game. Instead of players seeking other player to battle against, Team Ninja has implemented the ingenious idea of creating rooms where up to 8 combatants can come together and play. Ensuing fights are still 1-on-1, but the other players in the room are still allowed to watch the match and chat. In each room, the host will choose which type of game mode he wishes to play. There are 6 different types of online modes you can partake in: Winner Stays, Loser Stays, Tournament, Survival, Team Battle, and Kumite (where the champion keeps fighting until he or she quits). This reviewer’s personal favorite is the traditional Winner Stays mode, where the winner of the match keeps fighting until he or she loses–but then again, each mode provides a little something for everyone. Using these modes, the battles become much more interesting than the 1-on-1 online matches of other fighting games, where you are forced to play a single opponent over and over unless you quit. DOAU not only allows you to play different people, making things fresher, it also allows you to watch other people play, and perhaps learn a few things from them along the way.
Dead or Alive Ultimate also keeps track of the stats for you and everyone else around you while online. Many different statistics can be accessed while online, such as which characters are winning the most fights, and which are being used the most by players, as well as the online reliability of individual players. Of course, the game also ranks its players using a grade and point system. Each time you win a round, you are awarded points and each time you lose, you lose points. Depending on your grade and the grade of your opponent, you may also gain (or lose) extra points. For instance, if you are a rank ‘C’ and manage to beat a rank ‘A’ opponent, you will then earn a bunch of extra points, while the rank ‘A’ player will, conversely, lose a bunch. It’s a simple, yet effective and functional ranking system.
Of course, we can’t ignore the other game packaged alongside DOA2U, which is, of course, the original DOA. This is a port of the Sega Saturn version of the game with a few minor graphical tweaks. The game now looks a touch smoother, and it seems to run at a better framerate, too. Though most gamers probably won’t bother playing DOA too much, it’s still enough to make this disc a little enjoyable side bonus. However, Team Ninja went that extra mile and also made this game online, and with all the same game modes as DOA2U as well. Even though there aren’t nearly as many matches up for this game, it usually isn’t too much of a problem finding someone to play against while reliving the original DOA’a nostalgia.
The Dead or Alive Ultimate package was meant to bring all DOA games to one console, therefore allowing players to own the entire collection. DOA2U, where the bulk of the collection resides, is not much more than an extremely well glossed port with online capabilities. No huge changes have been made to the gameplay, so if you’ve never liked DOA anyway, then you probably don’t want to pick these games up. However, if you liked the past franchise editions or are simply curious, then this is certainly a great place to start. The online aspect is extremely well done and probably makes Dead or Alive Ultimate one of the best Xbox Live games currently available. This, plus the addition of over 100 unlockable costumes, a huge gallery, and other goodies, definitely makes this the ultimate Dead or Alive game.