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Dead or Alive Ultimate

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:  Team Ninja
Publisher:  Tecmo
# of Players:  1-4 (1-8 online)
Genre:  Fighting
ESRB:  Mature
Online Play:  Yes
Accessories:  Xbox Live, HDTV 480p, Memory Unit, In-game Dolby Digital
Date Posted: 

11-16-04

Initially released on the Sega Saturn platform, the original Dead or Alive never made it outside of Japan due to the relatively weak performance of the platform in the rest of the world.  When it was finally released as a PlayStation game in early 1998, it was met with a somewhat lukewarm response.  Known more for its bevy of buxom beauties than its fast-paced combo-based fighting system, it was ultimately overshadowed by the likes of Tekken 3.  A sequel completely followed, and was first released on Dreamcast followed by a “Hardcore” release on PS2.  Since then the series has been solely an Xbox affair, with both Dead or Alive 3 and Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball released to rave reviews and excellent sales.

Now, the series has come full circle as the original Saturn version of Dead or Alive and the PS2’s Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore have been released as Dead or Alive Ultimate.  As the title suggests, this can easily be considered the ultimate version of both games with the most important addition being that of online play.

While thrown in as more of an afterthought than anything else, the original Dead or Alive (DOA1) serves as an interesting historical piece that illustrates just how far the series has come.  It’s here that the reversal fighting system got its start, and even back then it provided some intense battles.  While not as deep as the fighting in most “hardcore” fighting game series, DOA isn’t just another button-masher like Toshinden either.  Neophytes can jump right in and perform reasonably well, but will stand little chance against someone has practiced and mastered the art of reversals.  DOA is pretty much a straightforward port of the original game, albeit one that runs in a higher resolution with slightly cleaner graphics (which only serve to highlight the low-poly character models).  Since it’s packed with the infinitely superior Dead or Alive 2 (DOA2) however, you’ll quickly toss it aside as a mere novelty.

Dead or Alive 2 retains the same mechanics as the original, although there are now more moves to perform and characters to perform them with.  Gone from the original DOA1 is the explosive square arenas, replaced instead with enclosed (including exploding walls) and multi-tiered stages.  Multi-tiered stages are the most fun, as knocking an opponent down to the next level always causes massive damage and is simply cool to watch.  The fast-paced reversals remain intact, with a four-point counter system (as opposed to DOA3’s three) making it more difficult than ever to anticipate and counter an opponent’s moves.  While the reversals at times cause too much damage when executed (throwing the character balance off a bit), missing a chance to reverse an opponent’s move leaves the player wide-open to a brief counterattack.  Thus proficient players are rewarded whether a move is reversed or not depending on the outcome.

In addition to the online gameplay (which I’ll talk about more later), the other big additions come in the form of various unlockables (characters and outfits), new story scenes and improved arenas.  Most of the arenas that originate from past DOA games have been vastly improved, with additional tiers and the addition of slopes.  They’re also more interactive now.   For example, one arena starts out in small square area in a temple.  Knock your opponent through one wall and it’s a short fall to the ground, while on another side it’s a long fall down a cliff to the waterfall below resulting in much more damage.  There are also slopes now, which open up the game to several new moves that add even more depth to the proceedings.  Most of the unlockables are in the form of potentially hundreds of new costumes (Tecmo hasn’t said how many exactly), which are mainly obtained primarily by playing through the story mode with various characters. 

As welcome as those are, obviously the biggest improvement is in the addition of an online mode Tecmo calls a “Virtual Arcade”.  The idea is that Tecmo wants to bring as much of the arcade feel as possible to the Xbox Live experience.  To this end, all of the online modes offer the ability for players to watch others duke it out and talk while waiting on their turn by creating a virtual arcade in each session.  These modes include Winner-Stays, Tournament, Team Battle, Survival, Loser-Stays, and Kumite.  In Winner-Stays, players participate in one on one battle with the winner moving on to fight the next challenger.  Loser-Stays is the same, except the loser moves on to fight again.  This is probably the worst mode, since it really doesn’t make sense to reward the loser with another round (other than the potential embarrassment of having to stay “on stage” so to speak).  Tournament is just as it sounds, with up to 8 players battling it out to determine the best around.  Team Battle is the online version of Tag-Team battles, with players cycling out to make way for others.  Survival tests each player’s ability to go as far as they can with only one health bar, with a portion of the health only restored to the Champion of each match.  Finally, Kumite allows the Champion to continue fighting all challengers until he quits regardless of wins and losses.  Excluding the Survival mode that requires three players minimum, all online modes can be played by two to eight players. 

A cumulative point score is kept on all profiles, determining the Grade you’ll fight under.  Defeating higher ranked opponents adds more to the overall point total than defeating lower ranked ones (and vice versa for losing), and different gameplay modes offer different point totals.  It’s a simple, yet effective way to judge your own progress against other players online and encourage players to fight better opponents.  Other stats are available as well, including the all-important “Disconnects” figure that quickly lets the player know who should be avoided like the plague.

Obviously timing is an important part of any fighting game, and as a result lag can severely hurt the gameplay experience.  Unfortunately, I encountered some significant lag when playing both DOA1 and DOA2.  I don’t know if it’s a result of so many people sharing one “virtual arcade” session or simply an early after-release issue that hasn’t been ironed out yet.  I’m guessing the latter, since early reviews released at the time the game launched seem to applaud it for lag-free online play.  Nevertheless it exists and it hurts the experience.  It was never enough to completely ruin the online game for me, but I was frustrated by it on several occasions.

In general, the graphics have been given a tremendous overhaul.  As I mentioned before, DOA1 looks similar to the original other than a general cleaning up of things.  DOA2, on the other hand, simply looks incredible.  The revised stages look fantastic, with large multi-tiered areas and a ridiculous amount of detail.  On one stage dense snow falls outside of a home, while in another leaves slowly drop to the ground while rabbits hop by in the background.  The character models are as detailed as they’ve ever been, and move incredibly smooth at the same time.  All of this, and yet the game still runs in 480p at a consistent 60 frames per second.  This is easily the best looking fighting game on Xbox, and a strong candidate for the best-looking game ever period.

The sound, on the other hand, isn’t as impressive if you’re still stuck with a stereo setup.  Apparently you miss a lot of the environmental sound effects if you aren’t blessed with a true 5.1 setup, and I can attest to that fact.  From what I’ve heard it’s great though, so don’t let me discourage you if you do have a 5.1 setup.  The music is another story, as it’s pretty much the same as it was in both original games.  I found it disappointing in DOA2 even then, as most of it is generic pseudo-80s Japan rock and techno that only gets more annoying the longer it plays.  My opinion hasn’t changed.  The voice acting is good enough, but hardly memorable.

Highs:

  • Incredible graphics in DOA2; perhaps the best looking game on Xbox yet (and yes, I am aware that Halo 2 is already out).

  • The new arenas are incredible, full of multiple tiers, bustling activity, and innovative ways to exploit the terrain.

  • The Dead or Alive series has always had more depth than most hardcore fighting fans give it credit for, even if it isn’t Virtua Fighter.  This makes it great for newbies and veterans alike.

  • The online play is a wonderful addition to two classic brawlers, and the idea of a “virtual arcade” should serve as the model for how future online fighters are done.

Lows:

  • Same generic music we heard before.
  • Lag hurts more in an online fighter than almost any other genre, since it relies on quick reflexes.
  • The overt sexism is distracting in a negative way.  Sure both the men and the women are excellent physical specimens, but only the women characters emphasize their “assets” to an absurd degree.

Final Verdict: 

While the fighting in the Dead or Alive series will never be as technically demanding or as deep as some other fighting series, it has always excelled at delivering entertaining and fast-paced matches full of outrageous moves and beautiful (ahem) visuals.  While Soul Calibur 2 provides more depth, I can’t deny that I’ve had more fun playing this game.  The improvements make DOA2 worth playing again even to fans of the original on DC/PS2, but there’s no denying that veterans of the series will feel a somewhat disappointing sense of déjà vu that makes $50 seem a bit too much.

The remake of Dead or Alive 2 is the real reason to own Dead or Alive Ultimate, but the original is a nifty bonus that is also fun to play in its own right.  The addition of online play makes Dead or Alive Ultimate overall the best fighting game on Xbox (and best online fighter ever), and it would be one of the best games on Xbox Live period if not for the persistent lag.

Overall Score: 8.5

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