Reviewed: December 21, 2004
Released: October 27, 2004
Tecmo’s Dead or Alive franchise has been around for a long time, dating as far back as the Sega Saturn. For those of you too young to remember that one, Dead or Alive Ultimate not only gives you the complete Sega original, but also a completely new and re-mastered version of DOA 2. Attractively packaged as a double-DVD release in a cool slipcase, this title represents the extreme ends of technology, showing DOA at its birth and at the peak of current technology.
Only the most hardcore of fans will spend any time at all with the first disc, but for gaming historians and those who sold their Saturn and regretted it a year later, you can now take a trip down memory lane. If nothing else, after 20-30 minutes of playing the original, once you do pop in that second DVD that sonic boom you’ll hear will be your jaw smacking the floor.
Team Ninja has pulled out all the stops for this release and tapped Xbox resources that will likely surprise even Microsoft developers. The only comparison I can possibly make for this visual splendor would be Tecmo’s previous game, Ninja Gaiden, which literally redefined graphics on the Xbox.
Of course the biggest thing to keep in mind is that Dead or Alive Ultimate is not a sequel, but even so, the game packs in more new content that we’ve seen from other so-called sequels and expansion packs. In addition to all of your favorite levels from previous DOA games being completely remodeled and textured using the new game engine, you get several new levels, new costumes, new movies exploring the history of the cast of fighters, and lots more. Oh, did I mention the game also supports online gameplay via Xbox Live.
DOA has always been one of the more accessible fighting games, maintaining the simple core combat system that is easy to learn and challenging to master without becoming bogged down in its own complexity. It rewards button-mashers and those with the patience to memorize pages of moves for each character.
As with past games in the series, DOA excels at blocks, holds, and reversals. Naturally, these advanced moves require some of the most precise timing but when properly executed you are rewarded with some of the best action sequences in the game. With more than 70 moves per character it would be impossible to master them all, even for a single fighter, but you can spend a lifetime trying and enjoy every minute of it.
Each of the 15 characters offers a unique fighting style, so essentially, the game changes depending on the character you choose. The six female fighters are generally quick and able to deliver dozens of fast attacks with moderate damage while the male characters are slower but pack a devastating punch when they connect.
The 22 levels, both new and old are so expansive and intricately detailed they become characters within the game. Levels come in two flavors, single room and multi-tiered. Single room arenas, even though a bit constricting, feature some of the best details and flashy special effects. Of course, the multi-tiered arenas are simply jaw-dropping gorgeous. You can kick characters through a stain-glassed window, down a flight of steps on the Great Wall, or off the edge of a cliff in the African Serengeti, sending a fighter tumbling into a lake with a hippo.
The levels are all interactive, at least in their ability to smash apart on contact. You can pummel a fighter into a section of the Great Wall and watch it crumble and break away, or you can kick your opponent vertically through a glass ceiling and watch them arc through the room above and crash back through another section of glass ceiling. While a lot of this interaction is purely show, whenever you can knock an opponent into the next tier they will take massive damage.
Not all tiers are transitioned with huge falls. New to DOA Ultimate are slopes where characters can slide into the next tier, and this introduces one of my favorite concepts, “slope moves”. These can be quite complex and require precise timing but the resulting animation is simply awesome, like riding your opponent down a snowy slope like a snowboard.
DOA Ultimate starts off with all of the traditional single-player and local versus modes like Story, Time Attack, Survival, Tag Battle, Team Battle, Versus, Sparring, and Watch. Then Tecmo secures their place in fighting game history by offering a comprehensive online component that starts off by uploading your single-player stats to the Live Scoreboards so you can compare yourself with the world.
There have been no compromises in the game, either gameplay or visuals, for the online play and you will get the same exact experience whether you are kicking the ass of the guy sitting on the couch next to you or the guy from four time zones away. Using a clever Virtual Arcade system, you setup a lobby where up to eight people from anywhere in the world can join in for exciting versus or tag team matches. Anyone not playing gets to watch the action unfold in spectator mode, which can often be as much fun as playing. As matches are completed new players are cycled in.
Once you setup the Virtual Arcade you can pick from numerous game modes and rules like Winner-Stays, Loser-Stays, Survival, Tournament, Team Battle, and Kumite. As I quickly learned, while the online modes are great fun, unless you plan to make a career out of this game there are thousands of other gamers out there better than yourself and just dying to humiliate you. A quick glance at the Live Scoreboard will give you the Tags of a few hundred people who need to “get a life”.
Single-player story mode is where you will spend a lot of your time, at least if you want to start unlocking the 100+ bonus costumes. Story mode consists of seven stages ending in the boss fight with Tengu, which has been tweaked so that your fighting environment is constantly shifting around you like some malfunctioning holodeck. Tengu is much more fun to fight this time. He’s still difficult but he doesn’t have any cheap tactics like the last game.
A can barely remember playing DOA on the Saturn but I do know it didn’t look this good. Team Ninja has definitely tweaked the old game, upping the resolution to 640x480 and smoothing out the framerate. The character models are definitely a step back in time even though they still feature the trademark “jiggle” of the female cast members. The levels are definitely more simplistic, which only makes the second disc look that much better.
Remember that lump in your throat the first time you saw Ninja Gaiden? Triple that feeling and you start to come close to the exaltation you will be feeling when you sit back and watch the awe-inspiring opening movie, backed with a perfect selection from the Aerosmith song library. The levels are so creative and stunning that you’ll literally have a hard time choosing which ones to fight in. I recommend going in sequence and enjoying them all.
Literally, there were times during versus games where we called a “timeout” so we could just move around and explore the levels. One of the nighttime levels has a spectacular fireworks display going on in the background and another level takes place in a downpour. If watching the individual raindrops falling and pooling up to run down the tin roof wasn’t enough, the blinding lightning flashes create a realistic blurring and retina-dimming experience.
The characters are stunning, both in their modeling and their exquisite costume design. You get two costumes for each character to start and there are nearly 200 in all that you can unlock the more you play. Fabric drapes and flows off the characters, and hair is modeled and animated to flow with character movement or just wave in the breeze. Don’t even get me started on the infamous female jiggles that have become synonymous with DOA.
The lighting, shadows, and just about every special effect in the Xbox library is used in glorious detail. Smashing an opponent into a tree will send a shower of leaves falling gently to the grown, or you can pummel your opponent into an icy stalagmite or snowdrift. Surprising to me, it never went overboard and all these effects were used to enhance the reality.
DOA Ultimate supports widescreen and progressive scan modes for ultra-crisp visuals that defy reality. Seriously, the Africa level look just as good as my Discovery Channel HD Theater. The game flows like liquid at an unfaltering 60fps, both online and off. Simply put, you aren’t going to see a more visually stunning fighter until the Xbox 2 arrives.
Aerosmith opens the show with “Dream On” which couldn’t be more perfect to flow with the dreamy opening sequence and montage of characters. The in-game music is the same stuff we’ve been hearing since DOA2, which, even if we hadn’t heard it for two titles previous, would get old after 10-20 hours, not to mention the 100+ hours you are likely to play this game. Custom Soundtracks have never been so missed as they are in this game.
Thankfully, the fighting is still dominated with the sounds of punches and kicks and the environments are all wonderfully modeled in 3D spatial sound with meticulously detailed sound effects right down to blowing wind, running water, and chirping birds in the outdoor levels or the whir of electronics and the powerful machines in the industrial level. Every arena sounds just as good as it looks.
There’s not a lot of speech but you are given the ability to choose voices from DOA 2 or DOA 3. You can also tweak the voice of the announcer if you prefer a female officiating the fights.
Even if DOA Ultimate didn’t have Xbox Live support you could spend 100+ hours playing this game and never get tired of unlocking new costumes and learning all the various moves and intricacies of the massive interactive environments. Taking the fight online only gives this game infinite potential, and given the fact that there is always somebody out there better than you, the competition is endless.
Dead or Alive Ultimate scores big with one of the most visually stunning games of 2004. Even if you don’t like fighting games I’d have to recommend this title just so you can show off the true power of the Xbox. DOA Ultimate is so easy to pick up and play that you are bound to have fun, even if you don’t know what you are doing. You can stumble your way into some of the most excellent combos you can see without memorization or perfect timing.
Admittedly, DOA Ultimate is a glorified remake of two existing titles, but the improvements are so massive the game has evolved into something greater than the parts that inspired it. Only in this dual-disc special edition can you experience the Dead or Alive series from its Sega origins to the height of technical elegance. It’s definitely a trip worth taking for anyone who owns an Xbox.