Dead or Alive Ultimate
Before we go anywhere I should make one thing abundantly clear. Dead or Alive: Ultimate is not just a simple retread of DoA 3 with Live bolted on. What you get here is the supreme incarnation of the Dead or Alive series, with the bone-crunching action of the Saturn game DoA 2, (an Xbox-upped version of which is included on a separate disk) wedded to the sumptuous visuals and ballettic animation of DoA 3.The fighting system is more akin to DoA 2 then the defence-heavy third game. Yet the most magnificent quality of DoA2:U is in the total integration with the Xbox Live service. If you don't have Live you'll still have a beautiful and exciting beat-em up to contend with, but you'll only be getting three quarters of the value from your purchase.
Saying that, for Liveless gamers there's plenty to get your fists into. Naturally there is a story mode which flows along nicely thanks to a wisely minimalist plot. You can set up Team Battles where you pick out a roster and go out and try and re-arrange some dental work. The Time Attack mode tests your ability to kick, punch and throw your way to victory in the competition which loosely forms the basis of the Story mode. If you find yourself having difficulty getting to grips with the pumped-up range of character-specific moves and the smattering of specials, there's a fully configurable Sparring mode. Then there's what I found to be the most compelling mode, Survival. This pits you against a constant stream of foes with a new one jumping down from the edge of the ring each time you win a bout. There's a special ring for Survival - a colourful lift descending an endless shaft - which has explosive points circling its edge. Smack an opponent into one of these hard enough and you enter Damage Reach which allows you to really dish out the pain and rack up the points. Crush your foe into the side again and you it's Double Damage Reach time. As well as these point scoring opportunities, each character has three objects to collect from their vanquished foes. Dropped in a random nature they give big point bonuses and health boosts. Along with these character-specific objects there are four common rewards, along with a rare prize, a prototype Xbox. If you manage to collect all of these different objects, and collect the medal that drops from the 50th defeated enemy an extra page in the Collection window opens up. Now you have to fight away with each of the characters until their new rare object gets dropped. Collect all of these and you will unlock all of the costumes for the various characters, plus some other goodies. The only problem with this is you must have a save from DoA 3 to unlock one of the three bonus characters, and without his objects you can't complete the collection. Quite cynically clever on Temco's part, I was glad a friend had a copy so I could try and battle my way to the very end.
Once you get over the impulse to mash the buttons and flick the stick like a porn star's tongue you can then appreciate the instinctual qualities of the controls. And you do have to be in control to make your fighter really perform. To excel you have to have a good set of reflexes and sense of timing. But you must also become familiar with the range and timing of the various fighters and their repertoire of moves. There's plenty of fun to be had just bashing away against some mates or the AI, but as you learn the finer points of the game the strengths of the fighting engine become progressively more apparent. There aren't really any cheap moves you can spoil fights with and the skill needed to pull off the counters and specials is more focused than in DoA 3. The thrill of pulling off a string of impressive moves, or the one beauty at the right time, is made all the more intense for this. The environments also deserve a special mention. You can do combat in an inner-city basketball court, an African plain complete with rhinos and lions, a rich temple with a deep central shaft to tumble down and a host of other varied locations. Many of the levels have multiple layers and cause damage to players kicked or thrown over the layer boundaries. Finishing off some poor sod with a swift kick to the head after they've bounced down a flight of steps or crashed through a neon wall sign is so satisfying it hurts.
So the single player side of things can keep you amused for ages. But then there's the Live integration. Even if you have no wish to fight other people from all around the world, DoA:U allows you to upload your best scores from most of the offline modes. So if you manage to take out, say, 34 enemies in one go in Survival mode while tallying up some impressive points, you can then upload your score to Live. You can then also marvel at just how good the best DoA players really are, some of whom have statistics that seem to indicate possession of either a time machine or a body that requires no sleep. This is a nice feature, which allows you to pit your skills in the various challenges against every Lived up DoA:U owner in the world. It's a level of integration that will continue to become the norm for all Live enabled titles. Even without the online combat, this integration greatly extends the life of DoA:U.
As far as I am aware this is the first 3D beat-em up ever to offer such rich online play. DoA:U offers lobbies and a wide range of different modes as well as that tight melding with the offline game. Of course I'm probably missing something obscure, which is where I feed off of the power of the millions of free researchers which make up our readership. Until that correction comes searing across the net let's look at the online combat. And what a fantastic job Team Ninja have accomplished here as well. Even playing against people from the other side of the world the lag was about as noticeable and frequent as an honest politician. The vast majority of games I played on Live were utterly indistinguishable from a bout I would have with a mate sat beside me on the sofa. It really cannot be stressed how much of a superlative job has been done on the netcode here. As fighting games require timing down to the microsecond level, I figured it would be impossible to have online fighting which didn't suffer from any lag or timing issues. The lobby system in DoA:U is also very good, allowing the host to set up a huge variety of different power, bout time and victory conditions. The most popular seems to be Winner Stays on, but there's also Team Battle, (although not 4-player tag), Loser Stays, a Tournament, plus a few other modes. Participants watch the proceedings until their name takes its turn at the top of the list, when it then becomes their turn to fight. If you're impatient, you may wish for more thinly populated rooms, as you can often spend a lot of time as a spectator, especially if the round limits are set up high.
There's only one down side to the Live side of DoA:U, and it's a problem which while not exclusive to any one game, seems to be distressingly more prevalent in this style of game. I'm talking about the young idiots who seem to think it the height of comedy to shout racist, homophobic and other juvenile insults down their microphones and into the exacerbated ears of their suffering victims. The developer which manages to incorporate some way of nullifying these ingrates will deserve all the accolades that will be rightly heaped upon them. It's DoA:U's unfortunate fate to be the kind of game which, by its very nature, attracts those who have such an undeveloped personal life that they feel the need to compensate by insulting complete strangers. The lobby system does have one overriding technical issue, in that it is impossible to change any options unless there's a fight going on. This can be a real pain in the arse, especially as you cannot kick people from your lobby. These minor issues don't detract from the excellence of the online component of the game. Team Ninja have set the bar so high in this online beat-em-up that other developers are going to struggle to match their achievement, let alone surpass it. All this sterling work makes for an addictively compelling reason to keep your Live account renewed, that's for sure. With at least 60,000 DoA:U players online - even before its European release - and an effective grading system you can be assured that all skill levels are catered for.
If you have Live and like beat-em-ups, you really should own this game. Team Ninja have built upon what was already a solid and addictive foundation with an online integration which makes DoA:U the most complete fighting game package on any platform. And while you can never get away from the fact that the gameplay will always be of a singular nature, DoA:U is a master at keeping your hands glued to the controller with its flair. A cynic might think that the success of the DoA series is all down to fancy fist-work and flash boobs. Get DoA:U and you too will learn that accomplishment is all down to the sheer power of the enjoyment to be had from this technically gifted game.
83% without Live