Though Dead or Alive is nearly 10 years old, the 3D fighting game series has never quite managed to steal the limelight from its direct competitors, namely Virtua Fighter, Tekken, and Soul Calibur. That is...not until now. Dead or Alive Ultimate features the series' signature characters and gameplay, which strikes a good balance between offering flashy pick-up-and-play appeal and delivering the long-term depth that fighting game fans want. Furthermore, it sports the most fully featured online multiplayer mode of any fighting game yet, which is a huge accomplishment. This multiplayer mode presents some innovative twists that admirably attempt to restore the spirit of arcade competition, where the fighting game genre was born and thrived. With that said, the core gameplay in Dead or Alive Ultimate really hasn't changed much since the release of Dead or Alive 2 about five years ago, so if you've played any of the recent installments in the series, you'll know exactly what to expect here. But thanks to a beautiful new coat of paint--not to mention the online play--the series' time-tested formula seems better than ever now.
Dead or Alive Ultimate is a two-game compilation containing updated, online-enabled versions of the original Dead or Alive and its sequel. Here's the original game...
Dead or Alive Ultimate actually consists of two different 3D fighting games: "Ultimate" versions of the original Dead or Alive and its vastly superior sequel, which made quite a splash on the Dreamcast and the PlayStation 2 in 2000. Both games offer similar online play features but otherwise basically stay true to their roots. The package's "Ultimate" version of Dead or Alive 2 is the obvious highlight, featuring vastly improved visuals over its previous incarnations and much more sophisticated gameplay than the first Dead or Alive game. Collectively, these things make the older Dead or Alive title (which is inexplicably included on a separate disc) look merely like some kind of throwaway extra. It's a relatively ugly, simplistic game, but if you're nostalgic for Dead or Alive, you'll appreciate its inclusion. The Xbox's own Dead or Alive 3 is noticeably absent from DOAU, but it's really no loss--Hitomi, the most popular of that game's three additional characters, is unlockable in DOA2 Ultimate, and DOA3 didn't do much more than include these few extra characters and spruced-up graphics.
Would even more characters and more moves have benefited DOA2 Ultimate? No, not really. The fact that proper balance has apparently been achieved among the game's roster of 15 characters (three of whom are initially hidden) is important, because competitive online play means any issues with balance would quickly be exploited. Furthermore, the relatively simple play mechanics and consistently fast-paced feel of the action means that the different characters in DOA2 Ultimate really don't play that differently, so it's easy to switch from playing one character to then play another. Each character has literally dozens of his or her own unique moves, but the vast majority of all these require very simple combinations of buttons and D pad commands. A few moves require simultaneous button presses or Street Fighter II-style circular motions, but these are the exceptions. The game's depth certainly doesn't come from mastering how to execute all the different moves; instead, it comes from knowing when and where to use them.
Dead or Alive has always had two specific features that distinguished the series: One is the fantastical proportions of the game's female characters, and two is every single character's ability to reverse just about any punch or kick your opponent can muster. These features are fully intact in DOAU, especially in the better of the two games. Reversals add an additional dimension of rock-paper-scissors-style balancing to the proceedings. It works like this: Characters can execute high-, mid-, and low-hitting attacks, which must be blocked high or low--or, better yet, reversed. A reversal deals damage proportional to the strength of the attack on the receiving end, so those who predictably rely on the same strong punches or kicks over and over are basically just asking for a major beating. Missed reversals leave you open to counterattack, of course, and getting thrown while attempting a reversal causes you to take more damage than usual. On the other hand, throw attempts are easily disrupted by punches or kicks. None of this is quite as complicated as it sounds, however. Basically, the idea is to remain unpredictable by mixing up your offense and defense.
The action plays out extremely quickly, often to the extent that strategy and forethought often take a backseat to purely reflexive intuition. Translation: In Dead or Alive, things happen fast, and it's not uncommon for beginners to handily defeat far more experienced players simply by using naturally unpredictable patterns of reckless punches and kicks. Of course, keeping a cool head and a steady hand pays off over time, especially if you can learn to quickly read an opponent and then counter his or her moves. One thing's for sure about DOAU's gameplay: It completely favors the aggressor, since even on defense, you really should be going for reversals instead of just blocking. Extradamaging counter hits happen frequently and often occur unintentionally. As such, rounds of combat (and therefore the default best-of-three-round matches) can be resolved in mere matters of seconds. Consequently, those who prefer a more methodical pacing to their fighting games might not appreciate DOAU's extremely quick pacing, though the simple controls and impressive-looking moves make this a good fighting game for beginners. Again, though, there's some real depth here, and it quickly becomes evident when playing against a highly skilled opponent.
Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate, the highlight of DOAU, features responsive, fast-paced gameplay that's deep yet easy to get into.
You won't find much of an opponent in the game's artificial intelligence, unfortunately. The AI does make for a respectable challenge in the short run, and playing against it is the key to unlocking much of the game's ample supply of unlockable costumes and other extras. However, the AI is rather predictable despite being fairly tough at higher difficulty levels, at which it'll mostly just reverse your moves with greater frequency. So, blazing through the story mode is really a cinch, at which time you might miss your character's ending if you so much as blink. The story mode really hasn't changed at all after all these years, and though it lets you quickly practice against a bunch of the game's characters (matches are only one round in story mode), it's just not that great. Fortunately, there are numerous other gameplay modes available, including a fast-paced survival mode in which additional challengers keep jumping into the arena one after another, as well as tag battles in which you can quickly switch between a pair of characters who can sometimes band together for some superpowered combos and special throws. Of course, there's an offline versus mode, too. However, online is where Dead or Alive Ultimate has the most potential--and tons of it.
In addition to the standard Xbox Live quick match and optimatch options, the game gives you a lot more flexibility when creating (or searching for) a match than you might expect. The main innovation here is a lobby system that allows up to eight players to congregate in a single "virtual arcade." Imagine this online chat room as a metaphor for up to eight friends and/or strangers hanging around an arcade cabinet in the '90s. Basically, two players still duke it out one match at a time, although everyone else can observe the match, mess with the camera perspective while waiting for his or her turn, and discuss the finer points of the fight (via voice chat) as it wears on. The voice communication is never interrupted as matches begin and end, nor is there really any noticeable loading time at any point in the game (even, say, if players pick four different characters in a tag team match), so the social dynamic of DOAU's lobby system seems to be very well integrated. It begs the question, though, of why you'd deliberately want to wait to play between matches. The answer is that, in general, you probably wouldn't want to do so. So if you prefer a traditionally "home-style," uninterrupted one-on-one fighting-game experience, DOAU lets you set one up by limiting your player lobby to two players when creating a match. The two of you can then keep playing as much as you'd like.