Dead Or Alive Ultimate

Year: 2004
Platform: Xbox
Publisher: Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Genre: 3D fighter
Review Date: 11/14/04
Rating: ****

Wow! This is the first "Dead Or Alive" game in my collection that didn't require an additional hardware purchase! But it's not really a "new" game, either. "Dead Or Alive Ultimate" contains an almost exact port of the original Saturn version of "Dead Or Alive" (1996) and a completely retooled version of "DOA2: Hardcore" (2000) utilizing the "Dead Or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball" (2003) engine. I find it all rather curious. I can understand a port of the original DOA just for nostalgia reasons, although I would argue that the PlayStation version would have made a better candidate. However, the remake of DOA2 really puzzles me. Is Team Ninja looking for a larger audience in response to the unfortunate failure of the Dreamcast and the poor translation of DOA2 to the PlayStation 2? Or have they just run out of ideas? Fortunately, "DOA2 Ultimate" pulls together everything that makes the series so great, and fleshes out the cryptic continuity to create a cohesive and compelling narrative of the odd and often confusing DOA universe. This is achieved through a wonderful opening movie that chronicles the lives of Kasumi, Ayane, and Hayate up to the point where the original DOA takes place. The obscure and awkwardly translated in-game comments made by the characters also make more sense after watching the movie, and it's easier to see the series as a progressive narrative instead of a collection of stand-alone adventures.

Apart from the opening cinema, the first thing you notice about DOA2U is that Aerosmith is once again inexplicably on the soundtrack, although this time it's subtle and it actually works. The first few hours of playing are rather surreal, since the presentation looks more like "Dead Or Alive 3" (2001) than DOA2, but it works for the most part. Much like DOA3, the characters have lost their anime styled cuteness and look more waxy, shiny, and chisled than their original DOA2 models. I haven't quite decided if I like that or not. Unfortunately, it appears that all of the female characters have even larger breasts than before, and they're always overly bouncy. The infamous bounce gauge is still present, but the settings appear to have no effect. At least in DOA2 you could dial it down to something barely noticeable, but in DOA2U the girls are on maximum bounce no matter what the setting is. I can't imagine that having a control that does nothing was intentional, unless it's all part of some sick joke at Team Ninja.

Most of the locales from DOA2 are present, recreated to stunning effect. The Death Valley, The Spiral, and The L's Castle have all been replaced by completely different stages, and all of the tag team arenas are new. While most of the stages are larger and more interactive than their original counterparts, the Ice Storm is curiously smaller and less interesting than before.

DOA2U also features a wealth of costumes to unlock (137 in all), including nearly all of the original Hardcore costumes as well as a bunch of new Ultimate costumes. A few outfits from DOAXBV also sneak into the mix as well, which spices things up quite a bit. The old Hardcore outfits pretty much look the same, with minor variations and a lot more detail and texture. The new outfits are generally very nice, but nothing reaches the level of absurdity that was found in DOA (no bunny costumes or waitress uniforms). While she's still my favorite character, Lei-Fang continues to have extremely poor fashion sense and bad taste in shoes, and I'm surprised her classic "ripped jeans and halter top" outfit from DOA didn't show up. Her wardrobe also gets shortchanged by having seven of her twenty outfits be simple color variations of other outfits. Thankfully her C4 outfit is now red and green instead of the utterly hideous original orange and green combination. Additionally, Tina's controversial "rape victim" costume is suspiciously absent...

With more costumes, the criteria for unlocking them has become more difficult and time consuming. I find this rather irritating, and as a DOA veteran who has played through five different versions of DOA2, I feel like I should just have everything available from the start. Can't I just show my save files to someone and be exempt from this chore? DOA2U does check for a DOA3 save file, though, and Hitomi becomes an unlockable character as a result. The classic Hardcore costumes are fairly easy to obtain, and the new Ultimate costumes require playing through Story Mode with increasingly higher difficulty settings. For most of the characters, this is doable, but it can take a while and become very frustrating. Hitomi is probably the hardest character of all, since you have to go through Time Attack with her, which is considerably more difficult and lengthy than Story Mode. There's also a "shortcut" to unlocking all of the costumes, but it requires you to beat fifty opponents in a row in Survival Mode. While I've read that you can do this in under five hours, I maintain that this is impossible for mortal humans to accomplish. Additionally, Survival Mode is really boring and uninteresting, which makes the task even more unpleasant. It's much more satisfying being able to unlock a new costume every fifteen minutes than it is to sit around for six hours hoping to get lucky and unlock all of them at once. I suppose it's good to have options, though.

Story Mode is interesting in that Ayane's character has been softened considerably. The ending movies for all of the characters are identical to their DOA2 counterparts, except for Ayane's, which is much less sinister. Even though the dialog is the same, the new translations reflect a softer and less menacing interpretation. I find myself at odds with the new translations, but at least Team Ninja did the right thing by not even bothering to dub the game into English. With at least three different translations available for DOA2, it's easier to discern the "intent" of what someone is saying, but the details are totally lost. Some of the new translations make more sense within the framework of the story narrative, while many of them are just completely wrong (even someone with minimal Japanese knowledge can pick up on this). It's also distasteful that Zack's translations now have an urban slang feel to them, with intentionally misspelled words and bad grammar. I don't need to read something that implies a certain cultural characteristic or linguistic trait from someone who is completely removed from that culture. It's like "reading" someone with an accent. The accent isn't important for understanding what the words mean - it's only an audio cue for collecting additional information about a character. Anyway, I find it annoying and disappointing, and it's a good reason to turn off the subtitles altogether. Another unfortunate thing about Zack is that his goofy smile is missing from his courtship animation, which is what made that sequence so memorable. And when Bass confronts him, the Japanese styled wall of water is no longer behind him. Another unsettling change is that Leon's lover is now "Lauren" instead of "Roland." Small points, but disappointing and glaringly obvious. On the plus side of the translation issue, Ayane now owns the best line in the entire game, which is whenever she beats Jann Lee she says "As always, you're quite annoying." Truer words cannot be said, and it cracks me up every time.

For the most part, the music is exactly the same as DOA2, except the opening song from Bomb Factory has been replaced by "Transcendence." Some remixes appear in the dance club stage, and Hitomi's theme from DOA3 shows up as well. You also have the option to choose the classic Kasumi voice or the new DOA3 Kasumi voice. Various announcer voices are available as well. For me, going with all of the classic voices makes for a much less jarring experience.

Overall, "Dead Or Alive 2: Ultimate" is arguably the best game in the DOA series, although I still have a fondness for the superlative DOA2:LE on the Dreamcast. New and old fans alike will find hours of enjoyment in the package, and having the original DOA helps keep the rich history of the franchise alive.

On a side note...
And finally, I have to mention that Prima Games gets the award for "Worst Strategy Guide Ever" for this game, which features nothing except an illustrated list of moves. It contains maybe a half dozen pieces of production artwork, while the rest of the imagery is just crappy screen shots and highly compressed low-res JPEGs. The book also claims to have a "complete costume gallery", which it quite clearly doesn't. It only shows the character's two default outfits, which is 137 costumes short of being complete. The locale section for DOA2U is incomplete, and the book features NO information on DOA1U at all. But the biggest slap in the face is the "secrets" section, which simply states that they don't know what any of the secrets are, and to check out their web site when they find them. Wait a minute... I just paid $15 for a book that tells me to go to a web site?!? (and one that still doesn't contain any useful information as of this writing) This is such a poor excuse for a book that it never should have been published. I wonder if that's what happened to the ill-fated DOAXBV strategy guide that mysteriously vanished a week before it was supposed to come out, forcing me to buy the Japanese version instead...