Review: Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 2 (XB)

Game: Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 2
System: Microsoft XBox
Genre: Music/Rhythm
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Hawaii
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment America
Released: 19, November 2004

For those who know me, you know that I am probably the biggest DDR fan on this site. I gush on it in my columns, I gush on it in game reviews, and I brag about all those little AAA scores that I manage to achieve.

Yet there is one thing that I don’t really touch on about to the Dance Dance Revolution series. And I haven’t really noticed it up until about a week or so ago: the fact that the series has kinda gone…stale. Yes, stale. You see, Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (or KCET) has been pumping out DDR mixes for six years now. We’ve seen at least two separate arcade mixes (in Japan) a year for the first four years, and a number of home releases in all territories that are either (a) based on the arcade mixes, or (b) mix-and-match games containing content specific for a certain territory. It’s always been okay for us USA gamers, since the mix-and-match games we get always contain around 50 or so new songs to the territory. But looking at the Japanese releases lately, it’s plain to see that they’re starting not to care very much about producing new material. Everyone in America got all excited about “OMG, there’s gonna be a new JP MIX! LOLr0x0rZ!” And when it turned out to be a rather horrible lumping together of songs that debuted on the American PS2 and XBox (containing LESS features than our version of DDR Extreme, no less), more than a few fans were disappointed.

Enter Konami Computer Entertainment Hawaii (or KCEH). Last year, they were given the special task of developing a DDR game for the US XBox, and they delivered with DDR Ultramix. It was mostly a compilation of items already seen on the US PS2, but did contain quite a few exclusive songs and modes, including the introduction of four-player support, online play, and downloadable content (which included MORE new songs). It may have had its faults, but there was a certain aspect of it that was…new. Different. Fresh. It was welcome change of pace from the preset formula pioneered by KCET.

Here it is a year later, and things are looking grim in the KCET camp. Luckily, KCEH has arrived with a brand new product for us American DDR players. And again, they come bearing new and different items to breath fresh life into the game, but this time, they are armed to the teeth. How does the new material fair? Did KCEH succeed? Read on, as this is probably the only review on the game you’ll ever see that CARES enough to talk about everything.


MODES

Like last time, the game arrives with a decent crop of modes for players to sink their shoes into. Game Mode is at the forefront once again, and works the same way as in UM1. You play as many songs as you want before voluntarily backing out of the mode or turning the system off. The game saves your records after EVERY song, which is pretty nice. You’ll also want to come here to unlock most of the songs. The mode supports up to 4 players. Battle Mode returns as well, allowing players to square off against each other in “score” battles (highest score wins) or “point” battles (first person to 0 points out of 16 losses).

New to the game, however, is “Party Mode”. But don’t let the name fool you, as it is NOTHING like DDR Extreme’s mode of the same name. You have the option of trying out a few new play modes here. First there’s “Attack”, which is unlike ANYTHING I’ve seen in DDR before. Each arrow corresponds to a different power-up, and if you combo each one up to five, you use it against your opponent. The Down arrow is the “Attack” arrow, and will cause your opponent’s guiding arrows to slide down the screen, making it harder to play. The “Recover” arrow (Up) will move it back up. The “Virus” arrow (Left), will block an opponent’s attack or recover attempt, and the “Firewall” arrow (Right) blocks the virus attempts. This mode is wild, especially when playing a song like Dead End or Love Is Dreaminess on Heavy.

Other modes include “Bomb”, where there’s a bomb on screen, and you need to pass it to your opponent before time runs out. Then there’s “Sync”, where there is only ONE set of guiding arrows, and all players must step on the arrows at the same time for them to register. I’ve never seen a “Team AAA” before, but NOW IT CAN HAPPEN!

Oh, and we can’t forget QUAD MODE, now can we? What? You don’t know what QUAD MODE is? Well, you know what “Doubles” is, right? One player playing on two pads? Good. Well, QUAD MODE takes it one step further by making one player play on FOUR PADS at once. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, I’m scared too. This can only be accessed in Party Mode, but…WOW, is it a trip. Be prepared to have a LOT of space handy to lay four pads in a row.

In the same vein, players can access “VS Doubles” for the first time. Meaning two players can now compete against each other by playing on two pads a piece. Something like this has NEVER been done before, especially since the DDR arcade games never had more than two pads attached to the same machine. (Space is killer, after all.) So something like this will finally give Doubles players some actual competition, along with bragging rights.

Challenge Mode also returns, complete with another 30 challenges for players to complete. Now there may not be as many “challenges” are there are “missions” in the latest PS2 game, but the challenges make up for it in RAW DIFFICULTY. Even on the PRACTICE level, the tasks given to you are pretty tough to complete. Getting to the end of THIS mode will be no picnic, let me tell you.

Of course, other DDR mainstays return as well. Workout Mode tracks calories, Training Mode offers practice, and Edit Mode gives you the option of creating your own steps to your favorite songs. Outside of some extra options in Edit Mode to help you out, and a “random nonstop” option in Workout Mode (plus some kick-ass movies to boot), nothing much has changed here.

X-Box Live support, however, has changed quite a bit. You can face opponents in all facets of Battle and Party Mode (outside of QUAD MODE, of course). The good thing is that this time around, there are actual LOBBIES you can create and go back to after every match, instead of going straight back to the main Live menu. You can also set up tournaments for up to 16 people, another first in DDR games. But perhaps the greatest addition is “Edit sharing”. Going on Live will allow you to upload your own edit data for others to download, and vice versa. This allows near limitless step combinations for a song, and will constantly provide something new and exciting for Live players. Plus you’ll be able to download content once again in the form of five-song song packs at a later date. You’ll ALSO be able to download new characters and new challenges as well.

The game has an great assortment of play modes, more so than last year’s. You’ll probably be spending most of your time in either Game Mode or playing online, but its great to have the extra modes to come back to.

Modes: 8.5/10


GRAPHICS

Now many of you DDR players don’t care all that much about the graphics in these games, and that’s cool. We hardly ever notice what’s going on in the background anyway, as the barrage of arrows coming at us always demands our attention the most. In fact, not much has changed graphically in the last couple of years anyway. Not that many new background videos have been created since the last JP Arcade mix came out, leaving all the past mixes looking pretty much the same, outside of music videos and characters of course.

But for UM2, I suggest you keep at least one eye open in regards to the graphics. Why? Because, these are the best graphics ever produced for a DDR game. Ever.

Most everything has been improved from UM1. First off, the interface has been completely redone, surpassing even that of DDR Extreme in terms of looks and functionality. Wherever there’s a menu, there’s a movie playing in the background. And selecting songs and such is incredibly easy to do. I’ve had no problems working with the interface so far.

The background movies are also worthy of note, as over 90% of them seem to be brand new as well. The movies take up the entire screen (the top and bottom barriers from UM1 are completely gone), and play at a higher resolution than before. All movies are bright, colorful, and vibrant. If anything, they may be a little too bright. Luckily you can dim the backgrounds in the options menu if you think it interferes with the gameplay. Still, the new movies keep the “spirit” their predecessors set, with psychedelic backdrops, futuristic settings, and an army of teddy bears on a quest to take over the world. (Play the “Dream A Dream” remix. You’ll see.) There are even some exclusive videos for certain songs, like the movies in “Superstar (Nevarraka Mix)” and the unlockable “Gyruss (Full Tilt)”. Except for an interesting multi-color “flash” I found when playing “B4U”, the movies are incredibly well done, and offer a candy for the eyes when playing less intensive songs.

Dancing character also make a return, and look even better. There are now four characters to choose from, adding Rage and Emi to the existing Afro and Lady. All characters have been upgraded to look INCREDIBLY realistic, and the dances they perform are pretty good as well. Another thing I noticed is the fact that when the song stops, the characters will slow down to a crawl so it looks like they are stopping as well. This is a nice thing to see, considering last time, there were cases where the characters KEPT dancing after the music ended, thus looking silly. More characters will be available for download down the road.

The only real issue I see with the visuals is that the game can’t really keep a decent frame rate of 60 FPS. There’s no “slowdown” per se, but the arrows won’t always scroll smoothly up the screen, and I’ve also had a few cases of “hiccups” where the arrows will jump up a tiny bit. But, this is a pretty minor flaw in the grand scheme of things. While the arrows don’t have a smooth scroll all the time, it will NOT mess with your combos. I promise you that.

Graphics: 9/10


MUSIC/SOUND

Finally, I get to talk about the song list! The core of any DDR game lies within its song list. And Ultramix 2 doesn’t pull any punches whatsoever.

For you see, out of the 70 songs included within, a total of 59 are brand new to the US market.

And 50 of those 59 are premiering for the first time anywhere.

Yes, we have 50 NEW SONGS. The most exclusive material ever produced/compiled for one country’s DDR game. KCEH has taken this year’s song list in a brand new direction, and its one of the most impressive lists I’ve seen.

Let’s start with licensed tracks, shall we? There are TWENTY-NINE licenses in this game, with six coming from past Japanese releases, and the rest obtained specifically for this game. (Much better than the FOUR appearing last year, right?) The Japan licenses are all completely new to America, and contain quite a few fan favorites, including the often requested “Dam Dariram” and “Vol. 4”. Captain Jack appears on the X-Box for the first time with “Dream A Dream (Miami Booty Mix)”, and is also the first “remix” of a DDR license to make it to America. And of course there’s “Moonlight Shadow (New Vocal Mix)”, which is the reason why I sent Konami cookies.

The new licenses are quite an interesting combination. Twelve of them seem to be “regular” acquisitions, which includes items like The Commodores’ “Brick House”, a remix of “Rubberneckin'” by Elvis, and “Sleepwalker” by Perfect Endings. (My favorite out of the bunch is “Burn For You” by Kreo, which gives even “Moonlight Shadow” a run for its money.) Then we have some more interesting songs, including “Tittle Tattle” by Zonk and “Altitude” by Kause and Konception. Also, quite a few of the licenses were used thanks to a deal KCEH made with the recording label A Different Drum, which explains the abundance of synthpop songs here. Excellent tracks like Echo Image’s “Skulk”, Daybehavior’s “Superstar (Nevarakka Mix)” and “Close Your Eyes”, and Alien#Six13’s “Mellow” and “C-Squared” all were acquired this way. Most of these songs will probably be new to you, as they were new to me, but these are honestly some of the best songs that are exclusive to America to date.

Moving on to the Konami Original music, there is also a whole lot new to the game. Only 14 songs have appeared in DDR before, and three of those are new to America. Several of these songs are being shared with DDR Extreme on the PS2 as well, so there is a small bridge for those who still haven’t crossed over from PS2 to XBox play yet. Classics that can be found here are songs like “Drop Out”, “Dead End”, “A”, “V (for EXTREME)”, “Make Your Move”, and “MaxX Unlimited”. It’s a nice selection of older material to be sure, but it pales in comparison to some of the new songs here.

New KO material consists of 27 songs that are either crossovers from other Japanese Bemani games, or brand new mixes entirely. Several Bemani fan favorites were lifted from games like Beatmania and Beatmania IIDX, with Guitar Freaks / Drummania being tapped for the first time in the US market as well. My favorites include “R10K”, “Ride On The Light”, and “Love Is Dreaminess”. As for the COMPLETELY new songs, several artists were brought in to record new material. Jespyr Kidd brings in three songs, including the ethnic feel of “Istanbul Cafe”. Big Idea hands us the hilarious “Monkey Punk”, and a BOSS remix of “Make A Jam”. Even T.O.Y. from the A Different Drum label remixes “i feel…” for us. I’ll admit to liking some more than others, with a couple I found to be just not fun to play. Still, the amount I DO like far outweighs what I don’t like. (We’re talking a 30:1 margin, here.)

Probably the best thing about this song list is that it will keep growing long after this review is completed. Konami plans to release six song packs over the course of the next 8-12 months to increase the full song count to 100. You’ll have to pay for them, unfortunately, but they are only $5 a piece, so it’s not eating at your wallet too much. Plus, if you downloaded the six song packs for UM1, they will carry over into UM2 and be playable. So depending on your situation, you could theoretically start with 90 songs, and after unlocking the hidden songs and purchasing all the song packs, have access to 130. That will be the most songs available for play in a single DDR mix to date.

So long story short, the song list is KILLER. There is plenty for everyone to enjoy here.

Music/Sound: 10/10


CONTROLS/GAMEPLAY

Last year’s UM1 was hampered with a few problems with the gameplay aspect. For example, the “Great” window was incredibly big, making it VERY hard to get Perfects. I could point out several songs that were off-sync. The timing to get jumps to register was especially tight, and you were prone to misses more often than not. Luckily, things are different here in UM2.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the Perfect/Great windows are FIXED FIXED FIXED, OH IT’S FIXED, THANK GOD…er…(ahem)…gotta be professional here…The Perfect/Great windows have been adjusted to be more fair, and closer to the step timing you’re used to in PS2 mixes. For example, I was able to get AAAs in SP songs I wasn’t able to get in UM1. Timing for jumps, however, didn’t change very much, if at all. You’re going to need to nail each jump near perfectly if you want a score, or else it won’t register at all. The single steps still register perfectly, though.

Stage “modifiers” have returned, such as Speed Modifiers (1.5x, 2x), and Arrow Modifiers (Flat, Solo, Vivid). In fact, all the mods from the previous game return, including the “Help” arrows that are currently exclusive to the XBox games. A new modifier also joins the fray, called “Phantom”. When active, it acts as a combination of “Hidden” and “Sudden” modes, with arrows only appearing for a brief period before disappearing again. It may be the only new modifier in the game, but at least there IS a new mod.

Scoring for the songs have changed as well. Every score has a maximum of 100,000,000, but is split into two parts: the actual in-stage score, and the combo bonus you receive after the song ends. The weird thing is that many of the scores will have the combo bonus outweigh the actual stage score, meaning you could get a max of 30,000,000 in the actual stage, leaving the other 70,000,000 points based solely on your combo. Now, this isn’t much of a concern when playing on your own, but when playing Score Battles online, it could negatively skew the score away from your favor in certain situations. Letter grades are back as well, and haven’t changed either.

Keeping on XBox Live play, there have been several glitches reported by players already. As an example, one person’s combo count was halted during play for some reason, and adversely impacted his score. Other glitches have been discovered, but I’d be wasting space covering them all here. Just take my word for it and be wary as you play online matches.

As far as SP song timing is concerned, it’s been fixed…for the most part. Songs like “Afronova Primevil” and “Midnite Blaze” had problems in the past, but are now perfectly synced up. Songs like “Dynamite Rave” are still exhibiting problems, and there are even some songs like “Abyss” that used to be on-sync, but are now OFF-sync. I guess we can’t have a happy medium as far as this goes.

Controls/Gameplay: 7/10


REPLAY VALUE

Most every DDR game, no matter WHAT the quality, will have plenty of stuff to come back to. This one contains such material in spades. Hey, 50 brand-new songs is a LOT, especially in regards to home version games in general. And luckily, so many of these new songs are VERY catchy and VERY good. Add to that a variety of new modes and additions on old modes, and you have a package that has a gigantic amount of items that will keep you playing for a LONG time.

But the time you spend with this game will depend mostly on whether you have XBox Live or not. If you do, the fact you can download songs and edit steps will DEFINITELY increase the life of the game. Playing against others across the country will have the same effect. If you DON’T have it, the enjoyment level will probably go down after a while. After all, it’s only a matter a time before interest wanes in ANY game. Having the online component active will keep you here longer, though.

Replay Value: 9/10


BALANCE

As usual, each song has a set number of difficulties for players of all levels to enjoy. This time, Beginner Mode was added, giving new players a better foothold in the game. Light, Standard, and Heavy difficulties all return as well, and step patterns range from 2-10 in foot ratings. Yes, 2-10. There are no 1-Foot songs in sight, unless you count Beginner steps as 1-Foot songs. But the strange thing is that Beginner is NOT rated at ALL! Is this a sign that Beginner isn’t being taken as seriously?

In any case, no matter what difficulty level you play on, get ready for a much harder game than you’re used to. Many of the new step patterns contained within have an increased average difficulty to them. Heck, there are plenty of brand new 8-Foot and 9-Foot Heavy steps to try, and the 6-7’s seem to be REALLY hard for what they are labeled. Perhaps I’ve been too used to US mixes having an average difficulty that is a tad easier than most. And I never really saw it that way until this particular version came out. So with the average difficulty pumped up a bit, it might turn off most average players who find out they aren’t able to play on their regular difficulty as easily as they used to.

Balance: 8.5/10


ORIGINALITY

Most of the time, home versions of DDR can’t be considered very “original” thanks to several factors. First, the game runs off the same basic formula in ALL versions. Secondly, most are either arcade ports, or games that are patched together through many different arcade ports. And any modes contained in the games are usually carried over from past releases. Sure, every now and then we get something new like EyeToy support on a PS2 release, but most of the time, one mix simply copies off of another.

This mix, on the other hand, is FAR from the copy/paste mixes I’ve seen in the past. Again, there are FIFTY brand new songs here. There are gameplay modes that I never thought I would ever see. You have the option of using FOUR PADS AT ONCE. For once, the game looks to be a NEW game, and not a game that has been pieced together by other pieces. It still runs off the same basic formula, but DAMN!

Originality: 8/10


ADDICTIVENESS

My favorite franchise overflowing with new material = me disappearing off the face of the Earth for several weeks.

It’s a rather simple equation, but it’s truthful. With over four-dozen new songs to play, and several brand new ways to play them, I find myself playing this constantly. I mean, there’s Metroid Prime 2 and two Nintendo DS games sitting on my shelf right now, and I still want to play THIS. Hell, the Deoxys event in my Pokemon Leaf Green cart was recently activated, and I’m willing to put THAT aside!

In case you haven’t noticed, this mix sucked me in like no other.

Addictiveness: 10/10


APPEAL FACTOR

No matter how many DDR games arrive here in the US, they are going to cater to a very niche audience. Most people who buy the game will be fans of either the Arcade or PS1/PS2 game already. And even then, some may not buy the game if they do not have XBox Live installed on their machine.

Still, during the months leading up to the release of this game, I’ve read comments from people who never owned an XBox seriously considering purchasing one along with an XBox Live account JUST to play this. They were so impressed with KCEH’s new direction, and the fact they were actually listening to the feedback on the Internet…hmmm, maybe I should wait until the next category to describe this…

Appeal Factor: 5/10


MISCELLANEOUS

Now putting together a mix of this caliber simply couldn’t have happened by chance. There was a LOT of information taken into consideration for this one. But where did it come from?

The fans.

The DDR fans played a BIG role in the development of this mix. The fans asked for certain songs to be included in this mix. KCEH delivered. The fans suggested new modes of play that take advantage of the XBox Live hardware. KCEH listened and gave us VS Doubles. Fans were brought in to beta test the game and help with its development. KCEH knew to bring in those who knew what they were talking about. The fans pointed out the flaws in the last mix, and KCEH did their best to fix them.

This is something that differs between KCEH and KCET. With KCEH being so close, they decided that some fan input was a must in order to create a balanced game. (Within reason, of course. Not in the “OMG I W4NT 100 10-F00TER5, PLZ” sense.) And with the fan input, a superior game was created. KCET, being located in Japan, cannot hear us as well. In fact, input is limited to certain employees within Konami”s American divisions. So their games may be GOOD, but mostly copy/paste mixes.

So I’d like to take the opportunity to thank KCEH from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for making a version of Dance Dance Revolution that is BY FANS, FOR ALL. Thank you for including a large portion of new material. Thank you for breaking the conventions set up by KCET. Thank you for listening. Thank you for trying. Just…THANK YOU.

Miscellaneous: 10/10