Review: Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 3 (XB)

Game: Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 3
System: Microsoft XBox
Genre: Music/Rhythm
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment America
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment America
Released: 11/16/05

Around this time last year, I was playing the ever-loving crap out of DDR Ultramix 2 for the XBox. At the time, I thought it was one of the finest games in the series I’ve ever played, and I still do one year later. The song list took a different, spectacular direction. New modes were introduced that added some freshness to the multiplayer aspects of the game. Many things were improved for the better. Graphics, announcers, song quality, step chart quality…the works. I praised the game immensely, and praised the design team behind it. Sure the game had its flaws. I’ll be the first to point out there were graphical stutters, bad jump timing, and some broken aspects of XBox Live play. But with the incredible song list and brand new gameplay modes, they were easy to deal with. To put it simply, it was the most fun I’ve had with the DDR franchise in a long time.

And nothing pleased me more once the sequel, Ultramix 3 was officially announced.

But certain things happened during the course of the past year that put a damper on my excitement. To begin with, Daniel Tyrrell (project leader of UM2) announced that he was no longer the leader of the XBox DDR team. This meant that the next game could take turns away from what we loved from previous games, thanks to new leadership and possibly a brand new team. Songs were revealed that made many people, even myself, go “Huh?” Certain remixes appeared on the official V-Rare that made quite a few people cringe. New modes were announced that many thought questionable. In other words, the current team designing the game seemed to turn away from the fans (which gave many new ideas between UM1 and UM2 and focus on designing something completely different.

Now I’m the first to say that nine times out of ten, the fans have no clue what they want. Most “ideas” are along the lines of “MORE 10-FOOTERS!” and “MORE DANCEMANIA LICENSES!” or other items that are plausible, but would only cater to the most fringe of our fringe community. But the funny thing was that some of our ideas that we’ve suggested to the previous design team ended up being implemented in UM2, such as Versus Doubles and certain Song Pack inclusions. It proved that there were people listening to us. Not only would they want to create a product that catered to the masses, but also to add more things that would make the hardcore happy (outside of inclusions of Japanese material).

But all signs this year pointed to the fact that this design team couldn’t be bothered to listen. We were asked what we liked/disliked about UM2 last year, but those opinions seemed to be ignored. While its not the absolute worst thing in the world, as companies don’t HAVE to listen to all us crybaby fans, it brought about concern. Will the new game contain the same enjoyment level the older one had? Will this new team also be able to capture lightning in a bottle as the old team did with UM2?

Well, there’s only one way to find out. Let’s dance!


MODES

With this new sequel, the modes have increased again. Time to go through them one by one!

Game Mode returns from the last game, and it functions exactly the same. You pick either Single (4-Panel) or Double (8-Panel) gameplay, select your difficulty, and jump right in. You can play as many songs as you want here, with no limit. The mode can support up to four players.

Party Mode also returns, and it now combines all the modes found in last year’s “Party” and “Battle” modes. “Score” pits players against each other in a quest for the highest score. “Point” starts all players off with 16 points, and every misstep deducts points. The winner is the one with the most points in the end. Then there’s “Attack”, where pressing a series of arrows cause various attacks and defenses against your opponent’s attacks. The more successful you are, the lower your opponent’s guide arrows get on the screen. “Bomb” has players passing a bomb back and forth while keeping their combo going in order to avoid it. When the bomb goes off, the player is eliminated. “Sync” is an interesting mode, as 2-4 players have to all step at the same time to one set of arrows in order to get the same score. Finally, there’s “Quad”, which has one dancer playing on FOUR PADS at once. Forget the fact you need four working XBox pads for this, I find this mode really fun and fun to watch.

Challenge Mode, the game’s designated mission mode, also returns, but has been expanded quite a bit. There are now 60 challenges to complete, with every six split across ten different categories. And in a bit of a nod to long-time veterans of the series, each category is labeled as what each foot rating was originally called! (Simple, Moderate, Ordinary, Superior, Marvelous, Genuine, Paramount, Exorbitant, Catastrophic, and Apocalyptic as the official 10-Footer designation) There may be only a third of the missions found in here in comparison to Extreme 2, but there are more imaginative tasks to complete here. And easily better than the challenges found in UM2.

There are two brand new modes exclusive to this game. The first is Freestyle Mode, which is the first mode in DDR history to not follow any of the conventions of the traditional 4-Panel set-up. Instead of following a traditional step chart, you are free to hit the arrows as you see fit in time to the music. Occasionally, various comments will appear cluing you into what the game wants from you. Sometimes you need to step it up, other times you need to cool down. You get rated in three different categories at the end of the song with letter grades, as well as an overall percentage. It’s actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be. Finally, something NEW to do in a dancing game other than stepping on panels! Nothing like a crumb of ORIGINALITY, people! You might want to think about that if you guys want to make your OWN dancing games…

Also new to the game is Quest Mode. You’re placed on a map after choosing your character, and the goal is to travel around the country and show off your skills in order to become a dance master. There are around 60 stages to play in, with flags representing states in the USA, and provinces in Canada. When you pick a stage, you pick a starting song, and play through a series of randomly selected stages nonstop until you voluntarily stop. You’ll earn the city’s flag if you fill the life bar at the top of the screen. It’s interesting to say the least, but I’ll cover it a bit more in-depth in the Gameplay section.

All other modes from previous games have come back as well in some way, shape, or form. Training and Edit modes are here, and the same as you remember them. XBox Live gameplay returns as well, and it looks like its not as broken as it was in UM2! Unfortunately, Workout Mode has been scaled back a bit ala DDR Extreme 1 on the PS2. Meaning you set your options, turn the Workout Mode on, and the game will track your calories in all other modes of play. While the calories aren’t tracked in real time, the upside to this is that you can still get a decent workout through Quest Mode by simply letting the random stages run. However, I’d rather have Workout be its own mode.

Finally, there’s a “Jukebox Mode”, allowing you to customize a play list and play songs on a loop without having to dance. This is excellent when you want to see the exclusive movies for various songs, as well as just putting together a list of favorites just to kick back to.

There’s lots to do here in UM3. There are five dedicated gameplay modes, and the regular amount of add-ons to help you practice and such. Plus the modes feature quite the diversity of gameplay mechanics. I like this line-up overall.

Modes: 8.5/10


GRAPHICS

Once again, Ultramix 3 boasts some impressive visuals in the form of dancing characters and background videos. Characters have been updated once again, and look as good as they have ever been. They look incredibly realistic, and have brand new dance moves they use during gameplay. It really puts PS2 characters to shame, ESPECIALLY this year since Extreme 2 made the characters look even worse. The background videos are also well done, and just as vibrant and colorful as ever. Some of the movies from UM2 return, but are complimented by a host of brand new, yet somewhat similar, movies in the process. The one problem here is that the movies are REALLY bright. Unless you turn down the brightness in the Options menu, they could end up distracting you.

Another big difference is the amount of music videos in this game. There are six licenses that contain their own exclusive videos, with a few more KOs having special movies dedicated just for them. Another advantage is that songs like “bag” and “Sakura” all contain movies from all the last Japanese arcade release.

One thing I noticed was that the menus and such took a much different direction than before. Sure the engine for selecting songs is the same, but the overall theme has been changed. Before, the game had this metallic-blue look to it that added a lot. But now, the menus look like I’m at the beach. There are waves, and bubbles, and rainbows, and sugary sweetness all around. It’s all so HAPPY and FUN! Definitely not something I’m used to compared to the slick presentations of previous games in the franchise.

One more thing I should note is the fact that there’s a graphical “stutter” that happens to the step charts, meaning the arrows won’t scroll at a smooth 60 FPS while you play. The problem is more apparent when you activate certain mods to make the arrows go faster. It’s a problem that was apparent in the past, and seems to vary a bit with each individual user from what I understand.

Now as far as I was concerned, this wasn’t a major problem. I surely noticed it, and it happens much more than it did in UM2, but it didn’t bother my scores in any way, shape or form. Despite what various forum-goers would have you believe, the game is NOT unplayable because of this. It’s only a major hindrance if the frame rate incredibly matters to you, and is the be all and end all of how you play DDR games. But the problem is still there, and hasn’t been fixed. Just because I can live with it doesn’t make it go away.

Graphics: 6/10


SOUND

Before I get into the song list (its going to take a while), lets say a few words on the new announcer. UM3 has decided to go with one announcer rather than two this year, for reasons I don’t necessarily understand. The new guy they plucked is this scratchy-voiced dude that barely lives up to the duo from the last game. I currently have a love/hate relationship with him right now. I like the guy when you pick certain songs, and he’ll actually say certain lines about the selection you picked. The times when he randomly breaks into beatboxing are also funny. But my main gripe with him is that a lot of his lines were taken word-for-word from Ultramix 2. It’s as if they sound team handed him a crumpled UM2 announcer script and said, “Here, read this. We scribbled some new stuff on the last page for you to say as well. Can you make out our handwriting?” Some may consider it a small issue, but its something that just bugs me for some reason.

Now, if there’s one phrase to describe the song list in UM3 its “all over the place”. The game contains 71 songs, and range from traditional DDR Trance / Techno / SynthPop / Disco / R&B / Rap to way out genres like Tango, plenty of Pop, and quite a few other songs I’m having trouble classifying. I mean, how would YOU classify “Istanbul, Not Constantinople?”

Yeah, you read right. “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” is only one of the many of the “eclectic” licenses paid for on this mix. I’m sure the theme this new team was going for was to find “something for everyone”, but it ends up more like “throwing a bunch of stuff to the wall and seeing what sticks”. Some licenses work extremely well (“Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious, “Whip It” by Devo, “Superstylin'” by Groove Armada, etc.), some don’t work very well despite being good songs overall (“Rock Lobster” by The B-52s), and some make me wonder what the hell these guys were smoking (“What I’d Say” by RAY CHARLES? HUH?). There’s also quite a bit of current “pop” songs on here that should get the MTV generation’s attention. Again, some work rather well like Black Eyed Peas’ “Hey Mama” and (I can’t believe I’m saying this…) Good Charlotte’s “I Just Wanna Live”. Then there’s Run DMC’s version of “Walk This Way”, which sounds okay, but doesn’t entirely fit into DDR. Moby’s “Body Rock” and NOFX’s “Bath Of Least Resistance” come off as the worst offenders here.

But going back to “Istanbul, Not Constantinople”? C’mon, it’s They Might Be Giants! NO ONE can hate They Might Be Giants! (PARTICLE MAN FOR ULTRAMIX 4!)

Karaoke Revolution also strikes here as it did with Extreme 2. In fact, Crazy In Love and Play That Funky Music are featured tracks, although UM3’s “Crazy In Love” sounds different. Also included is a cover “Virtual Insanity”, but that is nowhere near as good as the first two.

As with the last game, the “A Different Drum” music label was commissioned for more exclusive content in the form of free licenses and brand new Konami originals. Artists such as Big Idea and Jondi&Spesh return with brand new exclusive remixes and material, while new artists such as Spray, The Azoic, and Raindancer make their official debuts. There’s some really good stuff here, with “I Am Gothic” and “Conflict (Turmoil Mix)” taking home my “Burn For You” and “Moonlight Shadow” awards respectively. (i.e. Best songs in the game) Fan favorite Midihead also returns with three brand new tracks. The exclusive “Raise Your Hands”, and remixes of “Jelly Kiss” and “Colors” are all top notch tunes. Other songs I like include Insaner, Nari Narien, Midnight Frankenstein, and Why (Club Mix).

But again, there are quite a few stinkers in this category. The main offenders are, surprisingly, the remixes of classic Konami originals NOT done by Midihead. “Frozen Ray (Dirtyhertz)” is a decent mood piece (with the full version found on the game’s V-Rare), but it really doesn’t work when you actually play it. (The horrible 1:30 cut doesn’t help either.) “Love This Feelin’ (ZONK Remix)” is a decent song on its own, but its a HORRIBLE remix of the original. In fact, I believe “neutered” is the correct term. Then there’s Jondi&Spesh’s remix of “Balalaika, Carried With The Wind”. It isn’t BAD per se, but it just isn’t all that fun to play. A couple of others, like “Hot On The Phone”, round out the bad stuff here.

What’s left off of this list are Konami-made originals that either appeared in DDR before, or came from other past Bemani titles. Wait, I take that back. The infamous Naoki has delivered an exclusive track to this game entitled “Brilliant R-E-D”. And it rocks the house. Oh, and there are two crossover tracks from Rumble Roses: “The Imperial Garden” and “The Spirit Of The Hawk”. These sound a bit out of place, but are done well and fun to play.

All right, back to the others. Fans of the series are sure to recognize the songs that have appeared in past Japanese and American iterations of the game. The interesting thing is that ALL the songs with vocals in this category are in Japanese. There’s normally not this many Japanese songs in an American DDR game to begin with. While not a bad thing, it’s still interesting.

Finally, the Bemani crossovers. Most of these are really good, including fan favorite “rainbow flyer” from beatmania IIDX, and the spectacular “Right On Time” from Guitar Freaks / Drummania. There’s even a Castlevania collection, entitled “Akumajo Dracula Medley”, taken from Keyboardmania. But one song, Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers, is completely and utterly out of place. There’s barely a baseline to keep the beat to, and sounds incredibly childish. Whoever decided THIS was a worthwhile addition to DDR should be drug out into the street and shot.

…Wow, I’m looking over this section, and I have a lot more animosity towards this song list than I have had for most other games. There’s still plenty of good tunes, but it also has quite a few songs that either don’t work in DDR, or are just incredibly bad. I can’t remember a game where I hated so many of the songs included. Had some of the amazing songs described above not been included, I would have been incredibly disappointed. Still, as with all music games, everyone has different music tastes. These are mine, and yours may vary.

Sound: 6.5/10


CONTROLS/GAMEPLAY

The main DDR gameplay remains intact. Hit four arrows in time to the music. Hold the freeze arrows down, watch out for tempo changes and freezes. Same old, same old, yet still addictive as hell.

Controls have been tweaked a bit since the last game. Those who remember the evil restrictive “jump timings” from UM2 will be happy to note that they’ve been made much more user-friendly. The timing is much less strict, and now resembles the PS2 versions much closer. (And thanks to this, my metal pad works on the XBox now! I can play UM3 on my carpeting!) Judgment timings have been tightened, however. It’s now a tiny bit harder to get Perfects, so AAAing songs are harder. It’s not that big of a deal, and I’ll gladly take it as a trade-off for fixing the jump problem.

However, there’s one thing I’ve noticed that is rather hard to replicate. Every so often, the judging windows seem to be “delayed” for a few steps. Like if I’m gaining a string of Perfects, the game will suddenly judge the timing of the steps a fraction of a second later than before. So Perfects turn to Greats at random times, and I’ve been thrown off in my timing more times than I care to admit. Now for the record, this is NOT compensation for poorer scores on my part. I’ve paid close attention to the time my button presses and when the steps are registered, and it’s slightly longer on occasion. Believe me, I’ve been playing this game for a WHILE. I know my timings, and this is something that should have been looked at.

All songs have four different step pattern difficulties: Beginner, Light, Standard, and Heavy. But this time, “Oni” steps have been implemented for songs that contain them. (The “Challenge” difficulty from the PS2 games) So songs like Butterfly, Daikenkai, and Sakura keep their extra step patterns. A MAJOR plus is that if you downloaded the song packs from previous games, the songs with Oni steps patterns from other versions ALSO have them added. The main problem with this, like Beginner steps, is that the scores from Oni steps are not saved to memory. It makes the difficulty inclusion seem like an afterthought. But still, its a rather GOOD afterthought, and I’m very appreciative for the steps being present.

On the subject of song packs, all twelve packs from UM1 and UM2 are compatible, meaning you could theoretically have access to an extra 60 songs simply by turning the game on. Some of the song pack songs have even been fixed to run better. (“Outer Limits” no longer skips, “Abyss” and “Dynamite Rave” have been synced correctly, etc.) But of course, there are some problems with this. One, having song packs on the hard drive causes the game to load an extra 2-3 minutes after the title screen. It gets REALLY annoying, really fast. Second, while some songs were fixed, others became horribly broken. Some like “Kind Lady (interlude)” and “Regret” became slightly off-sync (and can be fixed by messing with the timing options a little), while others such as “R5” and “Disabled the FLAW” are WAY off. We’re talking as much as a few measures here. Now in my own opinion, this isn’t as big a deal as some people are making it out to be. Number one, none of the songs on the main game disc suffer from this. Number two, these songs still play perfectly on the original games they were developed for. So if I want to play “R5” the right way, I can still pop in UM2 and play it. But for those who don’t have the past games to play the song packs on, it could be a bigger deal.

The gameplay in the game Quest Mode is pretty fun, but puts you at a severe disadvantage at the beginning. You see, every city has a fan base you must reach. But you’re not able to reach the fanbase in the first town you start in immediately. Heck, you’re not even in the right part of the COUNTRY. Instead, you have to play a bunch of songs to earn points so you can switch cities. Not only that, but you also need points to add dancers to your troupe (allowing you to earn points faster), hire new managers, and purchase other items. Luckily you can spend a ton of time in one town and stock up on points. And once you get over the barrier of being severely underpowered, it becomes a lot less tedious.

Another Quest Mode gripe is the fact that the score you get in here are not saved to memory. You could spend ALL your time here, playing 300 songs on all difficulties, and yet your Records screen will remain bare. Its something I would have expected, considering “Dance Master Mode” from Extreme 2 allows this, but sadly, not here.

The gameplay aspect overall is a mixed bag. When some items are fixed, others are broken. And the best fun is had after a large amount of frustration. This is certainly turning out to be an…um…unique mix thus far!

Controls/Gameplay:6/10


REPLAY VALUE

Despite some of the problems mentioned thus far, there’s still quite a lot of stuff that will keep you coming back to the game. After all, 71 songs plus the option of downloading an additional 60 immediately, not to mention brand NEW songs to download in the future, means there are plenty of songs to try and get grades on. (Plus the added bonus of “free” packs to go along with “paid for” packs is nice.)

The other dedicated gameplay modes are also worth it in the end. Freestyle Mode allows for infinite replay value by allowing you to hit the panels the way you want to. (Even the broken song pack songs are playable!) Quest Mode magically becomes fun after you get over the initial hurdles involved. And Challenge Mode is in its best XBox iteration yet. Its really easy to sift through the bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You just have to tolerate the bad stuff first, I guess.

Replay Value: 9/10


BALANCE

I’ve noticed that the difficulty curve has shifted back towards the “easier” side this time around. There’s a lot more 6-7 rated songs than there are 8-10 rated, which just wasn’t the case last time. However, the step patterns themselves are pretty good. And as with the last game, just become a song is RATED a 6-7 doesn’t mean it’s incredibly easy. I’ve seen 7s that I thought were 8s, and 8s that could have easily been labeled 9s, and I wouldn’t have given them a second look. What burns me up, though, is that most of the truly difficult songs aren’t initially available, and have to be unlocked first. It’s my only true gripe here, really.

Speaking of unlocks, though, songs can now be unlocked in more than one way. Of course you can go through Game Mode and fulfill the hidden conditions there. Or, you can traverse Quest Mode for a while, and later be given the option to trade a flag you’ve earned for a new song. It’s certainly a nice touch for those who want to unlock songs faster, and bypass the rigid methods of old.

Balance: 7/10


ORIGINALITY

Despite the mix’s shortcomings, it really is one of the most original titles in the series. While many modes were carried over from UM2, the two brand new gameplay modes are pretty unique. Some may draw comparisons to Dance Master Mode in regards to Quest Mode, but both operate under different conditions despite both being grid-based.

And once again, the game receives its own specific mod. In UM1, it was Help arrows. In UM2, it was the “Phantom” mod. But for UM3, we are graced with 0.5x speed, the FIRST time it has appeared selectable in a licensed dance game. Period. You have NO IDEA how big a deal this is. We kept getting teased about it years ago with early screen-grabs of DDRMAX for the US PS2, and arcade shots of DDR Extreme JP, but NOW its here! And we can play BAG with it on! That’s BOUND to make some people out there ecstatic.

Outside of these new features, however, the gameplay is the same as in UM2. Still, its nice that we are trying new things.

Originality: 5.5/10


ADDICTIVENESS

DAMN YOU, QUEST MODE! DAMN YOU FOR BEING SO INCREDIBLY ENGROSSING AND MAKING ME PLAY YOU A LOT!

…(cough)…

Yes, it’s true. The game, despite all that is wrong with it, is STILL as addictive as ever. Quest Mode may be tedious, but the completionist in me had to keep going and earn all the flags. And thank goodness I did, as the mode became less tedious with each step forward. The individual songs also keep me playing, for what its worth. Yes, there are stinkers, but the ones I DO like are very well done. I’m current addicted to Conflict (Turmoil Mix), Carnival Day, and Right On Time. I keep coming back JUST to play the crap out of them.

Addictiveness: 8/10


APPEAL FACTOR

This is a hard category to score. On the plus side, everything seems to be in this game’s favor. Ultramix 2 was a big hit, and was even mentioned in Konami’s JAPANESE shareholder’s report by name. XBox games, let alone American ones, are hardly ever mentioned in this manner. So Japan new that this American game was a hit, and the series was primed to be accepted by a great many of the masses.

On the other side of the coin, though, the game was released one week prior to the XBox 360 launch. This in itself is practically suicide. Because of the new console’s release, potential buyers definitely took a downturn, leaving less of a current market. What’s even worse is that the game will currently NOT work on 360 systems as of yet. So lets hope Konami takes this into perspective as the sales for this game won’t be as incredibly high as the last.

Appeal Factor: 5/10


MISCELLANEOUS

You know, I really don’t know why Konami’s Hawaii division decided to shift major gears with this release. Ultramix 2 had its problems, sure, but it was a practical masterpiece. The song list flowed every so smoothly, and created a great synergy that most DDR games don’t even approach. The choices were inspired, and the new modes included were original and engaging. It was as close to perfect from a non-design perspective as I’ve seen.

But for UM3, the great synergy is not present here. It’s not even a blip on the radar. The goal here seemed to just throw random items into the game and see what worked in the next game. This came at the expense of not fixing prior graphical problems, as well as breaking other gameplay issues that were FINE with UM2.

To put it simply, the game was made for the masses, and almost ignored the hardcore presence that was built up over the last couple of years. Again, we hardcore fans don’t know what we want 90% of the time, but at least there was an ear out there willing to listen. I don’t see that ear today.

Miscellaneous: 4/10


THE SCORES

Modes: 8.5/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 6.5/10
Controls/Gameplay:6/10
Replay Value: 9/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 5.5/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 4/10
TOTAL: 63.5/100 (ABOVE AVERAGE)