Inside Pulse 12

Review: Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4 (XB)

Game: Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4
System: Microsoft XBox
Genre: Music/Rhythm
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 11/15/06

Sometimes I really wonder what goes on in the collective minds of a single corporation. What REALLY goes into the decision-making process when push comes to shove? Some ideas are brilliant in their common sense. Some are completely devoid of logic. And others seem like the heads in charge are completely high and have no f*cking idea what they are doing. Its with that in mind that I question the comission and release of a fourth DDR game on the original XBox system.

Now don’t get me wrong, here. The Bemani fanatic in me LOVES it when a new DDR game is released, and Ultramix 4 is no exception. But the business-degree holding, former student in me is pondering why this game exists in the first place, especially at the time of its release. For starters, the XBox is officially a “last generation” system now that the 360 is here. Microsoft hasn’t even been paying much attention to its first console since the 360 release, and has just about given up making old titles playable on the new system. (This includes all DDR titles, by the way.) Add to the fact that Konami ALSO announced a 360 version of the DDR series that IS NOT A PORT OF ANYTHING, further head scratching is warranted. Finally, the kicker here is that the game has the exact same problem as Ultramix 3 did last year in the fact that its release came just a few days before a new game system hit the market. Except this time, it was TWO game systems at ONCE, making it worse. Its as if Konami WANTED the game to be doomed from the start and be completely overlooked by the masses.

But Ultramix 4 is not about weird company decisions or the politics involved. Its simply the fourth edition in a line of DDR titles that stray away from the arcade and PS2 iterations in terms of overall content and feature lists. Its had its ups and downs, but the fact remains that with every new XBox edition, it tries to invent new ways to enjoy an old formula, or even revive old and forgotten ways to enjoy it. So is this particular version worth going back to the XBox one more time? Lets dance!


MODES

When you first turn on the game, you’ll notice it opens slightly differently from past titles. You’ll end up in the “Basic Edition” screen where you only have two options. The first is “How To Play”, and strictly for beginners. The second allows you to access the “Master’s Edition” screen, which I’ll touch on later.

“How To Play” is a mandatory tutorial that shows you the basics of the game. It lasts about ten minutes, and finishing it will unlock two more beginner-friendly options. The first of these is Lesson Mode, which is reminiscent of previous Lesson options found in the PS2 games. This particular Lesson Mode, however, expands the concepts found in the tutorial and teaches some more advanced step patterns. The other option is “Game Mode Lite”, allowing new players to choose from a small selection of songs from the full song list to play. The difficulty is locked on Beginner, and can’t be changed. Several of the songs need to be unlocked as well.

Provided you’re NOT a new player, picking “Master’s Edition” will bypass all of the newbie-friendly tutorial aspects and plunge you into the meat and potatoes of the game. All of the familiar modes are here, and the game will always boot to this screen after your first time through. The first mode is, as always, Game Mode. Here you pick either Singles (4-Panel) or Doubles (8-Panel) play, and any song you want to play. Simple, easy, and carried over verbatim from the first three games.

Next is Party Mode, which contains all of the fun multiplayer modes Ultramix fans have come to expect. Classic modes include Score Mode, which has all players competing for the highest score, and Point Mode, where everyone starts with 16 points and every misstep deducts one from the overall total. Attack Mode has each arrow column designated with either an attack on your opponent, or a defense for yourself. Getting a combo of 5 in a specific column activates it, with the goal to cause your opponents guide arrows to reach the bottom of the screen. Bomb Mode is essentially a “hot potato” type of game, where you try and pass a bomb off to different players before it goes off. If it does, that player is eliminated. Sync Mode is more of a cooperative game, where there’s only one set of guide arrows between up to four players. Players must synchronize their steps in order to get good step grades and a combo going. Finally, Quad Mode rounds out the returning modes of play. This is the mode where one player can go nuts on four pads at once. Sixteen arrows if you do the math.

Several new modes have also been added, all of them quite clever. First up is Triple Mode, which is the official bridge between Doubles and Quad play. One player, three pads, twelve arrows. Not much else to explain for that one. Next is Relay Mode, where one step pattern is split amongst four players, with each player having to complete different portions of the song. Now, if you think this just taking large clumps of arrows and assigning them to each player, think again. One step pattern can be split up BY ARROW and randomly assigned. Trust me, the mode is a lot harder than it looks. Then there is Speed Mode, proving that DDR can in fact have its own Time Attack. Here, it’s your job to complete a step pattern as fast as you can, regardless of the music and beat playing in the background. The arrows only move as fast as you do, with brief pauses in your progress if you hit the wrong arrow. The mode itself is BRILLIANT, and a great extension of a few simple missions found in DDR SuperNOVA for the PS2. Finally, there’s Power Mode, which gives XBox owners their very own song courses for the first time. However, these aren’t courses like the Nonstop or Challenge ones found in PS2 games. These courses take around 4 each and continuously mix them into one long, five minute stage. There’s only four to start with, but a fifth apparently becomes available if you’re able to unlock it. (I say “apparently”, as the game says I HAVE the course, but it hasn’t appeared for play yet.) This is an idea that has been revived from the now defunct Solo line of DDR arcade machines, and its awesome that we’re seeing it again on a current edition of the game.

Moving on down the line, Challenge Mode is back. This is where you’ll find various missions to complete. Just like Ultramix 3, you have a grand total of 60 challenges to go through, split amongst ten categories. This time, however, all challenges are available from the very beginning, whereas before you had to complete each category to advance. The only problem I see here is that the difficulty of these challenges tend to spike upward the farther up you get.

XBox Live functionality also returns, and it really doesn’t differentiate itself from its last incarnation. You’re able to set up lobbies and play songs, leave messages, chat online, view records and online standings, and even upload/download edit content. There’s also the option to download new song packs for $5 a pop. There isn’t any “new” content right now, but you’re still able to catch up on previous song packs you may have missed out on. All and all, the functionality is exactly the same. Nothing new has really been added.

Quest Mode returns from Ultramix 3, and has been greatly refined and retooled to be a lot less confusing, and a lot more fun. (I’ll get into that more in the Gameplay section.) Interestingly, UM3’s “Freestyle Mode” was dropped completely, making this the first Ultramix game to not carry over a mode from the previous game. Most won’t miss it, as it wasn’t that popular, but it was still nice in its own right.

Some of the traditional options in the game have actually gotten some revisions after being virtually untouched for years. The Edit Mode still allows you to edit your own step patterns, but now comes with the option to edit the movies that play in the background! And this isn’t a sloppy “afterthought” either, this feels like a professional editing tool. You get to choose all of your movies, place them whatever measure of the song you like, then add custom transitions and other amazing effects. Considering the huge amount of background movies in the game, the “Visual Edit” option is quite a treat. The Records screen has also been refined. FINALLY, you can save scores for both the Beginner and Oni steps for songs along with the Basic/Difficult/Expert scores. The game will also display scores for Single, Double, Triple, and Quad play, as well as scores for the Power Courses and Speed Mode. It may not sound like much, but after getting shafted with certain scores not being saved, this is a welcome change of pace. (You still can’t see Beginner and Oni scores in Game Mode, though.)

The rest of the returning modes function exactly as they did back in Ultramix 3. Workout Mode is still just a glorified option for other modes, allowing you to turn on the calorie counter for every other game mode. Training Mode still lets you slow down a song and practice parts you have difficulty with. Jukebox Mode lets you pick a list of songs and let them play sans the arrows, leaving the movies on in their full glory.

So considering the massive size of this particular section, there is a LOT to do here in Ultramix 4, and a lot of new and exciting things to add to the classic modes of play. It’s yet another way Konami’s American divisions choose to innovate new things and revive old favorites for DDR, whereas Japan doesn’t do nearly as much.

Modes: 9/10


GRAPHICS

One of the largest gripes with Ultramix 3 was in the graphics department. On the surface, the graphical style used was this weird bubbly theme that was universally disliked. Underneath, the actual gameplay did not run at a constant 60FPS. The game would constantly stutter as the arrows scrolled up the screen, making it an eyesore for many players. I was able to ignore it for the most part, as it didn’t interfere with my actual scores, but many veteran players had conniptions about it.

How do the graphics look THIS year? Well to start with, the actual gameplay has been IMPROVED. The frame rate now moves MUCH smoother, with most of the stuttering gone. You will see the occasional minor skip, usually when a movie in the background has an abrupt transition, but the gameplay frame rate is truly the best it has ever been on the XBox. However, the menus and loading screens run at anything BUT 60FPS. The animations are cool, but the stuttering seems to have migrated to here instead. But if that’s the trade-off I need to make for cleaner gameplay, I’m all for it.

Dancing characters are back as well, and effort was made to bring in some new characters for this incarnation as opposed to previous years. There’s still only around eight characters to choose from, but there are new pairings such as Akira and Yuni, two huge fan favorites. Every character also has four costumes to choose from, depending on which controller port you’re plugged into. The fact that they aren’t palette-swaped costumes is a big plus, and a nice touch. Of course, all they end up doing is dancing by themselves. AGAIN. You know, just ONCE, I’d like to see two characters on screen interacting with each other. Have Astro and Charmy cut a rug with partner dance moves on a swing-dance song, for instance. But until that happens, characters are nothing but window dressings.

As for the graphical style, the slick, edgy graphics from UM1 and UM2 have returned to grace us with their presence one more time. While the overall set-up is reminiscent of UM3, the graphics have been overhauled to retain that “edge” found in UM2 with its electric blue tone. From the moment the UM4 logo flashes across the screen, you’ll know you’re in for a different experience. One thing I truly like are the amount of hand-drawn character portraits. While window dressings, as said above, you rarely see hand-drawn characters in DDR. I liked them. Sue me.

That being said, not all the graphics are pretty. The prime examples are the grade letters you receive when you complete a song. What you receive are these disfigured, disjointed digitized things that RESEMBLE letters, but are really hard on the eyes. Especially when you start earning AAs and AAAs. The As themselves attach to each other in very odd ways, with the third A in a AAA barely even visible. Banners and backgrounds to certain songs also suffer; not really in the “ugly” sense, but in a “looks like it was done in five seconds with Adobe Photoshop” sense. Some of the older songs’ banners and backgrounds were even changed, and most of them not for the better. But those are my only real gripes outside the choppy menus. The visuals have been upgraded (mostly), and I’m happy.

Graphics: 6/10


SOUND

Like I say with every music game ever, this is the category that makes or breaks the game. Last year, while many of the songs were enjoyable, there were quite a few stinkers in the line-up. And I don’t think there were as many songs in one DDR game that I disliked as much as UM3. Thankfully, things are better in UM4.

One thing I found interesting is that the menu music is licensed! Several songs cycle through if you leave the game on long enough, and every song is credited on the main menu in the bottom right-hand corner. Its a small edition, but adds variety to something that used to have one song play over and over again.

As far as playable content, here are 56 songs available from the start. Add to that 15 unlockable tracks, and the total tops out at 71. (Oddly enough, EXACTLY like the totals in UM3.) And out of the totals, only 16 of these songs have been in DDR mixes before this one. Three of them are licenses (“Waka Laka”, “Get Up [Before The Night Is Over]”, and “It’s Raining Men [Almighty Mix]”), and the rest are Konami originals. And only two of those are brand new additions to the DDR SuperNOVA arcade game (“Mondo Street”, and “Hunting For You”). But the good thing is that only 7 of them have been on American home versions before. So for those who can’t import, there are 64 songs here that the US hasn’t seen at home. And for those who can, there are still 55. Quite a number of brand new songs, eh?

The official licensed content is much more enjoyable this time around. There are still some pop names on the list, with The Pussy Cat Dolls and a “Don’t Cha” remix, as well as Toby Mac’s “Diverse City”. The game’s resident Latin beat song, “Levitation Nation”, is SO much better than last year’s “Mia Alma”. Other additions like “These Words” and “Listen To Your Heart” round out this section. My favorite out of this group is a track called “Dual Love”. Sure there’s some pop that people hate, but its much more tolerable pop than before. Although one thing bugs me: “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats is on here. Nothing is wrong with that in itself, but it was also on both Guitar Hero 2 and Elite Beat Agents, both of which released THIS MONTH. Is there a new law out there that says this song must be included on every music game from now until the end of time?!?!?

Quite a few of the songs, once again, have been supplied by the “A Different Drum” music label. This partnership has supplied DDR with some amazing synth pop and then some. Fan favorite Midihead is back, this time under the Monolithic name, supplying two songs out of his back catalog: “Arms (Alpha Omega Mix)” and the amazing sounding “The Drain”. ZONK returns with “Nervous Excited Delighted”, and Alien Six returns after a long absence with “I Can Feel It”. The artist Dirtyhertz completely redeems himself from UM3 with two enjoyable tracks (“Thrill Chaser” and “Snake Charmer”).

Also included are four songs that were the result of a contest Konami held earlier this year. Konami asked the fans to make their own music and submit it for consideration to be in a future DDR game, with the winner getting $250 and bragging rights. As it happened, all four winners ended up on this game. My two favorites here are “There’s A Rhythm” by Dig Bear, and “GO! (Mahalo Mix)” by DM Ashura. Now, the interesting thing about DM Ashura is that he ended up getting ANOTHER song onto the game by remixing “Celebrate Nite”, a classic Konami original. Seeing how DM Ashura is well liked in the dance games community, kudos to him for finding success here.

Speaking of outside work, there are quite a few other KOs that Konami commissioned from ADD and such. Outside of the “Celebrate Nite” remix, two other classic KOs had remixes done from the outside. In fact, one of the most requested bands featured in UM2, Echo !mage, remixed their song “Skulk” specifically for this game. Fan favorites Jondi & Spesh show up quite a bit, with “Cosmic Hammer”, “Edge of Control” and a remix of their song “Insaner” done by Konami artist L.E.D. I’d never thought I’d see the day when one who remixed Konami’s work would get the return treatment, but its in here!

Those looking for the mountains of Bemani crossovers found in previous games might be disappointed, as there are only a handful here to choose from. Songs like “bit mania” are brought out of the beatmania IIDX pile, while others like Classic Party Triathalon” and “Chocolate Philosophy” come to us straight from Guitar Freaks/Drummania. While few in number, most are quality songs.

Of course there are downloadable songs to take advantage of as well. If you started all the way back from the first Ultramix game and never missed a download, you should have 77 additional songs activated when you turn on the game. (And annoyingly long loading times to boot.) That’s more than the song list found on this particular disc! But if you haven’t, a pack of five songs will cost you $5. I’m not sure if the two free downloads are still available for those who missed out, though.

All in all, the song list this year is quite a treat to listen to. It’s much better than the complete randomness plaguing UM3. Unfortunately, the same UM3 announcer is back, and I just can’t stand him. So for the first time, I turned his voice off. I have never looked back, either. Thankfully that’s the only flaw in the otherwise awesome sound category.

Sound: 9/10


CONTROLS/GAMEPLAY

The main game is exactly the same as it has been for years. Four guide arrows are at the top of the screen, with targets rising from the bottom. You’ll need to hit the correct arrow (Left/down/Up/Right) as it overlaps the guide arrows in time to the beat. Sometimes you’ll need to hold down a freeze arrow, or jump on two arrows at once. The closer to the beat you are, the better step grade you’ll receive. (Perfect, Great, Good, Almost, Boo) The better you do, the higher overall score and letter grade you’ll receive. (From E-A, AA, and AAA.) Nothing has changed in this regard. Not even one iota. So veterans will of course feel right at home.

Timing of the songs is more or less the same as it was in the last game. They’re larger than the arcade judging windows, but not as large as they were on UM2. The good thing here is that there’s no odd occurrences where the game will go randomly off-sync for a while. And outside of a couple of exceptions, all the songs are synced well with the steps. Oh, and for the record, any song pack song that didn’t work right in UM3 now works right in UM4. Praise be the beta testing!

Now for added difficulty, you’re able to adjust the way you play in the Mods screen. Here you can speed up the arrows, reverse the scroll, add some interesting effects like Hidden or Boost, or all sorts of different things. Ultramix games also have the habit of introducing brand new song mods not found in any of the arcade of PS2 games. Yep, only XBox owners can access the Help and Phantom arrows with 0.5x speed! The tradition carries on here with a few more XBox-exclusive additions. You now have the option of turning the Up and Down arrows off completely and transferring the arrows to Left or Right. The L+R Only mod effectively makes the game “March March Revolution”, and is pretty interesting. You also have the option of turning every arrow in the game into a two-arrow Jump with the All Jump mod, and make every arrow a freeze step with the All Freeze mod. And the REAL funny thing is that both of these mods have their own scores page in Records mode! That’s yet another clever addition to a rather unique package.

As I said before, Quest Mode has been reworked a bit. To begin with, you’re plunked down at the outskirts of a huge city with three “rings”: Street, Club, and Executive. Each ring has 16 locations within it, and you can move freely between them. The goal of this mode is to earn money in the Street section, which you use to enter Clubs (and Executives when you run out of new Clubs to hit.) When you first enter a Street level, you can pick your first song, but every song after that is randomly chosen for you. Think of it as an optional “Endless Mode”. Of course you can stop whenever you want, but the more songs you play will earn you more cash.

You’ll also want to reach the Street’s “fan base” target before leaving. Fan base is earned from each Perfect or Great you get in a song. If you get enough, you’ll clear the Street you’re currently on. There are also five levels of fan base per Street, so you’ll often find yourself coming back to finish them up. Now every time you clear a fan base level you’ll get a “movie”, which just so happens to be one of the many movie clips played in the background as you play. When you have a movie in your possession, you’ll earn extra fan base points every time it plays in the background. (How about that, they actually found a USE for background videos!) You’ll also be able to buy extra movies outside of Street levels to add to your collection. Songs are also available for “purchase”, meaning every time you play them, you’ll end up earning more fan base points than those you don’t have “purchased”.

Anyway, when you rack up enough money to pay the entry fees at a club, you’ll come face to face with that club’s boss. (Which is really one of four palette-swaps of the eight characters.) When you “challenge” the bosses, you just play until your fan base meter fills up. Unlike the Street levels, the meter doesn’t start over at the beginning of every song, so you can take as long as you need to conquer the club you’re at.

This is perhaps one of Quest Mode’s strongest suits: anyone can jump in and complete them mode, regardless of being a new player or a veteran player. New players can conquer Streets easily by clearing the first level of fan base, and can take as long as they need to beat a club level by picking easy songs. Veterans can breeze through everything by picking harder songs and earning more money to bank away. And no two people will go through Quest Mode the same way, either. This is where UM4 has it all over the PS2 games and their “Dance Master Modes”. Perhaps the only down point to this would be that a new player wanting to unlock all the songs would feel that it would take too long. It took me two days to get through Quest Mode with dedicated playing, but it could take new players much longer than that.

Controls/Gameplay: 9/10


REPLAY VALUE

DDR games have always had a high score in the Replay Value area, but UM4 goes above and beyond the call of duty with things to come back to. It takes a while in Quest Mode alone to unlock all the movies complete all the challenges offered. Add to that the traditional main game mode with 5 levels of difficulty, the option of playing on up to four pads, the brand new mods complete with their own record sheets, all the old and new Party Mode games as well as the Power Mode courses, and you won’t be playing other music games for a while.

By the way, this doesn’t even cover the XBox Live functionality of the game.

Replay Value: 10/10


BALANCE

UM4 takes great strides to make newbies, grizzled veterans, and everyone else in between feel right at home while playing. Konami made a smart choice separating the brand new beginner modes from the main gameplay, as new people can learn the game easier, and veterans won’t have to deal with the modes at all. On the other side of the coin, the new Party Mode games and the Power Courses add more variety for the veterans to try outside of Expert and Oni steps. Quest Mode’s difficulty is entirely dependant on how you want to go through it, making it a breeze or a challenge for everyone involved. And as always, the four levels of difficulty for every song (sometimes five) offer a very good learning curve for all comers. Not only is this a great game to start on, but its an excellent choice for veterans to hone their skills on as well.

Balance: 10/10


ORIGINALITY

Unfortunately, every version of DDR is rooted on the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it” mentality. Therefore, most games don’t offer much in the way of super-original content. Sure the song list is 100% new and the new added modes are awesome, but most of the game’s engine has been carried over verbatim from previous XBox incarnations. I’m glad improvements were made to existing modes, but without really changing the core game, there’s not much that’s truly “new” here, at least by comparison.

Originality: 4/10


ADDICTIVENESS

Of course the game can still be tons of fun without being brand new in every respect. The classic DDR gameplay surprisingly still holds up after so long, and the new song list is much easier on the ears than the previous game. The stuff that IS new is a blast, and definitely keeps me coming back for more. In fact, if you have most or all of the song packs downloaded from previous games, the amount of content to play around with is almost overwhelming at times. Add to the fact that there are all these new Record screens to fill, and I KNOW I’m not going to be doing anything social for a while.

Addictiveness: 8/10


APPEAL FACTOR

Oh, how I wish circumstances were different for UM4. I really, really, REALLY do. It’s a quality product that will keep fans of the series busy for weeks, if not months. However, there’s so much standing in the way of this game for it to reach as wide an audience as before. Being on the original XBox when 360 demand is high hurts, and not being backwards compatible on the 360 hurts even more. The game’s release date was a mere two days before the PS3 launch and four days before the Wii’s, meaning overall hype for the game was severely curtailed. And the final nail in the coffin: there’s a 360 version of DDR coming out ANYWAY early next year with what looks like an almost identical feature set to this game. So it seems like hardcore fans are the only ones who would realistically pick this version up. And that REALLY sucks because all of these new easy modes for new players are well done, and could have been huge a year or two ago. At least they’ll be on the 360 game as well, so they won’t go completely to waste.

The only shining light I can think of with all the factors standing against this game is the fact that it is being released for cheap. UM4 only costs $29.99, making it the cheapest DDR title at launch since DDR Konamix on the original Playstation. The low price point just might make current XBox owners jump on this game, but I can’t realistically see all too many buying the game on price alone.

Appeal Factor: 3/10


MISCELLANEOUS

Despite all the negatives surrounding the game, both inside and out, it definitely feels Konami’s Hawaii division was definitely listening to our grievances about UM3. Improvements were made practically everywhere that counted, and a better product has surfaced. UM4 feels less like a standard, money-making release and more like a “thank you” to the many fans that have supported the XBox incarnation of DDR for so long. It won’t sell a ton of copies, but it will reach those that count. And I’ll say a “thank you” back to KCEH for as long as its still in existence before its gobbled up into KDEA in its entirety. It’s not a perfect product, but its a well-refined product. And I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Well, maybe getting “Last Message” into one of the new song packs, but that’s just the greedy bastard in me…

Miscellaneous: 8/10


THE SCORES

Modes: 9/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 9/10
Controls/Gameplay: 9/10
Replay Value: 10/10
Balance: 10/10
Originality: 4/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal Factor: 3/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10
TOTAL: 72/100 (GOOD)

Short Attention Span Summary
DDR Ultramix 4 definitely has the best engine out of the four XBox games, although I’m not sure if I can call it better than UM2 at the moment. It’s a hard call to make! This game gets my full recommendation, but I know that its not going to see as many players as it has in years past. All in all, this is an excellent send-off for the Ultramix brand name, and I can only hope that the Universe brand will be a worthy successor.