"Ultramix 4 features a variety of interesting step charts that sync well to the background music, and while few stages are difficult enough to challenge those who have mastered the hardest songs in past DDR releases, beginners and intermediate-level players will find a lot to like here."
The Ultramix subseries has always been somewhat of an anomaly in the Dance Dance Revolution universe. Developed independently of the PlayStation 2 DDR releases, Ultramix has consistently offered a different take from what most fans have come to expect from DDR, with some of its experimentation proving a success, while its other attempts to spice up DDR's gameplay end in failure.
The main problem with Ultramix 4 is its refusal to fix issues that have existed since the introduction of the Ultramix series. It's especially frustrating with this latest release, as a great soundtrack and some interesting gameplay innovations are unfortunately tarnished by a number of technical issues.
DDR veterans will be glad to know that the core gameplay itself is as solid as it's always been. Ultramix 4 features a variety of interesting step charts that sync well to the background music, and while few stages are difficult enough to challenge those who have mastered the hardest songs in past DDR releases, beginners and intermediate-level players will find a lot to like here.
The music you'll be stepping to is very appealing as well, mostly because musical selection is where the Ultramix series deviates the most from what is expected from a Dance Dance Revolution game. While the PS2 DDR releases are mostly filled with same-sounding J-pop, trance, and licensed tracks from popular bands, the bulk of Ultramix 4's songlist consists of tracks composed by independent artists. The results are somewhat similar to the music featured in the DDR ripoff series In the Groove, only Ultramix 4's tracks are backed by actual talent and production values.
A few of these indie tracks end up sounding similar to each other, but many have a lasting impact thanks to Ultramix 4's willingness to explore genres outside of dance pop. With a soundtrack that covers genres ranging from drum'n bass to happy hardcore, Ultramix 4 is, on the whole, more sophisticated musically than the pop-driven PS2 DDRs, and is a much more enjoyable game than it would be otherwise.
It's too bad, then, that the underlying game engine so often gets in the way of enjoying these songs to their fullest. Like its Xbox-born predecessors, Ultramix 4 prides itself in featuring some of the brightest, most distracting background videos of the entire DDR series. The videos in the PS2 DDR releases may be flashy and occasionally annoying, but Ultramix 4's videos are so distracting as to cause me to miss on-screen dance steps with regularity.
Thankfully, these videos (along with the newly redesigned and hideously ugly background dancers) can be turned off. There's no option to disable the massive amount of slowdown that occurs throughout the entire game, however. Framerate during menu screens is especially bad, as the overwhelming amount of video and graphical effects in the background will often cause these sections to better resemble a choking and sputtering Powerpoint slideshow than a workable interface.
Framerate fares slightly better during gameplay. While Ultramix 4's in-game framerate is a definite improvement over the inconsistent jerkiness that characterized previous Ultramix titles, on-screen dance cues still stutter occasionally. It appears to get worse when speed mods and certain gameplay options are enabled, and it's distracting enough to cause a misstep every so often. For a title whose gameplay revolves around timing and accuracy, distractions like these simply should not exist, especially considering that the PS2 DDR games always run at a consistent sixty frames per second.
These problems extend into Ultramix 4's revamped Quest Mode, which is otherwise a vast improvement over the fairly incomprehensible Quest Mode introduced in Ultramix 3. In this mode, players travel around a virtual city, winning fans and challenging rival dancers in a variety of dance competitions. It's a fun idea in concept, and certainly does a lot for Ultramix 4 in terms of replay value.
It only takes a few rounds in Quest Mode to realize just how shallow the entire experience is, however. As you dance in this mode, a bar at the top of the screen slowly fills with every successful step. If it fills completely by the end of the song, you win. It sounds simple enough, but it's made more needlessly complex than it needs to be.
Problems arise when later stages in Quest Mode get progressively harder, so much so that it soon becomes impossible to fill the progress meter completely using dancing skill alone. It's at this point that the player is required to use certain meter boosting tactics introduced during the quest -- choosing a specific song or dancing with a partner, for example, could potentially boost the dance gauge faster than dancing alone to a random song selection.
These requirements are what kill this mode in the end. During Quest Mode, it's possible to fail a stage even if you hit every single dance step perfectly. On the other hand, if you use the right meter boosting techniques, it's also possible to successfully complete a stage before a song is even over, leaving you free to miss an entire minute's worth of dance steps without fear of failure. To base success and failure on song selection alone drains all difficulty from Quest Mode, and makes for a boring experience where almost no amount of skill is required to succeed.
Ultramix 4 features several other new modes and options, but almost all prove to be negligible additions to an otherwise standard formula. In the end, Dance Dance Revolution fans are left with another problematic release in the Ultramix series, which like its predecessors, has many positive things going for it, but fails to live up to its potential thanks to a number of unchecked technical issues. Hopefully, the upcoming Xbox 360 release of Dance Dance Revolution Universe will capitalize on all the potential greatness found in the Ultramix games and produce something truly worthwhile.
Freelance review by Danny Cowan (December 02, 2006)
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