Spike TV's show "The Deadliest Warrior" is all about pitting different types of fighters from throughout history against each other. The Spartans of ancient Greece never encountered ninjas on the field of battle, but if they had, the show concluded, the Spartans would have wiped the floor with the ninjas. This fantasy matchup concept is one that was just screaming for adaptation into a video game, and that game has now arrived. The Deadliest Warrior is an unusual game; its enthusiastic commitment to the brutal spirit of the show is admirable, and it strives for a much more realistic approach to combat than you typically find in fighting games. That sense of realism, however, winds up being both an asset and a detriment. With only eight fighters to pit against each other, you'll have your fill of your favorite matchups pretty quickly, but fans of the show and the concept will find some enjoyment in this bloody fighter.
The eight warriors here, taken from the show's first season (with one exception), are the Apache, centurion, knight, ninja, pirate, samurai, Spartan, and Viking. While part of the fun of the show is that it tries to settle, once and for all, which of two warriors is the deadliest, there are no foregone conclusions in the game. Each warrior has a fighting chance against any other, and they all have short, medium, and long-range weapons in their arsenals. (In keeping with the show, you can read historical blurbs about all of the weapons and armor.) The warriors play quite differently from each other, though, and some require the use of very different tactics to succeed. The powerful but vulnerable Apache, for instance, needs to rely on speed and evasion to get the upper hand against the slow but very well-armored knight. The fighters' actions were motion captured and they have an authenticity to them that makes the combat feel more real and more violent than it would otherwise.
And boy, is it violent. Warriors can attack each other with high, medium, or low attacks or long-range attacks, and each warrior has an assortment of combos he can pull off by stringing together those attacks. Once fighters get in close and start slicing away at each other, limbs and heads go flying off with gusto. It's even possible to hit your opponent in the head with a long-range weapon, killing him instantly and ending the fight before it even begins. Even attacks that don't result in dismemberment are often devastating if they land, injuring your warrior and making it impossible for him to perform certain attacks. Many fighting games maintain tension throughout fights because they aren't over until they're over--it's always possible for an opponent to come back and win it. Here, the realism, the possibility of injury and dismemberment, and the fact that it only takes a few attacks to kill your opponent result in a much greater emphasis on landing the first strike and on playing very defensively to prevent your opponent from sending your arm flying. This fighting model causes some tense and exciting early match standoffs, particularly when playing against smart human opponents, as players shield, evade, and wait for their opponent to slip up and leave himself vulnerable. But much of that tension dissipates once the attacks start landing because it's often pretty clear with the first successful blows who is going to emerge victorious.
The game also fails to consistently maintain its sense of realism, resulting in some goofy moments that stand out all the more because of the way they contrast with the game's serious, bloody tone. In addition to health, each warrior has a stamina meter, which is crucial for blocking enemy attacks. If you continue blocking when this is depleted, you'll be stunned momentarily, giving your opponent an extremely valuable opportunity. Because your stamina revives over time, however, you can just run in circles for a short time while it recharges. It's hard to imagine an actual Spartan quickly turning away from his adversary and running around wildly for a few seconds to catch his breath during a fight, but it's a valid tactic here. Sometimes limbs and heads fly off a bit too easily, and killed opponents often collapse more like rag dolls than human bodies. And it's rather humorous, in a bonus round that tasks you with cutting down hanging pig carcasses, to see the pigs fall after a powerful pirate head-butt.
The main single-player mode is Arcade, which takes your chosen warrior through a series of eight battles. As you progress, you unlock new weapons and armor that you can equip for that warrior in the future. (Strangely, the difficulty is set by default to the very tough hard setting, but the action is made much more accessible to newcomers by setting that to normal.) There's also a training mode and a Survival mode that you unlock once you've completed the Arcade mode with all eight warriors. The best combat is against human opponents, but online play is not without some serious problems. We experienced frequent difficulties connecting to matches, which seemed to be a widespread issue as of this writing, and once you are lucky enough to find yourself in a match, there's a better-than-average chance that your opponent will quit if it becomes clear things aren't going his way. The game also supports local competitive play, which is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy this game.
The visuals in Deadliest Warrior are decent but not quite impressive. The movements, armor, and weapons for each warrior are all authentic, but the faces of the warriors themselves--those that are visible, anyway--look eerie and lifeless. There's also collision detection problems when warriors get up close to each other--weapons often appear to pass right through an opponent without actually connecting. The four arenas have a good sense of historical flavor to them and react well to your actions--sword slices are liable to cut bamboo, as well as your opponent's limbs. The sound effects are believable, from the war cries and grunts of the combatants to the clang of the weapons.
There are plans to expand the roster of warriors at a later time; as it stands, even given the differences among the currently available eight, you can only determine whether one warrior is deadlier than another so many times before you tire of the same few fighters. The focus on defensive play can result in some terrific tension, though with its focus on injuries and dismemberment, the fighting model often finds a lot of the tension is lost once the blows start landing. This is unlikely to become your go-to fighting game and it has its flaws, but it is also an interesting one with some good ideas. And if you really enjoy some dismemberment every now and then or just relish the thought of pitting a pirate against a ninja in a fight to the death, you'll likely find your $10 well spent.