I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the game, so I'd attempt to cajole an entire preview out of this line of questioning. Fortunately, this precaution wasn't necessary, as Deadliest Warrior looks to be a surprisingly competent, enjoyable fighting game, and a welcome addition to the Xbox Live Arcade lineup. Here's the takeaway: Think Bushido Blade; but instead of being stuck with controlling boring ol' samurai, there are ninjas, Spartans, Apache, knights and four other yet-to-be-announced warriors (Including, hopefully, wizards).
The small team demoing the game made it clear just how seriously they're taking the project -- a kind of seriousness you wouldn't expect from a title that allows a ninja and Spartan to engage in a gory deathmatch. It is, at its heart, a strategic extension of the TV show; a program that takes historical data about the two combatants, enters said data into a game engine built by Slitherine Strategies, and runs 1,000 in-game simulations to determine who would come out on top in a hypothetical brawl.
A great deal of this data is interpreted in Deadliest Warrior: The Game -- the eight warriors the player will be able to choose from have all been culled from episodes of the show. They've all undergone a bit of balancing, meaning the deadliest deadliest warriors, as determined in the show, won't have any game-breaking advantages. However, their fighting styles and weaponry are all represented in the game.
The game is rife with fun acknowledgments to the show -- producer Prithvi Virasinghe confirmed that there would be an Achievement for beating the Spartan while playing as the ninja, the opposite outcome of the third match-up in the series. The name of the Achievement in question will be akin to "How Do You Like Me Now?"
Bouts between combatants are typically brief and brutal -- hence our comparison of Deadliest Warrior to the swiftly resolved fights of Bushido Blade. Three well-executed strikes is usually enough to topple your enemy; though chucking a spear through the head of your opponent will logically take him out in one hit. (You should also unlock the "Shish Kabob" Achievement for pulling off this stunt.)
Of course, there's plenty of options for pulling off strategic blocks, parries and evasive maneuvers, which could hypothetically extend the length of a fight to outrageous lengths. That's a trait we rarely see in fighting games, which largely force you to chip away at your opponent's health meter until you emerge victorious.
Another great Bushido Blade-inspired feature in Deadliest Warrior is the player's ability to cripple his opponent with a well-placed strike to the opponent's arms or legs. You could hobble a particularly evasive opponent with a well-placed shot to the legs, or make that shield-bearing Spartan drop his aegis with a strong hit to the arm. Or, you could simply sever all of their appendages, unlocking an Achievement referencing that one scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Dismemberment is executed using a fairly standard control scheme. You've got high, mid and low attacks, a limited number of ranged attacks, defensive maneuvers and a special move unique to each character. These can be strung together into simple combos and devastating finishing moves. You can also swap between your warrior's close range, medium range and long range equipment at will, adding another layer of strategy to the fast-paced matches.
Weapons and armor for each character can be customized from the main menu, allowing you to further specialize your playstyle. This equipment is unlocked by playing through each warrior's campaign -- a single-player mode that reveals data about each combatant as they face off against the other seven.
Equipment can also be unlocked in the single-player challenge mode, which either pits players against sequential groups of enemies, or places them in scenarios presented in the television show. Think Street Fighter 2's car-busting mini-game, but instead of a car, it's a pig carcass or a gelatin mannequin.
Of course, there's also multiplayer of the online and couch variety. The former supports single matches and asynchronous tournaments, in which a players who win a fight and move on to the next bracket can leave the game idle, and be matched up with another player in the same bracket the next time they turn on the game. The equipment you unlock in the single-player modes can be used in online matches, significantly decreasing the likelihood of encountering the same type of fighter twice.
All of these features combine to form a far more robust offering than we expected from a downloadable fighting game made by a relatively small developer based on a television franchise that focuses on imaginary fights between ninjas and Spartans. You probably balked at the game concept, as we did, when it was first revealed during the VGAs. Don't let callousness prevent you from paying attention to Deadliest Warrior -- it actually looks really, really fun.