Pipeworks Software's Deadliest Warrior was a game characterized by happy surprises. Most were intrinsic to the over-in-a-second combat the title presented -- nothing's more surprising than having your delicate, evasive foxtrot interrupted by a spear through the face. All, however, served to enforce the biggest surprise of all: Someone made a licensed game that allowed ninjas to engage in one-on-one bouts with vikings, and then they made it good.

Much like its predecessor, Deadliest Warrior: Legends is peppered with fleeting, unexpected delights. It also contains a shocker of its own; that the original title wasn't just a qualitative anomaly. The series' second coming is full of so many inspired, innovative improvements over the surprisingly solid original, you'll temporarily forget that it's based around an anachronistic bloodsport that's far too ridiculous to exist, even virtually.

Until, of course, Shaka Zulu stabs Atilla the Hun so hard that his torso falls off.
Fights in Deadliest Warrior: Legends move along just as expeditiously as they did in the first installment, with most matches lasting half a minute or so, and campaigns lasting no longer than 20 minutes. The sequel adheres to the philosophy of similarly swift fighter Bushido Blade, peeling away the fighters' life gauges and requiring players to keep track of their own health -- a task made much easier with visual cues, like bloody stumps where your arms used to be.

Combat has been spiced up with the addition of a few new expert-level moves, including feint attacks that could trick your opponent into briefly opening their defenses, and pushes, which can chuck your foe into the nearest bottomless pit. Players can also grab one another, opening up a rock-paper-scissors-esque duel: The attacker chooses to attack high (instant kill), medium (broken arm) or low (broken leg), while the defender gets a chance to guess his attack and attempt to cancel it out.

These new features add a lot more strategy to the formula, giving Legends the intellectual edge over its predecessor. They allow for a wider variety of murder, accommodate for varying levels of player expertise and, most notably, cut down on one-shot instant kills. Though, yes, those still happen. And, yes, they're still pretty satisfying.

As substantial as these new additions are, they play second fiddle to what is certainly Legends' defining feature: Generals mode. This new gametype has players control the armies of Legends' nine real-life combatants in a Risk-like competition against a rival. Players earn extra troops and special abilities by conquering territories and fortified castles -- though before they can keep said keeps, they must beat their current inhabitants in a one-on-one duel.

It's a brilliant mash-up of diametrically opposed genres. The interplay between large-scale warfare and one-on-one combat works surprisingly well. You can't claim victory without proficiency in both gametypes, though in most matches a keen strategic mind is going to win out. Much like in regular Risk, it's hard to mount a comeback over a dominating player; but that just makes your doomed final stand in your home castle all the more exciting.

Deadliest Warrior: Legends gets the important stuff right, and the unimportant stuff so wrong that it very nearly becomes right again. Each fighter has one intro animation, victory animation and outro animation, resulting in three lines of horrendously written dialogue a piece. It's so campy, though, that it's almost endearing. If there's a point where Vlad the Impaler's classic endgame bon mot ("Bloody ... pathetic!") ceases to be hilarious, I did not reach it.

And then there's the occasional instances where fighters execute some maneuver which defies physics and logic entirely. Fighters are able to push, even if they're currently sans arms. Characters wearing full metal greaves can still get their knees hyperextended by what could only be described as the strongest punch in the history of punching. Between these blemishes and the inimitable joy of cutting a person's entire body off, every single fight is certain to elicit squeals of joy.

Sadly, it's not without more detrimental faults, all of which involve the game's online capabilities. The most egregious is the fact that the new, clever Generals mode can't be played online at all. The game's creative director, Prithvi Virasinghe, told Joystiq that the development team hopes to expand the mode and provide online multiplayer, leaderboards and more content to flesh it out, possibly as DLC. That would be a welcome addition, but it's still infinitely disappointing that it didn't make the final release.

Also, though the game's other online multiplayer components have been expanded with the addition of a tournament mode and "Skirmish" modes (which let you take two to four fighters into a relay battle), the poor matchmaking from the original hasn't improved. There's no option to change your arena, character or loadout between online fights; you have to drop all the way back to the multiplayer menu and start a new match from scratch. For a game that lends itself to brief, repeated fights, a momentum-stopper like this is a huge misstep.

When you're not wrestling with its cumbersome online machinations, Deadliest Warrior: Legends is an absolute treat. It possesses a number of potent improvements over last year's model, resulting in a fighter that's cerebral, satisfying and deep -- and, in the moments when it is not those things, absolutely hilarious.



This review is based on review code for Deadliest Warrior: Legends provided by 345 Games. It is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points ($10).

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

The unsung, underpaid heroes behind Donkey Kong