Virtua Fighter’s eponymous debut back in the early 1990s signified one of the most crucial transitions in beat ‘em up history that changed gaming forever; the polygonal leap to 3D. Indeed, despite remaining one of the most venerable series that is still happily chugging along over a decade later, SEGA’s flagship brawler has had to endure gamers shifting their attention away to the voluptuous, dynamic offerings from rivals Namco and Tecmo over the years. The more streamlined, user-friendly approach to 3D combat from games such as Tekken, Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive attracted a whole new legion of followers, and achieved nothing but to fully perpetuate Virtua Fighter 5’s stiff, hardcore image in the minds of causal observers around the globe. As such, its decline in western territories became a slow but inexorable passing in Joe Public’s collective gaming conscience. Bruised but not completely battered, the series has carved out an immensely loyal fan base in its native Japan, where the franchise has continued to prove after each subsequent release why it’s unquestionably one of the most comprehensive, intricate fighters on the market – and fortunately, it’s very much apparent with this latest instalment on PlayStation 3.
Virtua Fighter 5 follows on from the events of its last generation predecessor, with international conglomeration J6 having just barely completed development on the latest Dural mode, following the escape of base model combatant, Vanessa Lewis. Thus, the company decides to announce the Fifth World Fighter Tournament to test run Dural and flush out any traitors. The game adds two new characters to the roster, bringing the total number of fighters to 17, including the usual host of familiar faces such as Kage-Maru, Shun-Di, Jeffry McWild and Sarah Bryant.
Unlike other fighters who are bombarded with multiple button set-ups and combinations, Virtua Fighter 5 continues the series tradition of basing its manoeuvres around three buttons; guard, kick and punch. However, this seemingly innocuous offering houses literally hundreds upon hundreds of performance combos, throws, reversals and other assorted attacks spread throughout the games line-up of fighters, all of whom bring a variety of complex, diverse fighting styles which will likely take you weeks, if not months, to properly master. Therein lies the series most extolled values; the array of moves is compelling, and the timing required to execute and ultimately surpass your foes must be mastered down to the last second, requiring what some may find an arduous amount of training ahead. However, the reward comes when you find yourself pulling off a perfectly timed left-punch reversal, or countering your opponent’s moves with a precise, thunderous elbow to the gut.
It’s satisfying on a level that quite simply can’t be found in other fighters, where beginner’s luck tends to run rampant. Likewise, the moves themselves look great, and are executed in such a fluidity that at times it coaxes you to wonder whether you’re actually playing a videogame or watching the real thing; indeed, only a few minor flubs are noticeable, but they do nothing to break the immersion factor. It’s nothing short of a testament to developer AM2’s desire bring to life the fluidity and believability of two combatants slugging it out in the ring, and watching it unfold before your very eyes. Of course, there’s still plenty of over-the-top juggles to experience, which, while not quite as ostentatious as those found in Tekken or Dead or Alive, are still equally complicated to pull off, and ultimately just as satisfying. It should come as no surprise that the key to winning a lot of matches lies in your ability to keep your opponent air-based for as long as possible, allowing you to pummel them into submission with a string of intricate, time-based combos as they lie helplessly at your mercy.
The standard Arcade mode is pretty basic by all accounts; you fight your way through eight stages, battling against somewhat tame computer-controlled opponents in a bid to claim victory. There’s virtually no narrative content here whatsoever, a factor that has proved to become a welcoming addition in incentivizing the majority of post-arcade releases over last few years. Subsequently, it’s doubtful you’ll spend much time in the mode, though increasing the AI difficulty can provide you with a decent challenge if you feel like it. Indeed, the bulk of the fun comes from the other available options – Dojo, Vs, VF TV and Quest. The Dojo mode is a self-explanatory, yet immensely useful, training facility where you’ll be able to master and fine-tune your character into a lean, mean killing machine; here, you can either battle freely at will, or allow the game to guide you through each and every move in your fighters repertoire in a comprehensive training session.
This is an absolute necessity if you ever want to find yourself bettering anyone but the less than competent AI. Meanwhile, Vs mode pits you against a friend in a competitive brawl, while VF TV allows you to view pre-set computer battles in addition to replay footage from your own Vs matches; an interesting inclusion, but one that could have perhaps been substituted for a more substantial offering, such as a Team Play or Survival mode. However, the omission of online functionality is frankly shocking, despite the developers citing possible lag interference as the reason not to include it; ironic it is, then, that the AM2 saw fit to include full online play in the Xbox 360 version of the game due out later this year. And, given the ‘hardcore’ niche that the series has carved out for itself, you may be hard pushed to find an opponent in your neighbourhood that would be willing facilitate your need for those all-important Vs matches.
However, the meat of the game is undoubtedly Quest mode; here, the game simulates competing against various “human” opponents by entering the local arcades and challenging its occupants, as well as taking part in local or nationwide tournaments. The idea here is to challenge as many combatants as possible, increasing your rank along the way and earning various cash/item prizes as you go. Naturally, winning tournaments offers the most lucrative of cash prizes, but they are far more competitive than your standard arcade duel. Concurrently, Quest mode also ties in with the games in-depth customisation option, allowing you to kit our your favourite fighters with various clothing, hairstyles, equipment and other trinkets by spending the fight money you earn.
Other supplements include a personal emblem, stage name and catch phrase, the latter of which is displayed along with your stats at the beginning of each battle. You can also obtain a special orb, which is collected by piecing together seven smaller orbs after winning various item battles, unlocking special prizes to use with your character. The AI here is also far superior to that of it’s rudimentary Arcade brethren, offering up a variety of difficult skill levels based on the player’s ability; as a result, you’ll likely be dividing up your time between Dojo and Quest modes for as you attempt to better your chosen fighter.
Graphically, Virtua Fighter 5 is one of the most visually stunning PlayStation 3 games out there, and a testament to the console’s capabilities. Characters are rendered in meticulously life-like detail, with small touches such as sweat, bulging veins and beautifully flowing hair creating a believable presentation that supplements the gorgeous, 3D backgrounds that make up the game’s fight zones. Each stage has its own unique theme and characteristics; waves roll and reseed in undulating fashion on a beech, neon lights cast a glow on your fighters in the city streets, sending real-time shadow bouncing all over the shop, and the wind on a mountain top sends ripples across combatants clothing. All this is achievable at a blistering 60fps in 1080p, we might add.
The game’s score is your typical amalgamation of various rock/disco/Caribbean/eastern flavours that do well to accompany their respective stages, though the voice acting leaves much to be desired, and is typically conveyed in wonderfully contrived, hideously wooden fashion. The sound effects are of top quality however, and come off far more realistic than most other beat ‘em ups, with every punch, throw and bone-crushing manoeuvre enough to make you wince as you wage down one devastating combo after another upon your unfortunate victim.
Overall, Virtua Fighter 5 is an interesting beast; conceptually, it’s one of the greatest fighters available on the market, and quite simply one of the best looking games to grace Sony’s latest hardware. On the flip side, it’s one player offering, while amply supplemented by the fantastic Quest mode, comes off a little underdeveloped by today’s standards; a couple more game modes would have been more than appreciated. Additionally, the lack of online play is bewildering; ultimately, however, beat ‘em up aficionados will be hard pressed to find a more rewarding endeavour this generation.