Virtua Fighter 5 (PS3) Review

Fighting games can arguably be considered one of the defining genres for consoles and arcades both. Reaching across platforms, they would help to define ass kicking for a growing generation of gamers, sparking tournaments where the only blood spilled was from the noses of those stressed out that they had lost to someone just starting grade school. But while 2D fighters would dominate digital rings during the early 90's thanks to titles such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, Sega's Virtua Fighter would spark a 3D revolution that would be followed by Tekken, Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur, Wargods, and countless others. With the fifth iteration, Sega has demonstrated that while it may not be as flashy as its competitors or offer much in the way of extras, it is still very much faithful to the roots that it has refined in the last thirteen years.

Leafing through the manual, players will see that Sega has cut into the strategy guide market by filling its included booklet with encyclopedic move lists, building blocks to the combinations that can tie everything together to fully embarrass opponents, demonstrating the kind of depth that exists within the game just waiting to be exploited. Although these lists can be called up during the game, it's refreshing to see that there are still publishers out there that dedicate some time to giving the player more than a warranty card. Small tidbits detailing the reasons that each of the seventeen fighters have for joining this latest contest of strength are also included, although there really is no story to speak of even though one is provided for the setting. Make no mistake, VF5 is purely a fighting game and every piece of it has been focused towards that end. That means no cutting to an unexpected twist or text aside following your match. Nothing but the bare fisted bludgeoning that the player can deliver to the CPU or to a friend who joins in.

The deep fighting engine that has been a hallmark of the series is something that might seem intimidating at first, but the intuitive feel lends itself easily to experimentation with a vast array of moves and attacks. Beginners who haven't spent as much time with the series, or those who have been weaned on Tekken, Soul Calibur, and Dead or Alive, will find Virtua Fighter's controls simple to get a handle on. Veterans will likely dive right into the Arcade mode; the controls that haven't dramatically changed since the first title as AM2 continues to polish the system from one iteration to the next.

For beginners or for those coming off of other fighters, AM2 has continued to keep the scheme simple. There's only one punch and one kick attack to remember; much of everything else is chained off from combinations starting with those basic moves. In addition to attacking, the player can guard, recover from falls, deflect strikes, step to the side to watch the enemy flail at empty air, escape from throws, or reverse the opponent's attack. VF5 even allows players to map many of these 'basic' moves to any buttons, allowing them to truly customize their fighting styles. Although the fighting is in 3D, don't expect to start running around the ring. Both fighters face each other until one falls, although you can use the space to maneuver, feint, and step away from oncoming attacks.

A tutorial system is available to allow the player to practice, showing off the options that AM2 has given to both amateurs and aces. Moves come up via a small window showing off which buttons to chain together to perform the attack, increasing in complexity as the player succeeds in performing each one as they learn how to fight. For veterans, another option toggles the display for number of frames that have transpired with each move and in between each attack, allowing players with uncanny timing to hone their skills to an even finer point. For someone like myself--who had been nicknamed the "Fundamental Fighter" because of my uncanny knack to do little else other than use standard attacks in any fighting game into which I get pulled--this was a lot of fun, feeling like I could at least appear to know what I was doing. This mode makes it very handy to get used to the fighting styles inherent within each character and even those characters that appear to share similar styles, such as Lau Chan and his daughter, Pai Chan, have their own distinct way of delivering their attacks to stand out from each other.

This kind of attention to detail makes more sense if you consider Virtua Fighter's extensive history in Japan where arcades continue to thrive. In a land where character cards can be purchased to store data such as the player's fighting history and even the customization options that they may have earned in their bouts with others, Virtua Fighter has become the arena where anyone with enough skill can become the virtual gladiators of their particular haunt. The arcade game is treated much like a live thanks to "VF.TV" system which allows arcade goers to watch matches as they happen elsewhere, complete with commentary. Sega has attempted to bring this home with VF5 for the PS3, making it a literal translation of its arcade roots in bringing that kind of flavor to the PS3's audience. To some extent, they've succeeded.

The home version of VF.TV allows players to review saved replays from VS matches between friends and even bring up an option to display what buttons were used during the fight in order to study their opponents while watching the fights. The Dojo is where the tutorial is located, along with a free practice mode against an AI opponent or another player without the risk of actually losing. The player can adjust the AI in the Dojo to create the desired kind of opponent, setting options that include from simply deciding whether it can defend itself from throws at all to how well it will defend. The AI is pretty competent and at the higher levels of difficulty, it will adapt to your attacks while dealing out a drubbing of its own. Performing the same combination against a smart AI is an invitation for it to slip through and deal several punishing moves, sometimes finishing the round as quickly as it had started. Button mashing will only get players so far in VF5, as the AI can demonstrate a brutal finesse for the fighting system. It grapples, reverses, blocks, and waits for the player to make a mistake, seemingly demanding that the player do exactly the same thing in return. VF5 is never short on challenge, but it won't make the player feel stupid.

Turn the page for more on Virtua Fighter 5's various modes.

_PAGE_BREAK_ While playing against the AI is a lot of fun, playing against another player is why most fighter fans will likely want to sign on. However, there are no online options included with VF5. No online matches, no leaderboards, nothing. While this might seem like the kiss of death in a console generation that has become more wired than ever before, lag is still very much something that players deal with online and it can ruin a match in a game where precise timing can easily turn the tide on an opponent by deftly avoiding an attack or in responding to a split second opening in their defense. AM2's Noriyuki Shimoda has stated that this was one of the reasons why it wasn't included, although it doesn't explain why there aren't any leaderboards that players could share their exploits with online. Perhaps when it eventually arrives on the 360, players might see it take advantage of its online environment.

To try and translate the flavor of the arcade version and to make up for the title's lack of any online component, a Quest mode has been added. Although there really isn't an adventurous 'quest' to follow, a virtual land of arcade locations and arenas has been provided, complete with AI driven players sporting a variety of names and ability levels. Each arcade caters to a certain type of gamer from beginners to advanced pros and there are occasionally tournaments held at these locations or at an arena with a variety of prizes. Here, players will get a taste for what VF5 has brought to the arcades in Japan and is one of the most addicting modes in the title. I spent more time here than I did in playing the regular Arcade mode as I fought one virtual opponent after another to try and purchase a pair of shades.

When the player starts a game in Quest mode, he'll be asked to select a character and to create a data file. This will act as a memory card, recording wins and losses as well as what prizes have been received. The player can even add a short custom motto, badges as they are earned, and a custom name for the virtual persona. Gold can be awarded when a fight is won, allowing the player to purchase from a large number of unique items, customized costumes, or new costumes. Although it pales in comparison to Soul Calibur III's character creation system, the number of options available to personalize each character once they have collected a large amount of flair is impressive. The virtual personas will also trick out their favorite fighters to show off their level of skill and some of the mixes can be pretty wild. In addition to this, there's also a ranking system to determine how 'good' they are to help gage themselves against the other AI driven players that are there, or simply to show off to friends that come over. Since the ranks can only be earned by defeating AI opponents that are approximately as skilled as the player with gold and items randomly making themselves available, players may ignore the rest of the game just to see if the next fight will give up a new pair of shoes. If you have a Sony Memory Stick or compatible unit with at least 2.5MBs of space, you can transfer your save to a friend's PS3. Unfortunately, it will overwrite theirs which might not be what you want to do if they've got a stable of characters that they are working on personalizing.

The Arcade mode will take the player through several stages of increasing difficulty until facing the final challenge and, just as with the rest of the game, the sets and characters look fantastic. A good number of rings set in a variety of beautiful environments shows off the PS3's horsepower by way of sunlit mountains, rippling water, and mist shrouded temples. Add to this the ability to customize characters with the game's array of moves and the characters' wardrobe contents, and those walking into the room may think for a moment that they're watching a martial arts flick done in CG. The music for the game fits in with the fast moving style of the title, with plenty of synthesized, techno-style beats that may remind some players of the music from the original game. The voice acting, which sounds as if it hasn't changed since VF1 for the Saturn, can be both cheesy and over the top cool, although it sounds equally as polished on both counts. There are even announcers that will try to call the matches; unfortunately, many of their lines get recycled often and can be annoying. Interestingly enough, what you might have heard is true: if you switch the PS3's language to Japanese, the announcers will switch as well and actually sound as if they might be doing a better job. Fortunately, the commentary defaults to off.

Two new characters have been added to the roster, El Blaze and Eileen, and both characters are tiny in comparison to many of the others in the title. Their height difference does give them a few advantages, such as remaining unscathed when a high kick or combination of fist led blows occasionally whiffs overhead. But they are as deadly as any of the others. Eileen's monkey-style martial arts quickly became one of my favorites as her agile moves, fast hands, and kicks easily chopped down many of the veterans that were there...at least until the AI decided it had enough and I was crushed by Akira. El Blaze's style is based on the Mexican-style masked wrestling of Lucha Libre, and while WWE fans might wonder how a small wrestler like he can stop a juggernaut like Jeffry, rest assured that his speed and acrobatic moves can break any of them while looking great at the same time. Neither character feels cheap; the adaptive AI can ramp up to put players in their places, and each character has limitations. Like every other character in VF5, it's all about learning how best to use each one.

Virtua Fighter doesn't break any of its own traditional rules in this edition, nor does it really bring anything dramatically new to the fighting genre in its latest chapter. This may turn some players off from what might feel like polished nostalgia, especially with its spartan selection of extra modes and online options. But it is also a testimony to its persistent quality, easily allowing Virtua Fighter 5 to be a fighting game for the next generation. The title focuses purely on its ability to provide a narrow venue for digital pugilists in which to spar or trash talk. Fans will find plenty to look forward to with more of the tweaks that they have come to expect, and newcomers can expect also get their feet wet with a great franchise. It can easily turn living rooms into rings and gaming get togethers into Pay Per View events as the best fighters get their controllers ready. As to whether that is enough depends on what players expect from Sega's best.

Sega AM2's Virtua Fighter 5 is released today for PlayStation 3. It is expected to ship for Xbox 360 this summer.