February 20, 2007 - If you like beating people up then SEGA's Virtua Fighter 5 is the game for you. Developed by the black belts at AM2 (Fighting Vipers, Fighters Megamix), VF5 is a true gameplay showcase that deserves more mainstream attention than it will probably ever get. Then again, proper timing can make a big difference in a title's success, and with the PlayStation 3's void of compelling software since last December, Virtua Fighter's chance of grabbing North American eyeballs is better than ever.
And let's face it, our attention should be grabbed. After all, one of the universe's biggest mysteries is why SEGA's excellent franchise has never reached the same American commercial success as its competition. Soulcalibur and Tekken both, for example, are lucrative post-arcade endeavors that see strong sales and good word of mouth years after their release. Virtua Fighter, on the other hand, gets labeled as "the hardcore alternative" and sees most of its action at tournaments or in Asian markets (it's huge in Japan); domestic appearances are usually relegated to diehard neighborhood get-togethers and occasional competitions.
But you can blame us for that. It's a popular misconception among the press that Virtua Fighter's mechanics are too complicated for the laymen. That's a myth. What makes VF so compelling is that it's as multifaceted as you allow it to be. Two beginners can hook up and execute a minutia of combos with fairly little knowledge of the system, but pit those same players against an expert, and they'll see things they never thought possible. Therein lies the stumbling block of the media's (and as a result, the uninformed public's) view of Virtua Fighter -- a depth of gameplay that rewards skill is misinterpreted as "too complex" for general audiences. Hell, I'm no pro myself but I can still see how brilliant the system is from the very start.
Hopefully, Virtua Fighter 5 will open eyes and prove that VF is an all-access beast. As one of the few exclusive (at least for now) PS3 titles in the first quarter of 2007, it has the opportunity to grab consumers it wouldn't normally reach, and it deserves plenty of recognition. Why? Because though it isn't a huge leap over the PS2's Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, it does offer a number of everyone-friendly improvements that make it the most accessible installment yet. Faster gameplay (think "DOA fast"), reworked combos (several of which chain more naturally), and hearty customization options should get people hooked and fast.
Virtua Fighter's satisfying gameplay can be attributed to one major factor: character balance. Unlike the competing 3D titles mentioned earlier, Virtua Fighter has done a stand-up job of giving users a legitimate chance with every last warrior in the lineup. Sure there are some overpowered moves here and there, but they're minimal at best and are easily recognized after a couple of matches. This means that 90% of the time, good Akira players match up well against good Pai Chan users and advanced Aoi users won't dominate advanced Vanessa players. From a mechanical standpoint, there's nothing more important in a fighter than that.
When playing against another human being, Virtua Fighter 5 is incredibly satisfying. Even when getting your ass handed to you by a superior player, the smooth controls and deep combat compel you to play more. Unfortunately, brawling with the AI isn't nearly as gratifying since the CPU is actually quite tepid. In fact, unless you crank the difficulty all the way up, the majority of your opponents are surprisingly lazy and offer little retort to a series of fists in their face. Constant hit-and-run tactics combined with quick rush/ throw techniques will take out most sub-elite rivals, and will still deal serious damage on even the heaviest hitters.
The weak AI is softened a bit by the inclusion of the addictive Quest mode which simulates the practice of traveling to various arcades and challenging the world's best players. It's surprisingly engrossing, throws hundreds of AI-powered foes at you and serves as the primary way to gain new items for character customizations. The sheer number of modifications that can be made to a single fighter are immense (specific items for 17 different characters with four outfits each mean plenty of unlockables), and the fact that you can save up to 30 unique characters per PlayStation ID means that you can expect an abundance of variety.