Version tested: Xbox 360
When the original Virtual-On was released in 1995, the story implied that, rather than having been manufactured by SEGA, the sit-down arcade cabinet had been sent from the future in search of capable pilots. Once a suitable candidate had been found and proven their worth by inserting a coin into the mechanism (probably to help stabilise the space-time continuum), it was time to grab the twin sticks and select a Virtuaroid.
These colourful, heavily armed mechs came in many different forms, but rather than tackling a small army with them, players had to battle other Virtuaroids in a fully traversable arena. It was like piloting your own Gundam, and for this reason Virtual-On has seen notable success in Japan. (It's also why the Capcom-developed Gundam VS series is still the most played videogame in Japanese arcades.)
Back west though, Virtual-On is more of a curio, and doesn't have anywhere near the same following, which is a shame, as the mechanical solidarity of this fighter runs deep. It also doesn't help that Europe, up until recently, had been excluded from every Virtual-On bar the original, as we only received the sequel in 2009 courtesy of Xbox Live Arcade. Even then, despite being over a decade old, Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram was, at least for some of us, well worth the wait.
But Tangram isn't the end of this cyber saga, as there are two further sequels in Virtual-On Force and Virtual-On Marz. As a PlayStation 2 exclusive, Marz isn't that hard to track down, and even received a North American release. Force, though, was an arcade game released only in Japan. Now SEGA has not only ported Force to the 360 in Japan, but it's also made the disc region-free.
While all the previous games have been one-on-one fighters, Force shakes things up by making players face off in pairs. It's not just a straightforward slugfest either, as one player gets to be the leader while the other gets the less glamorous title of 'partner'. A team wins by either running down the clock with more health than the opposition or by destroying the enemy leader. It's also possible to score a perfect victory by beating down the partner and then double-teaming the hapless leader.
Those expecting Tangram Tag Tournament Turbo may be disappointed, though, as Force is noticeably slower than its predecessor. This is clearly to make the increased number of projectiles more manageable, but if you're used to the speedier pace of Tangram then adjusting can be tricky. This isn't the only hurdle, as Force also simplifies the control scheme by switching from two Turbo buttons to just one. Nonetheless, the game prides itself on being uniquely hardcore.
Most top-tier Street Fighter players swear by their arcade sticks, and in much the same way those serious about Virtual-On will sing the praises of their twin sticks. After all, both games were designed with their respective interfaces in mind. But with Hori charging around ¥30,000 (£235) for one of its lavish Twin Stick EX controllers, most of us will have to experience Force through a 360 pad.
This wasn't as restrictive as I imagined, because the default setup is fairly intuitive and allowed me to go through the motions with a nippy Apharmd J Virtuaroid unhindered – dashing around the map for some sneaky melee strikes. As before, the ranged combat revolves around mixing up the left, right and centre weapons, fired by pressing the triggers either separately or simultaneously – with the main difference being that each weapon now only has one set of Turbo variations.
The spare Turbo button is replaced with a target selector that switches between opponents, and to secure a lock-on you still have to either jump and quickly land or dash and fire a weapon. Which may sound confusing to the uninitiated, but the ebb and flow of Virtual-On combat is about keeping your opponent pressured, carefully observing their movement patterns and looking for opportunities to catch them off guard with your most potent attacks.
It takes a considerable amount of practice for everything to sink in, as there are many advanced techniques to learn, but once you've got down the basics it's more a case of finding a Virtuaroid that best complements your style of play.
There are 12 basic models to choose from, ranging from the classic Temjin all-rounder – complete with laser rifle and beam sword – to the new samurai-style Kagekiyo, who wields a Katana and Wakizashi. Force also sees the return of the sister Fei-Yen and Angelan units as well as the more heavy-duty Vox and Raiden. But rather than limited to a few custom paintjobs – as has been the case in the past – every Virtuaroid now has many selectable variations which alter their armaments, randomly unlocked in Mission mode for completing certain objectives.
What's more interesting is how Force accommodates those who want to play solo, because if your friends list is lacking in reliable co-pilots then you may have to make one yourself. This is handled in the AI Management screen, where you're encouraged to choose a Virtuaroid to complement your own. You're then presented with six intelligence characteristics, and while you'd expect a handful of intelligence points to help kick things off, for some reason you start with none.
This means you have to drag an utterly useless wingman through Arcade mode multiple times in order to scrape enough points together to get some kind of cognitive function going. Then once you start raking in the points and max out most of the attributes, your buddy will often steal the show and win the match single-handedly. As lopsided as this relationship can be, your AI won't be able to help in the online mode, as here you have to fend for yourself.
For the Rank Matches, you're randomly partnered with another player. But rather than a sensible matchmaking system where the two teams are kept as balanced as possible, I often found myself paired with another beginner while facing off against two highly-ranked veterans.
Thankfully, Player Matches can be browsed at your leisure. Lobbies set up by Japanese players have a habit of timing out before the match starts, but as compensation the netcode is stable once you're in and I never lagged out mid-match. The online competition is also fairly healthy for a game like this, with the leaderboards showing somewhere in the region of 6300 ranked players.
Whether you want Virtual-On Force is almost entirely dependent on how familiar you are with the series already. If you loved Tangram, then you may not relish the simplified controls and slower tempo, but the ability to team up with a friend certainly makes for a different and equally challenging experience. But if you've never had any love for the series before, then the unremarkable collection of single-player options will fail to change your outlook.
No matter which way you look at it, Force is a hardcore fighter hybrid which takes a certain type of gamer to appreciate its highly demanding yet deeply rewarding gameplay. When you consider it was originally released just a year after the PlayStation 2, it's hard not to be impressed that it still looks and plays so well today. My only regret is not having sampled it in arcade form, but I guess those cabinets have long since been beamed back to the future.
7 / 10