Version tested: PlayStation 3
There is a palpable sense of dread about putting pen to paper on this review - or fingers to keyboard, for that matter. Reviewing games is a job which invites others to give their opinion on what you're doing, so I'm used to that, but ever since Virtua Fighter 5 landed on my desk the sheer weight of unwanted opinion has astonished me.
My MSN has buzzed with people letting me know what they think of Virtua Fighter; my friends have dropped idle comments about their love for (or hatred of, in some cases) the venerable franchise while evaluating my responses with hard, calculating eyes. This very day, it emerged that my flatmate's girlfriend likes the series because it's "the most technical of the beat 'em ups".
I should have guessed that it would come to this. I know people (who will read this review, and judge my very worth as a human being based on its content) who have spent more money on shipping and import duty for enormous, metal-cased arcade sticks than most people spend on food in a month - just for VF. I've walked through arcades in Tokyo on many occasions, and seen the silent devotion of the VF acolytes who gather in those sacred halls, filled with adoring fervour for the hallowed arcade cabinets. I've spoken to men and women who talk about the world's best VF players in the same tones that my parents used for the Pope.
I'm not reviewing a game. I'm reviewing a religion.
(Catholicism: Venerable stalwart of the genre. Fantastic art style, and memorable, catchy music. Addition of the Virgin Mary as a playable character alongside Jesus gives it the edge over competing Abrahamic religions in terms of variety, although consistent oppression and a relentless focus on guilt and self-loathing as a core gameplay mechanism could make it tough for this one to break out of its hardcore niche. Brilliant hats, though. 6/10.)
If the sheer passion of VF's fans leaves you looking a tad confused, you're not alone. Although it can legitimately claim to be the father of the 3D beat 'em up genre, Virtua Fighter has never been the most popular game around. Fighting games like Tekken, Soul Calibur and Dead Or Alive have found warmer welcomes in the mass market, especially outside VF's island stronghold, Japan. None of which is to say that they're better or worse than VF; you can bring your own prejudices to the table on the front. Merely that they followed a different path, and that path led them to appeal to a far wider group of people.
So who did VF appeal to, then? The answer is as hackneyed as it is true; it appealed to the hardcore. To the beat 'em up enthusiast who cares about perfectly balanced characters, about mastering the intricacies of the vastly technical fighting system, about a game designed to be the perfect arena for fair competition. VF coldly dismisses as gimmicks the various additional modes and so on which have been introduced to its rivals over the years; if it's not directly relevant to improving the experience of combat, there's no home for it in this franchise. This is beat 'em up purity
Let's start with that, then - with VF5's astonishing triumph. This game sets out to provide perfectly balanced characters, where each character is unique but no character has an overall advantage over any other. It sets out to provide an intricate, technical and complex fighting system, where moves turn into combos and combos turn into strategies as players master more of the game's mechanics. It sets out to provide a perfect arena for competition, as fair and balanced as any sports field could hope to be, where two players enter and the best player emerges victorious.
At all of those incredibly difficult goals, VF5 succeeds. It succeeds in style.
No other fighting game ever made can match the intricate beauty of VF5's gameplay. Here is a game which has been honed and refined on the toughest audience of all, the ferociously critical hardcore who inhabit arcades up and down Japan. Following a clear line from VF4 and VF4: Evolution, VF5 has, er, evolved with the addition of two new characters and some interesting tweaks and modifications to the fighting styles of its existing roster. The two new fighters, El Blaze and Eileen, fight in the manner of a Mexican-style wrestler and an extremely angry monkey, respectively (okay, the latter is apparently a martial arts style called kou-ken - regardless, she's like a chimp whose bananas have been stolen when she cuts loose), which sets them apart from the other characters and gives the game a new challenge for old hands. Even at that, the game stays confidently aloft on its narrow tightrope, maintaining perfect balance while introducing new variety.
The focus on hardcore players is patently obvious from the window dressing around the fights, too. You can store a bunch of data profiles in your save game, tracking detailed statistics for your progress with various characters, and there's a comprehensive Dojo mode which allows you to practice your moves and learn new ones. If you actually want to get good at the game, though, the Dojo won't do much more than point the way - the only way to really get good at VF is to play match after match after match.
Alongside the standard arcade mode (fight a certain number of enemies and then a boss, the template of beat 'em up games since the dawn of time - well, StreetFighter), there's also a "Quest" mode which allows you to take on a variety of AI opponents by travelling between various SEGA arcades and taking part in virtual VF tournaments. Yes, that's right; the quest mode doesn't see you playing a warrior tracking down his father's killers or some such, it sees you playing a VF player travelling around arcades to take on opponents at the game. Did we mention that it was a bit hardcore?
And that's your lot - which leaves a rather gaping hole, of course, a gaping hole shaped a bit like a network socket. VF5 totally lacks any form of network functionality; you can't play the game online, but you can't do fun stuff like training an AI character and sending him off to fight your friends or any such thing, either. Frankly, it's a shocking omission from the game. While we can overlook the dropping of much of the window dressing that accompanies more mass-market titles like Soul Calibur, online functionality could have added a lot to this game for hardcore players and more casual gamers alike. SEGA's reasoning for dropping online play is simple - the lag would have destroyed the gameplay, they claim, and if they say so, we can accept that. Not bothering to exploit any of the potential of online, on the other hand, stings badly.
There are some other pieces of window dressing which games like Soul Calibur have introduced that Virtua Fighter completely ignores, too. The game does offer plenty of unlockable content, and there are all manner of accessories and extra costumes to pick up as you move through the various Quest tournaments and ranks - but the complete lack of a proper storyline mode, and the paucity of match setup options compared to the likes of Soul Calibur or Dead Or Alive, will not endear this game to more casual players. VF fans won't even notice they're not there - that's not why they play VF, and in defence of the game, it's not what it sets out to do.
As such, that's not reallly a criticism, so much as a Caveat Emptor. All the gushing about the beautiful, intricate fighting system shouldn't disguise one key fact; this is not a game which the majority of people will like much. It is designed to sate the needs of a specific audience, and it does it brilliantly, but despite vague overtures towards accessibility (such as the rather good Dojo), this remains a game which you don't pick up and play and enjoy. You pick it up, play it, get frustrated, and if you're of the right mentality, you then learn it, and keep on learning it, and get good at it - and then you enjoy it.
One thing you can enjoy from the outset, at least, is the graphical splendour of the game. The characters, particularly, look wonderful - with fluid movements, billowing cloth and hair, and realistic facial animations. Realistic apart from the mouths, anyway, which are a bit artificial looking, but it's still a cut above anything we've seen in other beat 'em up titles. The environments, too, are impressively lush and detailed. The game sacrifices looks for playability - as usual - by confining the action to a traditional ring rather than allowing people to be punched through walls and out windows, as in Dead or Alive. However, it makes up for it by having beautiful backdrops and lovely environment effects, like fog which rolls over the stones of the fighting arena in some stages.
The whole thing runs at 720p - sadly, there's no 1080p support - and maintains a perfectly steady framerate throughout, which is impressive for a game which moves this fast. We were less impressed with the audio, though, not least because of some of the worst English voice acting we've ever heard. This is at least confined to a couple of lines before and after each match, but it's enough to make you cringe every time; bad enough to be awful, not quite bad enough to be funny. The music, too, is unremarkable, and tends towards the crap instrumental rock which SEGA's composers have seemed to have a love affair with for the last five years. The sooner that engagement gets broken off, the better.
Weighing VF5 in the balance is tricky. As was stated at the outset, this as much a religion as a game; it inspires fervour and dedication in its followers, and we can see why. The mechanics of this game are as close to perfection as any fighting game can come. It is brutal and unforgiving, yet beautiful and intricate; it marries speed and strategy where most games must choose one over the other. In almost every way, VF5 is a worthy, welcome and brilliantly implemented evolution of its highly regarded predecessors. This is the game arcade sticks were invented for.
On the other hand, despite the high score which a game of this quality absolutely demands, the simple fact is that many of you reading won't enjoy Virtua Fighter 5, and shouldn't buy it. This is not a game which welcomes new players; it's not a game which is designed to be picked up when you come home from the pub with a couple of mates and want some good beat 'em up fun. It doesn't have the immediacy of Dead or Alive, the panache of Soul Calibur, or the accessibility of Tekken. It totally lacks the canny sense of fun over competition which those three share.
We can't say that's a bad thing, though. It's a different thing, nothing more, nothing less. To complain that Virtua Fighter 5 isn't accessible enough would be like complaining that a black and white film isn't colourful enough, or that a vegetable dish isn't meaty enough. VF5 sets out to create the world's best beat 'em up for beat 'em up aficionados, and it succeeds. It deserves all the plaudits it gets; we just think that you should consider carefully whether you count yourself as a beat 'em up aficionado before deciding to pick up a copy.
9 / 10