Anybody that tells you Virtua Fighter 5 is anything other than the best 3D fighter on the market is, quite simply, wrong. With its fluid and deeply personal combat and wonderfully varied cast, SEGA's latest brawler is an absolute triumph in every sense. But then you knew that already - we told you such back when the PlayStation 3 version came out earlier in the year. Now, though, it's the turn of 360 owners everywhere to see what we've been raving about for months with this augmented version, finally arriving boasting a plentiful supply of new content while still retaining everything that made the PS3 version such a delight.
Being based on the Version C arcade board, this new version of VF5 includes character balancing tweaks aplenty and even new moves and move properties that PS3 owners won't have enjoyed. Some weaker characters have been beefed up a touch while moves that were seen to be easily exploitable find themselves toned down accordingly to make the whole thing just feel that much more balanced, which is quite something as the fights came over pretty fair first time around.
More amusing if perhaps not so important from a gameplay perspective, is the feast of new dress-up items that Version C also introduces, adding hundreds of new items into the mix which as usual can be won from Item Battles, given as rewards for reaching certain ranks or simply purchased in the shop. You now start out Quest mode with 50,000 moneys too, meaning that you'll be able to customise your chosen fighter to a mild degree before you even throw your first punch.
But the main reason you're reading this is probably to find out just how well the new online side of the game works, which is fortunate as we're about to tell you. Pretty damn well is the short answer and in general, lag doesn't affect the game anywhere near as drastically as we feared it might. After hundreds of fights, only few were anything close to the slideshow that is DOA4's online mode and you can usually get a fair idea of how the connection if from the pre-match stage fly-by - if it stutters, you're in trouble but otherwise, things should be fine. When you are unlucky enough to get a laggy match, drops cause button inputs to be missed which in turn leads to the wrong moves coming out. There's no chance for anything fancy here and players know it too, as exemplified by a Vanessa player we came across in a particularly slowdown-riddled game who decided his best bet was to simply spam the punch button and hope for the best. What a knucklehead.
At its best, though, VF5's online battles are almost as good as fighting somebody in the same room. You'll lose a few frames here and there, sure, making some hit throws and complex moves as well as high-level techniques like fuzzy guarding (tapping down while guarding exactly as attacks land to prevent damage from all heights of attack) pretty tough, but this won't worry too many normal players. Once you adapt to this (and learn how to cope with the occasional lag-fest, which is always going to happen now and again, especially without any kind of connection quality gauge), you'll establish that, while it might be a slightly different proposition to face-to-face versus play depending largely on your character and skill level, this is a welcome and incredibly well implemented feature.
Slightly less impressive is the VF.TV mode, which we'd raised our hopes for and hoped would be kind of like PGR's Gotham TV, where you can watch the best players compete and track all kinds of stats. Instead, it just plays home to a replay theatre and stock exhibition matches, which are pretty impressive to watch but not a patch on having the same display of quality linked to a Gamertag that you then know to watch out for. There's also a rankings option here, tracking your best arcade scores and times and comparing them with the rest of the world and doing much the same for your online performance.
While character appearances from Quest mode are carried over into online play, match data and rank are not, meaning that you'll have two totally different sets of data to keep track of. There's also a score attributed to each player, a simple system that awards four points for a win and one for a loss, meaning the people topping that particular leaderboard will in time just be the ones that play the game the most. Who should, by merit of them playing it so much, also be some of the best players by that point, so while it isn't an ideal ranking system, it's better than some we've seen.
One thing to watch out for, though, is which side of the screen you'll be fighting on. A match's host always takes the Player 1 side, while those joining fight from the right (to party). This would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that so many people have fallen into bad habits from the single-player mode and have trouble with the Player 2 side. People seemed far more keen to host matches than to join them in our experience, but so long as you're okay with being on the right hand side, this only means there'll always be plenty of games to join.
The other thing to watch out for is control settings, which for some reason jump to Player 2's set-up when you join a game. Where we play using a stick (the Hori EX2 stick, which is an absolute peach) with totally remapped controls, being thrust onto Player 2's default controls in the first game we joined was something of a shock and unsurprisingly a loss ensued. So yeah, set up both button sets to be the same before you go online if you don't want a similar nasty surprise.
You already know just how much we love this game. And now, with an online mode that actually works and a wealth of new goodies to round up (not to mention the lure of Gamerpoints making us more likely to push for the higher ranks or actually play through arcade mode for once), we love it even more. Best fighting game on the 360, easily. Best fighting game of this generation, easily. Best version of this sterling beat-'em-up, easily.
If you've yet to play VF5 (or Virtua Fighter at all for that matter), this is the point at which you should do something to change that. You owe it to yourself to sample how close to perfection SEGA has come with this and you owe it to SEGA to give something back to the people behind this outstanding fighter and boost the already huge VF community. Prepare your hammy taunts, stock up on Red Bull and don't make allowances for old men - you've got a hell of a lot of fighting to do.