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Virtua Fighter 5

The one ruck you'll want to get into.

With the PlayStation 3 dangerously close to actually launching over here, we've been giving some serious consideration to the proposed software line-up. Amid a sea of titles that most seasoned gamers will already have played or ignored for a reason hides the odd interesting exclusive or update.

But there's one game that stands out in ten-foot-high capital letters and makes us think long and hard about that lofty price tag.

We refer, of course, to SEGA's sublime Virtua Fighter 5, a game - as we discovered after a visit to SEGA's offices for a blast on the latest, near-final build - that is genuinely worth buying a new console for. Cue ranting and raving.

Fans of the series will be able to drop straight into VF5 without a second thought. The layout is very similar to that of Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, offering single-player and versus modes as well as the popular Quest mode and a VF.TV option that apparently houses plenty of high-level replays and so forth to make you feel totally inadequate about your skill level.

Thankfully, voiceover work for introductions and victories is as gloriously cheesy as ever. What a knucklehead...

Eager to find out what's new this time around, we jumped straight into Quest mode with our mighty Jeffry and got to work. There are plenty of little differences in this mode alone before you even get into the action proper. All of the different 'arcades' are open from the beginning, allowing you to bypass unworthy opponents and get straight into the ring with somebody more your level, for example.

When entering an arcade, you're given a choice between three opponents with countless other challengers to follow. It's a minute change but it allows you to start off against a character that you're comfortable fighting and therefore find your footing that much easier. The one noticeable omission here is the Quest Orders to meet as you progress through the arcades, a small change and one that isn't really missed once some of the more important tweaks come into play.

The first thing you notice about VF5 compared to its predecessors (provided you pick characters that exemplify it) is the major change to the size and weight of certain fighters. Jeffry and Wolf now tower over the rest of the cast and are extremely daunting to go up against, while the likes of Lion and newcomer Eileen look pretty much as spindly as they should. On the topic of additions to the character roster, all fighters from Evolution return with noticeably tweaked move sets and are joined by a duo of speedy rookies - Lucha Libre superstar El Blaze is out representing Mexico while young teen Eileen is all over the place with her unpredictable monkey kung-fu. Fighting either is naturally pretty tough to begin with, but after a session with each in Dojo mode to find out what they're capable of (and how to avoid being punished by them), you'll be fighting them off just like you would any other adversary. The two slot effortlessly into the line-up, their styles offering a couple of new options to beginning players or those looking for a new character and while they may be hard work, effort is as always repaid in satisfaction here.

Eileen's fighting style is rather primal, seeing her lash out with any body part she sees fit for some quirky attacks.

The primary change to the fights themselves comes by way of the new Offensive Move system. This is a way of carrying on around your opponent after a traditional evade to get beside or behind them so the subsequent attack does plenty more damage. It's going to take a while for this new feature to really sink in, but from what we've seen of it so far it does look like skilled players will be able to set up some real show-stopping moments using it against the right attacks.

Aside from that, there's also a lot of new animations, staggers, recoveries and so on to take in - things seem far less mechanical than they have been in previous games, and just about every eventuality now has its own motion. The addition of low walls should also make things interesting, so as well as enclosed arenas and open one, you'll now have some with only a meagre barrier surrounding them, making them Ring Out Central for juggle-heavy characters.

So far so good. The core fighting is better than ever and Quest mode is more or less as good as you might expect. But what else will your fifty quid get you? Well, there's Dojo mode, an all-encompassing training option where you can expect to spend a lot of your time early on, and, naturally, there's a versus mode in there to strut your stuff against human opposition. The former has been beefed up to make sure avid players have everything they need to take their game to the next level, right down to counting numbers of frames to perform counters or certain tricky moves like Akira's knee.

Wolf's newly realized stature makes most opponents look like children by comparison. Yikes.

There's a huge emphasis on character customisation too, so expect loads of new prize items, and while cash might be in short supply here, being able to win items off opponents in certain fights should keep you away from the shop for a while anyway. One interesting omission is any kind of online functionality, but knowing how important timing is in the world of Virtua Fighter, we wouldn't want to chance losing a vital frame or two to the evils of lag anyway.

Add to this recipe for success the fact that Virtua Fighter 5 looks as impressive as any fighter you'll see and you're starting to see why March 23rd can't come soon enough. SEGA's next-gen track record may not be particularly impressive thus far but with both VF5 and a new Virtua Tennis title launching alongside the PlayStation 3, all that is about to change.

It'll be interesting to see how Virtua Fighter 5 fares in comparison to Namco's Tekken: Dark Resurrection (which will be available for download on the PS3 from day one). But if there's any justice in the world, SEGA's sumptuous slice of hardcore one-on-one action will be going home with every single PS3 sold.

In other good news, old PS2 arcade sticks like the gorgeous Hori Real Arcade Pro will apparently work on the PS3 through PS2-to-USB converters. Bring it.