Revisited: Leonard’s VF5 Review

VF5 Review Redux

Way back in June 2008, I reviewed VF5 for GamersGlobal. Not until FatalRose from VFDC reminded me of that article, I completely forgot about it. Now, I revisited my work and gave it a final polish. Enjoy the deepest VF5 review on the web.

high-grade-articleYou can only really review a game like Virtua Fighter 5 after playing it for months and months because playing it in its whole depth and beauty takes time. Much time. Time that is very well worth your effort of trying out a stellar fighting game that knows how to hold you in its spell. That is, if you allow it to.

What exactly is Virtua Fighter?

Virtua Fighter is different from any other 3D-fighter: not only that you won’t encounter any fireball-throwing karatekas, or katana-swinging samurais à la Street Fighter or Soul Calibur. No! Virtua Fighter is even to-day the most authentic fighting simulation with a cast of fighters from different real-life martial arts.

If I were to describe Virtua Fighter with one word only, it’d surely be “balance.” Game balance has always been a showpiece of the franchise. No matter which character you take, you have equal chances to win. There is always a counter to your counter as there is a throw escape to your grab throw, and so on. When its about gameplay fairness VF5 truly begins to shine – no technique in VF is ultimate or unbeatable.

The core game principle of VF is that two players of different fighting styles, that exist in real life, fight each other until one goes KO or ring out, or when the timer runs out. The martial arts firework that is rendered on screen, when for instance drunken master Shun fights against the beautiful Japanese Aiki-Jiujitsu schoolgirl Aoi, speaks for itself. If you’re looking for gory action, or flashy special effects, then Virtua Fighter 5 — or the VF series in general — won’t get you nowhere near satisfaction.

Proportional to the addition of fighters over the time, the range of different martial arts has increased as well: from Jeet Kune Do (Jacky) to Lucha Libre (El Blaze) to monkey-style Gong Fu (Eileen) to Wrestling (Wolf). If a martial art is somewhat popular, then you will most likely find a master representing it in Virtua Fighter 5.

Proportional to the addition of fighters over the time, the range of different martial arts has increased as well: from Jeet Kune Do (Jacky) to Lucha Libre (El Blaze) to monkey-style Gong Fu (Eileen) to Wrestling (Wolf). If a martial art is somewhat popular, then you will most likely find a master representing it in Virtua Fighter 5.

How VF became what it is today

Ever since Virtua Fighter had its debut in the then uber-popular arcade halls it’s soon been realized that that first 3D fighting game was to become a milestone in gaming history.

Based on a three-button layout (punch, kick, and guard) and directional input only, the fighter soon proved to be simple and yet deep at the same time – a learning curve, and button layout that are still characteristic to the franchise to-date. Every new major installment of the series brought not only new characters but also new gaming dimensions to the whole genre:

  1. Virtua Fighter 2 introduced breakthrough graphics based on the SEGA Model 2 board. Even the Saturn version was more than impressive graphic wise.
  2. Virtua Fighter 3 made use of a new 4th button for evading into the third dimension. This new addition, as well as the many new gameplay elements (such as uneven arenas), and the frame-precise input turned away the casual gamers driving the game more and more into the corner of elite-gaming. VF3 was one of the most successful arcade hall titles of all times.
  3. Virtua Fighter 4 was a step back to the roots of the series, to Virtua Fighter 2. The idea was to simplify both the execution of moves and the control scheme in order to attract a wider, more mainstream audience. With VF4, the algorithm, first introduced in VF3, that corrected or completed the player’s input in a given situation, got extended. Apart from that, a huge ensemble of new, more flashy characters was introduced with VF4 and VF4: Evolution.
Time line from left to right: The Virtua Fighter series stands for many milestones in the graphics department. Its newest installment, Virtua Fighter 5 (big picture), stuns its players, apart from ultra-smooth character animations and huge, eye-catching arenas, with real-time lightning effects, impressive renderings of all kinds of cloth - from cotton to silk, - and with all the tiny details like sweat that breathes life into every single polygon of the game and its characters.

Time line from left to right: The Virtua Fighter series stands for many milestones in the graphics department. Its newest installment, Virtua Fighter 5 (big picture), stuns its players, apart from ultra-smooth character animations and huge, eye-catching arenas, with real-time lightning effects, impressive renderings of all kinds of cloth - from cotton to silk, - and with all the tiny details like sweat that breathes life into every single polygon of the game and its characters.

It’s so deep but why?

There were reviews abound that praised the sheer unlimited depth of Virtua Fighter 5. But no one really explained in particular what’s meant by this.

When you have played the VF franchise since day one, you may partly understand or even share the point that the professional VF scene likes to make about VF: having mastered a character and his style in Virtua Fighter is equated to having mastered a real martial art. The easy control scheme (punch, kick, and guard plus the directional input) is learned quite quickly. What this control scheme is capable of though is more than impressive: dozens of techniques, combinations, and interactions just with the simple controls that Virtua Fighter 5 provides the player with.

Virtua Fighter 5 has a steadily-rising learning curve. Getting into the matter takes time, much time – every single frame of time, to be precise. In Virtua Fighter the clock ticks differently: sure, you have a clock counter and all, but the game runs in frames – 60 frames per second, to be exact. Every single frame can be the start of an action: an attack, throw, evasion, etc. Thus, it is every single frame that counts: if the player knows beforehand how high his frame-wise advantage is after having blocked an opponent’s move, then he can utilize this knowledge to his advantage by buffering his reaction according to that, resulting in the highest possible damage outcome. Yes, knowledge is power in Virtua Fighter 5: knowing your options in a situation is as vital as your next move in a good game of chess.

In an era where the competitive fighting genre is losing its footing, where sandbox, online games, and first-person shooters earn the big money on the market, Virtua Fighter 5 stands by its less merciless ideals that force-pushes the game against the trend of its time, à la Soul Calibur & Co., against a trend that is pushed towards simplicity and flashiness. Even the newest installment by AM-2, Virtua Fighter 5, is still very much input-emphasized in offensive and defensive gameplay situations. Delivering or buffering the proposed input in time is the only guarantee for a successful match, and that is something that has to be trained over and over again.

But the depth in Virtua Fighter doesn’t only come from mastering the offense. As in most fighting games holding back (see 2D-fighters) or the guard-button (i.e. Soul Calibur) is about all you can do when defending. But not so in VF5: even in defensive situations the player’s input is as demanded as in offensive ones – if not even more. Executing throw escapes, buffering evasions, or special crouch-guard techniques belong to the daily routine of the more advanced defender.

From top to bottom: the main menu, Dojo mode, and Costume editor. On the right side: the Quest mode, and online VS. mode (Xbox 360 only).

From top to bottom: the main menu, Dojo mode, and Costume editor. On the right side: the Quest mode, and online VS. mode (Xbox 360 only).

Not the best compromise between accessibility and depth

It’s like a whimpering out of desperation: even though accepted as the deepest and most complex 3D fighter of all times, Virtua Fighter 5 is hardly played by the Western audience. This can be put down to the fact that Virtua Fighter doesn’t take the player by his hand at all guiding him through the mechanics of its vast gameplay elements. The player is, quite literally, thrown in at the deep end without him letting know how to swim, or that there’s even such a thing as “swimming.”

Sure: the bland, plain Quest mode offers tens of thousands of arcade VF celebrities as CPU to fight against; and the AI is pretty decent (Xbox 360 version only) especially if set on Expert level, where it tries to emulate particular playing styles. Sure: there is an OK manual that VF5 gets shipped with. But it only explains the most basic game principles that the player, without pragmatic examples, can hardly get an idea of. Even the mediocre Dojo mode, that, by the way, falls short if compared to the one in VF4: Evolution, wasn’t developed in the way that the player is tutored through the jungle of complexity that is Virtua Fighter. Training the execution of moves or setting up specific gameplay situations with the CPU in Dojo mode doesn’t simply correspond to the deep gameplay that VF awaits its players with. Unexplained complexity is also the point where even VF5’s newest character additions, Eileen and El Blaze, who were especially designed for beginners and who are easy to pick up and play with, can’t help either.

By leaving the player so much on his own AM-2 has made a grave mistake. This is a mistake that can’t possibly appeal to the common Western audience. The player is forced to begin his quest for more gameplay knowledge outside of the game. The Official VF5 Homepage in English won’t help you there either. The Official VF5 Strategy Guide by BradyGames, however, gives a first helpful glimpse at the game, which can then be nurtured by browsing through Virtua Fighter DC with their extensive Virtua Fighter Wiki, command lists, and knowledgeable English community forum.

What’s new in VF5?

The most obvious additions are the two new characters, El Blaze (Lucha Libre) and the female Chinese Eileen (monkey-style Gong Fu) – two great characters which are easy to pick up and, thus, perfect for VF beginners. The graphic engine has also been polished up and was impressively attuned to the high-definition climate that shines on the current console generation of games.

Apart from that, you can now view previously recorded matches (from the off- or online VS. mode) on VF.TV. Unfortunately, VF.TV is much more useful to the arcade gamer who can save the record as real video file, exchange replays easily, and what not (something they have to pay for though). As expected, the player also gets drowned in a mass of new (non-gameplay relevant) items for customizing his beloved character.

This is where the technically obvious additions to the game end. What comes next are, for most of the part, gameplay changes and tweaks which, all in all, drive the game more towards offense, and the more emphasized usage of throws. The new technique Offensive Movement now offers the player the possibility to position himself much better and faster in the ring, or to even create a side-turned situation where it takes much more time for the opponent to guard giving you time to initiate the really damaging combos against the helpless foe. Here are the core gameplay changes in a nutshell:

  1. Offensive Movement: similar to a short evade in Virtua Fighter 3, this new form of evasion advances the player forward in an aggressively diagonal angle.
  2. Side-turned Situations: being side-turned means that getting your character to the state of guarding takes much more time.
  3. Throw Clashes: strikes don’t always beat throws anymore, resulting in a status quo situation for both players.
  4. Throw Speed: it now takes much longer to get a throw activated (at least 12 frames).
  5. 0-Frame-Throws: if a character isn’t performing an attack, then he can be instantly thrown.
Virtua Fighter 5 can be addictive, very addictive ...

Virtua Fighter 5 can be addictive, very addictive ...

Your choice: Xbox 360 vs. PS3 version

There are two version for the home consoles of Virtua Fighter 5: the PS3 version that got released with the launch of Sony’s flagship, and the Xbox 360 version that came out about half a year after that.

Both versions represent an equally good port of an already impressive arcade fighter. The question comes down to whether you have someone to play the game with. If you haven’t, and if there isn’t a strong VF community around your neighborhood, then it’s a better idea to buy the Xbox 360 version that supports online play. And it works so surprisingly well that the times of a laggy Dead or Alive 4 & Co. are over for most of the part. Virtua Fighter 5 provides you with an engine that works in both ways: off- and online. Provided the connection to your opponent is decent, you can still enjoy all the frame-precise techniques online that you would perform offline like sabakis, reversals, hit-throws, Fuzzy Guard, 0-Frame-Throws, and so on. As well, the lag compensation for intercontinental matches is more than good.

Gameplay wise, the Xbox 360 version provides you with Revision C holding important move and gameplay tweaks (like camera angles). Also, a more refined Dojo mode & AI, better background anti-aliasing, more items for customization, also in the form of downloadable content, await you on Microsoft’s console.

Whichever version you will buy, though, it is highly recommended to get your hands on an arcade stick better sooner than later. In general, a normal controller pad can hinder your clean command input, whereas the arcade stick with its huge buttons, and comfortable joystick leaves enough room entering on-spot commands. For trying out Virtua Fighter 5 and breathing in the game’s spirit though, a pad will do just fine.

Arcade Sticks

From rubbish to royalty (top to bottom): There where HORI's Fighting Stick EX2 only disappointed, the HORI Real Arcade Pro 3, for the bigger pocket, wants to score: quality. Possibly only the Virtua Stick High Grade (PS3 only) by Sega though can compete with custom-made arcade sticks.

Closing comments

Virtua Fighter’s complexity can be a joy – but only if you allow it to. It can be enjoying to dive into the abyss of an authentic fighting game that surprises you every time you load up the disk. Becoming better, training moves and tactics, and defeating the best of the world online can have much addictive potential. Most certainly, all this doesn’t make the game a renter though: the appeal of Virtua Fighter to occasional gamers is rather limited. Same goes for singleplayer enthusiasts: Virtua Fighter 5 is solely a multiplayer game. Single players will be terribly disappointed as there is practically nothing in the package for them. The Quest and Arcade mode can’t help it either.

Virtua Fighter’s complexity can be a pain – most definitely, at a certain stage of your gameplay experience. The biggest letdown of the game is its lack of guidance. That Virtua Fighter could never quite evolve from its arcade roots, is obvious when you analyze its console versions: there is little that tutors the player in a helpful way towards becoming better. An extended Dojo mode in the style of VF4: Evolution’s could have helped a lot here. The console versions therefore seem to fall short and too thin, and still force the player to browse the web for explaining sources.

Technically, the franchise proves once more that it’s top-notch. Where the HD graphics are a feast to your eyes, and breathe life into the characters and scenery, the sound and music is typically VF: a purely practical gameplay element in Dolby Digital 5.1. As we can decode a sound with our ears before we can even think about decrypting a scene visually, specific moves make specific sounds in Virtua Fighter according to that: a sweep will always be accompanied by a swoosh, and so on. As pragmatic as it can get.

So, is Virtua Fighter 5 a game for you? If you like to dive into the depths of games, if you enjoy challenges in a great fighting game, and if you are not afraid of googling VF5 guides and FAQs, then yes: Virtua Fighter 5 will keep you entertained for many years provided that you have someone to train with, and to play against – either off- or online. If you are an occasional gamer though, that likes to pick up a fighting game from time to time, then VF5 might stress you too much. Only constant playing will advance you forward. You will better be off with the upcoming Soul Calibur 4 or even Street Fighter IV that are ideal for occasional gaming.

VF5 Final Score

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