Despite a roster including a son-of-a-cyborg ninja, a hotshot shark hunter and a world renowned chef, Virtua Fighter 5 is as serious as a fighter as one is likely to find. The latest instalment in the notoriously deep fighting series, this incarnation sees VF5 newly released on Xbox Live in the streamlined Final Showdown edition.
Story has never been much of a concern for fans of the series, Sega instead letting state of the art technology and realistic fighting techniques take precedence since its polygon-based inception in 1993. VF5 certainly doesn’t break from tradition with the skimpiest of plots about a sinister corporation serving only to get the twenty odd fighters into the ring, but has a fighting system so deeply rewarding that dedicated players could easily lose months of their life honing their skills with just one character. Every new round is a learning experience and it always feels as if there is room for improvement, mastery of the game coming from understanding combat techniques as opposed to learning special moves.
Although first hitting arcades back in 2006 with console editions hot on its heels, VF5: FS boasts new animations and streamlined graphics. In short it’s looking more impressive than ever (especially considering the relatively low 1200 MS point price-tag) but in a fighter such as this gameplay is paramount. Does it stand the test of time?
Upon first launching into VF5: FS, the major change since the 2006 release is immediately apparent – the abandonment of Quest Mode. Gleefully meta, this formed the backbone of the original single player, with the gamer traveling the world to take on other computer-controlled VF5 aficionados in a series of virtual arcades. Incorporating a reward system allowing the player to earn money with which to purchase hundreds of items for each character, this offered an incredible level of customisation. An addictive mini-game in its own right, it was also possible for players to show off their fully kitted characters in the online arena.
With the axing of Quest Mode, gone also is the ability to unlock these various character-specific items. Well, almost gone. They can still be purchased online for 400 MS points per character, adding up to a staggering 7600 points for all 19 item packs when purchased individually, or £65.11 in real-life wallet-pounding terms. Thankfully the option is available to purchase the whole shebang in two much more affordable 1200 point bundles. However, this still jacks the ‘full’ price up to £30.84 – very steep for what is essentially a polished version of a six year old game. Some may call this move canny, I say unreasonable. Furthermore, the items aren’t visible to online players unless they also own the packs – sure to stick in the craw of some vain fighting fans.
Thankfully, this stumbling block aside, VF5: FS is every bit the technical behemoth it was upon its original release. Swapping the fireballs and flaming fists of Street Fighter and Tekken for a much more realistic approach and uncompromisingly deep control system, VF5 still reigns supreme as the thinking man’s fighter. Despite only involving four input buttons (punch, kick, block as well as the D-pad), each character on the impressive roster has an unfathomable range of manoeuvres, with twelve or more pages of moves to peruse. These can all be practised in the dojo but only long hours in the arena will allow the player to work out when to pull off the right evasive dodge or combo from rocket discharge. A much slower game than say, Street Fighter IV, VF5 is much more about getting to grips with the pacing and subtle nuances of each fighting style on offer, rather than button-mashing or spamming life-bar devastating special moves.
Each character’s seemingly infinite moveset can be perused at any time from the pause menu, with the ability to view videos of the more complex manoeuvres in the dojo. While the emphasis is on timing and learning which situation demands a specific move rather than finger gymnastics, the more complex combos are still quite tricky to pull off. The results are a world apart from the OTT visual spectacles that come courtesy of Ryu and the gang, the payoff instead coming from a sense of mastery over very real combat techniques. Fan favourite Sumo monster Taka-Arashi from Virtua Fighter 3 returns in Final Showdown (as well as new character Jean Kujo) and updated interactive arenas work well in conjunction with an array of new wall-based moves.
Gameplay is drastically improved with the addition of an arcade style fightstick but the regular pad proves more than adequate thanks to an intuitive layout. With the basic moves (punch, kick and guard - there is no differentiation between light, medium and hard) mapped to the face buttons, combinations of the above can be configured to the bumpers and triggers. This is invaluable when pulling off some of the more intricate combos and makes for an intuitive control system when navigating the 3D plane.
While some characters have a more defensive than offensive style of combat, they feel extremely well balanced and the updated animations are smooth as glass. Furthermore, although the voice acting is laughable (“the big time playa is here!” bellows womanizing Muay Thai master Brad Burns) and the music stereotypically comprised of techno beats and soaring guitar, there is thankfully an option to listen to the previous (superior) soundtracks instead.
Complementing the arcade mode is a Pandora’s Box of single-player variations, including score attack as well as license challenge mode, in which the player must win a series of rounds with provisos such as nailing a certain number of combos or performing a particular type of throw at least once within each round. Online versus matches are polished, if stripped back in terms of options – aside from a few lag issues and a lack of players in the ranked lobbies, there is plenty of fun to be had getting your ass handed to you by hardcore aficionados of the game. Of course, there is another oft-forgotten mode available – local versus. Trading blows on a shared sofa has never been quite as fun as this, with fraught battles often coming down to split second reflexes. Achievement hunters may also wish to know that the 400G available can be scooped up in well under an hour of gameplay – surely a more rewarding experience than mining Avatar: The Last Airbender for quick Gs.
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is a class act from start to finish and straddles the worlds of easy to pick up yet nigh on impossible to master better than any other game in the series. Arguably there has never been a fighter with a combat system as organic and rewarding as this and those willing to dedicate plenty of time will be met with an incomparably deep, unique and personal experience. Some players will no doubt mourn the loss of the unlockable trinkets in the original release, but even these are available for purchase, should the pockets of your judogi be deep enough.