Virtua Fighter 5 Review (PS3)

I think I’ve just experienced what alcoholics and evangelists often refer to as a moment of ‘clarity’. Of course I’m not talking about an “I’ve found Jesus!” or “My life is worth living!” type of transcendental vision, but a switch in perception to accommodate an overlooked gem, always there but previously unperceivable and elusive. Opening yourself up to a creation you’d never thought of as being ‘yours’ and thoroughly enjoying the experience is as good as it gets with our chosen pastime, and a timely reminder as to why being an early hardware adopter is not always a bad thing.

El-Blaze, one of the well-balanced new additions to the roster
Character models are some of the finest to grace any system

As we’ve begun on a truth-baring theme, I’d like to confess that the splendour of Sega’s venerable beat-em-up franchise has often been lost to me in the past. The free-flowing carnage of the Soul Calibur series and the simple mechanics of the original SFII have always been my violence simulators of choice, and prior to playing the game for this review, VF5 would only have been met with mild curiosity and indifference. A far cry from the reverence that the title demands from its devoted following in Japan and to a somewhat lesser extent in the West.

In fact the title has built itself such a hardcore reputation by this point that as an outsider you’d presume the disc was made out of solid titanium and could only be played by a greased-up ninja. Of course the actuality of the situation couldn’t be further from the truth. VF5, as with the other iterations, has an instantly appealing 3-button layout (block, punch, kick) that’s as complex or as simple as you need it to be, and simply mashing the attack buttons produces enough satisfying results to keep any new player enthralled. It seems that for whatever reason Western reviewers seem to constantly confuse depth for a lack of accessibility when it comes to Virtua Fighter, and no doubt this has done the series far more harm than good at this point.

The key to the relative overseas success of VF has always been an issue of balance. Simply put, you cannot find a deeper, more technical and perfectly executed fighting system in any other game. That’s rarely been a matter for dispute since VF3, and VF5 adds nothing out of place to alter that fact. The addition of two small and nimble new fighters (El-Blaze and Eileen), is a testament to the fact that AM2 simply knows how to produce characters and move-sets that fit perfectly within its own universe, and you’ll be hard-pushed to find even a hint of a mismatch amongst the entire roster of 17 playable fighters.

The deep variety of fighting styles will ensure everyone finds a character to call their own
Eileen, a quick and nimble new fighter

On first impressions (after the game transfers 2.5gb worth of data to your PS3 hard drive), people schooled in the three other major beat-em-up franchises will be disappointed to view the rather sparse lineup of menu options. The game contains a bare-bones selection of the usual Arcade and VS modes, along with a replay theatre (VF.TV) and ‘Quest’ option. No unlockable versions of previous titles in the series or other such frivolous diversions can be found, keeping the ‘pure’ mantra of the series intact at the loss of perceived value.

The Quest mode is the main single-player meat of the title, taking the form of a small map from which the player can choose various real-life Japanese arcades to visit. Each location is graded on a scale of difficulty, and comes complete with its own virtual VF5 machines and a host of willing opponents for you to beat, randomly picked from a pool of available AI characters. At first you may find progress straight forward, with the various ‘kyu’ levels posing little threat, but this soon ramps up. 3rd dan and above becomes particularly tricky, but never feels cheap or unfair. Win streaks and tournament victories are rewarded with money and alternative costume items which means customising your fighter becomes the focus and drive to continue moving up through the ranks.

The only mystery here is why in-game monetary rewards are so prevalent for finishing 2nd and 3rd in a tournament, but not so much for overall victory. It’s a strange decision that will often leave you wondering whether it’s best to proceed to the final round of a tournament and risk only obtaining an emblem or some other trinket, or losing on purpose to take the money for 2nd place and buy something from the virtual store. Perhaps the motivation for that particular decision has been lost in translation somewhat.

Of course the game plays like an absolute dream. If you take the best elements of free-flowing style from Soul Calibur, the depth of combination attacks from Tekken, and the visual quality of DOA, you’d still end up with an inferior product. Attack and defence are well balanced, and every move can be countered or blocked by a skilled opponent. Variation in attack height, footwork and blocking is key to advancement, and mastering the timing of the more complex attacks will take months to perfect. Even then you can always come up against an opponent that will shake your perception of how to approach the game and force you to re-evaluate your style. In that respect it’s as individually expressive a title as any other to come before it.

Visually VF5 is at the absolute peak of the current gaming crop. Running at a locked 60 frames per second, you only need to take one look at any of the screenshots to see the leap in fidelity above and beyond titles such as DOA4. Stages are designed beautifully, with fantastic lighting and environmental effects, whilst character animation is a cut above any other fighter on the market. The fact that any of the attack animations can seamlessly blend into another whenever you so desire (Tekken please take note) is the icing on the cake, adding a flow and synergy that almost all other brawlers completely miss (special dispensation for Soul Calibur, which comes close at times).

Audio is generally of a high standard, although sampled speech takes a hit for some reason, with a lot of phrases seemingly recorded at a lower bit rate than necessary. Given the vast storage quantities of Blu-Ray discs it’s a somewhat unfortunate situation, and can only realistically be attributed as a concession to the arcade version released last year. Still, would it have killed them to record two different versions at the same time? Did nobody keep the masters?

The only real drawback to the PS3 version is that the Xbox 360 title is just around the corner, and will no doubt feature online support in some capacity via online rankings or maybe downloadable replays and player profiles. This will definitely not include online play however, so if anyone is on the fence as to whether to purchase this title at the moment, there’s really little point in hanging around.

Characters are highly customisable in the main quest mode
Environmental and lighting effects are simply unparalleled on any system

Missing out on VF5 on whichever console you tie your allegiance to would be to deny yourself one of the finest titles of this generation so far. Given the perfection of the fighting engine and the leap above all titles that have come before it, you could easily argue for the game to be a contender for the best fighting game of all time. Let’s just hope that translates into sales figures and a legion of new fans to keep the series afloat in the future. Count me in.

Top game moment:
The synergy built up between player and on-screen fighter following a mammoth play session. The purest form of gameplay available.

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