Virtua Fighter 5 Online (Xbox 360)
Developed by Sega-AM2
Released on October 30, 2007
Virtua Fighter 5 has never been the sort of fighting game that creates some deep, dramatic backstory for each of its characters to preface the fighting action. Sure, there's some snippets in the handbook about a corporation creating a tournament, and pieces here and there about why each character has entered. It's your standard fighting game pabulum: Kage wants to save his mother, Akira wants to prove he's the greatest fighter alive, and Jeffry wants to rescue a shark. Now that I mention it, that last one is kind of bizarre, but it's in keeping with his "wacky Jamaican fisherman" motif, and what would a Sega game be without colorful, eccentric characters?
The story is actually so lacking that unless you go searching for it -- if you happen to need motivation for punching others -- you'll never encounter it during the game. Thankfully, it's almost completely unnecessary. Virtua Fighter 5 exists for one reason: quick, technical hand-to-hand combat.
On that front it's miles ahead of its competitors. The entire game is controlled with a stick and three buttons (punch, kick, and guard), and while that scheme may seem simple compared to Capcom's six-button fighters or Tekken's one-button-per-limb approach, the simplicity of the control scheme belies the most complex fighting engine ever created. Each character comes equipped with literally hundreds of moves, and in the time it would take to master every character in Tekken, a person playing VF5 will have maybe learned a single character's moveset. On top of that, half the gameplay relies on situational awareness -- Lei Fei, a shaolin monk, has an entire series of moves that can only be pulled off when standing with your back to your foe and being within two or three feet of a wall.
Obviously such depth could come off as horribly inapproachable to the casual gamer (or hardcore fighting fans even), but VF5 goes further than any of its predecessors in making the title accessible to people of all skill levels. The aforementioned monk, and a Vale Tudo fighter named Vanessa, for instance, allow for long chains of attacks using only what is commonly referred to as "button mashing" tactics. In that way new players can learn to compete at a reasonable level without having to spend years of their life devoted to mastering Virtual Monkey Kung-Fu.
Some of you might be thinking the presence of characters who can win simply by rolling your fingers across the attack buttons would unbalance the game, and in a way it does. If a beginner player chooses one of the more complex fighters and attempts to fight another beginner playing as either of the two above virtual combatants, odds are they'll lose quickly and horribly. But Virtua Fighter 5 always provides a rock to your opponents scissors: more experienced players, when facing a button masher have a wealth of options from ridiculously fast sidesteps to defensive counters to the sort of offensive counters that Dead or Alive fans are so fond of. Unlike that game though, the defensive tactics are different for each character, so figuring out how to best counter kicks with Aoi is completely different from how a Jacky player would counter the same.
The end result of this complex system is a game in which you can spend years mastering a single character, and in fact specialization in one or two fighters is almost required even to beat the standard Arcade mode. I spent four hours practicing the sidestep and learning to mix up throws and sweeps before I was able to beat the entirety of the basic Arcade game, and I still failed to beat the bonus end boss, Dural.
The game is much more than just a home version of the arcade title though. It also includes a pseudo-RPG-esque Quest mode, which is where the bulk of a player's time will be spent. Quest mode mimics the life of a professional VF5 player within a Sega-centric meta-universe; you travel to different Sega themed arcades challenging players -- with play and character styles based on real professional VF5 players -- and earning cash and items to customize your chosen character. If it sounds familiar to the recent Tekken games, it is. Customization pieces range from hats to eye colors, but unlike Tekken, the amount of customization you can put into each character is utterly ridiculous. It's not only possible, but it's quite easy to completely change the way a character looks. Often in these arcades you'll encounter an Eileen that looks like Natalie Portman's violent twin, or a Kage made up to look like Joe Musashi from Sega's own Shinobi series. Collecting all of your character's costume options is also a time-consuming affair, as between the various visual tweaks and emblems present for collection, each character's pieces easily number above 1000.
As much fun as it is to play dress-up with fictional entities, the goal of Quest mode is actually to attain higher ranks of mastery. As you defeat opponents of similar skill levels, you'll be granted experience which is applied to your current ranking. In total there are 27 ranks to attain, and while you can easily get through the first 20 in 200 or so fights, the last 7 take some real skill. On top of that, there are three separate paths of 7 final ranks to attain based on your win percentage. While it would be disingenuous to say that there are 41 possible ranks, it's not entirely untrue either. Ultimately, to attain the highest rank, you're going to have to have a win percentage better than 80%, and just based on my rough estimate, you're looking at around 1500-2000 fights, for each character. That's a lot of game.
VF5 also includes a Dojo mode, which serves as the game's training feature. While it's easily as useful and fleshed out as those found in Tekken 5 or Soul Calibur 3, it lacks the AI mode that the home version of Virtua Fighter 4 introduced. In short, the AI mode was a training option where you could "train" the computer character to perform as you would in a real fight. You could then use that AI as a sparring partner, or unleash your pugilistic HAL 9000 on the competition in the other game modes. It would have been a nice addition had VF5 kept it, but even without the AI mode, the Dojo is quite good at teaching newer players the ins and outs of their character.
While Sega ditched the AI mode that I was so affectionate about, it also added two new characters to the fight: Eileen, an adorable Monkey Style Kung-Fu practitioner from China and El Blaze, a bouncy Mexican luchador. Never one to overwhelm players with the number of characters present, Sega added these two while maintaining a perfect balance with their older, more established pugilists. Neither character manages to break the game, and both fit in very well with the roster of combatants.
The biggest addition to the Xbox 360 version of VF5 is the online multiplayer. It allows players from around the world to beat each other senseless, and it does a much better job of it than Dead or Alive 4's similar attempt. VF5's version is quite barebones (only offering Ranked or Player Matches, and completely lacking an online lobby), but when entering a game you notice a distinct lack of network lag. In the few hundred matches I've logged so far, I've encountered one match with noticeable lag, and I think it was a result of my opponent having a terrible connection, as he vanished seconds later.
The online mode uses the same ranking system as the Quest mode, allowing for a realistic skill-based stratification of the player-base. Sadly, I can't advise new players to jump right into it, as they will be destroyed, but if they're realistic about the fact that they're going to lose often and quickly to begin with, it's the best way to become more proficient in the title.
I've saved this section for last because I think it's going to garner a lot of controversy: even without taking the online multiplayer into account, Virtua Fighter 5 Online looks and plays better than the earlier PlayStation 3 release. While the PS3 might be the more powerful system, Sega made the graphics on the Xbox 360 identical to those found in the arcade version, and the entire thing runs at a constant 60 frames per second. While the PS3 version looked good, it wasn't quite perfect, and it had occasional framerate issues. That said, the PS3 version is still a phenomenal game, but if any of you were looking for a reason other than the online multiplayer to buy the Xbox 360 release over the PlayStation 3 one, this is a pretty big one.
I can't possibly recommend this game any higher. Assuming you don't have some unnatural slant against fighting games, VF5 Online is neck and neck with The Orange Box in the race for finest game on the system. If you have ever enjoyed a fighting title, punching someone, or ninjas in general, you'll be a fan.
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