The Godfather of 3D fighters returns
Virtua Fighter 5: Ultimate Showdown is the fourth iteration of the fifth mainline entry in Sega’s legendary 3D fighting franchise — the first release since 2010’s (now suspiciously titled) Final Showdown. The core aim of Ultimate Showdown is to reignite Virtua Fighter‘s admittedly niche competitive scene, offering players an alternate to FGC giants such as Tekken and Mortal Kombat 11. Mighty opponents indeed. Still, if any title has the pedigree to make such a comeback, it’ll be Sega’s iconic slugfest.
Carving out a prime spot in a crowded esports market is an unenviable task, particularly given the current global climate and the unpredictable nature of its eventual aftermath. Sega will be required to go all-out in its efforts to market and, crucially, to support Ultimate Showdown as a title worthy of a fresh turn in the premier league of competitive fighters.
While no-one would deny Virtua Fighter the mantle of one of the finest and most influential titles ever to hit the scene, Virtua Fighter 5’s initial release was a bone-rattling 15 years ago. Can Sega’s formative 3D fighter shine once again on the main stage, particularly when toeing the line against such stiff competition? Until the return of the global tournament scene, we’ll have to be patient for those answers. For now, let’s take a look at what Ultimate Showdown brings to the ring.
Virtua Fighter 5: Ultimate Showdown (PS4)
Developer: Sega AM2 / Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Released: June 1, 2021
MSRP: $29.99 (includes DLC bundle)
Virtua Fighter 5: Ultimate Showdown is a joint production of Sega’s pioneering AM2 division and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, who themselves are no strangers to skull-busting, having developed both the Yakuza and Judgment franchises. The two talented teams have recreated Virtua Fighter 5 within RGG’s Dragon Engine, accurately retaining the gameplay and mechanics of its earlier iterations, while offering a fresh coat of paint to the decade-old visuals and tweaking its under-the-hood technology.
Virtua Fighter 5 has never looked so flashy. The work done by RGG to improve the fighter’s light and shadow effects are exemplary, while individual textures for material, hair, and skin — always a VF standout — have also seen a noticeable upgrade. Additionally, Virtua Fighter‘s gallery of sun-streaked battlegrounds — among some of the most idyllic in the genre — sparkle like never before. Sega’s love of neon-soaked cities, bright blue skies, sparkling seas, and sun-washed beaches is in full effect.
Despite this glow-up, some of the character models don’t quite match up to the quality of other 3D fighters. While pugilists such as Akira and Eileen look fantastic, others stumble occasionally, even feeling like a step down from their prior appearances. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the stellar work performed by Team Ninja for VF‘s turn in Dead or Alive, but while Ultimate Showdown‘s textures and visual effects are most certainly improved, mileage on the characters themselves varies. Overall, Ultimate Showdown looks great, better still if you use the delightful VF 1 retro models, available separately as paid DLC.
The meat of any fighting game lies in the blood-pumping action once fists and feet start flying. Ultimate Showdown has lost nothing in the transition to its new engine, delivering the exact same satisfying and compelling gameplay that has been a franchise trademark since its 1993 inception. Virtua Fighter has always been a joy to play, its ingenious three-button system is all the innovation it has ever needed. While the fighting game genre has reinvented itself time and again in the ensuing decades, VF‘s mechanics are galvanized, and as solid in Ultimate Showdown as they have ever been.
While RGG successfully retained both the visual style and the excellent gameplay of Virtua Fighter 5, one important feature has not made a similarly impressive transition. Ultimate Showdown‘s cutomization mode is severely lacking compared to both Final Showdown and even the original Virtua Fighter 5. The fun costumes and wide variety of clothing and accessories are gone, with Ultimate Showdown offering three (admittedly nice) outfits for each character, alongside a basic selection of color choices and a handful of different hairstyles and jewelry.
A possible drawback facilitated by the new engine, the fun customization options of prior releases have been lost in the process, with elements such as unlocking items, character crossover skins, and hidden winposes nowhere to be found. While the clothing textures look mighty fine, it’s the weakest customization mode in Virtua Fighter 5 to date. Hey, if can’t turn Vanessa Lewis into KoF‘s Leona Heidern, or Sarah Bryant into Space Channel 5‘s Ulala, what even is the point?
The stripped-down customization mode is indicative of something that hangs heavy over Ultimate Showdown: a lack of single-player content. Designed specifically as a tournament tool, Ultimate Showdown is, first and foremost, a Vs.-centric release. Players can create smart and highly customizable lobbies, stacked to the rafters with bracket builders, spectator options, passcode locks, emote windows, and a huge slew of rule variables for all your tournament needs. Very commendable. For solo players, however, the features on offer here are extremely thin.
Arcade Mode is available, as is a solid Tutorial and an excellent, in-depth Training mode. There is, however, no Time Attack, Survival, Combo Trial, or a return for VF 5‘s beloved Quest Mode. Ultimate Showdown makes no bones about its “PvP Comes First” intentions, (Hell, it’s even titled “Virtua Fighter eSports” in Japan), but this prioritizing results in a skeletal package for anyone disinterested in competitive play. “Ultimate” Showdown does not quite live up to its moniker from a “complete” perspective. It’s a shame to not see Sega go all-out to ensure that this release is the culmination of Virtua Fighter 5‘s entire lifespan.
Let’s suplex the elephant in the room: online play. Despite Ultimate Showdown going all-in on its competitive features, Sega has not developed brand new technology to host online battles — something of a self-defeating decision. Ultimate Showdown uses a tweaked version of Final Showdown’s online technology, which I’m pleased to report remains very solid. At the time of writing, I’ve had around 80 fights with around 30 opponents. Of all of these opponents, only a handful caused any lag hiccups whatsoever. A positive first impression, at least.
I intend to continue playing today, and will update this review with my findings once the game is in the public’s hands. Ultimate Showdown sacrifices single-player content specifically to focus on competitive options. As such, that multiplayer content is a core element in the title’s overall value and bears scrutiny.
Virtua Fighter 5: Ultimate Showdown will find its aligned PlayStation Plus release will do a lot of heavy-lifting. There’s no denying that Ultimate Showdown is an excellent fighting game, but its bare-bones release, niche branding, and emphasis on PvP combat would make it a tough sell to anyone who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Virtua Fighter player.
However, as PS+ title, Ultimate Showdown will naturally find its way into the libraries of almost every single PS4 fighting game player on the planet, affording the release a broad introduction to both new and returning players. One wonders how much broader that audience could be had Sega chosen not to make Ultimate Showdown a platform exclusive.
Ultimate Showdown is a great release, if one of mixed intent. Seemingly for each of its advancements, there is a odd retraction. The new visuals are great, but the customization is weak. The lobby and online options are absolutely superb, but there’s very little here for offline engagement. The product leans heavily on PvP gameplay, but re-uses decade-old netcode. Thankfully, despite these mismatched visions, the quality of Virtua Fighter 5 as a fighting game shines through brilliantly, while the budget price/PlayStation Plus angle makes the title’s negatives far easier to parry.
15 years on, Ultimate Showdown finds Virtua Fighter 5 just as engaging as it ever was, maintaining its long-held reputation as one of the genre’s classiest and most enduring fighters. Woeful single-player content and receding features prevent the package from achieving its full potential but, despite its flaws, Ultimate Showdown costs little, looks good, and plays great. A welcome return to one of gaming’s most distinguished rings. Now… about that sequel…
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]