Ever since the 360 version of VF 5 was announced, I’ve been looking forward to playing the latest installment in my all-time favorite fighting game series. Beloved by many for its in-depth gameplay, and reviled by some due to its learning curve, the Virtua Fighter series has been a staple of my gaming habits for over 13 years now. Both the original and VF 2 kept me in front of the arcade machines for hours on end, and were some of the only fighting games where I actually won on a regular basis against arcade competition.
One thing that allowed me to do that was the depth of the gameplay, which has only become more advanced as time has gone on. Because of their diverse move sets, you can fight in so many different ways with the game’s fighters, it’s possible to use any kind of fighting style no matter who you’re playing as, which led me to play each opponent differently in arcades and against the AI, leading to regular improvement in my play, and also keeping the game fresh. The constant risk/reward system in effect when you’re fighting also keeps you on your toes, as you always have to weight the pros and cons of an attack coming at you.
Say you’re facing someone who kicks a lot, and since Sarah has a lot of kicks in her repertoire, I’ll use her as an example - as she goes for a flurry of high kicks, you can either block her attacks with the guard button, which will result in your character taking some damage, but also leave you with a very narrow window of opportunity to attack her with a basic throw which will do a respectable level of damage if you connect or you can take a chance and quickly back away, leaving her more open to attack, and giving you more time to attack, but also leaving you with only one shot at avoiding her attacks.
In this scenario, since she’s able to throw a wide variety of kicks in quick succession, guarding won’t do much good as you’ll just be in the exact same predicament you’re in now, so you’ll probably want to take the riskier option of backing away and then hitting a throw on her, which will then allow you to attack her on the ground, and then leave her vulnerable when she stands up. Wolf is perfect for this scenario, as he can dish out a lot of damage quickly with throws and ground attacks that you can chain together, allowing you to do more damage in less time. This is just one of many ways in which you can apply a risk/reward system to the game
With the 360 version including online multi-player for the first time, I was hoping that it would bring back that same feeling of intensity when a fight was tied up one round apiece, with each player only having a sliver of life remaining, and unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen, although it does come very close.
While the offline quest mode (which puts you in the role of an arcade player working his way through various arcades and tournaments) actually did do that, the online game is hurt by precisely the issue that fans feared would keep it offline for eternity - lag. While VF5 Online doesn’t suffer from a crippling amount of lag, it does have just enough to prevent matches from getting as exciting as they would normally be in arcades because once the action heats up, lag becomes an issue, throwing a usually minor, but still noticeable wrench in the works.
I’m glad to have the series online at all, but anyone hoping to use Xbox Live as a suitable replacement for VF arcade play is going to be disappointed. It’s a bare-bones affair, offering just ranked and unranked one-on-one play. Despite tournaments being a regular feature in the quest mode and a staple of the series‘ fans, they’re completely absent online.
If it was done so the developers could focus on tweaking the regular one-on-one play so it played as smoothly as possible on Live, then I actually support this move in a way, because without having the bare essentials done well online, there’d be little point in actually having online tourneys. Getting the basics down pat and then moving on if and when the time comes for them to be properly implemented is the best long-term choice, after all, what’s the point in having a slew of features available for online play if said play is horrible? The lack of online tourneys is a disappointment, but a sacrifice that I’m willing to accept if it means future installments have more refined online play.
I found the online experience to be mostly enjoyable, with friendly players willing to offer up advice during fights and a generally relaxed atmosphere, which did remind me of my days playing the first two games in arcades. Given that I never thought I’d ever seen a VF game playable online, I’m happy to have the feature included at all, but more could definitely be done with it in the future.
Offline, VF 5 shines fairly brightly, as the gameplay isn‘t encumbered by any lag, and to my surprise, the game controls fairly easily with the 360‘s d-pad, although I definitely prefer to use the analog control stick, as it allows for more precise movement and the hand positioning when using it is more comfortable.
The quest mode from VF 4 Evolution is back, and allows for more character customization than ever before, and gives you more arcades to fight in than its original incarnation. With its continually increasing difficulty, it provides new players with an easy way to improve in the heat of battle while still providing a challenge for veterans when they get to the point where they can do battle with the simulated AI of some of Japan‘s best VF 5 players.
While the game is fairly forgiving with regards to your opponents, as you can always choose to just stick with lower-caliber opponents if you’re feeling overwhelmed with higher-level ones, it’s universally unforgiving with regards to doling out currency to buy items to customize the look of your fighter, leading to a feeling of disappointment when you’ve tackled a fairly tough string of opponents in an arcade, and aren’t even given enough to buy a new item for your fighter after all of that work. While this does reward folks who stick with the mode, I can see it really angering people who just want to do some minor tinkering with the in-game roster, and who aren’t particularly interested in fighting thousands of rounds of play in order to do so.
Fortunately, the fruits of that labor are worthwhile, as everything, including the unlockable items, looks spectacular. Fabric in particular looks more detailed than anything I’ve ever seen in a game - you can see every stitch in the cloth of Pai Chan’s outfit, for example, and make out the various sets of wrinkles on Lau Chan’s face. While the VF series has been on the cutting edge of graphics before, I honestly didn’t expect things to look this impressive with the fifth installment, especially after the slightly underwhelming visuals in the PS2 VF 4 games.
Audio-wise, VF 5 is a mixed bag - the sound effects are par for the course with the rest of the series, and get across the impact of blows well, while the music is good, but not spectacular, and the addition of in-fight commentary is a change of pace, but so poorly implemented, with its overacting and repetitious nature that I can’t recommend listening to it for more than a few fights unless you just want to laugh at it, which is quite easy to do.
Overall, I’d say that Virtua Fighter 5 Online is a remarkable game with a few missteps, but no fatal flaws. The intricate gameplay is better than ever, while the addition of online play adds an incredible amount of replay value to the game, even if it does need some improvement. Series-long fans should pick this up immediately, while those new to the series should at least download the Xbox Live Marketplace demo and see if the gameplay’s to their liking. If you find that you dig it, definitely buy it, as there’s a lot of game here for $60, and you’ll certainly get your money’s worth out of it.