Virtua Fighter 5 (VF5) for the Xbox 360 is a very good game. Too easily dismissed as "˜just' another fighter, its deep gameplay and excellent online play make it an essential purchase for fighting game fans and worthy of serious consideration by everyone else.
Review by 1DGaf
Staying faithful to the legacy of Virtua Fighter, the fifth version of the series offers a compelling blend of old and new. Predictably unforgiving for button-mashers, and endlessly rewarding for those willing to invest time, Virtua Fighter 5 is highlighted by the addition of online play, but is there more to explore in the aging franchise or has the fighting genre run out of ideas?
VF5's visuals make its arcade origins obvious with neon menus, bright eye-catching colors and blazing blue skies to catch the eye in a dark room, however the music, a collection of generic rock, techno and "˜Chinoiserie' isn't so alluring. Interestingly, for a game sporting the visual and aural antithesis of grimy realism and sombre motifs, its 17 fighters are comparatively normal, with a notable absence of fantasy characters or women with preposterous proportions. This hint of realism in an arcade fighter makes the character models, particularly the younger fighters, come off as bland, almost doll-like.
The game's animation is, however, consistently excellent. Throws and parries are particularly impressive and the fighters adopt stances recognizable from martial arts, and pop-culture kung fu flicks. Some characters are imbued with a kind of "˜bad guy insouciance' that's a treat to watch. Even the clothes are well animated, the sight of a Shaolin monk's saffron robes twisting and unfurling as he spins through the air being something to behold.
The fight environments are a standard affair -- modern looking arena, ancient ruins, Chinese bit and so on. However they're consistently attractive with atmosphere added using subtle lighting effects and touches such as cherry blossoms floating to the ground outside a Japanese temple and water droplets tracing your movements through the air in a rainy city at night.
While VF5's graphics are meant to attract, its control system seems designed to repel. Though you only need one joystick, in my case a Hori EX2 arcade-style stick, and three buttons (guard, punch and kick), moves can be daunting, demanding multiple button strikes and complicated joystick manipulation. Because of this, button mashing rarely works, so new players can be instantly put off.
Practicing against CPU opponents in the game's arcade and "˜quest' modes, the latter unlocking costumes and items for your character, is a virtual must for players not intimately comfortable with the control scheme. The game rewards players who focus on learning a particular fighter, and allows players to try out their options in the training area before settling. Realistically, VF5 requires four hours or more of "training" to understand the basics of any given character.
While the idea of having to train and practice is off-putting, something associated with work and contrary to the spirit of gaming, learning a character can be surprisingly fun. In a way it becomes a sort of self-created meta-game. A move is its own goal, its own indicator of progress; the first time you do one correctly, you'll feel you've achieved something, doubly so once you can do the move consistently.
Curiously, by being slightly inaccessible to new players, VF5 is actually more rewarding than many other games. Each match, whether against a person or the CPU, is an education. Every encounter will refine your timing and accuracy, constantly fine-tuning what you do. Until you become proficient with a fighter, the measure of your skill isn't your win/loss ratio but the consistency with which you fight.
When you are proficient, the way you think about the game changes. It's no longer about you, your brain and fingers getting married, hoping to have a lovely "˜combo', but about your opponent and spotting, creating and disrupting fighting patterns. If he likes to hit high, you duck and hit low. If he knows you'll attempt a throw, strike instead. As this happens you'll start to play more quickly, moving in and out of range, bouncing back and forth, judging distance and picking a time to attack.
As for VF5's highly promoted online play, it's about as bare-bones a system as it's possible to have. Where the single player offers multiple modes of play, the online aspect offers none of this. You just fight, either for fun or a persistent online rank.
Allowing for this paucity of options, the online play is very good, if not close to remarkable. In the wake of 200 matches against people from Western Europe and the United States, the vast majority of the matches felt lag free. Hardcore VF5 fans report that online play can throw off timing a little for "˜real-life' matches, but the ability to play reliably from London with someone in Ohio makes up for otherwise limited playtypes.
In short, Virtua Fighter 5 is a fantastic game. Just difficult enough to be tantalizing yet deep enough to be engrossing, you'd do yourself a disservice by ignoring it.