Reviewer: Ryan Newman
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Virtua Fighter uses only three buttons: punch, kick, and guard. But with just those three actions, in conjunction with directional pad (or joystick) movement, Sega-AM2 has managed to create one of the most engrossing and addictive fighting series to date. The latest home entry, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, an updated version of 2007’s Virtua Fighter 5, is no exception, offering players one of the best rosters and engines that the genre has to offer. As the first download-only entry in the series, Final Showdown not only offers a great jumping-in point for newcomers, but it also serves as a rejuvenating jolt for veterans with its host of mechanic tweaks, new moves, new arenas, and new brawlers—and all for a paltry $15.
As Final Showdown is a download title, a few things are different this time around. For starters, Quest Mode is gone. The tournament-style mode introduced in VF4 that had players square off against a variety of challengers throughout arcades in Japan appears to be the victim of download size limits, given that the game clocks in at the Live Arcade max of 2 GBs. While that reasoning makes its absence understandable, that doesn’t mean its loss doesn’t sting; it was a unique way to add a sense of progression and variety in a series that had stuck to the traditional tournament circuit far beyond its competitors. There is also downloadable content this time around, with each character receiving an item pack filled with hundreds of customization pieces—also available in two $15 bundles—which, if purchased altogether, can increase the cost to a still-reasonable price of $45.
I’ll be honest, though: the DLC isn’t really necessary. While it’s fun to have your favorite fighter sport a Japanese Saturn or a Dreamcast as a back item, and maybe even a floating paper airplane for a head item, they are only viewable online if the other player has the same pack(s). The majority of matches in which I fought featured a stock version of my fighter, so while it can be fun—and a little disorienting to opponents—to be decked out in a wacky costume, the more exotic items won’t be visible most of the time. Diehards can pick up a few packs for their favorite characters, but the two free costumes will be enough for most players.
Actually, there is one reason why you might want all of the DLC: Special Sparring mode. The downloadable items are required because the characters don them in 20 different themed tournaments, each comprised of five to 10 fights. Each AI opponent is a personality, similar to the arcade opponents in Quest Mode, who fight more like human opponents (e.g., repeating the same kick over and over). However, there are neither special rewards nor a sense of progression here; it’s all about fighting and practicing with the same rivals. But the themes are really what make the mode, with some of the circuits including VF Academy, Grab Bag, and The Bosses. The most entertaining by far is Sega Maniacs, with every fighter made up to look like characters from past Sega titles. Out of the eight opponents, I was able to spot representations of Sir Tongara de Pepperouchau III from Clockwork Knight, Amigo from Samba de Amigo, the F-14 from After Burner, Ulala from Space Channel 5, and Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone. Nothing like fan service to make you want to pull the trigger on DLC.
The base game will be more than enough for most players, though. The primary modes are Single Player, Offline Versus, Online Battle, Dojo, Terminal, and Scoreboards. Single Player consists of Arcade, Score Attack, License Challenge, and the aforementioned Special Sparring. Arcade is the basic tournament, with players going through the ranks to face off against Dural, the metallic boss who has all of the fighters’ moves. As with previous Virtua Fighters, you only get one shot to beat Dural and ‘win’ (you don’t actually win anything, save for not seeing the “You Lose” screen). Score Attack includes three different seven-bout tournaments, with each route having a running score that is based on performance during each match; the single highest score from the various routes is saved on the system and uploaded to the leaderboards. License Challenge is a series of tests that require you to pass a number of per-bout objectives, with failure resulting in a swift boot back to the main screen. Dojo offers a number of helpful tools, and is the first mode everyone should load up after installing the game.
Virtua Fighter hasn’t always been an easy series to jump into, and while it’s made some noticeable strides in welcoming newcomers, it can still be a little overwhelming. Thankfully, the learning aides introduced in VF4 have evolved into some really great training material. The three modes available in Dojo are Tutorial, Command Training, and Free Training, and it really pays to spend time in all three. Tutorial runs through the basics, covering 20 lessons in all, while Command Training covers more advanced techniques. All modes feature quick access to the command list, info displays, including move advantage and frame count, and there are even some demo reels of the characters performing some of the trickier moves; unfortunately, these are pretty limited in number, another likely victim of the size limitation, and their absence is keenly felt when trying to learn some of the more trying strings. Free Training allows you to tweak an opponent to your liking, allowing you to practice everything from side-stepping blows to guarding against blocks, bouncing opponents, countering (which now hit for 1.75x normal attack damage), and memorizing the height of each attack. Practicing against a customizable opponent goes a long way in learning the new moves, as well as adjusting to the 20 new stages. Stages now not only have greater size variation, but they also have walls of varying heights. Walls are especially important now because, in addition to new wall-based throws, some can be broken for the remainder of the matchup, allowing for opportunities to ring out opponents.
Terminal doesn’t sound very exciting, but a lot of time can be sunk here in downloading, uploading, and watching replays. Plus, this is also where the characters are customized; points determine just how much can be piled on the various parts of the characters, and there are multiple save slots to store several different outfits.
Before I get into versus play, let’s go over some of the mechanic changes first.
When approaching Final Showdown, it helps to view it as the kind of upgrade that VF4: Evolution is to VF4: an expanded and refined update to an already stellar base game. Final Showdown‘s most noticeable additions are two additional fighters, karate expert Jean Kujo and Virtua Fighter 3‘s heavy-hitting sumo wrestler Taka-Arashi. Jean has a strong delivery that packs each blow with a lot of force, which allows for some very painful launch combos, as well as an array of charged moves. Jean is also well suited to that remarkable flow so unique to the series that allows fighters to transition seamlessly from one move into another—not canned strings, though there are plenty for each fighter, but more of a natural rhythm—offering up some brutal combos. Taka-Arashi is a slow but powerful fighter who, as with the other bruisers, can seemingly brush aside lighter blows as he closes in for hard smacks and harder grabs. Other changes include stages that switch up between rounds, with wide-open arenas suddenly becoming enclosed by dropped gates. New animations have also been added, many with the specific purpose of making it easier for players to determine if an attack is a high, middle, or low one, instead of forcing them to memorize the more ambiguous moves in order to know which block to use. Virtua Fighter being Virtua Fighter, though, practice is paramount as it can still be tricky to determine just where a blow will land. Throw blocks can also be half-prepared in advance, with an engaged guard acting as a primer to a throw guard, since now all you have to do is input punch and the desired direction when ready. There are many more additions, with tweaks from everything to damage, hit rate, and frame count, so adjustments will be necessary even for players who stick with their favorite old standby.
Now to versus, which is something of a hallmark moment since Final Showdown marks the first time Sony gamers can take Virtua Fighter online. Offline play is as it’s always been, but Online sports a progression system similar to the one found in VF5‘s Quest Mode with players earning experience by battling opponents, climbing the ranks from 10th to 1st Kyu, 1st to 10th Dan, and then to more personalized titles. Once you reach the latter ranks, you can also be demoted, which adds a fair bit of stress. This is only for ranked matches, however; unranked matches are also available, for fun and practice, as well as eight-player Room matches, where two players duke it out as the other six wait and watch. I was pleasantly surprised with the netcode and experienced lag in only a handful of Same Area matches, though accepting Worldwide challenges will result in more severe spikes. There is also a smiley-face system to indicate whether an opponent is a known disconnector—signing off before the match ends—that proved itself accurate on more than one occasion, so it’s nice to have the option to back out of an iffy fight. Although, there is a good chance that you’ll run into someone who has played far more games than you, so either the player base isn’t robust enough to accommodate newer players or the matchmaking could use some refining.
Even without Quest Mode and the hundreds of extra item accessories, $15 is an amazing deal for Final Showdown. The combination of moves that utilize tapping (a la Mortal Kombat) and motions (a la Street Fighter), along with some simple string combos, make it easier than ever for new players to learn, while the new additions will add endless hours of play as old hands tweak their game. The cast is so varied and dynamic—including the best female fighters of any series—that there is someone for everyone, from the nimble Lion to the hard-hitting Akira, powerful yet fluid Vanessa Lewis, and luche libra wrestler El Blaze. In a world filled with fireballs, missile skulls, super moves, and one-hit kills, it’s nice to play a down-to-earth fighter that’s all about getting in close and letting your opponent have it. There are still plenty of acrobatic grapples and cinematic moves to add some flair, but Virtua Fighter‘s bread and butter is its smooth execution, deep fighting system, and rewarding difficulty curve. There’s little else like it, and it’s highly recommended.
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is one of the finest fighters on the market. The base game is a steal at $15, and the complete set, with all downloadable content, is still a good deal at $45. The download-size limitation required some sacrifice, namely Quest Mode. While its absence is a downer, as well as the lack of supplemental material (e.g., extra video tutorials), the tradeoff is a bargain price that’s hard to beat.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)