If there is one fighting series that I will follow to the bitter end, itís Virtua Fighter. From its humble origins as a moon-jumping, slow-paced early polygonal fighter to its sleek, one-of-the-few-Sega-titles-to-carry-the-name-proudly fifth installment, the series has been a groundbreaking achievement. Xbox owners might have had to wait for their turn, but they get the definitive Virtua Fighter 5, complete with the latest system update and, more importantly, online play.
To be sure, Virtua Fighter 5 Online lives up to the seriesí legacy by providing one of the most intricate and satisfying fighting experiences to date. In comparison to other titles in the genre, there is almost no comparison. Compared to its immediate predecessor, though, it is a little wanting. Then again, a fighting system as systematic and complex as the Virtua Fighter formula cannot diverge too much, less the developers want their fanbase to revolt. Many of the tweaks and additions simply aren't readily apparent, even for long-time fans of the series.
The most noticeable additions are the two new contenders. New to the series are the Lucha Libra fighter El Blaze and the Pai Chan fan, monkey kung fu-er Eileen. There are a plethora of minor changes from Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, but not too many that the casual fan will notice. A new clash system neutralizes an attack with a throw while a new evasive maneuver was added. I heard that the newest additions leave some characters Ė Pai and Shun Di Ė overpowered, but, again, for normal and even amateur play, that wonít be a problem.
The most striking thing for most will be just how little has changed from 5ís most immediate predecessor, Evolution. For those who are moderate fans of the series, their needs will mostly be met by the $20 PlayStation 2 released, which also comes with better video unlockables and an awesome bonus of the original Virtua Fighter for the seriesí 10-year anniversary. For those who follow the series, or are 360 owners looking for the ultimate 3D fighting experience, then there is no question that this is an absolute must. The quest mode, with its adaptive and engaging AI, returns, and in this version there are even more goodies to win to customize your favorite fighter. Hopping from arcade to arcade, taking on opponents with styles modeled after real players, tournaments are entered and unlockables won. The dojo, a training portion that finally made its away into the series with 4, is also there to help newcomers get into the guts of the engine. Then there is the time-tested Arcade Mode. The real selling point, though, and something entirely new for the console releases, is multiplayer online play.
Online play has been a sore subject for both Sega and fans of the series. The reason why Sega has been so reluctant to introduce it is due to the gameís extremely intricate fighting system. In the Virtua Fighter universe, there is little room for errors. Frames per move are counted so that players known how long a move will take, which move takes precedence, and how best to link combos together. There are a plethora of fighters with fighting styles that range from Akiraís Bajiquan to Shun Diís drunken boxing to Lei Feiís fluid Shaolin kung fu. The characters are balanced much more so than in most fighters, and their techniques take years to perfect. Sega didnít want to dilute the seriesí prestige as a tournament title and premier fighter in Japan by have latency interfere with the precise timing that serious players require. I understand that, but I have also read some ridiculous comments from players that Virtua Fighter shouldnít have online play whatsoever. To Sega, I thank, but to the disappointed players out there, well, not all of us live in areas with a high concentration of players. I have wanted to play against other fans for years, but it just wasnít possible where I live. Hell, there isnít a Virtua Fighter machine for miles around Ė Virtua Fighter 2 was the last one I spotted, and that was back in the mid Ď90s. So to those disappointed in Segaís decision, just donít take advantage of the feature. To those who realize that this is a necessary step for the franchise to keep pace with the industry Ė multiplayer standard Ė and donít mind a sub tournament performance, which the vast majority wonít, then they are in for a treat.
The integration of online play has gone over fairly well. I did have some connection issues, but once joined I had a great connection in all but one of the matches that I played. There is something exciting about a real opponent that the AI, no matter how good it is, just cannot match. The randomness of slip-ups resulting in upsets or the intense last-minute wins, there is just something special about playing another gamer that the game cannot replicate. With ranked and unranked matches, as well as the ability to quick and refine search, the basics are covered. Thanks to the quest mode, each fighter will look suitable different as well; and itís kind of fun to see everyoneís custom fighter.
For all of its strides to keep up with an expanding market, Virtua Fighter 5 Online still has a hard time being immediately engaging. The fighting system still has basic combos and move-sets that new players can become familiar with, but the dojo, as helpful as it is, remains a sterile and sometimes frustrating training partner. Despite the number of options to tweak the computer opponent to get the most out of a training session, it still lacks a sort of amiableness that will encourage players to keep on and try to master the system. The series is taking strides to be more inviting to players, and those are definitely for the positive, but to keep the community growing there needs to be a greater sense of openness that makes it all seem so less daunting.
Overall: 9/10Virtua Fighter 5 Online is the premier fighter on the Xbox 360. I would also say that, at this moment, itís only matched by Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution in the genre. The system is solid, there are tons of options, and online opens up a whole new world for fans. The series still isnít the most inviting to newcomers Ė Dead or Alive this isnít Ė and the serious player will find some qualms over the tweaks made and the latency online, but even they will find plenty to like here. This is definitely one for the library, and it comes highly recommended.