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Virtua Fighter 5

Platform(s): PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: SEGA
Release Date: Feb. 20, 2007 (US), March 23, 2007 (EU)


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PS3 Review - 'Virtua Fighter 5'

by Andrew Hayward on Feb. 21, 2007 @ 1:11 a.m. PST

Virtua Fighter 5 features an all-star cast of 17 fighters, including characters from the previous iterations along with two new characters. Players can customize their characters by selecting from four costumes and a wide range of attachable items.

Genre: Action/Fighting
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: SEGA-AM2
Release Date: February 20, 2007

The release of Virtua Fighter 5 is perfectly timed to fulfill several important needs in the next-generation gaming market. As the first fighter released for the PlayStation 3, it not only fills that particular void, but it also serves as the first worthwhile exclusive to hit the system in the three months since it launched. The market for next-gen brawlers is surprisingly sparse – even the Xbox 360 can claim only the year-old Dead or Alive 4 as its singular genre entry. Most importantly (for Sega), Virtua Fighter 5 just might dash those embarrassing memories of Full Auto 2: Battlelines and Sonic the Hedgehog for PlayStation 3.

Regardless of the reason, here's the result: Virtua Fighter 5 is an excellent fighting game that builds upon the very strong foundations of Virtua Fighter 4 and its half-sequel, Evolution. But that's about all there is to it. Aside from the obvious (and quite considerable) visual upgrade and a number of minor enhancements, Virtua Fighter 5 does not feel like a significant evolution from its immediate predecessors. Without online play or any attempt at an in-game narrative, Virtua Fighter 5 comes up short in the value department.

Virtua Fighter has always been lauded as a deeper fighting experience than any of its competitors, but the gameplay has still gone through several significant overhauls in the last 14 years. The biggest changes are in the past, though, as Virtua Fighter 5 is ultimately very similar to the balanced brawling of Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. Additional care was paid to the speed and balance of the game, resulting in the smoothest experience to date, but casual fans may struggle to find anything terribly significant or noteworthy.

Purists will cite the absolute need for an arcade stick, but I find the standard SixAxis controls to be more than competent. As expected, motion controls have not been included, but more surprising is the lack of analog support. Not that I would recommend using the analog stick with a fighter of this sort, but it is odd to see a next-gen game that relies entirely on the d-pad. As with the previous PS2 entries, the face buttons are tasked with the basic punch, kick, and guard commands, while the shoulder buttons hold the various one-click combinations that lead to extensive attacks and counters.

The complete cast of characters is back in Virtua Fighter 5; save for Taka-Arashi, the sumo wrestler mercilessly abandoned following his lone appearance in Virtua Fighter 3. Joining the 16 existing characters (including longtime boss character Dural) are Eileen and El Blaze. Eileen is a young girl trained in the art of Kou Ken, which is represented in her monkey-like antics and fast movements. El Blaze is a Mexican Lucha Libre fighter who naturally strikes up a rivalry with Wolf, the ponytailed pro wrestler. El Blaze's difference in wrestling discipline makes him a speedier and more fluidly animated alternative to larger brawlers like Jeffry and Wolf.

Familiar gameplay, familiar controls, and (mostly) familiar characters – what's new? The most striking difference is of a visual nature, from the enhanced presentation to the flat-out beauty of the environments and the characters that inhabit them. Virtua Fighter has always been a bit bland in terms of presentation, but the flashy menus of Virtua Fighter 5 help rectify that issue by visually escorting the series into the next generation. Familiar sound effects and fonts help tie the series to its past, while other aspects of the presentation make strides toward injecting the series with a bit more personality.

Character detail ranges from uncanny to slightly lacking, with more in the realm of the former than the latter. Most notable are the little details present on each fighter's physique. The amount of detail in the hands and feet would put most other titles to shame, but the detail extends to other parts of the body, from the upper chests of the men to the toned abs of the women. With an eye toward realism, the characters are not overly shiny, nor do the females suffer from excessive, uh, bounceage. While the clothing flails fantastically in the wind, the up-close shots reveal the occasional odd-looking texture or pattern.

But for all the words expended on the characters, even more should be devoted to the spectacular environments crafted for Virtua Fighter 5. A short letterboxed tour is given on each stage before a battle, and you may be hard-pressed to tell a couple of these from real footage. That kind of expression has been overused in the past, but some of the stages are so hyper-detailed that the HD footage rivals real-life settings.

Of the stages, my favorites were the ones that brought leftover precipitation into the mix. A sloppily assembled cage in the middle of ancient ruins hosts a two-inch pool of muddy water that reacts with each movement and action. Even more impressive is the inner city chain-link cage match, where rainy asphalt reflects the neon lights in the distance. Aside from the occasional texture gaffe (both on the characters and in the backgrounds), Virtua Fighter 5 may well be the most impressive visual experience to hit the PlayStation 3 to date. Sure, it lacks the epic feel of something like Resistance, but the actual visual fidelity is unmatched on the console.

It plays well and looks incredible, so what's the catch? There's just not a whole lot to it. Fighting games are not expected to wield the narrative heft of other genres, but any story at all would be appreciated. The instruction manual says a handful of things about the J6 group and V-Dural, but none of this plot development is represented in the actual game. I'm not expecting the nonsensical asides of Dead or Alive, but at least give us ending movies! Arcade mode loses much of the value it holds in other fighters due to the lack of closure or the feeling that you are accomplishing anything at all.

As such, the majority of the single-player experience rests solely on the shoulders of the Quest mode, which has been tweaked and expanded from its appearance in Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. By traveling to a series of virtual arcades, you can take on scores of virtual players with visually altered characters and silly catchphrases. The comments range from "I like cats" to "I'm a gymnast, I fight crime," and it's hard to tell if they are inside jokes or just pure nonsense (I opted for nonsense – my saying was "Raspberries!"). As you decimate the competition, your ranking increases, and you can unlock additional wearable goods by collecting Orbs and filling Orb Discs.

The virtual fighters are not especially difficult, though it largely depends on the level of each competitor in comparison to your own. I typically fought against characters with similar ranks and wound up with 90 wins in my first 100 fights. Local and official tournaments pop up occasionally, and placing in the top three in any tournament will grant you additional character icons or gold. Earning gold can be a tough endeavor in Quest mode, and most of the items and costume pieces will be won, not purchased. Though hundreds of icons are available, the customization still feels a bit limited. Each character has just four main costumes, and most of the items are costume-specific and are not universal fits. Earning each and every unlockable in Quest mode could keep you busy for months, but the motivation to do so will likely be held by just a select few.

An absurdly comprehensive (and helpful) Dojo mode rounds out the single-player experience, but it cannot make up for the sore lack of online play. As broadband Internet continues to supplant the dial-up connections of the past, lag is no longer the major issue that it once was. Sure, it will crop up occasionally, but it's just not enough to prohibit developers from integrating online play into their fighters. Dead or Alive 4 proved that a next-gen console could create a sturdy online fighting experience, and the lack of a similar mode in Virtua Fighter 5 feels like a huge waste of an opportunity. Including it in the forthcoming Xbox 360 version would be a very smart move, but that possibility doesn't do much for the Sony faithful.

Virtua Fighter 5 is a deep, beautiful fighter, but the depth of gameplay is undercut by a shallow offering of modes and a complete lack of online support. The Virtua faithful will likely swoon over the expanded roster and move sets, but the casual crowd may be disappointed with what is largely an incremental upgrade rather than a full-blown evolution of the franchise. Still, due to its release window, Virtua Fighter 5 for the PlayStation 3 should sell by the truckload, at least until a few more exclusives hit the console. But if you can resist the urge, it may be worth holding out until the hopefully expanded Xbox 360 version hits stores in six months.

Score: 8.3/10

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