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Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution (PS2)


By Michael Palisano

While Sega's first edition of Virtua Fighter 4 did an excellent job bringing the series to the PS2, it suffered from choppy, jagged graphics that left many players disappointed. Fortunately, developers AM2 have addressed these issues by releasing an update, Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution. Released as a bargain priced Greatest Hits title, VF4 Evolution also includes two entirely new characters, a deep Quest mode plus some cool surprises. The question on most playersí minds is whether these changes are enough to justify repurchasing the game again. We examine VF4 Evolution and find out.

Segaís classic martial-arts combat series Virtua Fighter has always been seen as the gold standard in fighting games thanks to its deep, realistic moves list and perfect controls. Up to last year, VF was always synonymous with Sega platforms, but it made a welcome debut on the PS2, though not without a few glitches. The graphics suffered a bit from the jaggies that plagued early PS2 releases, but the solid gameplay and deep fighting mechanics shined through these problems. Apparently, not satisfied with that state of affairs, AM2 has released an updated version of the game, VF 4 Evolution. The new installment features vastly improved graphics that lend the entire game a much smoother appearance. This is immediately evident in the backgrounds, which have been revamped and seem brighter, crisper, and much more alive. Character animations have also benefited from the upgrades and donít shimmer nearly as much as before, giving them a much more realistic appearance. In addition to the older stages, several new areas have been included, with beautiful light-sourcing and weather effects that make for some beautiful fighting environments. Thereís quite a lot of variety in the locales which range from temples, to mountains and city streets, with some taking place in open areas while others take place in caged areas that leave you no room to escape while eliminating those annoyingly cheap ring-outs.

While the graphics are the most immediately noticeable change, VF4 Evolutionís tweaks are more than skin deep and implements some additions and changes that enhance the gameplay. These are two entirely new characters, a trained assassin named Goh and Brad, an Italian kick-boxer. Goh brings devastating Judo techniques to the fight while Brad can inflict devastating damage with his feet. These new additions give you 15 playable characters to choose from, and their unique fighting styles add depth to VF4. They fit in well with the other characters, giving the gameplay a consistent feel no matter which character you play. The deep play mechanics, balanced abilities and strategic battles that make the series so addictive are evident in this release as well. However, the moves in Evolutionís harder levels are modeled after real-world players from Japanese arcades and are quite aggressive, making for some truly competitive matches. Players whoíve already mastered a character in VF4 can breathe a sigh of relief because they wonít have to relearn the older characters because their move lists are mostly unchanged.

Even though veteran players have a distinct advantage over VF virgins, those who havenít played any of the VF titles to date can use the extensive training mode to learn the moves and techniques theyíll need to win. Your first step is to train using the Command mode features, which allows you to perform moves as they appear on screen, watch replays and input settings that will help you in different situations. Once you have gone through these modes, advanced players can undertake structured training in the Trial Mode, where you can practice the missions that appear in the arcade mode. Like the last game, VF 4 Evolutionís training mode makes learning the techniques and skills easy thanks to an intuitive interface and progressive structure. This makes what could have been an intimidating experience on thatís surprisingly accessible. Once you have learned the basic techniques, or polished your more advanced skills, youíll discover a game with unparalleled depth and nuance.

As in previous VF titles, Evolutionís control system is deceptively simple, with a straightforward three-button configuration used to block, punch and, kick. Players can also jump and dodge out of the way of attacks using the d-pad or joystick controller. Another effective move is to grab your opponent and hit them while theyíre vulnerable. However, players can recover from attacks by counter-attacking as they get up from the ground. In addition, players can assign the shift buttons to press the kick and punch buttons simultaneously. The technique and sophistication of VF4 lies in chaining moves together, blocking attacks and, being able to perform special attacks at just the right moment, which is a matter of getting the timing down more than anything else. While the AI opponents can be aggressive their moves become predictable after awhile. However, Sega AM2 has implemeneted special routines and techniques that recreate the tactics that real-world arcade players use, making for some intense battles. The key to the gameís appeal and longevity over the years is how well it integrates different fighting styles together to make for a seamless experience. Another factor has to lie in the flexibility of attacks and individual style of play that  allows players to truly make the game their own. While the simple control interface makes the game accessible immediately, truly mastering the gameplay requires a great deal of persistence and patience. Putting in the effort is satisfying because VF4 Evolution rewards players with balanced gameplay that emphasizes skill over flash, since smart players can counter the gimmicky moves and defeat turtling (i.e. cowardly) gameplay with little problem. Once again, the nearly perfect character balance, flawless controls and strategic elements that make VF stand head and shoulders above its competitors shine brightly in this installment.

The game includes several modes of play which add depth to the game. Depending on which mode you choose, you can earn money or prizes, which can then be used to enhance your characterís appearance with extra items such as sunglasses and extra oufits. Other extras include wallpapers and movies that can be unlocked. You can spend a lot of time on these because, Evolution includes more than twice as many of these as VF4 did with a whopping 1,500 different bonus items in all. The standard
Arcade mode plays just as it sounds, with players earning points and prizes for successfully battling opponents. To reduce redundancy in the Arcade mode, it includes Mission and prize rounds where you can earn bonuses and increase your fighterís ranking. While youíll face many standard rounds, there are also mission rounds, where you have to successfully complete to earn rewards. The win conditions range from simple to complex and difficult. These include defeating an opponent before the time runs out, while other missions require you to block more moves than your foe, or increase the damage you receive when your character falls on the ground. Players can also face-off against a human opponent in the Versus mode, which is fairly self-explanatory. As an extra added bonus included to celebrate the seriesí 10th Anniversary, Sega has also included a special retro mode. This is a cool addition where you can play the original game complete with the classic polygonal character models, music and stages. This is a clever, nostalgic addition that allows you to play as all of the 15 characters, even the newer ones, with most of their move sets intact. This is a nice treat, especially for PS fans who never got a Saturn or Dreamcast and havenít played any of the older games.

However, the most interesting and deepest part of VF4 Evolution lies in its Quest Mode, which provides quite a challenge. Replacing the Kumite mode from the first VF4 installment, this deep mode allows you to compete in the ultimate arcade tournament against a series of opponents. You begin your quest in local arcades, where you have to beat a large number of computer-controlled players in order to qualify for the tournament. In addition to earning prize money and extras, you also build your rankings by defeating opponents in designated rounds. There are prize rounds here as well, which makes the battles a lot more interesting. In addition to the standard fighting circuit, players can choose to participate in underground matches, which have interesting rules variations, such as caged matches, getting through an entire round without taking hits and other requirements. Quest mode definitely adds a lot of depth to an already deep game. Add in a fighting system thatís unmatched in depth and sophistication, and you have an outstanding title that will keep you challenged no matter what your skill level is.

While thereís little doubt that, from a gameplay standpoint, the Virtua Fighter franchise remains in top-form with this release, the biggest problem with VF4 Evolution is an obvious one. Itís basically an enhanced version of a game that came out a little over a year ago. While this complaint is valid, its not an entirely accurate portrayal of whatís actually being offered. Gamers displeasure would have been justified if Sega had charged full price for prettier graphics, but this isnít the case. At a bargain basement price, the game offers a lot of value for the money. In fact, thereís more here more than youíd reasonably expect there to be. The improved graphics alone wouldnít have justified a repurchase for those who already had VF4, but Evolutionís additional characters, addictive Quest mode and super-cool Retro mode are more than worth the price of admission. Fans of the first game should appreciate the additions, while thereís never been a better time those whoíve never played the game to jump right in.   

- Michael Palisano

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