Segaís Virtua Fighter 4 lands on PS2 with what may be its best installment to date. With a much more elaborate training system, a new Kumite mode and a stripped down fighting system, VF4 takes the series back to its roots while simultaneously moving forward. Despite some significant changes, it stays true to the seriesí conventions. Fans of the series should enjoy the new elements and streamlined play but will those unfamiliar with VF enjoy this installment? Discover the answer as The Laser takes an in-depth look at this highly-anticipated fighter.
From its earliest incarnations almost a decade ago, Segaís Virtua Fighter series has always attracted the hardcore fighting fan with the excellent purist fighting game modes and excellent depth. The series has progressed nicely as it moved from console to console, almost never losing itís edge and innovative spirit. Now, the series has made another successful transition to a new console, and it is a promising first appearance by AM2 on a non-Sega system. With this installment, it has been wisely decided to make the title more accessible and has returned the series back to itís roots without losing the essence of its appeal or sacrificing the depth and delicate balance fans have come to expect. This is immediately apparent the first time you play the game - it feels familiar yet very different. VF fans should notice that the escape button from VF3 has been jettisoned to add some simplicity to the action. The controls have been streamlined to the m ore traditional 3-button layout giving the interface a more intuitive and natural feel. While you canít escape with as much ease as before, you can still dodge by pushing the D-pad twice in the direction you want to move. This is much harder to perform but again, allows for more direct combat.
Another major change is that this installment also ditches the different heights of the last installment in favor of more traditional flat rings. There are however several types of rings, including breakable, non-breakable closed in spaces and open areas. This means that there are still opportunities for ring-outs but these arenít nearly as prevalent as it was in the older VF games. This gives VF4ís battles a better sense of balance and leads to a better flow to the action than before. It changes the strategy significantly, and makes VF4 more closely resemble the second edition of the game in this aspect, though this is definitely not a step backwards by any stretch of the imagination. AM2ís streamlined play and simpler bouts are also much faster than previous installments giving the series a new intensity and challenge while retaining the trademark VF4 feel. However, this may leave the wrong impression that the game lacks depth and has been dumbed-down for the casual gamer. Nothing can be further from the truth as VF4 continues the deep fighting system that AM2 has become known for.
Keeping with tradition, VF4 is a pure martial arts title which will take plenty of time to master but offers a sense of satisfaction that few other fighters can match. Thereís a bevy elaborate techniques to master and this is where the game really shines. The most important thing you need to do is master the dual art of blocking and block-breaking. This can be done either standing or crouching and youíll need to know where each will be most effective. On the other hand, you also need to know which moves can be used to break through the different levels of blocking Ė this makes from some truly intricate battles and makes each round feel like an elaborate dance. While it may be difficult to get in hits when an opposing player is blocking, this can be countered by using one of the stagger moves, which can blindside an opponent and leave them vulnerable to attack. Of course, you may find yourself getting knocked down frequently if you donít know what youíre doing, and knowing how to get back up quickly is extremely important since you can also inflict a huge attack if you know how to do it. Players can also use reversals or parries (this depends on which player you use) to deflect an attack. You can also throw an opponent in the ring, grab an opponent and attack them and also perform some pretty cool juggling moves which inflict heavy damage. Finally, each character also has a variety of special charging moves at their disposal, which inflict extra damage. We donít have the space to fully explore the moves, but the extensive nature of the moves lists means that players can spend a good deal of time mastering all the nuances of the game and this is a large part of its appeal.
One of the keys to the series appeal has always been the superb balance between fighters, and this is still very much in evidence. Some characters are much faster than others but the slower characters compensate for this through their powerful moves. The inverse is also true, since while you can use a Ďbeginnerí character and hit your opponent with a flurry of quick moves, the faster characters take more damage from opponents. One of the cool things about the game is that it the same basic cast returns this time around, with the exception of the sumo wrestler. As usual, character that balance one another quite well. In addition to all your favorites such as Jacky, Sarah, Aoi, Kage, Jeffry, Akira and Lau Chan, a security officer named Vanessa and the monk Lei Fei have been added to the cast. These new fighters fit in well with the world of the game and make solid additions and allow for more variety.
In addition to the standard arcade, practice and vs. modes, some really cool extras have been added in VF4 that allow you to delve further into the game. The most significant new element is the AI training. This is quite an innovative feature because it allows the player to save a customized character into a Data File. After youíve created a custom character and named them, you can train and enhance that fighter through sparring and combat, then watch as they gain experience. You can then use these characters in battles, then after each match, the game analyzes the character and gives you advice. In addition, AI mode allows you to customize your character by selecting their outfits, accessories and button configuration theyíll use. In Kumite mode, players battle against a series of opponents and gain rank as they win matches. However, you need to be careful here because you can also lose you ranking when you lose. In Kumite mode, can also earn extras such as new clothing and objects for their Data File characters. This adds a kind of virtual pet aspect to the game which is really cool. This sophisticated approach to AI also applies to the opponents who learn your methods and moves, making the game incredibly difficult as you progress. To help the many new players to the series along, an extensive yet straightforward training mode is also included which gradually introduces the many techniques of the series. There are three types of training mode included: Command where you practice specific moves, Free Mode where you can set up the parameters to your liking and Trial where you are challenged to complete specific tasks. The training mode is quite intuitive and going through this shows the extensive depth of the fighting system in a way thatís comprehensive yet quite enjoyable. Overall, the different in the game are quite excellent and the way they tie in together makes for a cohesive experience. Itís very well thought out and the ability to train and master your fighter is an excellent addition that sets the game apart from the other fighters on the market. It would be extremely difficult to find a more comprehensive fighting game. In fact, VF4 could almost get away with calling itself a fighting simulator because its so deep in its approach. The many different modes should keep players occupied for quite awhile. Though the lack of a tournament or team battle mode as seen in VF3tb on the Dreamcast is a bit disappointing, the AI mode is a good trade-off.
The real brilliance of VF4 isnít immediately apparent but once you get into it, youíll find that while the controls seem rigid and cumbersome at first, they only truly shine after youíve played the game for an extended period and learn all the ins and outs of the system. Players used to the button-mashing techniques in other fighters are doomed to failure, but those with patience and skill will be rewarded with an incredibly sophisticated and powerful fighting system. You simply wonít find a deeper or more cohesive command interface in fighting game. Even though playing VF4 with a Dual Shock will feel awkward initially for those accustomed to Sega controllers, the controls are still tight and responsive. One strange thing is that the analog sticks arenít supported in the game, which is a strange move. While the PS2 controllersí cross arenít ideal for fighting games, AM2 has done well with these impediments by reducing the basic commands to 3 buttons. Itís not perfect but the game still performs surprisingly well even though itís hard to reach all the shift keys while fighting which makes assigning the Left shifts specific tasks almost pointless. However those purists who insist on having a real arcade experience, nothing matches the feel of playing a top-line arcade joystick. This is really where the true brilliance of the game comes out and the depth comes into play. The lack of analog support hurts significantly but isnít enough to detract from the overall feel of the fighting which is brilliant.
The one area that the VF4 series has always had problems has been in its visuals. While initial attempts to bring the series home accurately have fallen short with the Saturnís initial edition of VF1, which was outclassed by the lowly 32X version, or the VF3tb edition on the Dreamcast which lost some detail prime examples, VF4 looks fairly good on the PS2 and represents a significant step forward for the series, with more graphics detail and polish evident. This is a major leap from the Dreamcast version with this increased detail and more impressive fighting arenas which transport the player into beautiful environments. While the flaws in the graphics are obvious with the lack of anti-aliasing readily apparent, after awhile they donít matter as much. Despite these flaws, the game still sports visuals that are really impressive. Players will notice the increased detail in the character models with facial expressions, muscle shapes and wrinkles and facial lines that give them an incredibly realistic appearance and makes them look much better than previous games. The engine is still quite impressive with excellent camera angles and richly detailed character movements giving the visuals quite a punch. Environmental details are also nicely defined with realistic weather effects such as snow and rain go a long way in making the games arenas look lifelike, with a mixture of natural, indoor and urban settings giving the matches plenty of visual variety. The most technically impressive aspects of Virtua Fighter 4 is that the fighters leave tracks in the snow or dirt as they move around, which lends the game an incredible amount of realism. Music is decent with a mixture of heavy metal and Eastern Techno providing a good counterpoint to the action. VF4ís voice over acting is also much better this time, with the characters lips syncing up nicely with their words for a change. So overall, despite the jaggies and the lack of aliasing, the gameís overall production values are incredibly high. AM2 has set another high-water mark for other developers that should be difficult to match. This is easily the best looking PS2 3D fighting game to date and easily outclasses such earlier efforts as Tekken Tag Tournament and Street Fighter EX3, though it doesnít look quite as sleek as Dead or Alive 3 on the Xbox. However, the gameplay standards of this title far exceed those other titles, by a large margin to boot.
Despite the less than perfect graphics and the awkward fit with the PS2 dual shock controller, VF4 is almost perfect in all other areas. Itís always been in how it plays where the series shines with its deep fighting system, which is about as cohesive and comprehensive as youíre likely to find. The new AI and Kumite modes increase the immersion and add exponentially to the replay value of the title. While other fighters lose their appeal as you master them and the novelty wears down, VF4 is the opposite. This is because its depth allows you to keep learning new techniques which when mastered make the game even more engrossing. However, the extensive training modes make the title extremely accessible and should hook players used to less taxing fighting games. While some fighters look better and have flashier moves, Virtua Fighter 4ís pure martial arts approach pays off in the long run. While a lot is at stake for Sega with this release, itís an impressive step on the PS2, and lives up to the standards sets by the older games. Despite some streamlining, Virtua Fighter 4ís deep gameplay stays true to the other VF games and should satisfy fans of both the original and those new to the series.