You might call this review “the triumph of conservatism.”
Don’t worry – I’m not talking about David Cameron and his next-generation Tories, but about Sega and its next-generation fighting game. Barring the staggering PS3-powered visuals (more on them later), Virtua Fighter 5 might not appear to be a huge move on from Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, or indeed, Virtua Fighter 4 itself. As Virtua Fighter 4 was in itself something of a step back from Virtua Fighter 3, whose more expansive, undulating stages and dodging mechanics now look like a failed experiment, this means that we’re effectively looking at a series that has stayed pretty much true to the template laid out in its first iteration, nearly fourteen years ago. After Dead or Alive 4 and its sprawling, multi-level arenas or Tekken 5 with its frankly ludicrous cast of characters, it’s almost disappointing that such a flagship title for the beat ‘em up genre does so little to move that genre on.
Settle in for a session, however, and it soon becomes apparent how hollow such criticisms are. On the one hand, Virtua Fighter 5 is ‘merely’ a straight 3D fighting game. On the other hand, it is the best straight 3D fighting game ever made.
Feel free to disagree. Some will doubtless prefer Tekken 5, with its more accessible, more aggressive game style and richer list of game modes and bonus features. Many Tekken fans find Virtua Fighter dry and overly technical, and there’s no question that their favourite has the more spectacular cast and special moves. As a beat ‘em up for pre or post-pub antics, it’s still impossible to better. Dead or Alive 4 has its followers, too, partly because its play style hits a nice balance between VF and Tekken, partly because of its infamous scantily-clad femmes fatale, and partly because it’s hard to resist a game where you can kick your opponent through a window or down the stairs. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool member of either contingent, then it’s unlikely that VF5 will change your mind any more than VF4 did.
If you have an open mind, however, and you’re willing to learn the ropes, VF5 is the beat ‘em up to play. One of the reasons is, oddly enough, limited choice. VF has always been conservative when it comes to adding new fighters, each new version adding only two. The advantage of keeping your character roster relatively small is that you can a) work on giving each fighter a distinctive, individual style and b) work on maintaining a fine balance between the fighters. As with any decent fighting game you have your high-speed types, your heavy-duty grapplers, your medium-speed, medium damage brawlers and your high-impact bruisers, but Sega has carefully ensured that each combatant has his or her own particular strengths and weaknesses, and – more impressively – made sure that any one character has at least a fighting chance against any other. This instalment’s newcomers certainly don’t spoil the mix. Eileen is a small, speedy, low-damage fighter who relies on flurries of attacks for effect, while El Blaze is a hilarious, bigger-than-life Mexican-style wrestler who acts as a bridge between the bigger wrestling characters – Wolf and Jeffrey – and the middleweight brawlers. As such, he’s a whole lot of fun.