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The mechanics put the emphasis on timing and reaction, and while it is possible to put together crushing combo moves, there’s always a defence and even a counter-attack if you think and move quickly. The great weakness – and the great joy – of Tekken 5 was its unpredictability: your local master might just be taken by a novice if that novice can mash the right buttons at approximately the right time and hit a lucky streak. In VF5, it’s all about skill. Without a modicum of timing and a basic understanding of how to chain moves together, you won’t even get through Arcade mode at the easiest difficulty level. At higher levels, or against a good human player, you’ll either need to be a spectacular improviser, or to master some of the most difficult button sequences known to man.
This might sound off-putting, but it needn’t be. The upside of being challenging is that VF5 is also hugely addictive – even in its single player modes. Where its rivals have bolstered their basic arcade modes with branching story-based quest structures, scrolling action sub-games and even bowling mini-games, VF5 gives you single-player arcade mode, two-player versus mode, a stripped-back ‘quest’ mode, and that’s it. The reason is simple: where other fighters feel they need to broaden out from their arcade roots in order to offer a long-term single player experience, VF5 concentrates on providing the most arcade-like experience possible, in the hope that this will be enough. The surprising thing is that it is enough!
Quest mode actually plays into this. You take a profile – one character, one ‘ring name’ – and take them on a trip through a selection of arcades. Each has its own mix of players to battle it out against, and by beating tougher players in ranked matches you can work your way up the pecking order, going from 10th Kyu down to 1st Kyu, then from 1st Dan up to 10th Dan and beyond. Along the way you’re invited to tournaments, and you also get the chance to win bonus items with which to augment your character: a nice pair of shoes from one victory, a nice pair of specs from another. Win enough cash, and you can even buy new tops or costumes.
In most games, this would be a dry, unrewarding affair, but somehow Sega has imbued it with character. For one thing, your CPU-controlled opponents really seem to offer a range of play styles and difficulty levels, making it as close as you get to playing against an oddball selection of real players rather than a standard, progressively harder AI. For another, they all have names and catchphrases provided by real players, helping you to picture some spotty oik who needs a lesson in manners. Now who’s being ‘pwnished’, sunshine?
In fact, the one real disappointment is the lack of an online mode. Maybe Sega looked at it and decided the connection speeds and infrastructure still weren’t up to it, but there’s a sense that opening up Quest’s virtual arcade premise up to millions of players would have been a brilliant move. As it is, you’re limited to old-fashioned multiplayer action. Arguably, fighting games are best played face to face – where you can see your opponent crumble as you batter his fighter into submission – than across a network, anyway. Provided you’re not the one being destroyed time and time again by some smug git, that is…