SEGA's Virtua Fighter carries a legacy that only the blue hedgehog can rival. Akira, Wolf, Sarah - you've seen them in one form or another, whether it's the blocky polygonal models from the original or the immaculately detailed PlayStation 3 ones. Does this legacy fall far from the tree?
Virtua Fighter 4 was a critical success on the PlayStation 2, with a global average of 91% in its original form and 91.4% in the revised form, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. In fact, it sits just under Soul Calibur 2 (91.6%) as the all-time highest-rated PS2 fighting game. History lesson aside, Virtua Fighter 5 does little to improve upon its PS2 predecessor, but it really doesn't need to. Fans of the PS2 game will find two new fighters and improved gameplay and graphics to boot. Cover boy Akira is joined by his entire set of Virtua Fighter 4 peers and newcomers El Blaze and Eileen. El Blaze, a luchadora, uses fancy wrestling moves while Eileen hops around a whole lot and utilizes what I considered cheaper hits than other characters. My personal favorite was the bald monk Lei-Fei.
Fighting is a breeze for newcomers and series vets alike. I can't say how grateful I am for this, because Virtua Fighter 4 wasn't so accessible and as a result I personally didn't appreciate it as much as my critical peers. On the PS3 pad, X serves as a punch button while Circle kicks and Square blocks. The triggers act as shortcuts for combinations of those three buttons, making special moves easier to execute. Combos are simple and flow together well, giving Virtua Fighter 5 a feel that is more similar to Dead or Alive than other fighting games. Fights tend to last longer than in other games, since the default settings require you to win three rounds, not two out of three, but three rounds, meaning close fights extend into five rounds.
Quest Mode is where it's at in this game; the mode is essentially a recreation of the experience of traveling to different arcades and challenging players on a machine. To start you create a profile and choose your preferred character, and then the Quest world is open to explore. There are several different arcades with "players" of different skill levels, so there is a feeling of progression as you go from one arcade to the next, improving in your ranking and piling up wins. Winning matches and tournaments in the different arcades will earn you money and items to customize your character and beef out your profile. Not only is it addictive to collect items and personalize fighters, it's very difficult to stop trying to improve your rank and dominate different arcades.
Unfortunately, Quest mode is the only attention-grabber. The Arcade and Versus modes are very generic and don't offer anything you haven't seen before. There's a VF TV mode, which is entirely worthless-it lets those with HDTVs and HDMI cables appreciate their expensive commodities by watching two CPU-controlled characters battle. Virtua Fighter 5's biggest flaw is its lack of PS3 online play. With Quest mode being such a focus and character customization being a bit part of that, I find the lack of at least some sort of online profiling to be inexcusable on SEGA AM-2's part. After all, A.I. opponents in quest mode don't recreate the tendencies of human players very well, and it isn't even until elite ranks that the CPU becomes difficult or utilizes techniques that force the player to study the fighting system beyond a few different combos.
At least Virtua Fighter 5 shows off the PS3's power for the most part. Arguably there isn't a better-looking game on the system. Every character is fleshed-out-literally, in fact-with detail down to their skin textures and hairstyles. All of the different outfits are colorful and react realistically as the players animate. I was very impressed with the animation in general; Virtua Fighter 5 stands right beside Dead or Alive 4 as the fighter with the most visual fluidity. The only complaint I have from a technical standpoint is that the overall sound of the game is slightly muffled and doesn't blast out of the speakers like I think it should.
Virtua Fighter 5 should be your next PlayStation 3 game if you enjoy fighting games and can deal with its "more of the same, but improved" syndrome. Quest mode could easily have you hooked for thousands of matches and have you searching for band-aids for gamer's thumb. The lack of online play hurts its overall longevity, but perhaps this will be attended to with the Xbox 360 version's summer 2007 release.