Review by Kane

"Redemption"

The failure of the Dreamcast was probably a much-needed kick in the pants for Sega. Harsh? Maybe. But one can’t help feeling frustrated and relieved at the same time when watching their latest fighting game on the lucky PlayStation 2: the fabled Virtua Fighter 4.

Little Johnny didn’t want to buy this game. He wanted to get Dead or Alive 3 and look at the ultra-realistic cleavage and find some use for the X-Box he got for Christmas from the stepmother. When the father said no, little Johnny pointed at Bloody Roar 3, a game “so extreme you can morph into a tiger in it”. Mister N. –who shall remain anonymous for the sake of his inflated ego- nodded, then grinned after he realized he had to make sure to put his son on the right path. He walked past the outrageously pricey Tekken 4 import and purchased a copy of Virtua Fighter 4 without hesitating.

Such is the story of this game’s popularity. Once a monument of gaming, the series had faded into obscurity after a brief and somewhat stale passage on Dreamcast that made some fans hang their heads in shame. Thus, most feared that it would never be heard of again. When the original version hit the arcades a few months ago, word was on the streets that button-mashers had to prepare for a furious beating once again but few men in the country seemed to really know what the deal was. So what’s going on, dude? Are the masses calling this opus one of the best fighters of all time just because it’s on PS2? Partly, but sadly things are not so simple.

The most striking thing when playing the game is that rarely have console ports benefited from such a great level of detail. You don’t even need to be cultured in videogames to see that, you can just feel it in the brilliantly designed menus and in the quality of the crystal-clear digitalized voices, in the creative, flawless character design or even in the originality of the extra modes. And most of all, in the old-school atmosphere and general fun that the title spawns.

In Virtua Fighter 4, it’s not just that all the characters fight differently, it’s that their styles are so varied that each one of them can be used effectively in a great number of different ways. Moreover, the game requires a subtle mix of skill and thinking, which appears to be getting rare nowadays. Their arsenals of both offensive and defensive techniques are so developed that the game almost feels like a clear-cut fighting simulation as opposed to a Tekken 4 that looks like it was released too early to bring much novelty to the genre.

However, learning how to play the game reveals itself to be just as painful as learning a martial art at first, despite quasi-immaculate controls and hit detection. With its array of reversals, evade techniques and counter-throw escapes the game sometimes looks like it was designed for Harvard graduates. A wise man once wrote, referring to the previous installment: “no matter how much you play it, there is always more to find and learn”. Believe it or not, such eloquence seems like underestimated foolishness after playing the sequel. Yes, it is this damn deep.

But while this complexity appears to be characteristic of the series, the best feature of the game is undeniably its crafted, steep learning curve. By setting up clear gameplay differences between the characters suitable for beginners -Lei-Fei, Sarah, Pai- and the expert-only fighters -Akira, Vanessa-, Sega have made their game accessible for all audiences and dodged the charge most often leveled at their work: “narrowness”.

And this, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

While little Johnny is having fun schooling his friends with Lei Fei by repeatedly pressing punch until his thumbs is covered with blisters, N. is spending hours in training mode trying to perfect his execution skills and Mrs. N. is cooking dinner: in other words, the whole family is happy.

In addition, Virtua Fighter 4 offers artistic visuals to the eyes of the initiated. The backgrounds are extremely detailed and take you from the Great Wall of China to the top of a New York skyscraper. For the first time in a fighting game, each area greatly differs from the other: some have -sometimes breakable- walls and others are open, offering a satisfying answer to the question of the victory by ring-out. But again, the key word here is detail. Just look at the texture of the snow changing as your character steps on it or observe the lens-flare occurrences that truthfully reproduce the effect of the sun on a camera. Virtua Fighter 4’s graphics openly appeal to the feelings of the player since the environments are not only realistic but also magnificent.

Nevertheless, there’s still something that prevents this technical masterpiece from reaching aesthetic perfection. As evocative as the backgrounds are, and as charismatic as the characters are, they’re also disfigured by awful, PlayStation 2 exclusive aliasing problems. There’s no doubt that Tekken 4, the main concurrent, does look heaps better.

Surprisingly enough, Virtua Fighter 4 forces the player to re-evaluate the quality of the character design of the series by changing their clothes and giving them facial expressions. And the violent truth is that most of them are excellent. Akira finally becomes more than the generic gi-wearing bum everyone thought he was, and Lion and his mantis style look more mature, more badass, more French. Not all of them are brilliant, though. It’s really sad to see that Jeffrey the Australian fisherman (sic) still looks as has-been as he’s always have, and that the stereotype embodied by Sarah, that is to say the busty and ****** ass-kicking blonde, got old more than a decade ago. This becomes even more annoying when you realize that there are only 14 characters. On the other hand, the two new characters easily make up for it.

Shaolin monk Lei Fei has been sent by his temple to eliminate the Lau Chan, who has resurrected the Koen-ken forbidden fighting style. Aside from a charismatic appearance that puts Jet-Li to shame, he also has a confusing style involving numerous stances and counters; in plainer words, he’s perhaps the best thing to hit the series. After Vanessa, of course. This muscular, black and sexy Vale Tudo fighter just kicks too much ass, especially when using her Muay Thai stance. She’s a real challenge though, because it takes one hell of a player to master her even just half of her moves.

Yet, the most impressive part is the animation of the characters and more precisely their clothes. When Kage-Maru the ninja passes between the legs of his opponents to sweep him from behind, or when Nina switches to her flamingo stance, the game almost looks like a modern dance simulation. And since Virtua Fighter 4 is much faster than its predecessors, that’s when the term martial art takes its full significance.

The nifty option to see the fights in slow motion almost looks like pure vanity from the part of the developers, given the fluidity of the fights. Indeed, Lei Fei may sometimes struggle to remain motionless during his stances but his robe always follows the movement of the wind --immediately bringing to mind the appropriate image of a predator fixing its prey before unleashing a dreadful and fatal blow.

At the other end of the spectrum, the music appears as an excellent surprise in a genre where the main sources of inspiration seem to have dried out. As expected, the tunes are intricate blends of techno and rock, but they perfectly fit the fast pace of the title and tremendously contribute to its general feel. Add flawless voices (performed by Sega’s mascot actors for the most part) to the mix and what you get is a more than solid audio.

What really sets this game apart from the mob is the insane variety of extra modes it features. The game allows you to coach your own A.I. character, which is virtually useless, yet still fun. A massive number of training modes give you the opportunity to practice moves and combos one by one or simply learn the gameplay mechanics in tutorial mode while the game offers you real-time advice. Although I’m sure those sound really appealing, they’re nothing when compared to the original Kumite mode.

In Japan, arcade players have the chance to use magnetic cards to record their progression against human players. All the cabinets are linked to a main server named vf.net. The game assigns rankings according to the player’s experience and match score, which pushes him to raise his rank and unlock hidden accessories –such as sunglasses, slick hats, fancy colors, etc…- to customize his character. Porting this mode to a home system seemed impossible, but Sega has managed to do it by recording the player data from their servers and fully transcribing it into original characters. Therefore, Virtua Fighter 4 benefits from a quasi-infinite one-player mode that never gets old thanks to the profusion of bonuses.

A great addition to the series, Virtua Fighter 4 is the best fighting game on PlayStation 2 by a long shot and an instant classic. Gamers looking for a button-masher that will stroke their ego and let them continue to think they’re gods of fighting games certainly shouldn’t look this way. But if you want a tough but rewarding experience from which you’ll learn even more than you can imagine, welcome to the manly world of Virtua Fighter 4.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/15/02, Updated 02/02/03


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