"Not one of the crew feels half as limber as he or she ought to. When your opponent is a few feet away, it's not uncommon to watch both characters limp toward one another on-screen for a second or two before either is within range of the other. Even when it comes time to exchange blows, things don't speed up quite enough. The fastest fighters can get in a few good punches in short order, but every kick I've found takes long enough that you'll be tempted to hop up and make some microwave popcorn every time your character attacks with a roundhouse."
When you've been gaming as long as I have, and when you have no particular desire to change what you do with your free time, you may very well come to the shocking (and quite important) revelation that there aren't enough people who view you as hardcore. The minute you realize it, you'll want to do everything in your power to fight it because, well, if you've been gaming for more than ten years and you're not hardcore, all the other gamers have every right to laugh you out of the arcade. And so it is that you finally have no choice: you must play and love Sega's Virtua Fighter series. Why? Because it's what hardcore gamers do.
I knew this when I went to the store sometime last year and purchased Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, the update of the critical favorite, Virtua Fighter 4. That title was a big hit for the Playstation 2 among those who consider themselves '1337,' and the upgrade is more of the same but with a few extra touches including a new coat of visual splendor. Having never played the originals (except for a few minutes at Sears when I sampled the Saturn), I wasn't sure quite what to expect. But it was $20.00, and I was sick of little girls and old ladies snickering and pointing at me and saying ''There goes Jason, the gamer who isn't hardcore.'' When I got home with the product, I hastily tore into the shrink wrap and stuck the disc in my system, then booted it up and waited for the magic to sweep me into realms Richard Simmons can only dream of (no, he has nothing to do with the game, but the reference seemed important).
When the game began, I found myself greeted with a veritable treasure trove of options. For example, there was an 'Options' selection, and the 'Arcade' and 'Versus' modes, and the 'Quest' mode, and so forth. Since my wife glares at me whenever I suggest a friendly round of any fighting game, I decided to make the logical choice and go to the 'Arcade' mode.
First, though, I did what any hardcore gamer does: I went to the 'Options' mode to see how easy the game would let me make it. As it turns out, I was not to be disappointed. The good people at AM2 were thoughtful enough to provide five levels of difficulty, ranging from 'very easy' to 'very hard.' Because I'm something of a fighting game veteran, I chose 'very easy' and limited the number of rounds to only '1' (other gaming wusses out there know exactly why I made those selections). With my settings configured, it was time to get to work with the game itself.
As you might expect, the 'Arcade' mode is pretty much the same as we've known since the illustrious days of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. There are around 12 rounds as you work along the latter, handing every fighter's posterior to him or her. Beat one opponent and the next steps up in line, and so it goes until you get to the final round. Here, you'll be given one objective or another, which you can complete for a warm, fuzzy feeling. Or you can just stomp all over your opponent the old-fashioned way. Either way, you'll get to witness the dreadfully dull closing credits.
That's pretty much it. No shocking new gameplay, no glowing light accompanied by a choir that sings ''this game is the greatest.'' Unfortunately, by the time I got to this point, I was beginning to feel slightly disillusioned. I wasn't sure I could ever convince myself that the game was any better than Tekken 4 or Soul Calibur II, both great titles for the same system. With a sense of dread, I realized that I was going to have to fake adoration for Sega's latest, or I'd never be accepted into all the private clubs. Once I realized that I simply wasn't hardcore enough to enjoy Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, I began to dissect it as I would any other game. And along the way, I discovered why it just didn't appeal to me, despite its laundry list of positive aspects.
First, there are the fighters themselves. When I try and remember their names, I only get vague recollections of names like Jeffry, Vanessa, Lao, Chao, Pao, Bao, and so forth. About half of those might be right. The point is that the names don't seem to differ all that much, aside from the ones that are obviously American. More importantly, though, the fighters themselves are unmemorable. Now, I know they're the same folks that have always populated the franchise, and I have to admire Sega for that if nothing else. But they're just not cool enough. Compared to a game like Dead or Alive 3, which was filled with rippling muscles and buxom beauties, this game just feels flat. And yes, that's a reference not only to personality but also to breasts. The only fighter I enjoy looking at even slightly is Vanessa, and she fights like a crawdad in a bowl of pudding.
Of course, so does every fighter. Not one of the crew feels half as limber as he or she ought to. When your opponent is a few feet away, it's not uncommon to watch both characters limp toward one another on-screen for a second or two before either is within range of the other. Even when it comes time to exchange blows, things don't speed up quite enough. The fastest fighters can get in a few good punches in short order, but every kick I've found takes long enough that you'll be tempted to hop up and make some microwave popcorn every time your character attacks with a roundhouse.
With this being a 3D fighter, I expected that Sega would at least compensate for this with quick dodges, but it turns out the fighters move as slowly when stepping to the side as they do any other time. Though it is possible to sidestep incoming attacks, the effort required renders that tactic all but useless. Even blocking feels weak. And when someone finally wins the round, the loser had better not be standing or you'll have to watch him slowly sag to the ground. Meanwhile, the victor dances into a cheesy pose that quickly wears out its welcome.
Also disappointing to me was the room you have in which to maneuver. While it's true that your characters don't move very far during a battle, there will come moments where you butt up against walls on the side of the arena or (worse yet) find your fighter toppling over the edge while 'Ring Out' plops itself cheerfully onto the screen. This is a shame because it gives cheap players the easy opportunity to corner and pummel their opponents, and also because the environments look so fantastic and grand that it just isn't fair AM2 kept players from exploring them.
Each of the arenas in which you'll battle is nothing short of stunning, and easily on a level with anything in Soul Calibur II and even, arguably, Dead or Alive 3. The amount of detail here is just astounding. There's never really a location where something isn't happening on the background (or even the foreground, in some rare cases). Birds flap about in the distance and soar over an area, or flags snap in the breeze. One arena places them in a shallow pool of water, with a reflection that ripples wildly under the turbulence that results when the fighters waddle toward one another. My personal favorite is the one that takes place in a snowstorm, where the snow becomes trampled as each fighter moves about. It's just a beautiful effect.
And then there are the fighters themselves. Despite their bland nature, they look good up to a point. If the women aren't particularly fun to look at, they're at least realistic, neither paper-thin nor blessed with drool-worthy curves. The men also look reasonably good, and animate nicely. More impressive is the way each character flows through a range of moves specific to his fighting style. There's drunken boxing, for example, and kick-boxing, and other fighting forms that you've seen in action movies since you drooled and crapped your diapers. Fighters seem relatively true to those styles, and I was pleased to see that each one rolls from move to move in a unique style (even though there is more than one fighter that prefers kickboxing, for example).
The graphics aren't all Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution has working in its favor, either, even though that's what most people will notice more readily. It also has an excellent soundtrack. Music sounds a bit like a cross between guitar rock and techno, generally, and does a good job of getting me pumped up without ever stooping to the doomed level of 'generic.' Some slower selections still sound good, just because the composers weren't afraid of a few changes in the line of instruments and tempo. No, it's not the best stuff you've heard in the genre, but it does get the job done in style.
If only I could say the same about the rest of the game. I really did want to like this title more than I did. Unfortunately, the fighting system just isn't engaging enough for me, particularly since I don't care for any of the characters. Visuals and great sound only go so far. Even the 'Quest' mode (a unique, tournament-style series of fights that allows players to fight for hours in order to unlock extra features) doesn't do much to extend the time I'm willing to spend with the game because, well, most of the time I spend fighting isn't time I'm enjoying. I guess the Virtua Fighter series is too hardcore for me. For now, I'll just have to work harder at avoiding those little girls and old ladies.
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 05, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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