Overall (not an average):
Publisher: Sega of America
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: T
With the demise of the Dreamcast, Sega has turned its attention to crafting games for the platforms that have to date survived the Great Console Wars. Having perhaps cornered the market on weirdness with Rez, Sega returned to its roots with Virtua Fighter 4, the third sequel to the game that started it all. The original Virtua Fighter was the first 3-D arcade fighting game ever, and the franchise has created a legion of unwaveringly devoted fans. And this new entry will be no different, in the long run, despite the proliferation of fighting franchises.
The first thing one notices when playing is the eye candy. This game looks phenomenal. Incredibly detailed textures, characters composed of 10,000 polygons (compared to XBox fave DOA3, which clocks in around 8500), stunningly rendered backdrops, and environmental effects are all tuned to highest potential. Anyone that wants to argue about whether or not the PS2 can keep up in the graphics race need look no further than this one. I find it particularly amusing that they bested DOA3, who jumped to the Microsoft ship claiming that the graphics they wanted “couldn’t be done” on the PS2.
[ad#longpost]Virtua Fighter 4 also provides lots and lots of playing options, with a little something for most any fighting fan. The standard arcade mode, a head-to-head 2-player Versus mode, and the incredibly challenging Kumite mode are the major attractions, with some training options and the unusual A.I. mode (where you train a CPU-controlled fighter to kick ass for you) rounding things out. Of particular note is the Kumite mode, in which you select one of the 13 characters, and proceed through an unending series of opponents, increasing in rank and gaining items and additional costume options for your fighter. This is sort of the default single-player mode, where you can increase and polish your skills, all the while moving up the ranks of the fighting elite.
At this point I must confess that I’ve never been particularly good at fighting games. I was never one of those guys in the arcade fending off challengers on Mortal Kombat or even Karate Champ. I was the sucker that jacked in a quarter and promptly found himself picking virtual teeth out of the virtual mat. But against the machine, I’m decent. I’ve beaten a couple of games, through all modes and all characters. But I will never enjoy that kind of success with VF4. I’ve seen a few other review sites that claim the learning curve is approximately 30 minutes. To which I must append “…if you happen to be possessed of the reflexes of a mongoose on several lines of premium Colombian cocaine.” This game could take months to master, and even that would be no guarantee of success.
This would be great, except that the learning curve isn’t a nice, linear kind of progression. Basically, with any character, I found I could ascend through the first ten ranks (kyu) with relative ease. And then suddenly, as soon as I crested into the second tier (dan), pretty much every opponent of equal or greater rank mopped the floor with me. Incredibly frustrating. I’m used to games that get gradually more difficult over the course of levels, but VF4‘s progression goes from relatively easy to absolutely insane in one rank advancement. Now, other players better at these things might go farther, but I suspect that the same plateau exists at the third and fourth sets of ranks, meaning that sooner or later, everybody finds their level, and promptly gets stuck there for a good long while.
In this, the training mode is some help, but not much. Many of the more elaborate moves available require you to be able to time button presses in a set number of animation frames. And I’m just not technically skilled enough to know when I’m three frames into a move versus when I’m five frames in. With VF4, it matters. A lot. If that kind of complexity appeals to you, or if you’re a hard-core fight game player, then this is without a doubt your best option. Sega set out to make a real fighter’s fighting game, and succeeded in spades, but at the cost of being terribly appealing to the casual or new player.