Virtua Fighter 5 was an exclusive PS3 launch title here in the UK. Sony enthusiasts were delighted of course - here was an excellent beat-em-up you could only get on the PS3. While we all knew that the game would be coming to the Xbox 360 some time this year, PS3 owners were safe in the knowledge that they would enjoy a sizeable head start on 360 owners. But during the summer news started to filter out of SEGA HQ that the 360 version would have some marked improvements over the PS3 game. News which helped 360-owning VF fans feel a whole lot better about having to suffer a wait for the hardcore gamer's beat-em-up of choice.
In June we learnt that the 360 version would feature a higher level of anti-aliasing which would eradicate the jaggies some people noticed in the PS3 version. We also learnt that 360 owners would benefit from revised AI patterns which would take into account new tactics and strategies which players had been using in the arcade and PS3 versions. These were both subtle but potent changes that added fuel to the already vicious console war fire back in the summer.
But slight graphical and AI tweaks were nothing compared with the news that was about to hit the Internet. In July SEGA confirmed online play for the 360 version of VF5. This was all the PS3 version was lacking, and the main reason why we scored it 8 out of 10 rather than a 9. If there were any gamers who were yet to decide which version of the game to get, here was the decision-maker. SEGA also confirmed that the 360 game would be based on the latest arcade version update, Version C, and feature vibration support, improved quest and DOJO modes. Incontrovertible evidence then that the 360 version would be the one to get? Read on.
Our primary concern was lag. Thankfully developer SEGA-AM2 has done a great job here. We set up ranked and player matches on XBL across a variety of stages and experienced zero lag. That's right - zero lag. This may differ depending on your connection and who you're playing, but early indications are extremely positive. No slowdown and no delay from button presses. However, it appears that the game won't punish you for disconnecting mid-battle, which is disappointing. This is something that Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting on XBL suffered from when it was first released. Thankfully a patch sorted that. Hopefully SEGA will sort this out too. There's also headset support, with a slight delay in the vocals, but we can live with that.
'We set up ranked and player matches on XBL across a variety of stages and experienced zero lag. That's right - zero lag.'
Ranked matches online are set at the first to three 45-second rounds. There's nothing you can do here to change that. What you can change is the stage type - whether you want a wall or not. But you can't choose the stage. Like in the game's offline Quest mode, you start off at 10th Kyu, with the goal of ranking up. To do this, you need to win matches, gain points, increase your rank bar and then win ranking matches that are clearly flagged up at the beginning of the bout. If you're anything like us, you'll want to head online straight away to start working on their ranking and improve your position on the worldwide leaderboards. Sweet stuff.
So on to the other improvements. The graphical tweaks are minimal. We have to say we could barely tell the difference between the PS3 version and the Xbox 360 version. And we didn't notice a massive difference with the AI. We're not too bothered by the pad vibration either (it's very subtle, you'll hardly notice it), but it's nice to feel some impact from your punches. There are more NPCs in Quest Mode, which is welcome, and more accessories that you can use to customise your fighter (friendship band anyone?), but again, none of these changes come anywhere near to being as important as online play. It's the online play that seals the deal for us.
So, onto the game itself. VF5 enjoys a privileged position among the beat-'em-up fraternity. Arcade connoisseurs will point to the technical skill required to master the more refined mechanics of the game over, say, the frenetic parrying of Soul Calibur or the brute force of Tekken. Me? I'd say you've always been able to tell the difference between the big four (add Dead or Alive to the list) from one, simple observation: in VF n00bs can't win with button bashing.
Which is great in theory, but it has always held VF back from bursting through into the mainstream. Put simply, VF is probably the hardest beat-'em-up to master. Some of the moves require dexterity of finger that a double-jointed Chinese gymnast would be proud of. But don't let that put you off. It's like your boss always says - you get out what you put in.
While at first you'll get your ass handed to you on two silver plates, one cheek tattooed "I'm", the other "done", an hour or two in VF5's Dojo will do wonders for your technique. Purists would argue the subtle to-ing and fro-ing of a VF match-up between skilled opponents is the finest sight a beat-'em-up can offer. Playing VF5 on Xbox 360, it's hard to disagree.