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 PS3, it's hard to disagree.
Features wise, VF5 is actually a little thin on the ground. You've got the obligatory Arcade mode, Vs. mode and Dojo (training). The customisation mode, which allows you to dress up your character in all manner of embarrassing accessories, as seems the standard in beat-'em-ups these days, is extensive, although I've never seen the point.
Quest mode, which sees SEGA dumping the traditional laughable storylines seen in beat-'em-ups for playing the part of someone playing the game in the dog-eat-dog world of arcades, makes a return from VF4 EVO. In it, you play gradually improving AI controlled players with weird names and even weirder slogans to earn cash spent customising your character. It's compelling only for a few hours, and is just like any other beat-'em-up quest mode, except dressed in different clothes. In fact, the whole single-player side of VF5 smacks of box-ticking.
So it's a reassurance to find SEGA hasn't messed about with the core philosophy of the series - a wonderfully balanced, technical fighter that's all about speed of execution and anticipation. Apart from the graphics, it's not a massive leap forward from the last game. Fans of the series will head straight for their favourite character to scan for evasion tweaks, new moves and, if you're particularly hardcore, changes in frame rates, recovery time and animation glitches.
The two new characters are Eileen, a young girl who uses monkey kung fu, and El Blaze, a Mexican lucha libre wrestler who instantly brings frat-boy favourite Jack Black's bungling big screen wrestler Nacho Libre to mind.
From a usability point of view, they're about as accessible as VF gets. Both characters have a good deal of moves that won't give you RSI, but, again, in true VF fashion, have finger-breaking combinations towards the end of their command lists. Eileen is more of a mid-range character, her monkey fighting style giving her an erratic, staccato feel. She's most effective getting in your face for a bit then stepping out for a quick breather. El Blaze makes me laugh too much to take seriously. In a game that's as serious as they get, he seems to stick out like a sore thumb. He does impressive throw-based damage and has decent running attacks, but I can't see the Japanese arcade masters warming to his oiled-up pecs.
Still though, both new characters highlight one of VF's great strengths: character balance. Other beat-'em-ups will have double the characters VF5 does, but half of them will be useless. With VF5, as it has been throughout the series, every single one of the 17 characters is as useful as the other. For preserving that, Sega should be applauded.
As mentioned before, the only great leap forward in VF5 is the graphics. Veterans and newbies alike will be impressed with how sumptuous the game looks. It's easily the best looking fighter on a console, beating the latest iterations of Tekken, DOA and SC hands down. Everything on screen looks absolute quality. When playing on a HD television the level of detail is so good you feel as if you could reach forward and wipe the oily sweat straight off those ridiculously oversized limbs. Veins pulse, muscles flex, lighting and shadows kiss the game's textures with subtlety and care, and some of the attack and hit animations look so realistic, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd slipped a Jet Li movie into the PS3's disk drive by mistake.
The backgrounds are equally impressive. From fighting on a raft in the middle of an expansive river, to the crestfallen overtones of an abandoned Japanese dojo, VF5's environments do as much as any beat-'em-up, if not more, to lend gravitas to each and every fight. Character interaction with the arenas is there, but is understated, and always effective - wood splinters, glass shatters and you leave, quite beautifully, real-time depressions in snow and ripples in shallow water.
It's not all Spartan-esque six packs and picturesque sunsets, however. The music in VF5, which is classic SEGA, is mind-bogglingly bad. Someone really needs to let them know that glam-rock went out of fashion 20 years ago. At one point I left the game on the character select screen to get some food and actually found myself paying attention to the cringe worthy guitar riffs with renewed disbelief. The music is so bad, it's funny.
The English voice acting is even cheesier than the music. After winning a round, Leon screams with joyful abandon "I'm twice the man I used to be!" El Blaze is another cheese-stinking culprit. Again, so bad it's hilarious.
What isn't so bad it's funny is the lack of online support. I've got real problems with no online functionality in beat-'em-ups in this day and age. How can the console makers proclaim the advent of the next-generation when developers can't make two videogame characters punch the crap out of each other without lag making it unplayable? I've heard the argument why there should be no online in VF5: because timing and technique is more important in it than other beat-'em-ups, so even a hint of lag robs it of what makes it great. But something doesn't sit easily with me here. Whether it's right or wrong, no online in VF5, as with any beat-'em-up on the so-called next-generation consoles, is a huge disappointment.
But that's not the end of it. Latency issues wouldn't have prevented SEGA offering some downloadable content. No leaderboards, no online replay sharing... nothing. SEGA missed a trick here. With the 360 version, which could well offer some of the above features, looming over the summer horizon, why shouldn't VF fans wait? It's like a ticking time bomb on Sony's VF5 exclusivity argument that's set to go off in just a few months.
If you don't have any friends to play VF5 with, and you're not already a fan, I can't see it holding your attention for long. The single-player just doesn't have enough. Played with friends, however, especially friends who are of a similar skill level, VF5 emerges from its solitary constrains and becomes perhaps the most rewarding fighter around.
As a fan of all the major 3-D beat-'em-ups out there, I'll refrain from saying it's better than the rest; it's equally good in it's own, unique, satisfying way. More than any other beat-'em-up, being good at VF5 makes you feel good about your gaming skill, kind of like those ultra-hard 2D shooters Treasure keeps knocking out for masochists.
The fact that it's a PS3 launch game also means there's a real chance it will convince a number of VF virgins to give it shot - those gamers who are picking up a PS3 anyway and are looking for the best game to play on it. But it's not accessible enough to sell the system on its own.
Enthusiasts wouldn't want it any other way, of course. They don't want beat-'em-up n00bs sullying the beauty of VF5 and desecrating its arenas with button-bashing. They also don't want a revolution, so a simple graphics overhaul and a couple of new characters to experiment with will be a relief more than anything. It's just a massive disappointment that this PS3 port is so bare bones.