Hands-onVirtua Fighter 4

Virtua Fighter 4 began testing in the Bay Area and we were able to spend some time with the next installment in Sega's premiere fighting series.

The Virtua Fighter 4 unit currently being tested in the Bay Area is an unfinished version of the game, as evidenced by the incomplete fighting roster. Only one of the two newcomers was on hand, Lei Fei, a Shaolin monk, but he joined all the characters from Virtua Fighter 3tb, except for Taka-arashi. The new female character, policewoman Vanessa Lewis, was MIA. Unfortunately, our matches never let us play the single-player game and check to see if Dural was still on hand to stir up trouble at the last stage.

Obviously, the first thing that leaps out at players is the game's upgraded graphics. Thanks to the Naomi 2, the characters are far more detailed than their VF3tb counterparts. Currently, the shading on the characters is far more pronounced and makes for a more dramatic look. Characters now all have distinctly different looking skin. For example, Akira looks much more weathered, and Lau's face is lined with wrinkles, giving him a more severe look. The available female characters possessed subtle differences in skin tone as well--Pai is still pale, but Aoi has more color to her skin and Sarah's complexion is much more ruddy. In addition to more realistic skin, all the returning fighters have been upgraded visually and look much more lifelike. Hair moves much more smoothly--Shun Di's beard and hair move a good deal more this time out, almost like a lion's mane. The only rough spot, for some, will be Lion Rafale's new look, which is perhaps best described as a cross between Prince and a J-pop star.

The characters' clothing sports excellent detail, even more than in VF3. For example, Kage's new outfit sports sweet chrome effects and several moving pieces. At the moment, it seems as though the clothing may not move quite as smoothly as in VF3, clothing doesn't seem to have the varying types of weight. At the present it's hard to tell due to some of the clothing types--jackets are kept partly zippered, and Aoi and Lei Fei's sleeves seem to wrap around their arms differently. But we'll withhold judgment until we play the final game and go through it thoroughly.

The various fighting arenas, best seen during prefight fly throughs, are beautiful, although players will definitely notice a lack of interactivity. There is no longer multilevel ground to take into consideration during a battle, which keeps the matches fast. Ring outs are possible and, in some cases, regular occurrences as players familiarize themselves with the new arenas. Beautiful textures detail the available stages and complement the impressive lighting, which ranges from the subtle diffuse sunlight filtering into the aquarium arena to the bright searchlights from circling helicopters in the rooftop level. Special effects such as warping reflections in water and deforming snow and sand are cool but still a bit rough. While it's been said it will be possible to break the walls in arenas that have them, our efforts didn't meet with much success no matter how hard we slammed, or were slammed, into the walls.

Character animation seems to have been tweaked, as it seemed both improved and reduced in places. Winning poses animate smoothly, as does combat--for the most part. Blocking animation appears to have been tweaked for speed--blocking low sweeps, for example, no longer results in a stagger animation. Attacks are now supplemented by Tekken-like flashes, depending on the moves used, which makes for a much more colorful battle.

In addition to a nod to Tekken with its graphics, the gameplay in VF4 seems to owe a bit to Namco's fighting series. The fighting system has seen some serious tweaks. The evade button has been taken away, bringing the game back to a three-button control scheme. 3D movement is now accomplished through double-tapping and holding up or down on the joystick--much like Soul Calibur's eight-way movement. Free movement around the arena felt a bit sluggish and didn't seem too effective in the current build.

In spite of the lack of speed when moving around the ring, combat is now much faster and very reminiscent of the combat in Virtua Fighter 2. Members of AM2 have gone on record to say VF4 is more a sequel to VF2 than VF3, and it shows. All the characters feel about right, but the timing has been tweaked and new moves have been added for better balance. Power levels appear to have been tweaked as well--Akira felt a bit sluggish but packed a punch so impressive it didn't matter. Sarah Bryant seemed to be powered up to match her newly buff appearance and did serious damage. It also seemed as though many throws were now catch throws, providing a larger opportunity to successfully get a throw in. As in previous VF games, stances can be changed--Jacky and possibly Lei Fei were both able to change stances during combat, which made them a good deal more challenging to take on. The jury was still out on fighter weight in the game, as it still seemed like players could pull off some nasty combos that floated their opponents for a painfully long time.

Counters and evading took work to pull off, but it was hard to tell if the game needed more refinement or we just needed to let go of our VF3 skills. Players who mastered the intricacies of VF3 may be thrown when first playing VF4, but those who couldn't get into VF3's gameplay system should be pleased.

Even in this early state, the game looks and plays well, leaving us eager for the final polished arcade release and PlayStation 2 version.

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