It's been a bumpy ride with its share of disappointment, but the quest to bring fighting games kicking and screaming into homes with smooth online play seems to be nearing its end. And it's just in time because the ability to find competition anytime, anywhere is just the sort of thing this style of game needs to be successful. Sega's Virtua Fighter 5 is the next fighting game to take the plunge into online play, and it does so quite well.
The online mode lets you take on another competitor in ranked or unranked matches. How well it works is solely dependant on the quality of your Internet connection and the quality of your opponent's connection. Because the game will match you up with other players, some games will run nearly perfectly, while others will be almost completely unplayable...unless the problem's on your end, of course. On a regular, consumer-grade DSL connection, we had a good experience, with many more smooth matches than rough-looking latent ones. The game keeps track of your wins and losses in ranked mode, as well as clumsily ties it into the game's existing profile system in the process. While the online play works, the menus leading up to it certainly could have been handled better. It starts by asking you if you want a ranked or unranked match, then moves on to character select, where you can opt to use one of your customized characters from another mode, but only their appearance carries over online. Your personal comment and ring name don't show outside of quest mode.
At that point, you can choose to create a match, which puts you on the left side, or join one, which places you on the right. If you create an unranked match, you can invite a player from your friends list. But regardless of how you find an opponent, you're dropped back to the create/join menu after every match. The inability to change characters and stay in an unranked match with a friend is annoying. Also, the game would have benefitted from tournament options or at least the ability to have more than two people in one game who could swap in and out as players win or lose fights.
Virtua Fighter 5 on the Xbox 360 is based on the Version C revision of the arcade game. The arcade versions of VF games typically undergo some slight changes and rebalancing over their lifetime. For reference, the PlayStation 3 version is built off of Version B. The differences feel negligible to the average player and an in-depth discussion of the changes is outside the scope of this review. Beyond the version change, the rest of Virtua Fighter 5 is on par with what the PlayStation 3 release offered from a features standpoint. You can play the game in arcade mode, which faithfully duplicates the computerized opponents you'd face if you were to drop 100 yen in an arcade machine, visit the dojo for the game's passable practice mode, or go to VF.TV mode to set up computer-controlled fights between any two characters or view replays. This mode could have been awesome if some of the online hooks were applied because watching expert-level VF players face off is a real sight to see. Instead, it's a little flat.
But the more interesting single-player component is quest mode, which gives you a map filled with different arcades, each with a reputation for attracting players of different skill levels. You can visit any arcade and start fighting. As you go, you'll earn money that can be used to customize characters, unlock items, and get invited to tournaments. All that stuff is great, but it's really more interesting because the artificial intelligence of your opponents is more varied and interesting to fight. In arcade mode, the game has a very robotic response to your actions. In quest mode, the fighters you face are all given ring names, as well as comments--just like a human player would have--and they tend to fight differently. The higher ranking quest mode AI can be challenging and the quest mode can keep you busy for a good, long time. But it's no substitute for actual competition, which, thankfully, is only a few menus away.
The only other thing that gets in the way of the fun is the Xbox 360's D pad, which works well enough, but just isn't quite up to the challenge of the game's fast-moving action. Sega and Hori have teamed up to release a joystick called the EX2. This joystick duplicates the ball-style joystick and convex buttons typically found in Japanese arcades. It's also a solid piece of hardware that works nicely while still having most of the standard 360 accoutrements, such as a guide button and a jack for your headset. It's a good piece of equipment that serious players should consider, but also be warned that this is a $60 joystick. At least it has six buttons on the face, so if you have any other 360 fighting games with buttons you can remap, this will work there too.
Visually, the game looks about the same as the arcade version, which is to say that it has great-looking characters, picturesque backgrounds, and quality animation. About the only thing that looks a little funky is the mouth animation, which pops up when characters speak after a match. The character voices are a little hit or miss too, occasionally sounding a little tinny and low-fidelity. The music is the same sort of electronic-tinged rock that you'd expect to hear from a modern fighting game.
Virtua Fighter 5 is a great fighting game and the addition of a good multiplayer mode only makes it better. But keep in mind that the game is geared toward players who have experience with the series and isn't always friendly to new players. If you've been playing Virtua Fighter for any length of time, this game is worth adding to your library. However, even if you're a fan of other fighting games but aren't already familiar with the series, it's likely that you're just going to keep on wondering why there is such a fuss about Virtua Fighter.