The modern renaissance of fighting games that began with the release of Street Fighter IV has had many positive effects on the genre. It has brought new players into the fighting game fold, and the increased audience allows for classic series that may have fallen by the wayside to be revived and put in the hands of new players eager to see the diverse breadth of experiences the genre has to offer. The original iterations of Virtua Fighter 5 released in 2007 struggled to make an impact: the original PlayStation 3 release lacked any sort of online play, while the Xbox 360 version debuted amid numerous other high-profile releases. Despite positive reviews, the original VF5 didn't make many waves.
Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown takes a different approach. Rather than being a full-priced disc release, it's a $15 downloadable title available through the PlayStation Network. Instead of emphasizing the single-player quest modes of the original release, the game is geared toward competitive play, with a robust online matchmaking engine and in-depth training and tutorial modes. You don't earn items to customize your characters in-game; you buy downloadable customization packs that contain hundreds upon hundreds of items, costumes, and colors for each fighter. To top it all off, the game engine has received a significant overhaul, making the game more accessible to new players while adding depth and gameplay tweaks that longtime VF fans will find refreshing. The result is a package that, while somewhat lacking in certain respects, represents a tremendous value.
At first glance, Virtua Fighter is deceptively simple: there are only three buttons (guard, punch, and kick), no super meters or other gauges, and rings of varied size and shape to fight on. Once you begin playing, however, the game's depth gradually opens up. The three buttons, used in tandem with certain joystick movements, open up hundreds of different commands for each character, with each individual skill having numerous unique properties and potential uses. Every character has a wealth of different strikes, holds, throws, and counters of varying heights, speeds, and damage properties. The skills are based (sometimes rather loosely) on true-to-life martial arts, so don't expect the flashiness of massive fireballs, energy swords, or divekicks from across the length of the screen.
The more-grounded basis of Virtua Fighter doesn't make the game any less exciting, however: matches are fast-paced, tense, and involve more up-close-and-personal beatdowns. The smoothness and detail of the individual character animations accentuate the thrill of combat; the sheer satisfaction of landing a particularly complex and damaging combo or a rarely seen, off-the-wall throw is immense. Characters also come with unique properties that affect the way they play: tiny luchador El Blaze can dash speedily around the ring, drunken master Shun Di gains improved moves when he's plastered (yes, really), and gargantuan sumo Taka-Arashi's massive size renders him harder to knock down and hit with combo strings, to give a few examples.
There's a lot to each character in Virtua Fighter, and thus the learning curve is a bit steep. Thankfully, Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown offers robust training and tutorial modes to help both new players who are learning VF for the first time and longtime fans who might need to adjust to the gameplay changes from the original VF5. The tutorials start from the very basics of attacking, dodging, and guarding, and continue all the way to the new throw-escape system and advanced movement techniques.
Training mode, meanwhile, offers numerous ways to analyze and practice your newly learned skills, including numerous detailed input displays (complete with frame data for advanced players) and notations on how and where moves strike you or your opponent. The training dummy can also be set to react in a plethora of ways, including switching up command strings at random so you can practice anticipating and countering troublesome mix-ups. Replays of offline and online matches can also be saved, shared online, and carefully analyzed with similar tools to the training mode.
You certainly want to learn as much as you can, since Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown offers a considerable challenge both online and offline. The game lacks a single-player story or quest mode, instead offering more-personal improvement-driven content. Arcade mode is just that: a simple trip through a gauntlet of computer-controlled opponents with a credits roll at the end (as is typical for VF, there are no story scenes or character endings). Score Attack rewards you with points for clearing the stages as quickly, efficiently, and flashily as possible and includes online leaderboard rankings. License Challenge is similar to the random quest objectives that were given out during fights in Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution; you need to not only beat an opponent but fulfill certain other objectives in the meantime (such as landing a certain number of hits or using defensive techniques).
Finally, Special Sparring is available to players who have purchased the downloadable content bundles and features fights against characters decked out in some wild, weird, and just plain awesome special gear. All of the computer-controlled characters in the single-player modes start off easy but become surprisingly smart and realistic-behaving as you progress. While the challenge is welcome, the lack of a story mode or a mode to earn accolades and items like the quest modes in Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution or the original Virtua Fighter 5 is disappointing.
What Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown lacks in a single-player experience, however, it makes up for in versus play. Offline versus play affords you the usual settings of the genre, but it's the online matching that really shines. High-level Virtua Fighter play is dependent on extremely fast movements, and even the slightest bit of lag can throw off a person's ability to fight well. To this end, players' connections are synced up before a match starts and in between rounds, which keeps lag to a minimum. While the lengthy delay before starting a match online can be annoying, when you're playing a buttery-smooth match against someone on the other side of the country, it's worth it.
Casual match online lobbies allow for up to eight players each and operate in a format similar to that of traditional arcades: winners keep playing until someone takes them down or they step off for a while, while others can wait to challenge them and spectate in the meantime. If you're serious about leveling up and proving your worth to the greater world of Virtua Fighter, you can climb the ranks in ranked matches against opponents from around the world.
While online works well, it isn't always perfect: distance and connection quality still play a huge factor in determining how well online play runs against another person. Most matches are very good, but you still run into a few bouts where the lag has a noticeable effect on gameplay. Very rarely does the game sputter and slow down completely. In our tests, Xbox Live play felt ever-so-slightly smoother than PSN play did, with higher-rated connections cropping up more often.
There's a huge amount of depth to VF5FS on its own, but you also have the option to purchase packs of DLC containing hundreds of items and colors to customize each character with. The customization itself isn't quite as in depth as something like Soul Calibur V's Create-a-Soul mode (which allowed you to alter things like body type and object placement), but the sheer amount of stuff you get in each $5 character pack (or $15 for one of two different multi-character packs) offers a tremendous value when compared to other games of this type that charge $2-3 for static costumes.
Unfortunately, the DLC is the only way to gain access to these items--they can't be earned in-game. Also, in order to see other players' costumes in versus mode or online, you need to own the customization packs for their characters. Customization data isn't portable, either, meaning that when you go to a gaming meet or to your friend's place, you're going to have to whip up that awesome robot-suited Jeffry with a giant afro and a tiki mask you made at home from scratch again.
But even if you don't get the DLC, VF5FS offers some of the finest, most balanced, and most in-depth fighting on the market for a price that's hard to argue with. Each character is worthwhile, and you can spend weeks perfecting the use of a single fighter--only to go online and be greeted by another skilled player who uses your chosen character in a new and unexpected fashion. If what you want most from a fighting game is a deep, technical, and incredibly rewarding competitive experience, you can't go wrong with Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown.