Virtua Fighter 4 – Second Opinion

Much like the entrepreneurial dojo owner/martial arts master that claims self-defense and confidence can be achieved through the practice of kata forms (choreographed movements) and breaking wooden boards for $1k a year, Virtua Fighter 4 is a hoax. The Virtua Fighter series has always presented itself with a greater sense of dignity and realism than other fighting games that usually take the anime-fantasy theme route, but the latest sequel of the series exposes the hand-to-hand martial arts simulator label to be more hyperbole than substance.

Ironically Virtua Fighter 4 is responsible for its own downfall by including the new competitor, Vanessa Lewis, who is a practitioner of the fighting style Vale Tudo (which means anything-goes in Portuguese). Never mind that Vale Tudo isn't a fighting system. Its actually the term used in South America to describe what is more commonly referred to as No-Holds-Barred or Mixed Martial Arts in the United States. Mixed Martial Arts is a sport where hybrid striking and grappling techniques derived from various fighting arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai and American/European Boxing are employed to either knockout an opponent or force him or her into submission. The ever-evolving sport rose to international notoriety and popularity through the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tournaments and Japanese-based Pride FC promotions.

(Critic's Note:For more information on the history of UFC, read the GameCritics.com review of the UFC Dreamcast game.)

Not surprisingly, the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (especially in Japan) inspired game developers to include professional fighters of the same caliber into their casts of playable combatants. Vanessa Lewis, with her Janet Jackson-esque rock hard abs and richly dark exotic looks, is the first representative of Vale Tudo/Mixed Martial Arts sport to enter the Virtua Fighter series. The irony about the techniques employed by Vanessa is that they do indeed mirror the sport, but like all mirror reflections, the image is distorted. The limitations of the classic Street Fighter tried-and-true formula that Virtua Fighter still utilizes for its framework makes justly representing Vale Tudo unattainable and the results are often a ridiculous sight.

For example, there is a combination leg grappling move that allows Vanessa to take her opponent to the floor, full mount that opponent (imagine sitting on someones abdomen), and then lay a good punch into the kisser. In Mixed Martial Arts this is known as the ground 'n pound tactic and the full mount is one of the most dominant positions one can attain. Rather than maintain the superior position, after the punch is executed, Vanessa unbelievably dismounts her opponent and allows him or her to rise to their feet. This would be the Poker equivalent of folding with four aces in hand.

Another instant that demonstrates lack of creditability in illustrating Vale Tudo is when Vanessa executes a submission arm-bar. The move involves locking a persons arm followed by placing both legs across the persons face and chest for leverage and then hyper extending the opponents arm. Like most joint locks, great pain is inflicted on the person being arm-barred and that person must cry "uncle" to end the conflict. However, once Vanessa slaps on the arm bar and a subsequent bone cracking noise is heard, she once again gives up her position and allows her opponent to stand up. This action is the very anti-thesis of grappling and submission fighting and has virtually zero rationale.

Not only does Virtua Fighter 4 represent Vale Tudo poorly, but it also ignores the shocking lessons that Mixed Martial Arts taught the world when the UFC made its debut nearly 10 years ago and shook the very foundation of how the fighting arts were perceived. The UFC tournament exposed traditional systems of martial arts as being ineffective and incomplete in dealing with everyday street brawling and ground fighting type situations. Since most real-life or free-form fights typically end up on the ground, Kung-fu, Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Kick-boxing men all fell prey to the superior grappling and submission techniques of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (which emphasizes groundwork) put on display by the unassuming Royce Gracie.

Out of the cast of 13 playable fighters in Virtua Fighter 4, a majority of them are practitioners of styles that are more likely to be seen in Chop-Sockie Drive-in movies like The 36 Chambers of Shaolin or The Five Deadly Venoms than in actual fights. The inclusion of fanciful and legendary styles like the Praying Mantis, Drunken Fist, and Ninjitsu as well as the overemphasis on stand-up fighting perpetuates the myth and cliches of ancient and deadly mystical martial arts secrets that the UFC quickly dispelled.

(Critic's Note: Ironically, the official Virtua Fighter 4 Web site openly acknowledges the connection between Vale Tudo and the UFC despite making no attempt to alter the gameplay to match Mixed Martial Arts.)

The most surprising and egregious fault of Virtua Fighter 4 is that the more skill and experience a player attains, the more ridiculous and unrealistic the fights become. Rather than focusing on strategy and positioning, the highest levels of competition in the game forces a player to be adept a videogame-isms like juggling combos, finger gymnastic motions of the joystick, and attacks that statistically register the most amount of damage (despite little rhyme or reason as to why many similar looking strikes do disproportionate amounts of damage). Highly skilled and competitive matches in the game bare little semblance to an actual fight.

For gamers well versed in the grammar and conventions of 3D two-player fighting games, Virtua Fighter 4 is without many surprises, but still undoubtedly a masterful exercise in the genre. The visuals are stunning, the controls are smooth and the Kumite mode is simple, yet dangerously addictive (why more fighting games don't follow suit is beyond me). However, Virtua Fighter 4 doesn't promote itself to be a typical fighting game. It holds itself to a higher standard as if it were thumbing its nose to its competitors like some bolstering old master who claims the martial art hes been practicing his entire lifetime is superior to all others.

The reason why I gave Virtua Fighter 4 a rather average rating is because its claims of being realistic is only a marketing bluff. Conceptually, the game doesn't commit to being a simulator. Despite outward appearances, there is very little difference between it and other comic book style fighting games. Just like anyone who practices kata forms and can convincingly mimic the movements of an animal shouldn't think they are capable of defending themselves in a street fight, no one should think Virtua Fighter 4 is a martial arts simulator. Rating: 6.5 out of 10