Game Description: This new version of the definitive hand-to-hand martial arts sim features fully optimized graphics designed to harness the power of the PlayStation 2. Virtua Fighter 4 also delivers an extremely deep fighting system, highly tuned AI, and two new characters hungry for their place at the top. If you are new to the Virtua Fighter series, the in-depth training system will teach you the art of combat, move by move. Rewards await those who master every move, and you can expect to unlock a few secret techniques along the way.
The common idea of a martial arts hero is a rigidly moral person being endowed with strengths and abilities beyond the reach of a normal human. They can present bodies of dozens of foes they single-handedly defeated, and despite their painful and probably fatal wounds they still stand. Sometimes they possess comic book-like powers, leaping or falling from incredible heights. For most westerners, the mass media has provided exposure to this mystical Asian fantasy, most notably in film. The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most recent example, but everything from Tsui Harks historical epic movies to John Woos bullet ballet noir also offer romantic, exotic and stark glimpses into the mentality of a martial artist.
Video games, a mutant strain of entertainment that have only recently found their legging in the mainstream, also add to the mystique of the martial arts superhero. Fighting games have become a significant genre since Street Fighter II, which featured high-flying, fireball throwing men and women from all over the world. This genre calls for performing special moves that unleash great power and defy natural physics, all of which require arcane movements from the joystick and buttons. Over the years, these games and the gameplay that defines them grew to feature more a more exaggerated style that makes them less believable then before.
In 1993, Yu Suzuki released Virtua Fighter, which was the first fighting game to feature fighters designed with 3D polygons. The game restricted movement to a 2D plane, and the polygons lacked textures but were smoothly animated. It had no fireballs. Nobody could do upside-down spinning kicks or flash kicks. There wasnt even any blood. Since then, the series has evolved using this template of pure martial arts fighting. In its two sequels, the games had graphic overhauls, deeper and sometimes more experimental gameplay (sometimes not so successful, like Virtua Fighter 3s evade button) and extra moves to characters that were already balanced.
Virtua Fighter 4 is the latest in the series evolution, and it is the deepest, most beautiful and most balanced of the series, and maybe of the entire 3D fighting genre. The game focuses on one-on-one martial arts matches achieving victory by knocking the opponent out cold or out of the ring. Like the first two installments, it features a single-directional input for the D-pad and a punch, kick and guard button, eschewing the previously mentioned evade button (the feature is still in the game though). The game features 11 of the characters from Virtua Fighter 3 (minus Taka Arashi, the sumo wrestler) and two new fighters: an African-American street fighting female named Vanessa and Lei-Fei, your archetype Shaolin monk, complete with Gordon Liu looks.
The learning curve is easy enough for a beginner, but the depths one can go to mastering this game are nearly endless. The game features three different training modes. Command training lets you try out the moves of each character, giving advice along the way to perform it correctly. Free training is a standard training mode, allowing you to customize your dummy partner to suit whatever you feel like practicing. But learning all the special moves can only get you so far in this game. Trial training mode features different trials to learn advanced techniques. Some techniques are indispensable, like the evade (which calls for pressing up or down just as the opponents attack begins), and some call for virtuoso finger gymnastics on the controller, like the "guard-throw-evade," which allows you to evade an attack, and guard or evade a possible subsequent attack or throw. Throw the concept of high, middle and low attacks and their rock-paper-scissors relationship amongst other things and you can see why this series have had literally volumes written about the gameplay. A strategy guide on Gamefaqs.com only for Akira Yuki, the Virtua Fighter poster boy, goes up to 101 pages.
The arcade mode is standard and presents little challenge or value. Kumite mode is where the true single-player experience begins. You start with a fighter, give him a name and throw him into an endless sea of artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled fighters with their own names and unique looks. The memory card saves your every win and loss, along with every move you make. When you meet some certain circumstances, you will encounter a ranking match. Winning it will advance you through ten ranks of "kyu," then ten ranks of the relentless "dan" level, and on towards more grandiose and eccentric titles, like "Subjugator" and "Dragonlord." This mode is among the most profound ways to increase your skill level. As you gain rank, you do not gain new moves or have any increase in statistics. Instead, your rewards are purely cosmetic. Vanessa can wear a beret or have an assault rifle on her back, while Akira can have a bunny on his shoulder. It mimics the experience of an arcade challenge by presenting something at stake by the result, for if you lose you can lose rank or even gain an embarrassing reward, such as the aforementioned bunny. The only other thing noticeable as you plow your way through is your increase in skill, thanks to the punishing AI. It learns your patterns and responds to them accordingly. It isnt superhuman in that it blocks or reverses your every move, but its timing is impeccableas apparent as when you realize the computer-controlled Akira can flawlessly perform his most difficult moves. And that is where the heart of the gameplay lies. Most of the moves are relatively simply to pull off given that your timing is accurate. Playing the game becomes akin to a rhythm game. After mastering Jacky, the Jeet Kune Do fighter, I turned the games music off and performed poorly. I realized that the rhythm of my movements were off without the music. I trained with the music, and the music, unfortunately, had become part of the state of mind I must be in to play the game well.
The game also mimics what a real life fight might entail. A martial arts "simulator" such as this begs the question, "Would all of this really work in real life?" The answer lies within the game. If you only have a slight handle on the basics of your art, a person who has no grasp of martial arts can easily overwhelm you with unpredictable movements. That person would be the gaming equivalent of a button-masher. Its possible to lose against a button masher if your skill is limited. However, mastering your character will reward you in easily dispatching a button masher. Its that level of competition that drives a player towards mastery of this game. And if two skilled fighters engage, the bout becomes akin to a fencing match, which is a game of expectations and reaction.
Barely worth mentioning, the game features an AI system that lets you to train and develop your own AI fighter and pit it against the computer or other customized AI fighters. You can train it by teaching it moves, sparring with it or having it watch replays while you judge what is good or bad to do. More of a novelty mode than anything else, it is something to do with friends when youve absolutely exhausted the rest of the game, which wont be for a long time thanks to the kumite and versus modes.
The graphics are stellar and a definite crowd-pleaser. Running at 60 fps, each character is huge and has detailed textures right down to their shoelaces. Seeing Lei Fei or drunken master Shun Di perform their moves with life-like coordination is jaw dropping, as are some of the special effects in the arenas. The arenas are either open, closed or have breakable walls, and feature weather and lighting effects. The palace level has players fight in ankle-deep water, splashing and rippling with a life of its own. Another has fighters knee-deep in snow, and as the fight commences their marks are made through the snow.
The sound department isnt as impressive. The voice acting is as bad as they come (Quoth the Wolf: "Did you feel the real power? Go back to school."), and the music is your typical arena synth-rock. The sound effects are recycled from previous games, but are appropriate. Some standouts are the bone-crunching sounds Vanessa makes as she pummels your limbs.
Nary a negative thing can be said about this game. If anything, the AI mode takes up valuable memory that couldve been used for more rewards in Kumite mode. The game is a gorgeous and perfectly balanced game where no fighter is better than another is. Kumite mode helps define this game as purely skill-driven, but its simplistic controls make it accessible to anybody. More than any other game, Virtua Fighter 4 lives up to its "simulator" label by exemplifying the struggles of a martial artist through its depth and addictive Kumite mode. Its inhibition in violence and gimmickry sharply contrasts the far-reaching depths of its gameplay. The game is significant enough to present yet another angle at the mystical world of the martial artist fantasy, doing honor to its source material.
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.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Violence
Fighting fans have been waiting for another great 3D fighter since Soul Calibur, and now they have a game that may surpass it. The game is as complex as you want it to be, measured by the time and patience you have to learn the many different little aspects of the game, including evades, guaranteed throw moves, reversals and reversing reversals. Though it features realistic fighting, the game features no blood. The worst it gets are certain excruciatingly painful looking bone-crunching moves. Shun Di appears to be drinking alcohol during the fights, but the manual makes it clear that he "pretends" to do so.
Fans of the Tekken and Dead or Alive series should give this a try, as it is the definitive Virtua Fighter. It is the fastest and best looking, but the precise timing required for many of the moves (especially reversals) might turn some of them off. Even so, every fight fan (especially fans of Virtua Fighter 2) owe it to themselves to purchase this game.