[Note: My writing style for this post is....I'm just writing like crazy, not really checking coherence and grammar, so bear with me. If you want to go straight to the 'review', look for the three asterisks “***”]
The Dead or Alive franchise by Team Ninja/Tecmo is the fighting game series that is usually associated with the Xbox platform. When DOA4 was released for the Xbox 360, I picked up a copy and was quite amazed with its efforts to incorporate a semi-realistic environment for the combat. Your characters fight in a variety of locations and the environments are highly interactive; you can kick players off bridges, smash them against fruit stands, knock over room walls in a Japanese styled house, and so on.
I guess the one thing that I never liked about Dead or Alive 4 was the learning curve. You could play the game casually and just mash the buttons and pray that you hit something. But if you wanted to explore the depth of the game, it was quite difficult. Some of the combinations were really, really long, elaborate strings of arrows and keypresses. And the scheme for reversing throws or other moves---I found it practically impossible to learn. Perhaps the biggest factor why I never got into Dead or Alive 4 is the online mode. Compared to other games on the Xbox 360, Dead or Alive's online mode was extremely laggy. I tried playing against players both from Asia, the United States and Europe....there's a timing issue with the way that it would capture your moves and translate them onscreen. I then came up with the personal conclusion that perhaps online modes for fighting games are impossible to implement, because of the precision and split second timing that most fighting games required.
Later on, Street Fighter II was released on Xbox Live Arcade; I purchased the game hoping it would have improved on DOA4's shortcomings online, but, unfortunately, that didn't happen.
By that point, it was solidified in my mind that fighting games are best enjoyed offline, with a party of friends over. I thought, no wonder the fighting game genre is dying....not everyone knows that many people who are really into fighting games these days. And since, I thought, online play was impossible to implement, I thought that fighting games were really on their way out.
Later on in 2007, it was announced that Virtua Fighter 5 was coming out for the Xbox 360. With online play.
Originally, I was really disappointed with SEGA when they saw fit to make the VF series exclusive on the PS3 platform. I didn't really have plans to buy a Playstation 3 because the console didn't have enough games, and I didn't like the way it handled achievements, friends lists and online play. So I thought that I'd never get the chance to enjoy the latest in the Virtua Fighter series.
I was really surprised when SEGA announced the Xbox 360 version. I was even more surprised later on when they decided to include an online mode. I thought to myself, this is SEGA we're talking about. Their recent releases for the Xbox 360 haven't really been stellar, so I was quite pessimistic about how VF5's online mode was going to work. The past Japanese fighting games I've played for the Xbox 360 didn't really improve my confidence in SEGA either. Perhaps it can be said that the SEGA now is only a shadow of the company that they used to be, and their major franchises are no longer the draw that they used to be.
When the demo for the Xbox 360 version of Virtua Fighter 5 was released, I was amazed with its graphics and the gameplay. It's noticeably slower than Dead or Alive 4, and it feels more like the original Street Fighter II games because of the pacing. Even the moves are easier to pull off, and they're easier to remember because they're 'Street Fighter' style moves, where one or two arrow presses plus a button or two would launch a move. That's in contrast to DOA4's set of moves, which were mostly long strings of arrows and keypresses. I was hyped to get the game...couple that with a bit of nostalgia, though; because I enjoyed the original Virtua Fighter arcade game and its sequel on the Sega Saturn.
Upon getting the game, the first thing I tried was the online mode. And I was very pleasantly surprised. This has got to be the best online fighting game I've played. The netcode in VF5 is superior to any other fighting game I've tried on the Xbox 360. Most of the online matches I've played since I bought this game last month have been lag-free. Of course there are a few exceptions, but for the most part, online implementation in VF5 is practically perfect, with your moves getting proper execution and timing the moment you want them to. I'm not exactly sure how SEGA did this; I recall reading an article early on for the Playstation 3 version that online mode for VF5 was impossible to pull off. The developer back then said something about the difficulty in having the precise movements of VF5 get reflected in the gameplay of an online environment. It was essentially a lengthy apology for Playstation fans, and most of them believed it. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to find out later on that SEGA figured out how to implement online mode for the Xbox 360. I think Microsoft's superior development tools must have been a factor towards convincing SEGA that online mode for Virtua Fighter 5 can work.
The fighting game system in Virtua Fighter 5 is extremely deep. Compared to DOA4, where button mashing can let any amateur get away with a win or two, in VF5 the control scheme starts out simple but has a better learning curve if you want to be more skilled. Some special moves are fairly easy to pull off, while others take a bit more work. There also seem to be a set of moves for each character that are really hard to do, and in some cases, I think there are one or two moves which look practically impossible without a fighting stick of some kind. But for some reason I found myself more comfortable with Virtua Fighter 5's challenging control system compared to Dead or Alive 4. For me it seems there's more skill involved in playing VF5, and more satisfaction to be gained from winning. In DOA4 the problem was that half the time I didn't really know what I was doing, and whenever I won or lost, I wasn't exactly sure of the reason why. With VF5 the gameplay is more rewarding; the action is noticeably slower but it felt more 'understandable' to me, in the sense that I had some idea of why I was winning or losing some matches. You can really feel your gameplay skill improving each time you go online to challenge real opponents. At the time of this writing I've attained 3RD DAN with about 82 wins and 59 losses and Jacky as my main character. With the recent inclusion of the replay feature, online matches are even more enjoyable, since you can save your best online ownage, or even save the matches that you simply want to review and learn from when you lose.
From what I've read on Virtuafighter.com, many of the fans say that the A.I. in the Xbox 360 version is better and far more creative than the A.I. in the PS3 version. That's because you'll see the AI do a lot more creative combinations and occasionally they'll even do some of the lame tactics that some online players employ (using throws over and over, using the same move over and over....more or less that makes the AI feel 'human'). Don't worry, not all the AI players do lame tactics. I'm referring to the Quest Mode of the game, where you go from arcade to arcade to advance in skill as a Virtua Fighter player. Some AI will really test your mettle, while others will help you learn a thing or two about how real players might try to steal a win from you. Quest mode is really well implemented even if it doesn't offer the usual fighting game plot (“fighters from all over the globe gather for some world championship and on the side if you lose the bad guys will take over the world....”). VF5 does have an arcade mode but for the most part there isn't really a plot and there is no real 'ending' for the characters once you finish a run through of arcade mode. Players who crave some kind of side-plot for each character will definitely be disappointed by this. VF5 is really focused on competitive play, and getting better with each match provides a unique kind of satisfaction that you can't get anywhere else.
The fighting itself in Virtua Fighter 5 has less flash than Tekken or DOA4. You won't see explosions bursting from your fists and kicks or fireballs getting released from your characters palms. Probably the most 'unrealistic' aspect of Virtua Fighter 5 is the jumping and floating of the characters. Despite the lack of flash, watching fights in Virtua Fighter 5 can be intense and very entertaining. The addition of offensive moves, defensive moves and reversals can allow a player who seems to be seriously beaten to suddenly come back into the fight and take the win; and this doesn't happen so often that it becomes lame. The fighters in the game are all fairly balanced; and it seems to me that they all have unique moves that aren't similar to each other. Take Sarah and Jacky for example; they're supposedly brother and sister in the game but you don't see them having exactly the same kind of fighting style. The characters might have moves common to all of them but there are only really a few of those (mid kicks, knee attacks etc.); for the most part, each character has a set of moves unique to them that gives them some advantage in a certain area but not others. (For example, Jacky doesn't have that many low attack combinations and low throws, but he does have a great number of mid attacks that can be devastating if they aren't blocked or countered).
Overall, Virtua Fighter 5 for the Xbox 360 provides quite a universe of gameplay experience, despite the lack of any real 'game plot/storyline' to bring the characters together. If you want to know the 'supposed' plot of VF5, visit viruafighter.com's wiki page for the game. Personally I think the plot that SEGA wrote is just in place for those looking for it; the focus is really on competitive play, and the satisfaction one can get from getting better each time one plays against another player. With the inclusion of online play, Virtua Fighter 5 for the Xbox 360 offers the most complete, authentic Virtua Fighter experience. On a side note, in my country there are absolutely no VF5 machines to be found anywhere. I'm probably out of luck when it comes to finding fellow VF5 communities here in the Philippines. Even on Pinoyxbox, Virtua Fighter 5 doesn't really have a solid following, so I can't expect that many players that I can meet in real life to play against. So the ONLINE MODE of the Xbox 360 version is a real godsend! Now I can find other players who enjoy the VF5 fighting system as much as I do, and enjoy lag-free competitive online fighting. With the recent inclusion of the ability to save online replays and some bug fixes to combat players that disconnect from matches, Virtua Fighter 5 is shaping itself to be one of the best fighting series for this generation of consoles. I'm sure that even more improvements will be made for the inevitable upgrade for VF5 (rumored to be VF5: Evolution which is due out later in 2008).
Lastly, occasionally I read on forums that there are some Xbox 360 players who did not buy Virtua Fighter 5 because they hold a grudge against SEGA for originally going exclusive with Sony. I think they're being ridiculous for doing so. Not only are these fans missing out on a great fighting system, they're also missing out on the first practically lag-free online fighting game on the Xbox 360. At the very least, these fans should also recognize that SEGA did give the Xbox 360 the BEST version of Virtua Fighter 5, with lag-free online play, online replays, the latest revision of VF5 from the arcades, and great AI which plays like human players more often than it should. From what I've read online, SEGA did really want to make VF5 multiplatform; at the last minute, Sony was looking to complete their portfolio of games, and thus bought out VF5 exclusivity, at the behest of SEGA's developers. Once SEGA executives saw the sales numbers for the Xbox 360, they realized their mistake, and approved the release of the Xbox 360 version. Is it not unusual that SEGA released VF5 for the 360 so quickly, and with more improvements, in such a short time frame? I've reason to believe they've always had the 360 version, even before the announcement of PS3 exclusivity. It's just that Sony jumped on them first. Also, the lack of support from Xbox 360 gamers for Virtua Fighter 5 is disturbing...I just wonder, do Xbox 360 fans not want to try a more diverse set of games? Every so often you'll see a post on a forum complaining that the Xbox 360's games are all shooters and racing games; and then you have games like VF5, Ace Combat 6 or PGR4 come out---and they don't sell! Or, they don't sell as much as their First Person Shooter counterparts. It's as if Xbox 360 fans want to keep the Xbox as the first person shooter platform. I'm of a different persuasion. I want to see more diverse games on Microsoft's platforms, and that's why I'm supporting games like this, Ace Combat 6, and eventually Devil May Cry 4 and Lost Odyssey. If Xbox 360 gamers stop supporting games like this, eventually we'll be stuck with military styled shooters again, and that's a blow to expecting more diversity for the Xbox 360's lineup of titles.
SEGA isn't really what they used to be, but Virtua Fighter 5 shows the glory that they once had---they've still got it. They just have to figure out their place in today's highly competitive next-generation gaming space.