I've been a fan of fighting games since I started playing with STREET FIGHTER 2 many moons ago. In that time I remember all-nighters of SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2 TURBO, MARVEL VS. CAPCOM and more recently, the best fighting game ever made, SOUL CALIBUR. I remember playing VIRTUA FIGHTER when it first was released and being impressed. We've now made it to the fourth game in the series, and while it can't topple the magnificent game that is SOUL CALIBUR, it is the best fighting game since the Dreamcast launch.
VIRTUA FIGHTER 4 will immediately welcome fans of the series back into the fold. All of the characters are here (with the exception of sumo wrestler Taka-Arashi) with a couple of new ones for a grand total of 13. The number turns out lucky for Sega though, as each character is different from the other and has an incredibly deep set of moves, counters, and fighting stances to choose from.
What's awesome about the gameplay is that you can just pick up a controller and start fighting. Three buttons (block, kick, punch) are all that are needed to master a basic set of moves. The evade-button is gone, but you can still easily sidestep or step out of an attack by tapping on the control pad twice. Just grabbing the control and mashing buttons will result in some nice attack strings and fun, but for those who dive deeper, a much more rewarding experience awaits.
In general, the game plays a lot faster than previous incarnations. Players recover more quickly from attacks, and the speed feels perfect. Imagine taking a fighting game as close to "out of control" as possible while still maintaining a deep fighting system and that is what is offered here.
Another mode that helps to deepen the game is "Kumite." It basically rewards you for playing the game... a lot. You progress through opponents in a survival-style mode. The game rewards you though with special clothes, accessories and such to customize your character with. It's really cool to build your own character and then show them off. The mode is a lot of fun and definitely the way to play.
Two-player is what has always made fighting games. It is the reason to play the game in most circumstances, as fighting games aren't exactly known for magnificent AI. Fortunately, VIRTUA FIGHTER 4 bucks the trend with an AI that picks up on things, and poses a very difficult challenge. It never cheats, but on the highest levels, it is very strong, and a very realistic representation of a human opponent. It's not perfect, and you'll find patterns to beat it, but it's pretty damn close.
One other feature comes in the form of an AI training mode. This allows you to teach a computer fighter moves, and when to use them. Then you can use the fighter in the Kumite mode, or against your friends. It's kind of cool, but a little on the boring side.
VIRTUA FIGHTER 4 is a beautiful game. The animation of the fighters is incredible, as each one looks realistic and almost life-like. The backdrops are very good, and while they could probably be a tad bit more exciting, they look great. The coolest part is that some of the arenas have things you can damage. One arena has tile floors that are broken when characters fall down, another is covered in snow that is kicked up, a third is in a few inches water and yet another has characters trudging through sand. Some arenas are walled-off, allowing you to beat your opponent into, over, or sometimes even through the wall (the former resulting in major damage, the latter two resulting in the ever-popular "ring-out" victory).
The sound in the game is rather bland and probably represents the worst aspect of the game. It's not really that bad, but the sound clips are recycled from the first game in the series. A good job overall, but nothing spectacular.
VIRTUA FIGHTER 4 is the best fighting game since SOUL CALIBUR. If you have any interest in fighting games at all, you owe it to yourself to pick it up. All other PS2 owners should at least give it a try.