Fighting games used to be the preserve of couch based competition – friends and acquaintances together, passing pads around and beating seven bells out of their digital avatars. We always ran with “winner stays on”, which was fairly balanced across the group and meaning no one was hogging the gaming time all night. That was until Virtua Fighter 5 landed. As a PS3 launch game (we’d never come across it in the arcades) it was a perfect pick for getting everyone around the new hardware and revelling in not tangling all the controller wires up passing them around. It was also a different beast to our staple Tekken or Soul Calibre sessions, requiring more precision inputs and better reading of your opponents intent. It was an eye opener in terms of the technicalities of the fighting game world, and those that were the quickest to master the timings and flow were dominating the screen. With Ultimate Showdown exclusively releasing on PS4, there’s a chance to relive those memories from 15 years ago, and revisit possibly the best fighting game to grace consoles… but would I still be any good at it?
There is a backstory to Virtua Fighter 5, one that I’ve had to Google to find out because it’s not like the game will tell you, and after finding it I don’t think it even bears repeating the full details. There’s a tournament to test out some new combat hardware, and everyone’s showing up to batter each other into submission. ‘Nuff said, move on. Ultimate Showdown is billed as the definitive version of the original 2006 game, after its five different incarnations since the arcade release, and is squarely aimed at the online player. There’s the training mode, which should award you a black belt if you manage to complete it; and there’s arcade mode which has you battle opponents until you reach the final boss, Dural. If you’re a solo fighting game player, then it’s about 30 mins of gameplay before it gets switched off because this is all about competing with real people. Bizarrely, the use of Ultimate in the title implies that it’s got everything included from all releases, but that’s really not the case. The highlight of the original’s offline experience, Quest mode, is missing, and there’s no real incentive to beat the arcade more than once, not even a time attack option (even though there’s a counter present). It’s a tad disappointing, and will strike you as bare bones when you first boot up.
Fortunately for Virtua Fighter 5, there might be modes missing, but the combat is the same. Running smooth and fast, this is a joy of responsive controls and tight action in bouts that ebb and flow between fighters. With 20 characters in the roster, each is unique and takes time to understand their style. On one end of the scale, Pai Chan is fast and agile with a good combination of low and high attacks to put an opponent on the back foot. At the other is Wolf Hawkfield, a wrestler that hulks around the screen, his size giving a hint of his power, and you know that he’ll be slower for it. The beauty of the fighting system is that size and speed is not half as important as mastering the “rock, paper, scissors” mechanics that underpin it all – there are only 3 buttons to use and they get deep and can be quite complex. Even when you think you’ve got the moves and combos memorised there’s more to take in, and true experts will be looking at frame counts and animation timings. It’s takes dedication and skill to be good at this game, and if you want to see that type of mastery in action, head online.
It’s clear from the menu screen that the core purpose is competition with other players. Half the space is taken with options for online fights, a full third dedicated to a match that’s happened recently, and can be zoomed to full screen with a button tap. This part of the design is really nice, and it does a great job of showcasing different characters and the types of matches that happen. When you get two evenly ranked players who know what they’re doing it makes for an engaging experience. There’s only a few seconds gap between each “televised” battle, and it can be quite compelling, forcing the armchair fighter to the surface as you point out what the loser did wrong… knowing full well they acquitted themselves far better than you could. It really showcases the balance of power shifts during a fight too, and only rarely do you see a one sided match. Sega have implemented this well and it serves as impetus to jump in the ring and test your mettle against the world, or a way to wind down after particularly taxing rounds.
With two choices of online mode – ranked match or room – the options for challengers are simple, and it should be a case of quickly diving in. Sadly, that’s not been my experience. Rooms are better implemented as you can scroll and pick one to join, so are pretty confident that there are people in there. It might not mean fighting straight away though. As people drop in and out of the room the timer resets and swaps match-ups around, so it can be a while before it gets going. Create a private room for friends though and you can strip away those issues. Ranked match is where your rating improves (or drops back if you lose too many) and sees you fighting against random opponents depending on what settings you’ve laid in. Do you want to go up against the same rank, or try your luck with the more experienced players? It’s easy to pick up and get going with your favourite character, but then it’s a case of waiting for the game to find a player, and that can take quite a while. I’ve stopped many a search because it’s been taking too long. When it does find a candidate though it’s time to fight.
How well Virtua Fighter 5 performs is dependent on your connection speed, and if both players are on decent broadband it’s like playing with someone sat next to you (minus the trash talk). If the connection isn’t as stable, the hitches in framerate and timings are thrown out, and one side or the other gets an unfair advantage. I’d say about 50% of my games were hit by some sort of data hiccup, and whilst they were still close matches, you feel aggrieved when you’re on the losing side. The most common impact was the text saying “FIGHT!” disappearing unexpectedly and you saw your character flying backwards through the air as that initial second of combat is hidden from you. It’s not like every round is affected, and when it’s flowing it lovely to play, yet it’s fair to say that there are a few issues with optimisation. Quitting is an absolute no-no though, you’ll be penalised with a disconnect rating if you do, then other players can filter you out in their preferences. At least the hitches in online play didn’t affect that, and it should keep a few sore losers out of the mix.
Has Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown answered my question on whether I’d still be any good? Yes, it has… and no, I’m not. Pitted against the rest of the globe, my skills were tested and I found that I can still hold my own, though largely end up on the losing side of a 5 round match. It is still a lot of fun to play and brings a broad selection of characters, but it’s far from being the ultimate version, and whilst it looks nice, it is still a port. Single players might be better off heading to Tekken 7 where there’s more focus on frills and bombastic spectacle. That said, anyone who has PS+ can pick this up for free over the next 2 months. There’s literally an entire world of combatants out there to pick a fight with, and if you’ve never played the original game you’ll not know there’s pieces missing.
A PS4 review copy of Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown was provided by Sega’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4 for around £25, and will be available on PS+ until August.