You have to hand it to Sega. Throughout their turbulent history, they?fve stayed loyal to the hardcore gamer- with varying results- as they have created experiences that continually cater to the players that appreciate a creamy center to their eye candy.
The Virtua Fighter series is one such example. Despite being the first polygonal arcade fighter, the VF series long went unnoticed by all but fighting game purists. Virtua Fighter 4 finally broke through to the masses, featuring arcade-quality graphics, an excellent control scheme, and the ultra-deep game play many fighting game pugilists long took for granted. Add to that the brilliant Kumite mode, and the kudos began rolling in for a series long overdue. So, how does Sega top that?
Answer: the stunning Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. Not only did developer AM2 fix VF4?fs few faults, but they tweaked and strengthened the already-superb game play. With improved graphics, new additions to the character roster, and further tweaking and expansion of the outstanding fighting engine, Evolution strengthens the claims of Virtua Fighter 4 being among the elite of 3D games; and for only $20, it is easily the best gaming bargain around.
Story-wise, there is almost none to speak of in Evolution. Despite a few notes in the manual, there are no storylines and plot twists. The lack of a cohesive plotline in the VF series has not made much of a difference, as several other fighting game series?f need diagrams and websites to keep things straight. There is a small semblance of a story in the all-new Quest mode, which I?fll touch upon later.
Graphically, Evolution is top-notch. The character models are wonderfully rendered, with flowing hair and clothing realistically-rendered. The models themselves are almost human-like, with detailed faces and realistic-looking body builds and limbs. Bested by only Dead or Alive 3 in character cleanness and Soul Calibur 2 in detail, Evolution?fs models are among the best in fighting games.
The stages are equally impressive, with excellent details littered through every stage. Shimmering water, great lighting effects, snow and rain effects, crumbling tiles and a collapsing coliseum are just some of the highlights the stages have to offer; and on top of that, the one graphical fault from the previous game was addressed. While VF4 had excellent aesthetics overall, the visible polygons along the edge of the character models slightly detracted from the otherwise excellent presentation. With the new revision, gone are the graphical jaggies, thanks to software anti-aliasing.
In terms of sound, Evolution is solid. The background music is an improvement over past games, with some rocking tracks that nicely coexist with the more ambient songs the VF games are known for. Some tracks, such as the Coliseum, Underground, and Castle levels, got me pumped in a way most VF games never did. It?fs the best VF soundtrack since Virtua Fighter 2. The sound effects are as notable as the music. You can accurately feel and hear every landed blow, thump and whoosh of a connected move.
Game play is where the Virtua Fighter series has always excelled. Evolution only increases the ante, making this the best-playing VF yet. The returning characters gained several new moves and combos along with tweaks to older moves. A few characters- Jacky especially- play slightly different than past VF incarnations.
Two new characters make their debut here: kick boxer Brad Burns and the zombie-looking Goh Hinogami (sorry Taka fans, VF3?fs sumo is still absent). Brad is the easier character to learn, while Goh is harder to master and more rewarding. Design-wise, Brad?fs look is more contemporary than most other characters and makes him stand out- for better or worse.
The Training mode is deep and very helpful for VF rookies and veterans alike. Practicing commands, exercises for specific situations, combos and other advanced strategies is possible with the half-dozen practice modes. This is hands-down the best training mode in a fighting game.
A nice bonus is the Virtua Fighter 10th Anniversary mode. Using simplified character models and stages similar to those of the original Virtua Fighter, you can use all fifteen fighters- including the new additions- and play old-school style. The floaty jumps, slower physics and easier knockdowns are present, along with the VF1-style presentation. When I said similar, there are noticeable differences: the character models are cleaner and free from polygon seams, the stages look smoother, and the victory poses benefit from Evolution?fs zooming cameras. The music isn?ft as great as the original tunes, but they do the job. It is a great feature, but I wish there was an emulated version of the original VF (or VF2) on the disc.
The Quest mode is a great addition to the series. Picking a character, you challenge opponents in several arcades across the country. The opponents are actually player-downloaded AI, and the varying skills are interesting to fight against. Certain objectives must be met in these arcade battles to enter each arcade tournament; such as winning fifteen matches in a row or completing an overall percentage of the arcade you play through. The various tournaments and skill matches are a challenge for those lacking in certain skills, and mastering your character is the only way to succeed at the highest levels. The game keeps track of your overall progress, including the success of your attacks and throws in wins and losses. This helps you learn from your victories and mistakes to make you a better fighter.
Earning money, you can customize your own character with dozens of items, altering everything from your clothing to your hair and eye color. Bonuses earned through battle and winnings can earn you various pieces of Sega and VF memorabilia. There are hundreds of items to earn, and it will take weeks to earn everything. While not quite on the same level as VF4?fs Kumite mode, the Quest mode is an indispensable part of the Evolution experience.
The learning curve of the Virtua Fighter series has always been steep. Evolution feels more accessible than past Virtua Fighter games. Several beginner-friendly characters help the progression into the VF world, along with the excellent Training mode. For the VF veteran, Evolution only adds reasons to love the thrill of the battle as there are new skills to learn and items to unlock. This all adds up to a game that may seem intimidating to pick up, but is an immensely fun experience to play and master.
Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution takes everything that made VF4 great, and improved almost every aspect of its winning formula. The tweaked visuals highlight an already-impressive graphics engine. The aural experience is emphasized by a nice soundtrack. The game play is finer-tuned, making the best 3D fighting engine even better. Several new game modes and additions to the game make for an experience that will eat up weeks of your life that you won?ft miss; and the steep challenge is ever-present, making the trek to mastering the game that much more of a journey that is enjoyable. It is always challenging to improve upon something that is largely unbroken, and Evolution manages to even trump the naysayer for a cost of $20. Sega and AM2 love their games and the gamers that play them. Show them some love, as well.