I have come to a very difficult decision. Virtua Fighter 4 is a good fighting game that is obviously far above just about everything else in the genre, yet I cannot with good conscience recommend that you run out and buy it. The problem with VF4 is that you have to spend several hours and hundreds of matches in order to be any good with even one of the thirteen fighters. It takes a lot of time if you want to become a great VF4 player--time that most people probably won't want to invest.
As of this writing, Virtua Fighter 4 has been on store shelves for a couple of months. All of the reviews have praised it and told gamers to run, not walk, to the store and buy it. So far, the sales of VF4 have shown that a lot of people have listened to these reviews. However, if the message boards I frequent are any indication, a lot of the people that bought VF4 based on reading a glowing review of it rather than being a Virtua Fighter fan to begin with have been very disappointed. The game is too hard, too fast, and they weren't prepared for it. Instead of telling you how fantastic VF4 is, I'm going to do something different: I'm going to be honest and tell you that unless you love getting beaten by the computer constantly and spending hours and hours learning thousands of moves, you probably won't like Virtual Fighter 4. It is a good fighting game, don't get me wrong, but I can tell that it won't be everyone's cup of tea.
Everyone says the fighting system is "deep". Unless you know something about the controls and moves you can perform, knowing the game is "deep" is like a blind man knowing the sky is blue. One punch button, one kick button. There is a guard button, and the shoulder buttons on the Dual Shock serve as combination buttons (p+k, p+k+g, etc.). Using these buttons along with the directional pad is how moves, reversals, counters, and everything else are performed. There is a rock-paper-scissors way of knowing what to do and when. Someone is blocking everything you throw at them, use a throw. Someone blocks low on you, hit them with a mid attack. There are dozens of other situations like this where you have to recognize what is happening and then counter. The hundreds of moves available in any instance, along with the 13 very different characters, make for a game that can be confusing as hell to play, but rewarding if you learn it all.
If you're like me, you'll enter Virtua Fighter 4 feeling pretty cocky. All fighting games are the same, you'll foolishly think as you pop it into your PS2. After a cool intro movie, the menu appears and it's game time. If you don't already know, VF4's arcade mode is worthless because you don't open up any extras or even get a character specific ending movie when you beat it, so ignore it and go straight to the Kumite mode.
Kumite mode is an endless series of opponents where you fight through the two-dozen or so rankings and the game keeps track of everything you do. I started with Lei and was feeling pretty good as I advanced from 10th Kyu to 1st Dan with a 17-0 record. My 18th match was against a highly advanced opponent and I was beaten mercilessly. All of a sudden, the game wasn't fun anymore. I was losing often and I was losing badly. Since then, I have only advanced two ranks and my record is 100-64.
At this point, there are three options to choose from as your frustration level climbs and your enjoyment of Virtua Fighter 4 diminishes. First, you can start training an A.I. character that copies what you do and fights exactly how you do. If you suck, your A.I. will suck too so best to avoid this mode for a while. So the only other two options are either to give up like a wuss and trade VF4 in for a new game, or you can take it like a true gamer and keep trying. Most people will probably opt for the former. If you do choose to keep trying, VF4 has rich rewards including a fantastic training mode that will get you in fighting form in no time. Not really "no time"--more like three or four hours.
The training mode allows you to not only practice your moves, but will also teach you each and every move for each character. Button commands appear on the screen and you copy them. By repeating this mode a few times, the moves should, hopefully, be embedded into your brain. It is now up to you to know when and where to use these moves to your advantage. Luckily, VF4 also has a customizable training mode that allows you to practice certain situations over and over again by telling the computer exactly what you want it to do. Suppose you are falling victim to a particular combination or a certain move always manages to catch you off guard. Just re-create that situation by making the computer-controlled character perform that move or combination repeatedly so you can learn how to counter it. This is all well and good on paper, but you have to literally spend hours memorizing moves and practicing scenarios in order to get any good at even one character.
Now is where I put aside the whining about how hard this game is and how much time you have to invest, and begin praising the game for what makes it one of the best pure fighting games on the planet. It is a matter of depth that makes VF4 seem harder than other fighters. It is generally accepted that the following is true: Street Fighter is more complicated than Mortal Kombat. Tekken and Soul Calibur are more complicated than Street Fighter. And Virtua Fighter is more complicated than Tekken or Soul Calibur. These various levels of difficulty in the fighting game genre are similar to the difficulty levels in the games themselves. If you can't take the pressure, notch the difficulty down to Hard (Tekken) rather than Extreme (Virtua Fighter). You'll enjoy yourself a whole lot more, and I won't have to read any more letters about how you think Virtua Fighter 4 sucks.
If you do enjoy a challenge and are willing to spend the time and energy to become a Virtua Fighter specialist, the sheer number of unlockable items in Kumite mode is astounding. Also, knowing that you have the skill to tackle any and every situation is a really rewarding feeling. As you take your character through Kumite mode, you earn items by winning matches, gaining rankings, performing certain moves, and even for losing. These items are masks, earrings, necklaces, extra outfits, and other little extras that you can use to customize your character. There are around 400 items split between the 13 characters, so there is a lot to keep you busy if you are dedicated enough to spend the time needed to learn all of the characters. Of course, if you do learn all of the characters, you'll be able to anticipate what is coming and know how to counter it, thus becoming a better VF4 player.
There is a real sense of pride as you fight through Kumite mode and work in the training mode. When you memorize a new move or combination and can bust it out at will against a formerly unbeatable opponent, it just makes you want to keep playing. Once you get over the hump and have seen enough and learned enough that you can anticipate what is going to happen, then Virtua Fighter 4 will keep you busy for months and months to come.
Along the way, I can guarantee that there will be a lot of swearing and dropping controllers in disgust as the computer repeatedly beats you down. Certain characters, such as Aoi, Vanessa, Jacky, and Wolf, are particularly skilled at countering, reversing, and/or throwing you pretty much at will. Losing and not really knowing how the hell you are supposed to beat these monsters results in frustration. Other characters are easier to tangle with, but losing badly after you have dominated for five or six matches is annoying, frustrating, and perplexing.
The more you play, the more you learn, though, so the only way to win is to keep trying. I am at a point now where I know exactly why I lost. I didn't throw when I should have or I'm relying on one combination too much, or I'm not sidestepping enough. This is another hump in enjoying VF4. The first test is learning all of the moves, and the second test is knowing when to use them and applying this knowledge to your matches past and present so you'll know what to do in the future.
This kind of differential between required skill levels has always existed in video games. RPG's, racing, wrestling, and just about every other genre has some games that are harder than the others. Front Mission 3 and Ogre Battle are generally more complicated than a Final Fantasy game. WWF No Mercy is more complicated than WWF Smackdown. Gran Turismo is more complicated than Ridge Racer. Some of these more difficult games simply do not appeal to some gamers. That is why for every simulation heavy game like Gran Turismo, there are ten arcade style racing games to appeal to the masses. There is something for everyone, so if it doesn't sound like you'll enjoy VF4, wait for Tekken 4 or Soul Calibur 2.
Overall, Virtua Fighter 4 is a great looking and sounding game. The graphics are amazing even with the notorious PS2 jaggies. Snow and sand are kicked up and displaced on certain levels. Great lighting and shadow effects give the game an added sense of realism. The characters are superbly detailed and perfectly animated. The sound effects provide an added depth and power to the various punches and kicks. The presentation is top notch.
However, game play is always worth more than graphics. Depending on how you feel about spending hours and hours training and working, and how you feel about the Virtua Fighter series in general, you will either love VF4 or hate it. I'm not going to tell you that you need to go buy this game, as so many others have. I'll suggest that you rent it and see if you can get over the hump in a weekend. If you can play through fifty matches in Kumite mode and still enjoy the game and want to learn more, then by all means go out and buy Virtua Fighter 4. If you get bored or frustrated after fifty matches or less, then you will have saved yourself $45 by renting it first. If you do enjoy VF4, the only downfall I can see is that multiplayer matches won't be all that enjoyable. Unless both players have spent considerable time with VF4, one person is going to dominate and the other is going to get frustrated. Personally, I really love VF4. I have longed for a challenge and VF4 has more than provided one. If you're looking for a challenge, or are a Virtua Fighter fan to begin with, buy it. For everyone else, rent it first.