VIRTUA FIGHTER 4 / Sega / Playstation 2
Though I have a longstanding love and appreciation for 2D fighters, I've never really been into 3D fighters. I don't have anything against them, and I can play and enjoy them, just usually not for very long. It generally just seems like too much work to learn the mechanics to where you can be really competent against other people or defeat the advanced single-player challenges, and I'm never interested enough in the game in question to go that far with it.
So Virtua Fighter is a series that I've always sort of appreciated at a distance. I recognize that it's pioneering, and I love the polish and technical proficiency and all that, and it's even somewhat fun to play, but it's never been something I could say I was "in to." And ... well, that's still where I'm at after playing a good amount of Virtua Fighter 4. I'm leaving the game thoroughly impressed by it on a number of levels and having had some fun with it, but it still only took a few days before I had explored everything that I felt was accessible to me and had hit the wall of "Begin Serious Training To Advance Farther" that I just don't want to be bothered trying to struggle up over.
If you *are* looking to get deeper into 3D fighters, however, this one strikes me as a great place to start for a couple of reasons. One is that it's basically everything about all the 3D fighters that have come before it collated together, balanced very well and polished to a mirror shine. Another is a very robust Training mode, one of the best I've ever seen - every aspect of attack, defense and movement is covered in a checklist of about 26 lessons that you can pick from at your leisure and return to at any time. Instead of just giving you the button commands and a CPU dummy to whale on, the game actually explains the moves first and how they are intended to be used, then gives you a mini-scenario in which to test your use of them properly. If you don't pull it off it'll give you feedback about what you are doing wrong.
Also helping the game's cause is that it's friggin' gorgeous and has some pretty great sound work to boot. The characters do sort of have that creepy stiff face thing going for them but otherwise the animation is fluid and impressive, but the real winners are the detailed backgrounds and stages such as an ankle-high pool of water that you fight in and a snow field where snow gets displaced as the fighters move around. Arenas also now have varying wall types - some are unbreakable, some are breakable with varying degrees of effort, and there's a few of the traditional platforms that you can still "Ring Out" on.
If you like story, collectibles and unlocks this is not the game for you. The only real plot or character development you get comes in a little blurb on each character's page in the manual. "Arcade" mode is just a series of straight-ahead fights against a fixed order of characters, culminating in a credits screen. There's no endings or cut-scenes to speak of. There are some unlocks in the form of getting clothing items and such to put on your characters by fighting through the "Kumite" mode, which is just a non-stop series of battles that goes on for as long as you want it to. The battles are meant to seem like playing online against random opponents, however, as each opponent gets a "profile" similar to the one you create with a user name and a ranking. Some of the user names are great, like "Flailer" and "Your Dad." And as you beat higher-ranked opponents you go up in rank yourself, eventually unlocking perennial boss Dural (for multiplayer use only) and a couple of new arenas.
On the other hand, if you like long-term stat tracking about your play, this one is probably the most in-depth that I've seen, not only keeping track of how often you succeed or fail with certain moves and in certain scenarios, but also giving you a letter grade for each. There's also an "AI Mode", which is the same as taking a created character into Kumite, except that the computer does all the fighting for you and you improve its ring intelligence by giving commands to it in sparring matches.
In the end Virtua Fighter 4 couldn't convert me to 3D fighter fandom, but I had a good time with it for a few days, and it was certainly worth the $3 I paid for it out of the GameStop bin. And I'll definitely keep it around for when friends who are as incompetent at these games as I am want to go a few rounds. If you have any interest at all in the 3D fighter or curiosity about this game, it's easily worth dropping the small handful of dollars you can get it for everywhere to give it a try, and it should be a no-brainer add to the library of established fans of the genre.
* Virtua Fighter Wiki
* Gameplay Video