First of all, the game is gorgeous. The character models are damned near perfect and there is not a jaggy, pixelated line in sight. That's not to say everything is perfect, though. Frankly, we find Sarah's idle animation to look a little otherworldly, as though she's floating more than hopping. Still, the fighting animation is top notch and easily on par with Dead or Alive. In fact, the graphics actually surpass Dead or Alive's if we're considering realism as a standard. Virtua Fighter's characters feel much more real than the stylized look of DOA's buxom heroines and rippling heroes (Gen Fu and Eliot notwithstanding).
That won't be the last time we compare the game to Dead or Alive either. The comparison has been raised ever since the first Dead or Alive title was released (using the same arcade technology as Virtua Fighter 2 no less). The games use identical button schemes, with separate buttons for punching, kicking, and defending. Players can walk in eight directions using the D-pad or control stick. Where Dead or Alive relies on quick and flashy (albeit satisfying) combos and reversals as its bread and butter, Virtua Fighter 5 is a much more technical fighter. With every character having literally dozens of moves, the game is about utilizing openings in your opponent's defense and anticipating his moves. Virtua Fighter doesn't have the instant appeal of Dead or Alive (button mashing will get you nowhere), but it's incredibly involving once you master a few moves.
Unfortunately, that's where the 360 version sort of breaks down. The Xbox 360 D-pad is just woefully inadequate for the precise control demanded by Virtua Fighter 5. Too often we found our D-pad inputs read as something different than we intended. This can result in the wrong move being performed, or worse, no move at all. When almost every move has a specific function (closing distance, retreat, breaking crouch guard, etc), pulling out the wrong one can result in a lost match. Also, fighting games just weren't made with gamepads in mind, as pressing multiple buttons with your thumb can be tricky. Sure, you can spider your fingers over the top of the controller, or make use of the triggers and shoulder buttons as shortcuts, but it just doesn't feel right. Still, this is hardly the game's fault, and a good joystick will solve those problems immediately. What's that? You say there's a stick just for Virtua Fighter 5? Oh, good.
The demo doesn't have online play, though Versus mode is intact. Versus mode has an interesting commentary feature in which two commentators, um, comment on the action as it unfolds. It's a unique feature, but we imagine we'll be turning it off after a few matches. Once you hear "Ooh, Player 2 can't afford to lose" for the fifth time, we imagine most other players will too. Still, if you like feeling so important that people are actually watching you play a video game, the commentary feature might fool you for a little while.
All in all, the demo really has us pumped for the full game, which will be hitting shelves later this month. If you're a fan of the series, you should definitely check it out. If you like fighting games at all, you should at least give it a try. If you're new to the series, we suggest you pick Sarah as your first character, as she gives you the most bang for your combo buck.
Feel free to agree, disagree, or complain that we didn't use this article as a way to lavish praise on Mortal Kombat in the comments.