Beyond Good & Evil stars Jade, a photojournalist with cat-killing curiosity, nimble martial arts moves and a Mona Lisa smile. It's a new game with new characters, but what's stunning about Rayman creator Michel Ancel's latest work is how much his characters seem to like one another.

After huge battles, other videogame characters like Mario or Final Fantasy heroes routinely pierce the air with fists and victory signs. But after their first big battle, Jade and her pig man uncle Pey'j embrace. Jade's arms slump over Pey'j's portly figure. It's a hug anyone might've experienced before, one of exhaustive, but joyous relief.

In a medium still groping for unique narrative techniques, I can only celebrate the arrival of a game like Beyond Good & Evil, from the heedless mind of Ancel. Ancel has taken many chances with this game. Not only is it a non-franchise (for the time being anyway), but it marries a myriad of gameplay styles that miraculously fit with each other and the storytelling.

The best example is the game's introductory sequence. The Domz is an alien race attacking Jade's planet of Hillys, a multicultural world like the utopias found in films like The Matrix and Blade Runner, where one ethnicity and culture is just as smart and independent as the next. The planet is defended by the local law enforcement called the Alpha Sections. Before Jade sets off to join a rebel faction that seeks to find the roots of the war, the orphanage she watches over is attacked. Who would've thought a Frenchman in this day and age would be selling a videogame to Americans about not trusting your government's reasons to go to war?

The entire game plays in letterbox mode, and the switch from an alien attack to Jade's defending of the children is seamless and dramatic. The first five minutes will introduce players to the combat system. With the touch of a single button, Jade can pull slick stick fighting moves that would make even the Prince of Persia blush.

Piloting vehicles is easy as maneuvering Jade, a convenience with an eccentric reason as outlined in the manual—because Jade is in the vehicle, it's logical that the vehicle would control like her. It's a videogame-only physics lesson that other games have followed with resounding success, like Grand Theft Auto III and Halo.

The stealth engine melds seamlessly with the standard navigation and combat system, mostly because each method of play takes up no more than two buttons on the controller. While not nearly as sophisticated as Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the stealth engine deftly adds the right amount of ingenuity and simplicity to keep things entertaining. The same can be said of the vehicle control and combat.

As the adventure progresses, you enlist the help of two close friends. With the companion-based puzzle gameplay here, I'm increasingly becoming aware of Fumito Ueda's ICO as being among the most influential games of the current generation. But as the story progresses, the player's endearment to these characters grows. Pey'j works because of the implied history he shares with Jade. With double agent Double H, he develops camaraderie with Jade as they quote lines straight out of an adventurer's training manual.

As if Ancel read a manual on making adventure games, Beyond Good & Evil progresses like a standard adventure game, with one story event leading to areas filled with stealthy, ICO-like gameplay. There's also the "gotta catch'em all" aspect as players can take photos of wildlife around Hillys, and collect pearls for equipment to progress the story along.

Fetching around for pearls is less of a chore here than it would be in other games. Sidequests are mercifully short-lived, unfortunately making each morsel of gameplay packaged within even juicier. Consider a later action sequence, a breathtaking chase across rooftops. There is no pause between the cutscene, when the player regains control of Jade, quick camera cuts for dramatic flair, slow motion action and chorus chants. The sequence even finds time to add character bonding.

The only drawback I find in Ancel's visionary work mirrors comments made from other reviews. It's just too short for my taste. Given the richness of characters like Pey'j, or the limitless possibilities of a simple-minded stoic like Double H, there is just too little time to really let these characters shine through. Hillys is not quite a fully realized world, if only because there's little else to the world besides the plot of the game it's in, which is about government propaganda. And if the game were longer, we'd get more scenes like Jade's and Pey'j's moments of spontaneous affection.

Beyond Good & Evil is a fully realized game, utilizing the JADE engine which Prince of Persia borrows. But more importantly, it has partially realized characters that have more feeling than human characters in other games. Ancel has run a gamut of play styles with this game, but he's left his world and its players wide open for a sequel. Maybe for the next outing, Ancel can name it after yet another Friedrich Nietzsche book. This critic suggests Human, All Too HumanRating: 9 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

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Sigmund Freud argues that all living things are governed by two basic instincts: the life instinct called Eros or the death instinct called Thanatos. Eros is the energy that tries to build social ties, fueled by the body, which floods the mind. Thanatos destroys ties and is the wish for destruction and death. All social activity can be reduced to complex forms and interaction of these two instincts. However, when civilization and socialization disrupt the normal ebb and flow of instinctual living, the mind breaks up under the demands. The threefold self is the id, the collective genetic inheritance of the species; the ego, which acts to meet the demands of the id; and the super-ego, which represents the internalization of the demands of society. Humans struggle to find an outlet to meet the demands of their instincts, but in ways that are socially acceptable. War is a perfect justification when Eros fails to tame Thanatos. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is another.

Vice City, the sequel to last years seminal Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3), gives players rational, legal means to act out their bloodlust. All that stuff about being your own character in these games is bull. The game is specifically designed to enact violence. The logic that this is "only a videogame" gives the impression that the players actions of murder and raising mayhem is part of a broader social significance justifying their love for the game. Nowadays anything can be considered anything, whether its "just a game" or a mature piece of art detailing political and civil revolt. Say what you want about Freud, but this rationalization of ones actions through this game serves as an ideological reservoir for those whose Thanatos instinct long remained inert.

Whats wrong about Vice City cannot be justified however. For months before its release, weve heard about the many features added since GTA3, as well as those improved upon. An improved targeting system was much touted, including a promise that a threat would be targeted over a pedestrian. However, when I tried to aim my MP5 gun at a line of Cubans in front of me, the targeting system suddenly zipped over to a civilian riding a motorcycle, across the street and behind foliage. Even if they didnt promise an improved targeting system, it was highly problematic the first time and shouldnt be just as bad the second time around.

So I miss the Cubans and ended up dying in a hail of gunfire. When Im revived at the hospital (which is how you restart in GTA games), Im relieved to find a taxicab waiting to take me back to the mission I failed. And I give the mission another shot. The same line of Cubans are waiting for me, and I take aim making sure nobody else is within a few yards from me, besides the enemy. Bingo. I have a bead on a Cubans floral print shirt, soon to be crimson. But once I pulled the trigger, the gun locks. Theres no reason why it should lock, because I just received the gun. This was the first of many glitches I experienced during an extended playing of Vice City.

Vice City is an improvement over its predecessor in some ways, given the nature that the game is supposed to be an expansion of the series, not a true sequel. You now assume the role of Tommy Vercetti at a Miami-based city in 1986. Having just been released from prison, the Liberty City Mafia sends you to Vice City to do odd jobs there. When a big cocaine deal goes wrong, Tommy is forced to raise the money by himself, and also find out who messed with the deal. An established thug in Liberty City, Tommy now needs to work up his way to the higher echelons of the Vice City social circle, but exactly how high he gets is anyones guess.

The high a gamer gets from Vice City should be familiar though. Anyone familiar with the previous game will be able to dive right in. For those who arent, you are a criminal set loose in an entire city (twice as big as Liberty City from GTA3), and you are to follow a set of missions for the various connections you make throughout the game. The gameplay remains largely the same. There is a six-star wanted level meter that gauges the urgency of the law enforcement chasing you. There are more than three times as many weapons of your choosing, including a chainsaw, an M60 and a katana sword. You still jack cars, but now you can also jack motorcycles, mopeds, seaplanes, helicopters and golf carts, among others. You also have the newly gained ability to duck. Tactically useless, it allows for better aim in first-person shooting mode.

Vastly improved over the previous game, the missions are much more complex, varied and a whole lot more fun. While it still involves you driving from point A to B, each mission manages to come up with different objectives. The first few already has you smashing up jurors cars to intimidate them, starting a riot at a workers union protest, launch an all-out air assault on an estate, steal a tank from the army and takes you through a thrilling dirtbike chase through winding alleyways. Other examples of the diversity near the end have you jumping from rooftop to rooftop with a sports bike and taking paparazzi photos of a crooked politician. Also, ripped right out of Speed, you must drive a limousine at top speed with any moment of slowing or stopping resulting in an explosion, killing you and the very drunk rock stars youre driving around and whose life you depend on.

The game remains linear, despite the freedom you have between missions. About a third of the way in however, the games goals are suddenly switched. You no longer do missions for the benefit of others, but largely for you. This includes buying property like strip clubs, taxi companies, auto dealerships and a porno film studio. Money is hard to come by in this game, so your main source of income (besides conveniently robbing convenient stores) would be the revenue generated from these places. That means ensuring success in their respective businesses. Wipe out rival taxi companies. Find cars for your automobile showroom. Success will guarantee you a generous helping of money as the days go by.

The glitches I mentioned earlier rear their ugly head the more you play. Sometimes Tommy would mysteriously lose three points of life when hes only walking. A vehicle you might have before a cutscene would disappear afterwards. Often times I found myself sinking into the floor. Sometimes I would be able to jump out, other times I found myself falling into a vortex of game textures that unintentionally gave it a look similar to Alfred Hitchcocks Vertigo. Another horrible glitch found me getting busted while I was driving at top speed, still the cop was able to teleport next to my door and drag me out. A good number of these glitches werent even in the first game, which gives me the impression that this was a rushed release. Still, theres no excuse for poor programming, especially because the game remains essentially the same, and the glitches significantly affect your performance.

Besides the weird auto-related glitches, one thing the game does get right is the driving portions. The two-wheeled vehicles drive like a dream, and car handling has been significantly improved. Even controlling the aircrafts in the game feel ok, but I wouldve liked a hover maneuver for the helicopters. Still, the car physics work well, and the law enforcement give quite a chase, especially since they can now pop your tires. If there is one thing that is undeniably fun in the GTA series, its the chases that thrill and kill.

And you can do that all to a wonderfully compiled 80s soundtrack, with over 9 hours of music and talk radio. The song choices are excellent, ranging from Michael Jackson, Wang Chung, Run DMC and Electric Light Orchestra. Its no small feat that they were able to secure the licenses for so many big names, resulting in the player actually switching stations so they can hear a song they like. The game takes the limited memory and repetition of game music and exploits it as commentary on the predictability and pretense of mainstream and public radio. If it isnt that, its at least one area of the game that is impeccably done, as well as improved upon.

Another highly notable aspect is the voice acting. If Kingdom Hearts secured the kid-friendly bouncy voices of Lance Bass and Mandy Moore, Vice City has Goodfella Ray Liotta as Tommy, Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas, Burt Reynolds, Tom Sizemore, a hilarious Deborah Harry of Blondie, NY Giant Lawrence Taylor and illustrious porn star Jenna Jameson. Not only is it a treat to hear so many wonderful talents, but they also significantly add to the atmosphere and mood of the story, which has been much improved over the previous game. Now that your character is fully fleshed, his interactions with others add a new layer of depth of the "crime" story the developers are trying to portray. They still mince words and racial epithets ("I hate those Haitians," a polite Cuban crimelord says). But at least cocaine is actually identified as such, the cussing sounds natural, and the dialogue is actually snappy, thanks to Liottas characteristically vicious snarl. What I dont understand is how the game finds certain words comfortable to say and while others are taboo. Im not sure why they decide to not use the F-word when the rest of the language is clear R-rated material.

While the first games main draw was the ability to raise hell on a whim, it seems much more fun in this game to actually do the missions. Theres even an in-game map if you pause, with clearly marked locations for your convenience, something the first game sorely needed. Yet the maturation process of the series remain standstill because of the developers refusal to move outside racial and social stereotypes (a petty comment towards gays is prominently displayed at the beginning of the game), and staying away from certain taboos of popular art, merely suggesting sex and drug use. Compared to what this game couldve been, this is still kids gloves. Also its frustrating to have to restart the entire process of getting weapons, getting a reliable ride and getting to the mission point on top of finishing these longer, more complex missions. A simple retry option during missions wouldve helped lifted that burden.

Throughout the game are the cultural signposts of today: smarmy quick-witted commercials, fast cars, loose women and free market capitalism. But most prevalent in the game is the ultra-violence that this game celebrates. Like Chi wrote in his GTA3 second opinion, the game gives you the choice of violence or more violence and little else. Vice City is a boiling pot of unchecked anger and confusion. There is little doubt that this is pop art, not great art, that succeeds in creating a world and following of its own. Despite the illusion of flawlessness this game gives off, theres little denying the sheer joy that comes from its crude gameplay styles, and if youve never experienced GTA3, go ahead and add another point or two to the score. The game is undeniably fun, and has a huge amount of replay value, worth every cent.

GTA3 and Vice City are peculiarities in that they are so heavily influenced by outside texts, like film; racial and social stereotypes; and music. American pop media absorbs things like experience and sense of self, simplifies it and regurgitates it as commodity. Vice City is the monstrous child of American pop culture and consumerism, accepting our media-saturated culture which is its fuel, and in turn, fuels it. The most devastating thing about Vice City is the targeting system not in the game, but within a real life context. It has so many targets, yet doesnt have a bead on a single one of them. Instead it randomly blasts at everywhere it pleases, shooting holes through the very fabric of entertainment and morality. The flaws that remain in this update to last years runaway hit, along with the new glitches that shouldnt even be there, are impossible to ignore, and even cheapen the experience.

The near-unanimous praise for Vice City shows that Thanatos energy according to Freud isnt the only winner. Its Rockstar for pulling off a heist that most companies or games wouldnt be able to get away with. Vice City is a repackaged game that isnt meant to be a sequel, and shows no significant improvement over the previous game besides superficial changes like motorcycles and more guns. Yet the game receives perfect scores and is hailed as a revolutionary title, despite its significant but overlooked flaws. Rockstar was able to successfully absorb the Thanatos instinct of gamers, repackage it, simplify it and sell it as a hot commodity, rationalized as "just a game," hiding behind the guise of irony, shielding themselves against the charge of tasteless exploitation.

So who or what is being exploited? Its not the Haitians, the gays, the Italians nor the 80s. Its the gamers, with their wrong-headed cheering of the games surface value without any clear relation to the intrinsically flawed gameplay. To the games credit, its also a testament to the emphatic interactive nature of videogames, impacting an audience by allowing them to act out their darkest fantasies, performing pleasurable violence vicariously through Tommy Vercetti, who is the most significant and unlikeliest of videogame mascots to emerge in recent times. He is wittier than Sonic, more Italian than Mario, but most of all, he is most prevalent in my mind when I think about when the face of Thanatos revealed itself to me. Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.

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I once visited a mental institution a few years ago for an assignment. My memory of it is as vivid as the walls there were white. I asked if I had the liberty to look around and observe the patients during their recreation time. I was in the juvenile section, so there were lots of kids. But there was this one guy my age, whom Ill call "Steve" for privacy purposes, and he had scars on his wrists. He had a nice complexion and was quite fit. We struck up conversation, getting rid of all the expository stuff. When I felt comfortable, I asked him why he was here. He said he was HIV-positive, and was in consultation. Before I could even struggle to say anything, he looked at me and said, "Look, all I want to do is die now. I just wish someone would kill me."

Imagine my horror when I was faced with a similar situation in Deus Ex, the award-winning PC first-person adventure ported over to the Playstation 2. A good number of people you encounter early on in the game are infected with Gray Death, a worldwide plague not unlike AIDS. A bum walks up to me and begs for me to kill him. Because its just a game, I shoot him in the face, and then he screams and falls dead. That is a scenario that would be described by some people as funny, especially with the unattractive character models, unrealistic blood and in a post-Grand Theft Auto III context. But having experienced Steve, that scenario was devoid of humor, and it didnt even feel like a game anymore. Then I started to wonder why this bum and Steve would even think about assisted suicide, and what was it that made them come to that decision.

Deus Ex is about decisions and how to deal with them on a minute-by-minute basis. You assume the role of JC Denton, an agent following in the footsteps of your brother Paul in the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). Currently there is a worldwide plague called Gray Death. A terrorist group, the National Secessionist Force (NSF) claims the government is blocking the cure, starting a string of events and conspiracy theories this game digs into. The complex plot works on many different levels, taking many twists and turns until it hits an equally dizzying conclusion that ends with one more decision. Deus Ex transcends the traditional formula of an FPS, and even conspiracy fiction, providing a gameplay experience that is nearly beyond description.

The gameplay is best described as mixing elements of first-person shooters and role-playing games, redefining what each of the genres could be. It offers true role-playing, giving you tough decisions in every turn, allowing you the freedom to tackle a situation to your liking. There are many infiltration missions in the game, giving you a multitude of options. You can find your way through the vents, use your lockpick, hack into the security systems, or just blast your way through, all possible depending on which strengths you would like to modify.

Players earn skill points based on their actions, and can be used to strengthen a number of statistics in true RPG fashion, including hacking ability, marksmanship, ballistics smarts or even swimming. You also have the ability to have other abilities, or augmentation upgrades, that can increase things like strength, lung capacity or speed. Are you lacking in hacking? You can use that microfibral muscle upgrade to move that big box and climb into the vent. Your weapons are limited in capacity, adding a strategic element, and can also be modified.

Decisions are the name of the game here, however. And throughout the game you are bombarded with choices. The game is not totally non-linear, and despite the many branching paths, you always eventually get led back to the main plot, which remains mostly unchanged. The game is based on the minute to minute decisions you make, and every consequence is localized and immediate. Each time you play the objectives remain the same. The difference lies in the approach, implementing the skills you chose to augment and upgrade. Running out of ammo for your pistol, which you are a marksman with, means youre forced to use a weapon youre not as skillful with, like the shotgun. Sometimes you can just steal your way in, or if youre patient, you can ask around and someone might give you a password or key. That a game of this nature is so remarkably balanced is an achievement. And even its refusal to deviate from the main plot shows focus, not constraint.

The illusion that you are in a living, breathing world is upheld thanks to the many interactions with your environment and its denizens. A great deal of voice acting is in this game to satisfy the amount of choices and possible interactions with citizens, other agents, your boss and other main characters. The dialogue is often lengthy, detailing the nuances of this future world. Fortunately, the dialogue can be skipped, and is written well. The voice acting accurately portrays many manners of speech, from professional to street. The citizens are also diverse, from baseheads to prostitutes to pimps to gangsters, although the game does have some of the worst Chinese-English voiceovers ever.

A problem with the choice driven gameplay lies within the fact that sometimes you dont have a choice. The game almost forces you to proceed stealthily because ammo can be quite rare. When you do try to gung-ho a room, youre often overwhelmed. And because of the ability to save anytime, this often results in trial-and-error playing to avoid frustration. Often times it is frustrating that the game resorts to gameplay cliches like meaningless fetch quests (when youre forced to do that so you can get this to go there). In terms of plot, the characterizations are often successful, however some characters get lost within the twists and turns. Many prominent characters from the first half of the game are shuffled away in the second half, whereas one of the main antagonists of the game is mentioned only in passing during the first half.

Other problems are technical, and there are many. Since this is a port of a relatively old PC game, the game engine and graphics are a little outdated. Sometimes it looks like everybody has the Gray Death. Also the AI isnt really up to snuff. Enemies would often blindly charge down a hallway getting picked off. The controls are competent when it comes to a console FPS, but on harder difficult levels, sharp-shooting is a must (and an impossibility on the Dual Shock 2) because of the many headshots the AI would take. The increase in difficulty doesnt make the enemies smarter, they just hurt more and can shoot better, forcing you to turn on the auto-aim, or even some cheats. If youre really skillful, you can try to sneak your way through the game, which is impossible because of the programmed action sequences that you simply must play through. The menu system also took some time getting used to, however it is functional once you do. I also dont understand how relatively small areas are chopped up by long loading times. The bigger environments of other PlayStation 2 games like Grand Theft Auto III, or even Oni, load relatively painlessly, but here the loading times are horrendous, especially if you mistakenly take the wrong path. The fact that little things like touching up the graphics and AI, along with adding what should be unnecessary loading times, show that this is a lazy port of the PC game.

Dont let any of these detractions stop you from playing the game though. Deus Ex is a potentially enlightening experience that works on several different layers politically, socially and philosophically. Questions about the role of technology in a postmodern society are sparked in an interesting philosophical conversation between your character, a manufactured human, and an AI prototype construct. It neatly ties all the rogue themes of the game together, and explains the title of the game. Issues about class, role of the government and its people, euthanasia (when a significant character asks for you to pull the plug on his support unit) and police brutality are also raised, showcasing the scope of corruption in society, and how all of the suffering are logical extensions of it.

Deus Ex also deals with my friend Steve, with its deadly Gray Death disease. Sure theres a cure for it, and even a clinic that treats it. But it is too much of a financial burden for the lower class malcontents, and there is no social support. So what are the infected to do? The government has control of their cure, along with their lifestyle. A recent survey of terminally ill patients who have requested euthanasia was conducted in Oregon, currently the only state in the nation with an assisted suicide law. It revealed that patients usually ask for death not because of their financial situation or depression. Its because they want to control the circumstances of their death. When a patient is terminally ill, their area of control shrinks, so with their decision to die sooner, they reclaim some sense of dignity and independence.

I dont know what happened to Steve. I can only imagine the claustrophobic nature of having a fatal illness in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller yet more difficult to comprehend. There is a multitude of factors why Steve would be compelled to die before the disease takes him and a longing for control may be one of them. Deus Ex for the PlayStation 2 is a flawed port of a conceptually magnificent game that provides players control over how they reach the inevitable. In an industry where games are often forced to confinement within the context of its particular genre and its potential profit, this game provides freedom to a genre, and medium, that sometimes practically beg to be killed. Deus Ex is practically alive. It thinks laterally, not fatalistically, and remains focused despite unalterable circumstances. I can only hope Steve came upon a similar fate. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

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The common idea of a martial arts hero is a rigidly moral person being endowed with strengths and abilities beyond the reach of a normal human. They can present bodies of dozens of foes they single-handedly defeated, and despite their painful and probably fatal wounds they still stand. Sometimes they possess comic book-like powers, leaping or falling from incredible heights. For most westerners, the mass media has provided exposure to this mystical Asian fantasy, most notably in film. The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most recent example, but everything from Tsui Harks historical epic movies to John Woos bullet ballet noir also offer romantic, exotic and stark glimpses into the mentality of a martial artist.

Video games, a mutant strain of entertainment that have only recently found their legging in the mainstream, also add to the mystique of the martial arts superhero. Fighting games have become a significant genre since Street Fighter II, which featured high-flying, fireball throwing men and women from all over the world. This genre calls for performing special moves that unleash great power and defy natural physics, all of which require arcane movements from the joystick and buttons. Over the years, these games and the gameplay that defines them grew to feature more a more exaggerated style that makes them less believable then before.

In 1993, Yu Suzuki released Virtua Fighter, which was the first fighting game to feature fighters designed with 3D polygons. The game restricted movement to a 2D plane, and the polygons lacked textures but were smoothly animated. It had no fireballs. Nobody could do upside-down spinning kicks or flash kicks. There wasnt even any blood. Since then, the series has evolved using this template of pure martial arts fighting. In its two sequels, the games had graphic overhauls, deeper and sometimes more experimental gameplay (sometimes not so successful, like Virtua Fighter 3s evade button) and extra moves to characters that were already balanced.

Virtua Fighter 4 is the latest in the series evolution, and it is the deepest, most beautiful and most balanced of the series, and maybe of the entire 3D fighting genre. The game focuses on one-on-one martial arts matches achieving victory by knocking the opponent out cold or out of the ring. Like the first two installments, it features a single-directional input for the D-pad and a punch, kick and guard button, eschewing the previously mentioned evade button (the feature is still in the game though). The game features 11 of the characters from Virtua Fighter 3 (minus Taka Arashi, the sumo wrestler) and two new fighters: an African-American street fighting female named Vanessa and Lei-Fei, your archetype Shaolin monk, complete with Gordon Liu looks.

The learning curve is easy enough for a beginner, but the depths one can go to mastering this game are nearly endless. The game features three different training modes. Command training lets you try out the moves of each character, giving advice along the way to perform it correctly. Free training is a standard training mode, allowing you to customize your dummy partner to suit whatever you feel like practicing. But learning all the special moves can only get you so far in this game. Trial training mode features different trials to learn advanced techniques. Some techniques are indispensable, like the evade (which calls for pressing up or down just as the opponents attack begins), and some call for virtuoso finger gymnastics on the controller, like the "guard-throw-evade," which allows you to evade an attack, and guard or evade a possible subsequent attack or throw. Throw the concept of high, middle and low attacks and their rock-paper-scissors relationship amongst other things and you can see why this series have had literally volumes written about the gameplay. A strategy guide on Gamefaqs.com only for Akira Yuki, the Virtua Fighter poster boy, goes up to 101 pages.

The arcade mode is standard and presents little challenge or value. Kumite mode is where the true single-player experience begins. You start with a fighter, give him a name and throw him into an endless sea of artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled fighters with their own names and unique looks. The memory card saves your every win and loss, along with every move you make. When you meet some certain circumstances, you will encounter a ranking match. Winning it will advance you through ten ranks of "kyu," then ten ranks of the relentless "dan" level, and on towards more grandiose and eccentric titles, like "Subjugator" and "Dragonlord." This mode is among the most profound ways to increase your skill level. As you gain rank, you do not gain new moves or have any increase in statistics. Instead, your rewards are purely cosmetic. Vanessa can wear a beret or have an assault rifle on her back, while Akira can have a bunny on his shoulder. It mimics the experience of an arcade challenge by presenting something at stake by the result, for if you lose you can lose rank or even gain an embarrassing reward, such as the aforementioned bunny. The only other thing noticeable as you plow your way through is your increase in skill, thanks to the punishing AI. It learns your patterns and responds to them accordingly. It isnt superhuman in that it blocks or reverses your every move, but its timing is impeccableas apparent as when you realize the computer-controlled Akira can flawlessly perform his most difficult moves. And that is where the heart of the gameplay lies. Most of the moves are relatively simply to pull off given that your timing is accurate. Playing the game becomes akin to a rhythm game. After mastering Jacky, the Jeet Kune Do fighter, I turned the games music off and performed poorly. I realized that the rhythm of my movements were off without the music. I trained with the music, and the music, unfortunately, had become part of the state of mind I must be in to play the game well.

The game also mimics what a real life fight might entail. A martial arts "simulator" such as this begs the question, "Would all of this really work in real life?" The answer lies within the game. If you only have a slight handle on the basics of your art, a person who has no grasp of martial arts can easily overwhelm you with unpredictable movements. That person would be the gaming equivalent of a button-masher. Its possible to lose against a button masher if your skill is limited. However, mastering your character will reward you in easily dispatching a button masher. Its that level of competition that drives a player towards mastery of this game. And if two skilled fighters engage, the bout becomes akin to a fencing match, which is a game of expectations and reaction.

Barely worth mentioning, the game features an AI system that lets you to train and develop your own AI fighter and pit it against the computer or other customized AI fighters. You can train it by teaching it moves, sparring with it or having it watch replays while you judge what is good or bad to do. More of a novelty mode than anything else, it is something to do with friends when youve absolutely exhausted the rest of the game, which wont be for a long time thanks to the kumite and versus modes.

The graphics are stellar and a definite crowd-pleaser. Running at 60 fps, each character is huge and has detailed textures right down to their shoelaces. Seeing Lei Fei or drunken master Shun Di perform their moves with life-like coordination is jaw dropping, as are some of the special effects in the arenas. The arenas are either open, closed or have breakable walls, and feature weather and lighting effects. The palace level has players fight in ankle-deep water, splashing and rippling with a life of its own. Another has fighters knee-deep in snow, and as the fight commences their marks are made through the snow.

The sound department isnt as impressive. The voice acting is as bad as they come (Quoth the Wolf: "Did you feel the real power? Go back to school."), and the music is your typical arena synth-rock. The sound effects are recycled from previous games, but are appropriate. Some standouts are the bone-crunching sounds Vanessa makes as she pummels your limbs.

Nary a negative thing can be said about this game. If anything, the AI mode takes up valuable memory that couldve been used for more rewards in Kumite mode. The game is a gorgeous and perfectly balanced game where no fighter is better than another is. Kumite mode helps define this game as purely skill-driven, but its simplistic controls make it accessible to anybody. More than any other game, Virtua Fighter 4 lives up to its "simulator" label by exemplifying the struggles of a martial artist through its depth and addictive Kumite mode. Its inhibition in violence and gimmickry sharply contrasts the far-reaching depths of its gameplay. The game is significant enough to present yet another angle at the mystical world of the martial artist fantasy, doing honor to its source material. Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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