I think Gene is being a little pejorative by hanging that 8.5 on Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. He labels it "user-nasty," then bemoans the fact that he had to spend time in the training mode—"slogging through command list after command list"—in order to reaquaint himself with the controls. Remember, this is the same game—albeit with faster load times, sharper graphics, two new characters, a 20 dollar price tag, and the new Quest mode—that Gene awarded a 9.5 a little over a year ago.
I'll be honest—I'm no great fan of fighting games, certainly not as much of a fan as Gene is. Even the most competent entries in the genre usually hold my attention for only a night or two before being retired to the shelf. My main problem with the genre is that my achievements feel almost entirely ephemeral. I can spend days with a fighting game, logging countless hours, and only wind up with a handful of unlockable characters to show for all my hard work. I can win a hard-fought match, full of reversals and hard-to-pull-off moves, but as soon as the match is over—poof—my performance vanishes into the ether, never to be seen or heard from again. While most fighting games do provide fleeting moments of excitement, I'm ultimately left feeling as if what I did on screen didn't really count for much in any larger, meaningful way.
Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution has miraculously held my attention for a solid two months now—I've even gotten in the habit of "training" on weekends, lame as that sounds—and it has everything to do with the fact that the game assesses and measures my pugilistic achievements in very concrete ways. Unlike most fighting games, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution always lets me know exactly where I stand. My record of wins and losses tells me; my ranking—10th kyu, 8th dan, etc.—tells me. Elaborate statitistics are kept of every aspect of the game, as if a Bartleby-type were sitting by my side, marking my every move down in a ledger. The Advice mode even tracks my fighting habits, letting me know when I'm putting too much emphasis on high attacks, low attacks, etc. And when I do put on a masterful display of fisticuffs, the game allows me to save my replay to a memory card, then review it later in all of its slow-motion glory. In the Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution world, every choice I made, every punch I threw, is assessed, processed, computed and recorded. In other words, everything counts; everything is meaningful. Moment to moment, in large ways and small, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution does what no other fighting game does: it provides me with a steady stream of feedback, telling me exactly what I'm worth within the context of the game world.
On a more abstract level, by compounding this massive log of data and telling me what I'm worth, the game manages to accomplish something else: it creates the illusion that an entity—call it a higher authority, or a governing body—is watching over me. While playing through the Quest mode, I had the feeling that there was an almost god-like intelligence looking down upon my matches, making sure the game was run in a fair and just fashion. This higher authority issued challenges (win two matches in a row without guarding), doled out ranking matches, opened tournaments for me, and awarded prizes of cash or items to winners (and demotions to losers). The unique sensation that someone or something was observing me and keeping track of my every move made the game feel less like a series of random computer-generated encounters (which is what it is, in truth), and more like a purposeful, carefully structured series of dramatic events. Fighting games without this distinct sense of a higher authority (the Dead Or Alive series comes to mind), especially after playing Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, feel like nothing more than exercises in busyness.
Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution does have one flaw, and it's nearly fatal. The game features the most banal crop of fighters I've ever come across. Trying to pick a fighter was like trying to decide between pieces of styrofoam. And their groan-inducing dialogue before and after matches certainly doesn't help matters. From kickboxer Brad's "How about a warm-up?" to Wolf's "So…what?" to Lion's vaguely homosexual "I don't make allowances for old men," all leaves me to conclude that these characters should adhere to my first-grade teacher's mandate that if you have nothing interesting to say, then you probably shouldn't say anything at all.
Gene's right—the game is certainly a long and arduous endeavor, and not one entered lightly, though I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call it "user-nasty." Button-mashers definitely need not apply, but gamers willing to invest the necessary time and effort will get their just rewards. Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution is the most fiercely inventive fighting game to come along in years, and it represents the first real leap forward for the genre since it went 3D. Let's hope it does for fighting games what Grand Theft Auto III is doing for third-person action games—that is, breathe new life into a genre long gone stale.