Posted on : 16-01-2011 | By : Cacophanus | In : Reviews
Hardware: Xbox 360
Not that long after the release of Oratan in the arcades, rumours of a four player version surfaced. Considering the breakneck speed at which Oratan operated, a four player version sounded suitably insane. However, it wasn’t long until a new Virtual On game graced Japanese arcades running on the then somewhat notorious Hikaru board and sporting the rumoured four player setup. Titled Virtual On Force, with a massive “4” in its logo to denote to the less astute that there were more than two players now, the game was to be the last of the Virtual On arcade lineage.
There is good reason for this finale though and much of it was, and still is, attributable to the decision to make the game accommodate two extra players. Many thought that the red-headed stepchild of the Virtual On series would never see a home release, especially after the pretty catastrophic Virtual On Marz, yet in commemorating the 15th Anniversary of the series we seem to be faced with a painstakingly faithful port of the game.
Virtual On Force, like the games before it, was an arena shooter/brawler based around fixed vectored dashes. Mixing ranged and melee combat with a tactical bent. Force added to this formula by increasing the number of players and splitting them into two sides. Each side had a leader and a wingman, with killing the leader netting a win for the opposing side. This setup was an interesting attempt at making players work as a team, as the wingman would almost always need to cover the team leader. Simply trying to go solo in Force would leave players exposed and dead in equal measure.
Due to this increased number of players, concessions had to be made in order to make the game manageable. The first of these was to simply halve the dashing speed of all the VR’s and lengthen many of the melee animations. This initially made the game obviously feel quite sluggish after the high speed Oratan but to damn Force on this would be a pretty facile analysis as it ignores the real issues in the game’s now modified core ruleset.
Much of what makes a good Virtual On game great is the tactical element of planning where your opponent will be after a selection of dashes. Timing your attacks and relative position to theirs and deliver a killing blow, was and still is remarkably satisfying. Force retained the dash freeze but utterly nullified them with two mind numbing decisions.
The first was the ability to guard any and all melee attacks with far greater ease. On paper it makes sense, with an extra opponent, that the player should have the ability to guard more readily but in reality this made melee combat pretty tedious as each player could instantly guard an attack despite whether they’d been caught out or not. The second and more severe problem was the fact you could pretty much jump out of the way of every ranged attack, again this was a concession to dealing with more opponents but it rendered ranged combat pretty ineffective.
So with the reduced speed making the game more manageable, the ability to guard almost all melee attacks as well as jump out of the way of incoming fire took the heart out of Virtual On. In that, what was previously a cogent and exacting rule set that bound the game together Force opted for greater functional ambiguity that would make players have to take up the slack and work more studiously together.
In that sense, Force is a multiplayer triumph and in many ways laid the groundwork for team based arcade mecha games that would follow (with the likes of Border Break being highly notable in this regard). Yet as a Virtual On game Force does fall short. Even with its extensive online multiplayer as well as a new mission mode, this port is very faithful to the arcade original and as such dutifully recreates its flaws in the process.
What’s slightly curious is that the card system for the original arcade version has somewhat changed. Originally better VR’s were awarded via match victories; effectively ensuring veteran players would always have the better VR’s (this was especially true of the Temjin line). Unsurprisingly this was a pretty broken setup and, thankfully, it’s been all but dropped in the port. Instead VR’s are unlocked via the new offline mission mode.
For those concerned that the mission mode is akin to the one in Marz, fret not. Force’s missions are based around arena encounters, often with a modified rule set (as in no ranged combat for instance) rather than the obtuse and extended level layout seen in Marz. The higher the rank you attain the more and rarer VR’s you can unlock. This also feeds into the new AI wingman setup, as playing the game allows you to upgrade their AI stats making them very useful in other parts of the singleplayer setup. Sadly the AI VR’s cannot be used online
Overall then, this game is cautiously recommended. On the one hand it attempts make a very rigid ruleset broad enough to encompass multiple opponents but in doing so has broken what made the original Virtual On games so noteworthy. It was a brave game to make, especially in the face of such a dedicated fanbase, but it was and still is an unfortunate (though nonetheless interesting) entry into the Virtual On saga.
All versions of this game are region free and this review was undertaken with a pair of modified Dreamcast TwinSticks.