Virtual-On Force Playtest: A Charm For Every Flaw
Virtual-On and I have a bit of a history. As a kid, I adored the first Virtual-On (Operation Moongate) in the arcades. It had everything you could want at age eight: giant robots, incredible graphics (for the time), and faster movement than any other arcade game out there. Unfortunately, as a grade-schooler I didn’t have the cash to spend a lot of time in the arcades, so getting to go to an arcade and play Virtual-On, with its strange, cockpit-like arcade cabinet and dual-joystick setup became a rare and joyful event.
When the sequel, Oratorio Tangram, came out, I didn’t know of any arcade that had the game, nor did I have a Dreamcast to play the home version on when it was released in 2000. However, despite mostly missing the game constantly hailed as the best in the series, my love for the Virtual-On stayed strong. Naturally, when I heard that a new Virtual-On was coming to the Playstation 2, a console I actually owned, I was ecstatic.
When I purchased Virtual-On Marz, I noticed something was up. The arena combat had been replaced with a single-player campaign that didn’t really capture the intense spirit of the arcade game. However, it was the only Virtual-On that was easily available to me and the Dualshock 2 replicated the twin-stick setup pretty well, so I played a lot of it. I later learned that Marz was an attempt to bring a facsimile of the Japan-only, arcade-exclusive Virtual-On Force from 2001 to the PS2.
Cut to a few months ago: When I heard that Sega made Virtual-On Force region free, I was excited. Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram had been a big factor in my purchase of my Xbox 360, and the idea of more Virtual-On of any kind appealed to me. However, now that I’ve put a few hours into the game, I’m not sure it was entirely the gleeful experience I expected.
Things I Liked:
Despite the giant "4" on the cover, Virtual-On Force is actually the third game in the Virtual-On series. The "4" and "The Fourth is the Force" tagline apparently refer to the game’s new hook. It’s the first in the series to include two-on-two team battles, and in order to accommodate this, the cracked-out speed of the original games have been halved, the attacks don’t lock on as effectively, and the amount of options for each Virtuaroid have been decreased. However, as a Marz player, I felt right at home with the more leisurely pace.
If you’ve never played a Virtual-On before, the games essentially are about giant robots (called "Virtuaroids" or VRs) shooting and slashing each other to pieces while dashing all over the place in an assortment of arenas. The games use two sticks (in arcades, although I like to use the control method that emulates them on a standard gamepad, too) and control in a tank-like fashion.
Press one stick up and the other down to turn, push them in opposite directions to jump (which re-centers your lock onto a particular enemy), and push them together to do crouching attacks or block (when in range). Each stick has a turbo button and a weapon trigger. The turbos do exactly what you’d expect if you use them alone, boosting your VR in whatever direction you’re pointing the stick(s). However, at the end of each dash, there is a slight delay in which you are open to attack.
Each VR has three different basic weapons, left (activated with the left trigger), right (activated with the right trigger), and center (activated with both simultaneously). Now, while that initially sounds somewhat limiting, there are a ton of ways to modify these attacks. Dashing forward and attacking will be different than dashing back or sideways and attacking. Crouch attacks can be faster than others, and by holding a turbo button, your moveset changes and everything does much heavier damage. On top of all of this, there is a pretty well-rounded and enjoyable melee system that has a variety of attack modifications of its own.
Even with the decreased amount of abilities compared to Oratorio Tangram, there are still a ton of options with each character in Virtual-On Force. Throw in hidden special abilities and each of the ninety-one Virtuaroids in the game feels pretty versatile.
The new team mechanics in Force are interesting as well. Each team has a leader, and if the leader is destroyed, that team loses. If a teammate is damaged, a VR can use a rescue dash, which moves health from one VR to the other. Their overall health percentage doesn’t change at all, but the two VRs split the difference between their two health bars. It’s a challenge to keep the leader safe while taking down the enemy leader, since staying too focused on one enemy can leave you open to attacks from unseen enemies.
The home version of Force allows you to customize an AI partner for use in battle. While they start out laughably weak weak, continued battles allow you to create a pretty intelligent (and somewhat customized) ally. There is a downside though: you have to create AI companions one at a time since there’s no option to transfer skill points from one VR to another. It takes a lot of battles to develop a variety of partners.
A mech game is nothing without cool robots, and the game’s Virtuaroids are awesome, designed by Macross veteran Katoki Hajime. From the military-style Apharmd models to the maid/ballerina hybrid Fei-Yen, Virtual-On’s clean mech designs are very distinctive and add to the game’s arcade-y feel. Considering that Force is an upgraded port of a ten-year-old game, the visuals complement the art-style quite well. Honestly, one of my favorite elements of the game is simply trying out the different VRs to see how their attacks work or how they distinguish themselves from the others in the game.
Since the game does include 91 Virtuaroids, it stands to reason that there would be a bit of overlap. While most of them are variants of twelve base models, each one is pretty unique. More importantly, while some VRs are marked improvements over others, they’re unique enough to not feel like replacements for prior models.
Too slow? Use the less defensive but still dangerous 747F.
The variant models are awesome in their own right, even if they aren’t the most practical versions of that particular VR. For instance, there’s a version of Apharmd that swaps his tonfa for chainsaws on his legs! Chainsaws!
While having a ludicrous amount of options sounds like it makes it easy to find an incarnation of each VR that meshes with everyone’s playstyle, unlocking all of the VRs can be a total pain. The only way to unlock new VRs is through the annoyingly hard mission mode.
What I Didn’t Like All That Much
The mission mode has a few issues. First of all, one would expect that having all of your missions laid out in a list from the beginning would mean that players get to choose whatever mission they wanted from the start. However, while you can start from three different points when you start mission mode, you cannot go onto a mission unless you’ve completed the mission directly before it.
While this doesn’t sound that bad, when some missions are essentially forced "survival modes" that have you fight six battles in a row (one culminating in a boss fight) the inability to skip these gets really frustrating. I literally spent an hour finishing one of these missions, unable to skip it, despite the game awarding me an unfinished "B" rank. What’s the point of ranks if they won’t allow me to move onto the next mission?
VO Force offers the ability to alleviate the difficulty of mission mode with "EX Options," unlockable points that allow you to increase your health and damage output. While you unlock them one at a time, it only takes an hour or two to unlock them all. While EX options allow you to breeze straight through arcade mode, they almost seem like a necessity for mission mode. It’s very frustrating to have to use EX Options to stand a chance, because with the options on full, the game goes from being hair-pullingly hard to a dull cakewalk. The difficulty curve seems almost impossible to overcome without cheating, but I wish I didn’t have to do so to unlock more VRs. The dependence on mission mode to unlock VRs eliminates any reason to play arcade mode as well.
Although I was initially excited by the promise of Force’s multiplayer, that has fallen short for me in a variety of areas as well. While it does improve on Oratorio Tangram’s complete lack of local multiplayer, Force is very picky about how you can play with friends. Want to play split-screen with two players? Instead of the screen being split cleanly in half a la 2003′s Virtual-On Marz, this game relegates its players to tiny little boxes floating in the black abyss that fills the rest of the screen. This wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, as the gameplay remained intact, despite my squinting, but the friend I was playing with ran into some issues due to the decreased visibility.
When I tried to add a third player into the mix, Force immediately became uncooperative. While AI can be pitted against a team of two players or act as their teammates, there is absolutely no way to play the game with three people on the same console. I could only play the game with two or four people. I have no idea why three people couldn’t play, but needless to say I was a little disappointed.
Online play didn’t make me much happier. The good news is, although the game has been out for a few months, there are still a few people playing online in ranked matches. Getting into one of these, however, is hell. Most of my attempts to play online went like this:
1. Press "Quick Match"
2. Watch a graphic of swirling planets and listen to repetitive music while I waited for the game to gather four players for a couple minutes.
3. Finally acquire four people. Enter lobby and begin ten-second countdown.
4. Have someone leave the lobby, booting all players to the Xbox Live menu on the main screen.
5. Repeat until too frustrated to keep going.
While I assume most people left the lobby because I’m playing over a Wi-Fi connection in America (when most players are in Japan), finding online matches became too arduous a process for me to play more than four of them. The netcode seemed fine when I connected, but it was way too rare for me to have an enjoyable time online.
But I Can’t Stop Playing Anyway
Despite all of Virtual-On Force’s shortcomings, it has a charm that keeps me coming back. Perhaps it’s due to my obsessive-compulsive nature when it comes to unlocking things (I only have like 46 out of the 91 VRs so far!), or my love for giant robots, or just how the game makes me feel like I’m recapturing a bit of my childhood.
For everything that frustrates me about the game (like the fact that your completed missions aren’t saved if you turn your 360 off before exiting the mission menu), there’s something that I adore. The game contains the soundtracks for the original Operation Moongate (my personal favorite), the Sega Saturn version, and Oratorio Tangram as swappable music in the options menu!. Besides, it’s still the only game I’ve ever played that allows me to use a character with chainsaws strapped to its legs.
Food for Thought:
Although I know very little about the storyline of Virtual-On, I am curious as to what military genius decided to make Guarayakha, and why they decided that a robot that looked like it came out of a magical girl anime should be used to control the ungodly might of the game’s mid-boss, Jaguarandi.