With such a mouthful of a title, you could certainly be forgiven for asking what’s in a name. “Virtual-On” is a flashback to Sega naming days of yore, where their AM divisions were pushing out ground-breaking 3D titles one after another; however with Virtua Fighter, Striker, Cop, Racing and so forth, you at least had a fighting chance of working something out about the game from the title. Thankfully, the “Cyber Troopers” prefix in this case is a touch more descriptive, with the object of the game being to take the reins of one such ‘Cyber Trooper’ and pound numerous shades of robo-stuffing from another of your kin. Think Robot Wars, minus Craig Charles, and with 10-foot robots sporting lasers, swords and the like, as opposed to a toaster on wheels with a flipper mechanism.
Despite the tenuous ‘Force’/four link, and the slightly less discreet “4” emblazoned on the box, this is actually the third game in the series, an arcade title from 2001 following on from ‘Oratorio Tangram’ (recently re-ported to XBLA), and serving as a pre-cursor to ‘Marz’ (already ported to PS2). These references to the number 4 make more sense when you look at the gameplay mechanics, though, where this title stands out in the series by offering team battles of a 2 vs 2 nature, in contrast to the 1 on 1 gameplay featured in the rest of the series. Battles are made up of a number of rounds, and in each of these, a member from each team takes on responsibility as designated team leader; should either leader fall, that team loses, regardless of the status of the non-leading team member. Given the substantial nature of this risk, co-operative play within your team is a must, and puts importance on a number of strategic elements; plus when the inevitable happens and this fails, quick adaptation is another must to avoid this leading to defeat.
Aside from this one quite major change, putting this release directly next to its predecessor, it will disappoint many. Whilst some new team play elements – healing a partner at the cost of your own energy, primitive team comms, etc. – have been introduced to allow for a more tactical approach, overall the battles are much less complex, underlined most prominently by the huge drop in speed. This is still far from a slow game, however it certainly is no longer the frantic, adrenaline-fuelled rush that Oratorio Tangram was, with the requirement for quick, twitchy reactions and large numbers of inputs no longer at the forefront. The weightier nature of control certainly lends itself to a more tactical approach – hiding behind terrain, choosing which mech to target, tracking their movement and the like – and given the dependency on keeping your partner alive as well as yourself, this is often appreciated.
As well as choosing your own character, the single-player modes on offer open up the opportunity to explore the new AI options, where you can customise your team-mate – whether it be picking a character that has attributes that complements your own, or merely giving them a rude name to feed your inner child. Repeat plays with this AI partner gives you points with which to raise core attributes (speed, distance attacks, close-range attacks, etc.), and given how quickly this can be maxed out, you can easily stash away an array of powerful buddies to pick from depending on your mood. Thankfully, the AI is never jarringly dense in battle. However, at the same time, it rarely thrills, either, and your interactions with each other are sparse. Johnny 5 this is not – there was a window to build on this a bit better and introduce more personality and interaction here, however it is left almost entirely to the player's creativity to differentiate your assistant from your attackers in ways beyond you not shooting each other.
Arcade mode unfolds as you’d expect, with a (surprisingly) lengthy series of battles interspersed with little other than a brief introduction to each. Jaguarandi, a giant, tank-like droid marks the half-way mark through your quest, whereas taking down the crystal-defending final boss duo A-Jim and Guerlain closes the proceedings, granting an ending sequence featuring one of the more curious insertions of Holst’s “Jupiter”. Mission mode is clearly the focus for offline players, and despite reams of text explaining the scenario of each, the objective rarely stretches beyond beating the opposing team, with the most creative of which being to pick up some items littered across the landscape before you can be shot down. If the length and repetition of this mode was not enough to dispel your enjoyment, the presence of EX options (as per Sumo Digital’s recent Afterburner Climax port) offer up the opportunity to remove any challenge via boosting your attack power and health, turning it into little beyond a soulless grind to clear and then forget about.
Make no mistake, the real focus of this game is playing it with other human beings, and no single-player mode comes close to replicating this experience. Unfortunately, despite some fantastic net code, the overall online experience leaves much to be desired; the majority of joined lobbies resulting in unexplained kicks from the host, and a number of the larger lobbies leaving you sat out to spectate if you are of the lower ranked variety. At the time of writing there is a community of gamers playing this, but it is a largely impenetrable one. Between mostly existing in different time-zones, and being largely selective about the skill of opponents, the 4 player prerequisite means it is often tough to merely play a game, something that is bound to only get more frustrating as time goes on. The lack of a 3 human + 1 AI mode, or a non-mission 2 human vs 2 AI mode is a painful oversight
Given its age, it gives pleasant relief to say the game does not look or sound awful – whilst certainly not gorgeous either, it remains functional, and the character models in particular feel plenty solid. Crucially, where the game does feel old is in its mechanics and lack of diversity in play modes – beyond bettering your own skills there is little incentive to keep coming back, and with it straddling a fine line between tactical-team FPS and a versus fighter, it’s easy to find yourself pitting it against the cream of both crops for the attention it desires. The post-sale effort on this front is particularly disappointing – the two batches of DLC available merely add further length to the already dry mission mode, and given the price and speed of release after the retail product, it is very easy to cynically label this as a shameless cash-in on the dedicated fans.
There are grounds to enjoy Force; sadly they all come with caveats that make it hard to recommend, and prove all the more frustrating when you do have one of the rare moments where everything works as it should. The changes to core mechanics and the sheer number of variations on the basic character archetypes may be plenty to capture the imaginations of hardened series veterans, and enough to prick up the ears of the more inquisitive, but the tragic practicalities of the game will make even the best-intended efforts short-lived.