Thumbs aching? Check. Chores neglected? Check. Countering jump attacks with a Flash Kick? Check. I and thousands of other gamers around the world have been waiting for this week for some time now – the console release of Capcom's next major installment in their uber-famous fighting series, Street Fighter. We've been tantalized by screenshots, videos, press releases, and first hand impressions, but for many of us, this week was the first chance we've gotten to get our hands on Street Fighter IV. Well, the wait is over – it's here and ready to rock; without further delay lets review Capcom's first smash hit of the year.
The More Things Change...
Street Fighter has a long and storied history. The series began two decades ago in 1989. In the original Street Fighter, players assumed the role of what would become one of gaming's most recognizable characters, Ryu. In 1991, Capcom rocked the arcade world with Street Fighter II, which still to this day has a special place in my heart as being the arcade game I played the most in my youth. In the years that followed, many iterations of Street Fighter II were released, along with the Alpha Series in the mid-nineties, and the Street Fighter III series in the late 90s. There were a few other versions, including the Ex series and the crossover games (Marvel Vs Street Fighter, SNK Vs Capcom, etc.), too. Most recently, Capcom released Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix for download just last Fall.
With Street Fighter IV, Capcom continues the legacy that began twenty years ago. So much of what was present in that first game, and especially in the Street Fighter II series, is here in Street Fighter IV. Expect classic 2D fighting action with balanced and developed characters with special moves that even non-gamers have come to know. Fans of the series will recognize a lot of familiar faces, moves, sounds, and controls. On the other hand, the visuals have received a major face lift, the stages are completely different, there are a lot of new characters, and even some new mechanics that further deepen the gameplay. A full service online mode is included too, in addition to other single player modes. Before continuing, let's take a quick look at some of the newcomers, shall we?
The new fighters to Street Fighter IV include Rufus, Abel, C. Viper, and El Fuerte. You can also unlock others including Rose, Gen, Seth, and Gouken, the latter two of which I have yet to unlock although both Rose and Gen are interesting and very fun characters to play as. That said, Rufus is the obese American fighter who joins the tournament with the express purpose of finding Ken and beating him, so that everyone can know that Rufus is the best fighter in America. As a fighter, Rufus uses speed and agility, not what you would expect given his size, to overwhelm his opponents.
Abel is a French soldier who has lost his memory after barley surviving an explosion. He was taken in by some mercenaries but has entered the tournament after discovering Shadaloo may be there. Shadaloo is the only link to Abel's past, so he is working with Chun Li to discover the truth. Abel has a cool jump spin kick, some good throws, and a rolling evade technique. I found him a little bit boring to use, but he was often a stiff challenge in the Arcade mode.
C. Viper has entered the tournament to test out a new battle suit that S.I.N. has created. If she can win the tournament, she may become a top level exec at S.I.N. She uses the gadgets on the suit to do battle, including the ability to electrocute and burn her opponents.
Finally, El Fuerte is a lucha libre wrestler who is also an aspiring chef. On a mission to find the greatest recipe in the world, and prove his lucha libre skills, El Fuerte joins the Tournament. I found El Fuerte to be probably the weakest new addition, including the unlockable characters. His small stature makes his range shorter than perhaps anyone else in the game, and his techniques are a little awkward to execute, too.
The Tournament - Preparations And Training
Although you wouldn't guess it by the name, Street Fighter IV actually takes place between the events of Street Fighter II and III. The new Tournament is being sponsored by the secretive corporation known as S.I.N., whom it is thought may be somehow connected to Shadaloo, and therefore M. Bison. The world's best fighters accept their invitations and come and compete in the Tournament for their own reasons. Their path will inevitably lead them to several battles before facing their Rival and then ultimately a final showdown in the secret lab of the SIN corporation. In this lab, they will face Seth, a cyborg who has been given the abilities of some of the world's greatest fighters thanks to the wonders of technology.
Players can unravel each character's story by playing the Arcade mode. Before diving head first into that, I decided to check out my options and then the Training and Challenge Modes.
One of the most important considerations in playing Street Fighter IV is getting a handle on the controls. For serious players, it may be worth investing in a fight stick as it seems to be the common consensus that the more difficult maneuvers are done much easier with a fight stick. For this review, I only had my DualShock3 controller. From the Options Menu, you can choose to edit your controller of choice as well as edit the button mapping for the controller. After some experimentation, I found the default scheme to work very well. In this scheme, Square and Triangle are Light and Medium Punch, X and Circle are Light and Medium Kick, R1 is Fierce (or Hard) Punch, and R2 is Hard Kick. L1 and L2 are also important though; these are HP+MP+LP and HK+MK+LK, respectively. I experimented a while with the analog stick, but soon settled on using the D-pad to play with, although you can switch between both seamlessly during the course of a battle.
When you have your controls setup, you may want to check out the Screen and Sound options. Under Screen, you will find the ability to disable the HUD or alter its position. Sound options include the ability to adjust several volume levels like that of the background music, sound effects, voices, and voice chat. You can also customize sound output for individual characters (once you beat the game one time on Arcade mode), the cutscene voice, and battle voices by toggling between English or Japanese.
Before playing, I strongly recommend going into the Systems section of the Options. You can toggle network messages here, but more importantly you can choose to Install Street Fighter IV to your hard drive. This option takes up 2.1GB of space and it drastically reduces load times (I did some quick experimentation before and after installing). Load times only happen when loading the Player Select screen and when first loading up a stage.
With my options all set and the game installed, I was ready to get some training. The Training mode in Street Fighter IV is very detailed and very helpful, and well worth your time to check out. When you select Training from the Main Menu, you choose what character you want to be and what character you want the CPU to control. After a brief load sequence, you arrive in a plain training room.
By default, the CPU character stands still and has a regenerating health meter. You can alter at least a dozen different options once in training mode to help you get the most out of the experience. There are options like forcing the CPU character to hold a constant block, so that you can train in your block breaking techniques. You can also give yourself an infinitely full Super and Ultra Combo meter, so that you can practice those maneuvers without having to fill up those meters normally. Heck, you can even force the CPU character to remain in a constant stunned state if you want to refine your skills in that situation, too. I also liked the ability to turn on a command log so that all input I give to the controller shows up on screen, which is helpful in trying to master those tricky directional commands. Other options at your disposal include letting a fellow local human player take over for the CPU if you're really looking to customize a counterattack strategy, for example.
Training Mode is something I see myself going back to often to try to refine skills and learn to consistently execute the more difficult moves like the Super and Ultra combos. I think this is easily the most in depth and complete training tool I've seen in a Street Fighter game, or in any fighting game for that matter.
Challenge Yourself To Challenge Mode
Before I get to the Arcade Mode, I wanted to mention two other important modes Street Fighter IV brings to the table. First up is the Challenge Mode, an addictive area where players can choose to participate in Time Attack, Survival, or Trial events. Each mode has a Normal and Hard tier.
In the Normal Time Attack tier, there are twenty challenges that you must beat in order, one by one. You cannot see the detail of an event unless you have unlocked it, and you can only unlock it by beating the previous challenge. The details of an event show you not only what your goal is (beat x number of enemies in y amount of time, for example), but also what other parameters are on, if any. In both Time Attack and Survival, the first several challenges grant the player things like having a full Ultra and Super Combo meter from the start of the round and having a higher Defense rating. On the other hand, the CPU may be restricted from using those combos or even blocking. Each of these two modes may also stipulate some kind of bonus or recovery too. For Time Attack, the earlier challenges offer you a thirty second bonus for winning a battle; the additional time is tacked on to your running total for the next round. In Survival, players may be granted a percentage of health back in between battles. After the first few challenges, the ratio of how many enemies you must defeat and how much return on time or vitality you get back begins to become inversely proportionate, and that's where the real challenge comes into play.
With both Time Attack and Survival, the winner is determined after just one round. In between the fights, during the load screen, your remaining time or remaining vitality is displayed, a nice touch to remind you of what your goal for the upcoming fight should be. Each challenge is marked by a quota, which should you meet that quota you will have beaten the challenge. However, you can also exceed the quota, and should you do that and finish up the entire challenge, you earn a more prestigious rank on that challenge. Your completion is marked by a crown, the more decorated crown indicating that this challenge is “done.”
You need not complete all twenty Normal challenges in the Normal tier to tackle the five challenges in the Hard Tier. The Hard tier challenges are precisely that, and something most players including myself will have to work very hard to defeat.
The final type of Challenge are Trials. The Trials are again split up into Normal and Hard tiers, but both only have five challenges each. After selecting your player of choice, you arrive at the Training stage and must complete a series of commands that the challenge provides. This is a great supplement to the Training mode, but I wish the diagrams of the required moves was larger – both in this mode and in the in-game Commands List, the pictures that show you the controls for your character's moves are just too darn small. While legible, I would have much preferred a more robust reference, something with a larger picture and heck, maybe even a video demonstration of the controls or the maneuver in action.
That said, playing through these Challenges is educational, addictive, and rewarding. Actually another added benefit I experienced was that I was able to fight some of the characters I hadn't unlocked yet, which was pretty cool. Completing challenges also earns you extra unlockables, such as additional Titles, Colors, and Icons, and Gallery goodies as well if I'm not mistaken. There are even Trophies to be had within the Challenge Mode, so with all of that at stake, be sure to check this Mode out.
Grab A Friend, It's Versus Time
Of course, Street Fighter didn't become one of the most recognized franchises in gaming by its single player mode alone. Versus Mode is where most Street Fighter memories are made, and where the best fighters master their craft. Street Fighter IV's Versus Mode is everything you would expect it to be. Players can choose to fight against a CPU opponent, but this mode is primarily for playing with friends or local opponents. Each player picks their fighter (more detail on this in the Arcade and Network Battle sections), adjusts their handicap if desired, and then one player chooses the stage (or simply selects Random). The handicap, by the way, if you didn't know, is just a way to control how much health a player has. The system is simply made up of four stars, with each star representing 25% of a player's vitality. Anyway, once that is set, the players fight each other to determine a winner. One great feature about this mode that I sorely wish were in the Arcade mode and in online play is Rematch. Whenever a player is defeated, a menu screen pops up for each player – here you can Change Your Character, Rematch, or Quit. If one player chooses to change their character and the other chooses Rematch, the Rematch option is disregarded. However, if both players want to Rematch, they simply select that and the battle is instantly reset – no load times, no fuss. It's really unfortunate that players don't at least have the option to enable/disable this feature in the Arcade mode, and even in the Network Battle mode.
In-Deh-Struck-Ti-Bull (You Gotta Hear the Theme Song To Get This)
To this point we've looked at several of the modes available for play, but the big two remain: Arcade and Network Battle. Arcade mode is the bread and butter of the series, in which a player selects a character and attempts to battle through a wave of CPU enemies to become the winner of the tournament. As a bonus, players get some closure on their character's story as well as some kind of unlocked content.
After selecting Arcade Mode from the Main Menu, you can alter three important settings: difficulty, round count, and time limit. The difficulties range from Easiest to Hardest, with five or six other settings in between including Very Easy, Easy, and Medium Hard, for example. That done, choose your character, Color, and Personal Action. The choices you have when selecting your character may also include other options like Costume and V.Comment. Alternate costumes are purchasable on the PS Store and V.Comments allow you to choose between eleven pre-set messages that are displayed after you defeat your opponent. The Color option gives you the ability to alter your fighter's appearance, while the Personal Action option allows you to choose alternate taunts that you may want to execute (with no real impact on gameplay) during a match. As you play through the Arcade mode and other modes, you will unlock more Personal Actions and Colors.
With your player selected, a brief opening cutscene is shown giving you an intro to why that particular fighter has chosen to enter the Tournament. The cutscene looks like the old Street Fighter anime. Next, you will fight a random opponent at a random stage – unlike in years past, you don't go to India to fight Dhalsim, or Brazil to fight Blanka – in Street Fighter IV, who you fight and where is random, although I believe each fighter still has a stage created for them.
At anytime during a fight, you can pause the action and check out any fighter's controls. Again just like in the Challenge Trials, I wish the images and text of how to do each move were larger and more legible as some of them are very hard to read, especially the directional command pictures. Knowing how to perform your fighter's special and unique moves is essential to victory in all but the very easiest of difficulties, so come prepared. For the higher difficulties, and to unlock three special characters, you have to be able to pull off your Super and Ultra Combos, which is no easy feat.
Super and Ultra Combos are only available to you whenever the meter pertaining to those moves is full, or at least past a certain threshold in the case of Ultra Combos. Your Super Combo meter is the four block blue meter, and it fills as you deal out damage and perform special moves. Once it's full, you can do your Super Combo which will, assuming you don't miss or get blocked, do a large amount of damage to your opponent but also drain your Super Combo meter completely. Super Combos also look really cool too, but darn if they aren't difficult to perform (more on that soon). EX Special Moves are also governed by the Super Combo Meter in that performing EX Special Moves (basically slightly more difficult yet more powerful versions of special moves) removes blocks from the Super Combo meter.
Ultra Combos are even more difficult and more powerful than Super Combos. The half circle red meter known as the Revenge Gauge fills up as you take damage. When it's at least 50% full, it's possible to unleash an incredibly powerful combo on your opponent that is usually enough to end a round. Ultra Combos are even harder to execute than Super Combos, which makes them almost useless to me in that I have the hardest time doing them; I obviously need more practice in that regard, but a fight stick would probably help even more. If you plan on competing online or in the higher Arcade difficulty modes (and the Challenge modes for that matter), you need to be able to pull these moves off. I have a lot of practicing to do.
More On Arcade Mode And Other Mechanics
Big time combos aren't necessarily new to the Street Fighter games, but Focus Mode is something new and unique to Street Fighter IV. Focus Mode is refreshingly easy to perform and it adds an interesting new strategy to an already deep fighting game. At it's surface, Focus Mode is a purely offensive tactic, in which a player simply holds down Medium Punch and Medium Kick together. When they do so, their fighter will go into a brief slow motion sequence with a wisp of black smoke around them. If you hold the buttons down for two, maybe three seconds, the game automatically performs the most powerful Focus attack, enough to be unblockable and crumple your opponent, opening them up for a quick follow up attack. This is known as a Level 3 Focus Mode attack, with Level 1 and Level 2 doing less damage and not being unblockable as a result of the HP and HK buttons not being held down as long.
Focus Mode has a few other interesting aspects about it. You can absorb a weak hit in Focus Mode too, but it is possible to have your Focus Attack broken up by a special move or two fast hits. Other unique possibilities are available with Focus however, including the ability to utilize 'Hyper Armor' which is a way of taking damage, but the amount of damage you take can be recovered over time if you don't take another hit during the time of recovery. This isn't something I have explicitly done too many times, but it is yet another strategic element that the best players will take special note of. Another such strategic element is the ability to use dash to cancel out of Focus; when in Focus, you cannot jump or move, but you can use dash (double tap a direction) to cancel out. The possibilities and new strategy that Focus Mode brings are quite exciting.
Getting back to Arcade Mode now, players will face a series of six enemies before facing their Rival character. Each Rival character battle takes place at a certain stage, depending on which fighters are involved. A brief cutscene sets the stage for battle, and during battle you may hear the characters talking to each other about what happened in the cutscene or about how the fight is going – it's pretty cool. Rivals in Street Fighter IV include Ken vs. Rufus, Blanka Vs El Fuerte, Chun Li Vs C. Viper, Balrog Vs. Chun Li, Sakura Vs Ryu, and Guile vs Abel, for instance.
After winning the Rival battle, players face Seth, the Shang Tsung of Street Fighter if you will, in that he has the special moves of several fighters including Ryu, Guile, Zangief, and Dhalsim. Besides the uninspired name, Seth is a fairly straight-forward boss with just one irritating move – a dragon punch spinning pile driver that he always resorts too whenever he needs to take a lot of damage from you fast.
With Seth defeated, another short cutscene attempts to tie up the story for your character, at least for the time being, and the credits roll. Certain characters unlock certain other characters, although to unlock Akuma, Seth, and Akuma's brother Gouken, you have to perform other tasks in Arcade mode. That said, the characters you unlock include some old favorites and more new faces: Fei Long, Rose, Sakura, Gen, and Cammy, for example.
Overall, Arcade Mode is a lot of fun, but it's not without it's frustrations. Typical of Arcade fighting games, on Medium or higher difficulty the third CPU character you face is usually at least twice as hard as the first two, in my experience, which gets pretty annoying. But, that's the nature of an arcade machine, it is designed to take money. Generally, if you continue a time or two, or maybe just switch characters (and thereby face a different CPU opponent) this isn't too bad of a problem.
Other problems I had with the arcade were shoddy collision detection at times. I always thought that one reason why fighting games do not have replay options is that it would reveal some of the CPUs questionable (read: impossible) tactics that are employed from time to time. I think we've all been there: your jump kick magically lands behind the opponent, even though this is a 2D game, leaving you exposed for an easy counter attack. Or maybe when you were sure you landed that kick or punch, you can even see it on screen for an instant before suddenly the next frame of animation has you coming down headfirst to the ground in a spinning pile driver. Speaking of which, Zangief uses that technique way too often, as does Seth. Come to think of it, one time in a Survival Challenge, Zangief performed that move no less than nine times in one round (the only way I survived even half of that many was because of my increased Defense stats).
I also wish the Arcade mode had a Rematch option so that I wouldn't have to press Start to skip through the CPU's winning animation, press Start once again to Continue, wait for the Player Select screen, reselect my character, wait for the stage to load, skip the cutscenes again – it's just very inefficient from a technical and playing perspective to have to reload all of this data again. Soul Calibur does it right – give the player a Rematch option so that they can instantly go back to the start of the fight and not have to suffer through even fifteen or twenty seconds worth of wait. On that note, a Restart option to a match wouldn't be a bad idea either, at least as an unlockable option perhaps.
The World Warrior
Street Fighter IV takes advantage of internet connectivity like no Street Fighter game has before. From the Main Menu, you can view your character profile, including your Icon, Title, online status, and Battle Points. Online is where you will find the fiercest and best Street Fighter players to help you bring your skill set up to the next level. You can also earn additional medals and Trophies from online play.
Capcom calls the online component of Street Fighter IV the Network Battle Mode. Getting started in this mode is fast and simple; under the Edit Status menu of the Network Battle Mode, you can add an icon and title to your character as well as select how you want to handle accepting challenges. If you enable Arcade Request and you are online, your single player Arcade experience can suddenly be put on hold should someone on the Internet select you to challenge. When this occurs, a basic lobby screen pops up showing the challenger's name, icon, title, and there is also a graphic indicating the quality of the network connection between you two, important for ensuring smooth gameplay. From this screen you can either quit or select Ready, and when both players have chosen Ready the player select screen appears and the battles begin.
As you win online battles, be they Ranked Matches or Player (Friendly) Matches, you earn various Medals. There are eighteen medals that you will earn multiple times. Medals include performing feats like getting a Perfect against your opponent, finishing a round with an Ultra Combo, winning a round with 81%-100% of your vitality remaining, dizzying/stunning your opponent in a round, and so forth. Medals earn you Trophies and I believe also count towards unlocking additional material.
Speaking of additional material, there are some 432 Titles you can unlock that include things like “Fledging Fighter,” “Disciple,” “In Training,” and all kinds of other miscellaneous things that are supposed to be comedic, aggressive, and so forth. In addition to the titles, there are some 260 icons to unlock. Icons are like avatars, small pictures to put next to your name. You can check your unlocking and game completion status by going to the Player Data option from the Main Menu.
After each Network Battle, the winning statistics for both players in the current series of fights against one another to that point are displayed and then the lobby screen pops up again, and the cycle repeats. My online experience has been good so far, although it has taken me several minutes at times to find matches to join. You can specify criteria or filters such as Network Stability, Language Preferences, Skill Preferences (either at same skill or higher than yours), round count, and so forth, to search by, or leave these totally wide open. It'd have been nice to also have the ability to customize a match to where no Super or Ultra Combos are available, or maybe to where only special moves are allowed, etc.
With filters on or off, the Search mode returns to you no more than three potential matches at a time. I experienced more trouble than I expected in trying to find a match, however – ones that looked good would error out within a few seconds saying either it couldn't connect or that the match was full, although the status result returned by the Search didn't suggest that. Still, it's still a very new game so the community is still very small, and the online battles I have connected into have been super smooth and a lot of fun.
In addition to Player Matches, you can also do battle in Ranked Matches and earn Battle Points. The more of these you earn the higher your score and the higher your placement in the world rankings.
Final Stage – Fight!
Players also have the option to check out Galleries from the Main Menu. From here, you can look at Movies, Artwork, and the Credits. Under Movies, you will find all of the prologue and endings for any character you have beaten the game with. There are also six special movies, essentially promotional/trailer material. Under Artwork, you have the choice of Official, Character, and Stages. Official contains only six images, more so of the promotional variety. Characters includes 228 slots for character artwork to be unlocked. Finally, the Stages section includes twenty-four unlockable slots for the stages.
Having focused so much on the gameplay throughout this review, I have yet to really discuss the presentation quality of this title. Visually, Street Fighter IV is a delight; Capcom used a massive color palette and some super smooth and detailed animation to bring the action to life. Just watching the faces and movements of the fighters is a real treat because you can see a great deal of effort went into giving them lots of detail including looks of anger, surprise, and pain throughout a battle. The framerate stays consistently smooth as well, something you'd hope for and expect. The stages are all nicely rendered but truthfully none of them stuck out as my favorite. Many stages are familiar, like the airfield that is reminiscent of Guile's old stage from years ago. Some stages, like the Cruise Ship Stern and the Jungle ones, are far less appealing – not so much on a technical level as much as an aesthetics one. Ultimately, my only other quibble with the visuals would be how some characters seem overly muscular, like Ken and Abel; Ken sometimes doesn't look like he even has a neck his shoulders and arms are so broad and massive, but it's nothing significant.
As far as the sound package goes, overall it's great. The new theme song sound sweet at first, but the vocals wear out quickly, especially when the song is looping when you are trying to find a Network Battle to join, for example. The stage music is good; there is a particular track I like best, but the others aren't as outstanding. I loved the sound effects and voices, too; it's a solid sound collection that greatly enriches the experience.
And now with that said, let's get to the summary...
**Editor's Note: Just wanted to give out a special thanks to lowlan, decifer29, AUTOHATE, Steev, BigE, and everyone else I played multiplayer with both locally and on PSN. Thanks!