Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Review: Super Street Fighter IV (PS3)

Street Fighter IV came out of nowhere, riding high upon a strong wave of retro-themed revitalisation, and reconnecting with the gaming public in a way absent from the series since the likes of Street Fighter Alpha on Saturn and PSone. The game managed to bring the franchise into the next-generation like no other 2D beat’em up has done before, combining lavish 3D visuals with old-style 2D collision box based gameplay, at the same time redefining just what this series was about. Capcom had succeeded in bringing back the series into the limelight when pretty much most of the community thought that they would fail to do so, and in a way that did the long running series proud.

Super Street Fighter IV then, isn’t so much a sequel or drastic upgrade to last years game. But instead delivers a small bag of tweaks and subtle rebalancing, along with a host of new and returning characters. New faces are joined with new backgrounds, special moves, and the most accessible, and in-depth version of Street Fighter IV yet. It’s no surprise that SSFIV isn’t a brand-new game, but merely an enhanced version of last years popular re-birth. And whilst many hardcore fans will be drooling over its release, everyone else may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

However, it doesn’t really matter, as either way you slice it, SSFIV is perhaps the best game in the series since the hardcore Street Fighter III Third Strike, or for me, since SF Alpha 2 and 3.

Upon starting up the game, the first thing you will notice is the lack of that ‘indestructible’ theme tune (for better or worse?) along with a brand new intro sequence and cool looking ‘super’ title screen. The entire presentation has been given a lift despite being very similar to latest year’s original SFIV, with influences from past games showing themselves in the various menus and the ‘character select’ screen. This screen in particular, now looks like a cross between the one found in Super Street Fighter II Turbo, with the art direction of SFIII Third Strike, whereas in SFIV this very same screen seemed to be based on Alpha 2 and vanilla SFIII.

The small tweaks and homage’s don’t end there, with all the intro and ending movies for every character being completely redone from scratch, looking like they fit in a lot more closely to the actual character art used throughout the game. Their actual content though, is somewhat shorter, with each character’s story only giving you a glimpse at what is really going on. Of course the SF series has never been about the story, but instead the accessible and completely in depth gameplay, which has been a constant focus for all those who continue to be involved with the series.

All the biggest changes to Capcom’s latest are concealed largely under the hood, with various character specific tweaks and crucial balancing to ensure that no one fighter stands to have an overall unfair advantage against another. Sagat for example (SFIV’s highest tier character), has had his Tiger Uppercut damage reduced and has been made more of an ‘execution’ style character, reducing his overall top tier status inline with someone like Akuma, who has his easily exploitable ‘LP’ into ‘LK’ loop removed; Ryu has had his Shoryuken adjusted, now performing two hits instead of one when activated with a ‘heavy punch’; and Rufus has had his ‘EX snake’ damaged reduced.

There are many more things that have been changed, such as each character having two ‘Ultra moves’ instead of one (though some have three or four even), whilst reducing their overall damage done, in turn making the match less about building up to a giant combo-based endgame. Also of the two ‘Ultras’ that you have available (you can only select one for use in the fight), one is a longer-range offensive type, and the other is more for close-quarters use, mainly I suspect for defence or countering. The new cast of characters also are largely more offensive in their play style than many of the ones found in SFIV, creating a balanced roster of offensive and defensive types.

From these and the other subtle tweaks, you get the idea that, as a game, Super SFIV is the most finely tuned and well-balanced instalment in the series so far. Sure there might be a few fans who think their favourite character is a little underpowered or low down the rankings, but by and large there is at this point in time, very little to complain about. Also, from the dozens of matches that I’ve played online, I can solidly say that the few complaints about some of the characters exploiting certain moves for a guaranteed effect is no longer an issue, instead being more about your own ability to deal with them.

Coming to the fray, a total of ten new characters have entered the world of SFIV. Two of which are completely new creations for this game, whilst the other eight are pulled right out from previous instalments in the franchise. Taking the spotlight is both Hakan and Juri, new to SFIV; backed up by Makoto, Ibuki, and Dudley from SFIII; Guy, Cody and Adon from SF Alpha; and lastly T. Hawk and Dee Jay from SSFII.

Every one of these characters are pretty much unique creations which play differently from the rest of the cast. Although some comparisons can be made between, for example, Dudley and Balrog are both boxers, but with very different styles that are instantly apparent when you see them in motion. The good news is that unlike in SFIV, all of these and the original cast are available right from the get go.

Out of all the new additions, it’s Hakan and Juri which are of the most interest however, especially Hakan, whose fighting style is unlike any other I’ve ever encountered in a fighting game, 2D or otherwise. Hakan is the video gaming worlds first Turkish oil wrestler, a slow beast with the ability to quickly slide around the ground smashing into his intended target, before then squeezing every last drop of life from their lungs. Everything he does is at first the cause of much hilarity, although he can be deadly in the right hands.

The second newcomer, Juri, a quick and very nimble fighter, is also somewhat different from what we’ve had before. Plenty of aerial kicks and multi-directional fireballs make up her arsenal, many moves being well suited for quick countering potential. In particular her entire repertoire seems to be based upon the game of surprise, with her moves making it difficult for her opponents to know what to expect. Her fireball, for example can be stored after being activated for later use against an opponent. All you need to be able to do is to keep one of the ‘kick’ buttons held down, and then unleashed that little present for your opponent.

There’s no need to explain the rest of the bunch, as I suspect that anyone reading this should be familiar with past Street Fighter instalments. If not, then I’ll just say that you have here some of the most diverse and most rounded bunch of characters to appear in a fighting game. Each one seems to have been well balanced against the rest, and some who were a little too powerful in SFIV have been toned down, just ever so slightly, making things even more level than before.

With 35 characters in total, there’s plenty of familiar faces and some newcomers to learn and master, all of which should keep hardcore fans playing for a long time online, and casual gamers at with a lot of variety to hold their interest.

Other than the inclusion of new characters and a re-balancing of the underlying game engine, the biggest change comes in the same of Super SFIV’s online modes, and ranking points system. In the original SFIV your overall rank was determined by how many battle points you had, and this went up or down depending on if you were winning or losing matches regardless of which character you decided to choose. Whilst it easily showed off who was the overall best at the game, it also meant that a huge amount of people playing online never changed the character they were using. Instead people refused to experiment online, and that resulted in many fights against similar characters in most ranked matches.

For Super SFIV Capcom have introduced a dual points system, one tied directly to individual characters (Battle Points) and one used to determine the players overall skill level (Player Points). This means that although your ‘Player Points’ changes when you win or lose with different characters, your ‘Battle Points’ for other characters does not, allowing you to experiment knowing that your best characters will still have their high ratings but simply at the expense of your overall player rating, if you aren’t so good with some of the others.

Put simply, this new system works brilliantly and certainly gives you the opportunity to try out different characters online against other players without ruining all of your ratings. Both ‘Player Point’ and ‘Battle Points’ are visible on the game’s leaderboards, letting you see how you fare against others, whilst also providing a solid system for high-level players to keep track of how well they are doing. It’s a system which feels like a natural progression from the one started in SFIV, and the best to grace any fighting game to date.

There is of course, a lot more to Super SFIV’s online game than just standard ranked matches, you also have the option of Endless battle and Team Battle too, both bulking out the non-ranked match options available. The Team Battle option sees you matched up for some 2v2, 3v3, or 4v4 action, allowing you to watch the other opponents matches as you wait for yours to arrive.

Endless Battle on the other hand, basically replaces the Player Match option from the last game, instead queuing you up with a series of other players in a ‘winner stays on’ type scenario, just like if you were waiting inline in an actual arcade for a match. As a replacement for the standard Player Match option though, it’s mildly disappointing as you have to wait for a few other matches to finish before you take your turn, making this a poor substitute for online practice before going into proper ranked battles. It is pretty cool however, if you want to observe other players and learn more about the game engine, seeing how people play characters in a completely different way to how you expect.

Also, for those of you who like to watch a bit of SF rather than just playing all the time, there is a fully featured Replay Channel option available, which gives you access to loads of online match replays from round the world. Everything from high ranking matches to beginner bouts are available, complete with the ability to slow-down the replay speed and the option to display damage numbers to get an idea on which moves and combos are most effective in high end battles. This of course completes and complements the more developed nature of the online modes in Super SFIV, though strangely the rather excellent Championship Mode from the original SFIV is missing, with Capcom instead electing to deliver a Tournament Mode of sorts to Super SFIV later next month (15th June we have been told).

Outside of the online modes and play, you also have Arcade, Versus, Training and Challenge Mode. Both Survival and Time Attack are noticeable by their absence, although instead, you can now play both the car and barrel bashing bonus games in a separate mode selectable from the main menu screen. Other than that, there is little for the solitary player to do outside of the Arcade and revised Challenge mode. Instead, it certainly seems that with these changes, that Super SFIV is definitely calling you into its world of fast-paced online action. Now that’s not such a bad thing, since most of your time spent will be playing against others online, and really, this multiplayer focus has always been the series meat and potatoes.

Lastly, you might also be wondering about the bonuses that Capcom had promised for players that purchased last year’s SFIV and this new ‘Super’ instalment. Well, this basically amounts to two different special effect costumes available for use on any of the characters to be found in the game. Rather than kitting out the fighters in new threads, these options make the character models look a lot more the ones seen in the game’s intro sequence. A nice touch, but we could have expected at least a little more, like extra ones of those pre-order costumes that will no doubt be available for purchase later on down the line.

With all that said and done, thumbs blistered, arcade stick broken back in again, Super Street Fighter IV is perhaps the best fighting game available this generation, 2D or otherwise. It is easily accessible to beginners and casual fans, whilst being filled with enough depth to allow a degree of mastery that only a select few players around the world will ever reach. You only have to look at the huge list of unique characters, lovingly crafted visuals, and beautifully polished game engine to know that Capcom have once again come up with something special.

However, what we have here isn’t a completely new game, and many casual owners of last years SFIV are unlikely to find enough new content to justify its purchase. That of course was always going to be the case. But whereas last year’s SFIV was squarely aimed at everyone, with the hope of bringing back the franchise into the limelight, Super is aimed at the regular franchise devotees and casual fans looking for more traditional 2D beat’em up action – and boy do they get it.

Overall, Super SFIV doesn’t redefine the boundaries of modern day 2D fighters like the previous release did. Instead, Capcom have gone back and subtly re-worked what many consider to be modern day pinnacle of the genre (myself included), and have created what can only be described as the most finely tuned, well balanced, accessible and wholly exciting fighting game available on any of today’s current crop of consoles. Street Fighter IV was merely the catalyst, an opener to restart the mighty Capcom fighting game production line. Super SFIV is the continuation, and an essential purchase for fans, hardcore players, or anyone who missed out on the previous release.


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