Street Fighter IV Review
It's been more than a decade since Capcom officially released their last major Street Fighter sequel. After the last ten years of innovations in the fighting game genre, where games got more and more complex, building upon massive libraries of literally hundreds of moves for each character, Capcom seems to have their finger on the pulse of what made fighting games so addictive in the first place. Sure, connoisseurs will easily understand and appreciate the depth present in many modern-day fighting games like Virtua Fighter 5 and Soul Calibur IV, but casual gamers shy away from these titles because they're so overwhelmingly intimidating. Just one glance at a move list will make your head spin, making it feel like you're undertaking computer surgery rather than beating the other guy's face to a pulp.
Capcom understands this, and has made Street Fighter IV exactly for the people who want to play fighting games but want to play rather than spend time practicing moves for months before taking on a real live opponent. It's accessible, it's easy, it pulls from your knowledge of the Street Fighter classics, and when you're ready, there's a ton of depth that you'll start figuring out once you start playing more and more. And with Capcom's fantastic online play, it's easier than ever to find that depth and share it - with a kick to their face, of course - with the other people playing over the internet.
Street Fighter IV is rendered in full 3D, but it still plays on a classic 2D plane. It's got all 12 of the game's original characters, as well as two of the four added in Super Turbo (Cammy and Fei Long are here; T.Hawk and Dee Jay are gone) along with several characters that are either pulled from the Alpha games or are entirely new. The roster adds up to a hell of a lot of interesting and fun styles, and plenty new to dive into while still allowing experienced players of classic games to get a good start. Yes, the Shoryuken is still forward, down, down-forward and punch, Guile's Sonic Booms are still how you remember, and M.Bison's Psycho Crusher is still here. But you'll find that as you start playing your favorite character, there have been many masterful and subtle balancing passes applied to the game - SFIV did spend many months getting hammered by expert players in American and Japanese arcades before its console release - that make this one of the most polished fighting games ever made.
That's not to say that every character is just as powerful as any other. No, in fact there is a level of purposeful imbalance here, which the expert players quickly will dice up into "tiers" - characters like the series' punching bag Dan are clearly bottom-tier, while Sagat, Ken, and Ryu inhabit the top two tiers. This is actually good for the game overall, as it means that without inducing an actual handicap function, a good player can pick a worse character to try and bring himself down to his opponent's level, and possibly humiliate an equal-level opponent as well. What's important is that most characters are at least close in power so that at least most are getting regular play most of the time. And so far, I've found that to be true.
One issue with the Street Fighter series is that the controls have never really worked that well on consoles. Very few console manufacturers since the 16-bit era have put together a well-performing controller with six buttons on the face, something that any serious player will agree is an absolute must for playing a fighting game more than casually. Look at the current generation of controllers: the 360 gamepad has four buttons on the face plus four up top, forcing the player to pick two attacks and assign them up there - plus, its D-pad is infamously inaccurate, something most people playing fighting games on Xbox Live Arcade have already figured out. The PS3's D-pad is better, but the buttons still have the same issue. Capcom has teamed up with MadCatz to fix the problem by offering new gamepads and fighting sticks, but they're not really budget-minded. My recommendation is to scour some of your favorite game stores and try and find a Hori Arcade Fighting Stick for around $50-60. (This goes for either PS3 or 360 - and a PS2 controller is fine, even on a PS3, if you use a standard PS2 to USB converter).
Getting over the control issues is one of the bigger steps once you realize that Street Fighter IV is a fantastic game that just can't be done justice on a default D-pad. Once you do that, you're in for a treat: there are a ton of of great options and a lot of depth in the training and challenge modes, and all of that is useful when you start playing other people. Not only will you learn how to improve your fighting smoothly, but you'll start to learn how to use your two meters - the Super meter to dish out EX-ified special attacks and Super combos, and the Revenge meter to unleash an Ultra Combo with and turn the tide of a losing round. Then there are the focus attacks, which are unleashed by holding the medium punch and kick buttons at the same time. At first this just seems like a cool attack that you can use to push right through an enemy's attack and take less damage while you dish out more, but later on you will start stringing it together with moves or make even other moves less risky to use. It all comes naturally if you're willing to put in the time.
The visuals in Street Fighter IV involve a style that is hugely unique and a treat to see in motion. With exaggerated motions and a fantastic cartoon-like (but not cel-shaded) look, Capcom has brought in an anime style without making you feel like you have to watch a few days' worth of horrible fansubs just to fit in. Attention to detail abounds here, too, in that you can set up Japanese or English voices for the whole game or even each character separately - this should keep the fanboys happy. And on top of this, everything runs at a silky-smooth 60 frames per second, even with plenty of background objects falling apart when fighters mix it up.
Going online with SFIV is also a joy, as it's easy to get into a quick game and the netcode is about as smooth as you'll find in any online-enabled fighting game. It's the same system used in SSF2T HD Remix, but it feels even better here. The ability to build up "battle points" and gain medals for each fight - which eventually build into achievements - is a smarter way of handling achievements online than most I've seen. Either way, I fully expect this game to have a strong online following for at least a couple of years.
There are still a few issues I've found with the way Capcom has set up their big bad fighting game. First, it tries to impose some kind of story, told through actual anime videos - both at the beginning and at the end of the game - for each character. They're horrible, though, and are so short that there's little point in even trying to decipher what's going on in the big picture. What's more frustrating, though, is that half of the characters start off unavailable and must be unlocked by beating Arcade mode with specific other characters. I've no idea why Capcom purposely set it up this way, as it pulls players away from the game and onto the internet so that they can find out how to unlock all of the characters. They should have told players directly in-game what to do to unlock them, given them some kind of points with which to "buy" characters (so that any character can be used in order to unlock new stuff - the classic Marvel vs Capcom 2 did this), or at the very least, taken a page out of the Super Smash Bros. book and unlock stuff automatically as people either play online or in versus mode together.
Then there are the alternate costumes that Capcom is charging money for via downloadable content, a feature that many 3D fighting games have been throwing in for free over the years. So far the only pack available has a new costume each for Zangief, E. Honda, Rufus, El Fuerte, and Abel for $4, which admittedly isn't much money, but it will start adding up once they release a full range of add-on packs. But my biggest complaint is that aside from a couple of anime-cutscene cameos, Capcom seems to be acting like Street Fighter III never even existed. None of its original characters have made it into the sequel. Sure, SFIII wasn't as big of a commercial success as Capcom wanted, but hey - that's what happens when you rely on arcades in the late 90s, and later the Dreamcast, as the major platforms for your game. Sure, some of the core fighting mechanics of Capcom's under-appreciated classic made it into IV, but none of the fighters ever did. It's possible we will see this as additional DLC later, but that will probably cost some cash as well.
Despite my complaints, Street Fighter IV is easily the best fighting game released in years. It's hugely accessible but includes the depth that serious gamers are searching for, and all of it is viable to bring online for some great action. The graphics are fantastic and the mix of old and new characters are admirable, and while the method of unlocking them - and the cost to buy them new costumes - can be aggravating, there's still so much to love here. That being said, the PS3 and 360 versions both run exceptionally well, so if you're trying to decide which system to buy the game on, get it for whichever console you have a better controller setup for. You'll need it, especially when you jump into the online play. Yes, Street Fighter is back, and hopefully this time it'll get the fanbase and support this series has always deserved.