Dan Boutros, the man first crowned as American's first Street Fighter IV champion at GDC last year, likes Street Fighter. A lot. So much so, in fact, that he wrote us a 30-page review of the latest in the legendary fight series in return for a copy of the game from Capcom and a Mad Catz Fight Stick.
Which Mad Catz wouldn't give him.
But he did it anyway. What follows, as Dan puts it, is, "Possibly the most ridiculously in-depth review of Street Fighter IV you will read."
We're not arguing. It's over 12,000 words long. Get the first part after the link. We'll do it in three bits, ending Friday.
Street Fighter IV review (360 version), by Dan Boutros
POSSIBLY THE MOST RIDICULOUSLY IN-DEPTH REVIEW OF STREET FIGHTER 4 YOU WILL READ.
Hello. I should probably give you some background info about me so you can get some context out of this review.
About 15 years ago, I stepped into an arcade and began playing Street Fighter 2 obsessively. Eventually, I moved onto SNK's breed of fighting games, which not only inspired me to work in the games business, but drove me directly into it when I unknowingly beat a senior SNK employee at KOF'94 and was invited to voluntarily test their games from then on. Later I began organising local fighting game tournaments, winning a few and eventually writing about them for magazines such as the epically awesome and sadly short-lived Maximum.
Now 15 years later, I still play those 2D fighters with the much of the same enthusiasm as before, but any new proclaimed 'kings' to the genre have all those years worth of baggage to go through and therefore a lot of scrutiny. To say my expectations for a genre now 15 years old though barely evolved are "very high" would be a gross understatement.
So, here's what to expect in this review; I will criticise a lot of things, I'll go into a lot of detail, and I'll also make sure to contextualise my final "buy or do not buy" verdict for different kinds of people. Also, be warned that this review may sound very negative in places, even though I will wrap up with a contextualised recommendation. And we're off.
STREET FIGHTER - THE SERIES
Starting over 20 years ago, the original Street Fighter didn't set hearts afire, but its pressure-sensitive button idea - the harder you press, the harder the attack - was notable and fun. In 1991, Street Fighter 2 not only revolutionised one-on-one fighters but also the majority of the 16-bit games business to come. Through adding six inputs as well as an eight-way joystick, the game allowed stick movements and buttons to combine and create control depth no-one had yet known. And so "deep gameplay" was the new direction the games biz took for that era of gaming.
Capcom's SF2 team - accidentally by members' own admissions - also invented what we know today as the "combo system". Not only since adopted by other me-too one-on-one fighters, but now shooters, racers and even puzzle games. The truth is, SF2 influenced more games than I think anyone expected it to.
Following Street Fighter 2 were four chapter updates that included new moves, characters and later updated art, before Capcom began introducing new fighting series that experimented with entirely new systems. These experiments included now-classics like Darkstalkers, X-Men, Marvel Super Heroes, Capcom 'VS' games and of course, more Street Fighter games, such as the super-accessible 'Alpha' and 'EX' series and the brutally unforgiving but respectable Street Fighter 3.
Now, in 2009, we finally have Street Fighter IV.
Street Fighter IV - How to describe it to the unknowing
To those not old enough or the others who simply missed it, Street Fighter is a one-on-one, side-view fighting game on a 2D plane. You have six attack buttons, with three representing punches and the other three representing kicks of varying strengths and speeds. You can duck, jump and, most importantly, block by holding the stick away from the opponent. You both have energy bars, and the first to deplete the other guy's energy is the winner.
To add extra flavour to these basics, you have special moves, EX moves, Super moves, Ultra moves, Armour-Breaking moves, Super Cancels, Unblockable moves and the Focus attack.
There are 16 characters selectable from the start, and eight more to unlock with more "highly likely" to come via DLC. Each of these characters has its own combination of strengths and weaknesses and collection of attacks as per above. To say there's a lot to learn in this game would be... obvious. Don't pick this up and expect Smash Brothers.
Street Fighter IV for fans of the series
For those who are familiar with the series who haven't already purchased or grasped the game fully, Street Fighter IV is described by many long-time obsessives as a "real" Street Fighter EX. And not in a way that's expressed to sell it short.
The meaning behind this statement is aside from being 3D, the games share a similar feel, along with common mechanics such as the EX move, the Super Cancel and the limited but creativity-welcoming juggle system.
To break things down for you, here's a list of the game's features:
The Super Bar
A carry-over from Street Fighter 3, this Super Bar is chopped up into four pieces and fills as you execute special moves and hit the other guy. This is depleted as you use Super moves, EX moves, Super Cancels and 'EX' Focus Cancels.
Every character has one of these (Gen has two) and they're accessible when the Super Bar has all four units filled. The word 'Super' usually flashes when this happens.
When you have a Special move in sequence and you perform the motion for the Super move, it's called a Super Cancel. To get these out easiest, simple do a Special move which is half of the Super motion, then do it again very quickly. Your Special move will come out and the Super will interrupt it. For charge characters, the same rule applies but the directions can be re-translated to the diagonals, so characters like Guile and Blanka can cancel Specials into their seemingly tough-to-perform Supers.
Ultra Meter and the Ultra Move
You have an Ultra meter that fills as you get hit. When filled, perform your Super move motion with three attack buttons instead of one and you'll unleash a super powerful, high-priority attack that usually depletes around 50 percent of your opponent's energy. Every character has one, though Gen has two thanks to his two stances.
Each character has several special moves. These are the character's signature moves such as Ryu's Hadoken, the Chun Li's Spinning Bird Kick or Zangief's Spinning Pile Driver. Perform these moves with two buttons instead of one and you'll unleash a more powerful version that will either have increased hit priority, increased range, added hits or greater damage potential. Note; EX moves have 'armour' and can typically absorb a hit or two.
Press both medium attacks and hold them to charge a Focus attack. Everyone's is different and these can be charged to three levels. Level one absorbs on hit and throws on back-out with a minimal reaction. Level two absorbs a hit and knocks the opponent into a crumple for a short follow-up opportunity. Level three is unblockable and either knocks the opponent into a crumple or blasts them far away if your Focus attack became a counter. You can also use Focus attack charges to bait the opponent in and cancel your Focus attack with a dash backward - input the dash as you hold the buttons - or a dash forwards. Just like EX attacks, Focus attacks have armour.
Every character has a special move and/or EX move that can break armour. You'll know which ones they are because when you hit a Focus attack or incoming EX move with it, you'll see a shattering special effect. Remember these!
When you're hit with a move and you block it, your guard is fixed for a few frames of animation. The amount of frames is determined by the move you block. Ultra moves give you guard stun invincibility for a short time. I believe this is to stop really exploitive and ridiculous combos from happening.
Time the performance of an anti-air special move to execute as you get back up off the ground. Depending on the move, you will grant it higher priority than normal and take out most moves coming into range.
When you string a sequence of moves together that don't interrupt one another's animation frames. Two jabs in a row is a typically used link combo.
A combo based on interrupting animations to seamlessly string moves together so that the opponent can't recover and the sequence remains unblockable. Fierce punch into dragon punch is a commonly used chain combo.
When an opponent is launched into the air and can be hit as they helplessly fall. You can only discover these through trial and error as for balancing reasons, you can't always juggle with moves you'd think would work.
Tapping three punches together when you fall gets you back up quicker.
All characters can now dash backwards and forwards. Get used to this.
Now performed with both light attacks pushed simultaneously. A camp-splitter to some degree, this is lazy and cheap and others justify its use with, "It's part of the game."
Input the throw command as the opponent does and you'll escape the throw. Very handy when landing from dragon punches or otherwise.
When a special, EX, Super or Ultra move hits a blocking opponent, they lose a tiny piece of health. I'm not a fan of this feature as it encourages cheese, but it's in the game, so for now you'll have to deal with it. Hopefully they'll add a block that depletes your special bar so chip damage can be avoided later on, but we'll see.
To safeguard from combos that deflate an entire energy bar, the game has a damage scaling equation so that each hit that follows the first is scaled down in power. The first two hits deliver 100 percent of their damage, then the third only delivers 80 percent of its damage potential. After that, an additional 10 percent of damage is subtracted from the total damage of each following move until the tenth, when it remains at only 10 percent of the move's damage count.
All this sounds complicated right? That's because it is. Whoever claimed that this version of Street Fighter was the most accessible was clearly deluded.
Additionally, timing combos in this game are far tighter than in any prior street fighter, with smaller frame windows existing between moves.
Perhaps Capcom's game pimps had 'accessible' confused with desirable, since few - casual, hardcore, whatever - would not wish to soak in all its exquisite character art and overall glossy production.
You could argue anyone can pick-up and play it in the sense of being able to jump in and throw a few punches, but that really doesn't touch upon the game. That's like saying "anyone can move a camera and move forward in an FPS", but if you repeatedly die within 20 seconds, you're hardly going to enjoy it or learn anything.
At least the moves are said to be easier to execute now thanks to a better forgiveness system, but getting any of the real enjoyment out of this is next to impossible for 'casual' players going online or even offline in the single-player modes.
Accessible this is definitely NOT.
BEST CONTROLLERS FOR PLAYING SFIV
Standard PS3 Pad
Not as good as the DualShock simply because I find it too lightweight. If you can find a way to use the DualShock instead of a Sixaxis, you'd probably be better off. Still, easily the best of the two default console controllers for rolling out fireball motions.
Standard Xbox 360 Pad
Stick your hands in a freezer for 15 minutes. Then try and do some sewing. This is what playing with the 360 d-pad is like.
Hori EX2 Fighting Stick
I used the Hori Stick throughout the majority of my Street Fighter 4IV play time thus far. It's very lightweight which lets it down, as this facilitates easily-whiffed moves when motioning aggressively in fast matches. Still, I've gotten used to it and now whiff about one in five moves on average, instead of 10 in 12 with th 360 pad.
SFIV Mad Catz Tournament Stick
Those whom I know possess it speak of it as holy water in joystick form. Heavy, comfortable and bloody gorgeous, we shall review it in detail soon.
SFIV Mad Catz Standard Sticks
Supposedly as good as the Hori sticks. Some bugs were reported with the diagonals getting stuck, but Mad Catz publicly addressed the issue since then, replacing the faulty units.
SFIV Mad Catz Pads
The d-pad is smooth and workable and the six face buttons appear to offer much better convenience than the default console pad shoulder buttons. According to a friend who plays a great Balrog and favours pads to sticks, this is great choice if you share that taste.
The true value and longevity of a fighting game - at least one not made by Namco - lies in its multiplayer. Luckily SFIV has possibly the largest online fight community I've yet experienced in a game.
Being as I'm on Xbox Live, the culture of people within has been mixed, with excellent players being true gents and grotty little Halo-obssessed racist, badly-parented 12 year-olds making up the rest.
In my experience, online matches have been mostly populated by dull Ryu and Ken players, the occasional Akuma and about one-in-eight good folks who play the likes of Gen, Balrog and you know, other members of the 20-strong cast.
There are still the guys who rob you of well-earned battle points by quitting the second you get a 'perfect' round, and the system still doesn't effectively penalise these people or reward you when such things happen, even though a simple formulaic solution based on repeat offenses could solve the problem.
The online experience really should come with a giant disclaimer page and a manual. Firstly, you will NEVER find a 'quick match' anywhere. Let me explain.
You select Quick Match. You see a list of matches almost instantly. You pick one. It says they're already gone, then loops you back to the same 'select, receive disappointment' flow. It really becomes an exercise of pressing the 'A' button and trying not to get annoyed.
The solution? Create a match. The ONLY consistent way I managed to get a near-instant game going. Let's hope the lesser experienced of those with SFIV figures this out.
Matches are smooth for the most part, with pretty bad lag only occurring if I play my trans-atlantic friends. Overall, only one in four matches were laggy when fighting random ranked battles online, and the rest were mostly smooth.
Additionally, if I had a win streak and turned off my 360, I could come back and my win streak would pick up where it left off. Awesome. A great, and long-time-desired feature.
Sadly, it's not all praise, as I'm confused as to why Capcom didn't mimic its character selection screen trick from SF2 HDRemix. You can't hide who you pick, which is annoying against those who like to choose a character based on countering yours. Many times I'd pick Dhalsim and end up with someone rolling off a Gen or Cammy and going right back to dull Ryu.
Ideally, I would have liked the option to 'prefer' certain character battles for match ups or 'ban' others. In my experience, this is a needed option for all future fighting games and one I hope Capcom considers for later updates.
Tomorrow in part two - character guides