Although fun, sequels that were released for Street Fighter II generation after generation swayed away from the basic gameplay that made us all fall hard for it in the first place. The simple controls and key strategy techniques that could make a battle go any way at any time were what made it so addictive and fun. Isn’t that why so many of us have Street Fighter II in our XBLA or PSN libraries? I feel comfortable saying that Street Fighter IV is one of the best fighters I’ve played in a long time, and it competes only with its own arcade predecessor for the title of 'most original fighter' out there.
Street Fighter IV is a one-on-one fighting game. Two life bars, a clock and two special attack meters are all that is displayed, besides you and your opponent. It’s a 2D fighter in a 3D interactive environment. Just like any other fighting game, you win by emptying your opponents health bar using various attacks, grapples and special attacks; or just by having more health when the clock expires. You start off with a whopping 16 characters to choose from. There are the 8 original characters that began the franchise, M. Bison and the other three familiar members of the Shadaloo organization, as well as 4 new characters, each with a new unique fighting style and story that has created new rivals and more diversity in the meaningless main plot. Yes, I said meaningless, because this game is all about the fighting.
What makes this game so great is its satisfying gameplay. Pretty much anyone can pick up the controller and get swallowed into this rich experience, simply because of the various moves you can unleash with just a few button combinations. They’re not at all hard to pull off and are fun to watch. But you’ll soon notice the game’s gameplay has a lot more depth to it than that, especially when you play with an experienced friend or decide to give online battling a shot. That’s how far the casual gamer will go into perceiving this game. But for us, being the hardcore players we are, we aren’t just going to be happy with a few friendly fights as the days go by. We’re going to want to control every battle and dominate every single player we come across! And with enough practice anyone can be a force to be reckoned with.
Timing in this game is probably the most important thing to get used to if you want to be a contender. You’ll understand with experience but to sum it up, the game has created openings for you to take advantage of so you have to think twice before taking a certain action. For example, one of the most hideous mistakes you can make is to throw a shudouken upper cut from Ryu or Ken (or any equivalent move from another fighter) while the opponent is in an obvious guard stance. That will just leave you hanging for an “Ultra Combo” attack or, if fortunate, a grapple. The game becomes a lot more strategic and you have a lot of stuff to consider. You have the high block that protects against any high kick, punch or jump kick, leaving you vulnerable to any low attacks and sweep moves. Meanwhile, the low block keeps you open to overhead attacks. Distinguishing between the two and their advantages is important as it not only conserves health but puts in you in a good position to react when the opponent does make that mistake.
Another thing to consider is the newly introduced “Focus Attack”, which absorbs up to one attack while sustaining damage (this will replenish if given enough time without taking another hit). If timed correctly, it unleashes a furious blow that drops the opponent slowly to their knees, creating the perfect opportunity for a series of combos. However, after a second attack (or one heavy attack) you will lose focus and the health you lost during it will not regenerate. Keep in mind you can always cancel it out by simply dashing either forwards or backwards. Focus attacks add to the diversity of attacks and play a major role in mastering the more advanced combo attacks. Performing it during a special move at the right time will cancel it out but consume a part of your special meter.
Characters can be categorized into two types of fighters: grapplers, who are generally slow (with the exception of El Fuerte) but make up for it with moves that temporarily evade attacks and give the player the upper hand to initiate an attack, in addition to a few extra grapples that defy some physics of the game and ignore any advantage the opponent had at that moment. Some would argue that grapplers are probably the least fun to control, while others will claim they make for the fiercest opponents, especially online. You could probably describe the rest of the characters as freestylers, as they are generally fast and have a variety of special attacks that include fireballs, some form of a spinning kick, an uppercut, or a dashing fist. You’d think with all those moves it would be a pain to pull them off, but as I mentioned earlier they are very simple, and an extra few tugs on the analog stick and a few more taps on the buttons will add another unexpected combo. Mind you, you can always adjust the button configuration to your own liking. Although some characters are surely more powerful than others, the fighting system is so well balanced that it doesn’t really play that big of a role in a battle given that you will know what type of moves to expect from your foe.
You will notice you have a bar at the bottom of the screen parallel to your health bar which contains a linear meter (the Special Meter) that has another round meter attached to it (the Ultra Combo Meter). The Special Meter consists of four bars which fill up gradually as you attack or use specials. You can use each bar individually by substituting any low or medium kick or punch with a heavy attack, which in turn creates an upgraded version of an already familiar special attack (which is clearly noticeable as the player glows in a gold aura or has fire replacing their attack). For example, Ryu’s Blue Hadoken will change to a fiery ball that deals almost twice the damage and will create a little extra damage even if blocked. This is crucial to understand, because if the opponent has little health you can defeat them using a surprise special, even if they’re blocking! But if you conserve all four of your bars, you can perform an ultra special attack that deals a great amount of damage. This special attack is ideally used when the opponent is stunned after a barrage of attacks, right after a focus attack, or in-between a basic two or three hit combo.
The Ultra Combo Meter, unlike the Special Meter, fills up as you take damage. It’s not made up of bars, but you can fill it up twice, so you have the potential of seeing this performed up to four times per round, which as you might imagine can be a bit annoying, since it consumes precious gampelay time if repeated. This unleashes a cinematic attack unique to each character that also deals a lot of damage, especially if you're patient enough to let it fill for a second time, as it can literally turn the battle around. But to balance things out, if you miss or the attack is blocked, you’re left to the mercy of your opponent, as it takes 2 to 3 seconds to fully regain balance.
All characters are rendered in 3D. The first words that come out of someone’s mouth the first time they play the game is “Wow! He’s huge!”. While this is true, for some miraculous reason it turned out just fine, as you can really start to appreciate the amount of detail added to each individual character design, from war scars to ripped cuts, fluffy, floating hair and even the inside of Zangief’s mouth. They're all well detailed in a unique style that has an anime twist to it. The wardrobe is a mixture of classic costumes and some neat new ones, like Crimson Viper’s power suit or the alternative costumes that are offered online.
The environments are gorgeous. One moment you're fighting in a beautiful grassy field with kids playing in the distance, and the next you find yourself before an erupting volcano in a smokey atmosphere. The environments are very colorful and the textures are so rich and crisp it makes everything seem so alive. Like the snowflakes falling at the train station in Russia, or the sunset shimmering off the water surfaces while battling it out on a rocking ship. The environments are not just a pretty thing to look at, they are also interactive with gameplay. Wine barrels in the storage room can be knocked over, people can fall from the stands into the arena and airplane wings can be destroyed, all depending on what actions you take during combat. You ever play a game were you felt an unexplainable shallowness? Well, you’ll never feel that way with Street Fighter IV.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone who plays this game long enough is going to have its catchy opening theme song stuck in their heads at some point. The music is great. Every level has its own soundtrack which matches the environment beautifully. But wait, there’s more! In arcade mode, when you face a player’s rival, you get treated to a remix of that rival’s original theme song from Street Fighter II while you engage him/her in battle! The tempo of the music speeds up and intensifies depending on your ultra combo meter (if it’s full or not) and returns to normal after it’s used up. It does have an effect on your gameplay, as you get the urge to either try and quickly finish your opponent off, or to slow the pace of the game down after surviving an Ultra Combo finish.
Besides the voice acting during the poor quality anime cut scenes in arcade mode, the voice over for the characters is pretty good. It’s amusing to listen to taunts and the in-game dialog during rival battles. If you get bored of the grunting or can’t stand the sound of Fei Long’s shouting any longer, you can always switch the language to Japanese and watch your favorite character become bilingual right before your eyes.
There’s a lot to do in this game. The first thing you’re going to want to do is go for the unlockable characters. You can do that by playing through the arcade mode with the settings of your choice. You’re not restricted to playing under any circumstances. You could play on the “easiest” level of difficulty and still unlock them all. They’re 9 altogether, including fan favorite Akuma, Ryu and ken’s mentor Gouken (his first official appearance in any game of the series), as well as other familiar faces like Sakura, Cammy and Fei-long. That kicks the roster up to 25 characters if you lost count!
But if you feel the need to brush up on your skills, head to the training center and get familiar with your favorite characters' techniques, and to get an overall feel to how they play. After that, check out the variety of challenge modes the game offers. You have the trials that teach basic combo moves, advanced combo moves, and special attacks. There are also survival and time attack modes, neither of which feels all that necessary until you realize it’s a good way to unlock taunts and different costume colors. You also have your work cut out for you with unlockables, like avatars and cool, short sentenced slogans you can decorate your online screen name with.
Speaking of online, there is really no problem connecting with another player anywhere in the world and load times are fast. If you’re new to the game you can adjust the settings so that it will automatically couple you with another player of the same skill level, or maybe you’d prefer to avoid the people with bad connections; you can adjust that as well. Buddy invitations are easy to send and accept, with no hard or annoying navigations whatsoever. I personally find that the best way to enjoy the online is to tap the set-up button at the main menu screen and set arcade mode to online. You will then be challenged by random online opponents (who I assume have the same settings) while playing CPU, when you hear the classic arcade message “a new challenger has entered the ring!”.
Street Fighter IV is a blast! And arguably one of the most beautiful HD games out there. I’ve been away from the fighting genre for a while, and in all honestly I wasn’t really that optimistic about this game, but boy was I in for a great surprise. I believe this game is a must for anyone who owns a PS3 or a 360. It’s that good, and it nicely welcomes back the older generation of Street Fighter gamers.