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So here we are then. Street Fighter IV. A game which a couple of years ago existed only as an unlikely fanboy dream, but which now elicits a passionate response from absolutely everyone, be it nigh-religious fervor or a wrinkle-nosed dose of "Whut?" But which faction is right? The enthused or the confused? Well here's a clue. It's the former, without a single doubt.
But before we go on explaining just why Street Fighter IV is easily one of the finest crafted games of this console generation, a brief disclaimer regarding this review. It would be very easy of us to spout on about the return of Street Fighter as a second coming for 2D gaming; a vindication of "old school" design methods and a revitalitation of SNES-era gameplay.
We could probably even reference Braid and Geometry Wars as evidence of some pseudo neo-retro revival movement. But we're not going to. Because frankly, that line of thinking is utter bollocks, and does a disservice both to Street Fighter IV and to 2D gaming itself.
These aren't geriatric out-of retirement boxers, back for one last "Aw bless 'em, they're trying" novelty exhibition. They're perfectly legitimate elements of the gaming spectrum which do and offer things that 3D design just never can, chronology of development be damned.
Put it this way, David Bowie put out his best work in the '70s, so does that make Ziggy Stardust any less relevant than Nickleback? No it does not, and so Street Fighter IV needs no special treatment or excuses. Understand that everything said in this review applies to you, no matter how long you've been gaming or what you've played before.
Which fittingly segues us straight into Street Fighter IV's greatest success, the fact that it is utterly accessible and almost dangerously enjoyable to all. Given how deeply ingrained they now are into gaming lore, the chances are that you already know the basic mechanics of Street Fighter whether you play it or not. But even if you've been playing since the SNES, never will you have been able to get so much out of them so quickly.
Input windows for special moves and linked combo hits are now a good deal more friendly (moreso even than in HD Remix), meaning that chains and counter-attacks long the preserve of only the mighty elite are now open to all. But that catagorically does not mean that SFIV is a dumbed down approximation of it's former self. Rather, it's a distillation of everything that the series has always been about; an easy-to-grasp interface acting as the entry point to endlessly explorable depth and experimentation. It's just that now, all but the terminally cack-handed can start sharing in that depth from the off.
And what there is to share. What we're talking about here is essentially that Street Fighter sequel everyone dreamed about after Super Turbo, the one that took the Street Fighter II model further without adding the ludicrous complexity of SFIII. The new additions may seem on the surface like token gestures ("Extra super moves? Pah!", a very wrong person would no doubt say), but in reality they masterfully achieve the damnably tricky feat of making everything new and different as well as reasurringly the same, surely the highest ambition of any sequel.
The match-levelling Ultra moves, charged by taking a beating, are far from a simple noob-friendly win button. Yes, you can use them as a basic "Get out of jail free" card if you like, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that, but a little experimentation reveals a whole lot more to them.
Ken's is hard to effectively land. Ryu's leaves him wide open if it misses. All of them can be blocked or avoided with fast enough reactions, and some can be cancelled into from a normal move, or even a special, with a sound understanding of the game. (Indeed, some need to be in order to have a hope in hell of being any use against a decent player) It's classic Street Fighter. Seemingly broad strokes which reveal a multitude of tiny detailed brush flecks upon closer inspection.
The same goes for the new focus attacks. Chargeable to either absorb a single hit or unleash a mighty unblockable strike, their uses when backed into a corner or pre-empting an attack are obvious. But once you learn that you can dash out of them to essentially run "through" fireballs? Or that a fast player can deactivate a charging focus using a sneaky double jab? Then you're really having fun.
New characters? You'll love them. In fact after a day or so you'll be so bonded that you'll barely even see them as the new guys at all. Abel's unapologetic brawling is useless at range, but a visceral joy to use when up in your opponent's face. C. Viper feels a little out of place at first thanks to her super jumps and ground-pounds, but that's exactly why she adds so much to the game. El Fuerte is weak, but so radically different in play mechanics from any other character in SF history that you'll be enjoying yourself with him too much to care.
And that's exactly the thing. For all the talk of character tiers, differing levels of play and carefully balanced game depth, Street Fighter IV is about the sheer enjoyment of controlling your character and moving them around the screen; running, jumping, dodging and beating lumps off your opponent (or even vice versa). Everything about Capcom's design here seems engineered with the simple aim of putting smiles on faces and invoking cackling laughter from groups of friends.
It's the instinctive, razor sharp controls and the solidity of the characters' weighting. It's the crunching sense of impact with each and every hit. It's the speed with which the focus and tone of a fight can change, and the freedom for improvisation lavished upon the player at every turn. It's the sheer, staggering amount of personality infused throughout the game, by every perfectly-judged animation, facial expression and line of dialogue. This is an ultra-optimised version of Street Fighter that looks, sounds, plays and feels just like we always thought Street Fighter II did when we fell in love with it in the '90s. But better.
Problems? Barely anything significant enough to mention. The only downside not referenced in the video on the previous page is the fact that to really get the best out of Street Fighter IV you'll need to invest in an arcade stick, or Capcom's official pad at the very least. But having said that, even when partaking in the eldritch horrors of the 360's d-pad, things are a hell of a lot more acceptable than they were in HD Remix. And besides, control inputs are the fault of the console manufacturers, not the game.
And surprisingly, even the online play is decent. We feared game-killing lag, but so far we've found that fighting an opponent with a half-decent connection is almost the same as being in the same room. Slower connections mean slower play, naturally, but that slowness takes the form of an overall drop in tempo rather than any frame judder. And it's a really nice touch to be able to allow online players to jump in with a challenge as you play through arcade mode alone. Big old school respect points to Capcom for that.
Though to be fair, all of the above is a moot point, because frankly you shouldn't be playing Street Fighter IV online anyway. This game is all about sharing a couch and a TV with your friends; jostling, laughing and baiting each other over long nights spent learning, beating and relearning each other's tactics. Screw XBL, PSN, and the Wii. This is social gaming. But if you haven't got mates to hand, there's still plenty to do. With lengthy time trial and endurance modes included, as well as one of the most welcoming and complete training modes we've ever seen in a fighter, you're unlikely to be hit by the single-player blues at any point.
So yes. Street Fighter IV. It's the genuine article. The next true sequel in one of the greatest game series of all time. If you're foolish enough to have forgotten, it will remind you exactly why Street Fighter II changed everything in 1992, and if you haven't then it will be the next proper evolution of one of the rightful staples of your gaming career. It will be like playing SFII for the first time all over again, only with the years of love and experience you've since gained already built in. To long-term Street Fighter fans, everything old is new again. To the new players, we simply say welcome to the party. You're going to have a hell of a good time.
Soul Calibur IV? Yes. Soul Calibur is of course mightily accessible and simple to grasp itself, but the tighter focus of SFIV makes it a much more exciting and rewarding game. As great as it is, SCIV's combat now feels a little fluffy and imprecise after SFIV.
SSFIITHDR? Yes. As hard as it is for us to admit, after 16 years, Street Fighter IV has finally made it tough for us to go back to variants of SFII. Everything we love about Super Turbo HD is present in IV, but the latter is smoother, more flowing and, to put it bluntly, just contains more options for fun.
MK vs. DCU? Yes, yes, eight million times yes. There's no contest between the Street Fighter's finely honed, exhilarating depth and Mortal Kombat's stiff, gimmicky silliness. Never has been, never will be.