It's obvious that each iteration of the long-running Street Fighter series has been carefully tuned and tweaked to the finest degree, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Street Fighter IV. The lessons learned in the franchise's 20-plus years have been used to prune back the core fighting experience to create something truly special. Street Fighter IV isn't a success simply because it's one of the most technically complex 2D fighters ever made, it's a success because it's also wrapped inside a layer of absolute accessibility. Never has the old "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master" adage been truer than it is here.
The Street Fighter fundamentals have remained consistent over the years; your job is to knock out the other guy or gal. All 12 of the classic world warriors--Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Blanka, E. Honda, Zangief, Guile, Dhalsim, Balrog, Vega, Sagat, and M. Bison--are back and playable from the outset, and they're joined by six brand-new and diverse characters. Abel, a mixed martial arts grapple-style character; Crimson Viper a female fighter with sweeping, airborne fire attacks; Rufus, a rotund fighter whose body makes him a bit of a sight gag despite his deceptive speed; and El Fuerte, a pro wrestler whose rushes and air throws make him a slippery foe. Ryu and Ken's sensei, Gouken, also makes his playable-character debut in Street Fighter IV. Naturally, he didn't teach the boys everything he knows, so when they meet again he has a few tricks up his sleeves, including a horizontal and vertical fireball EX move. The game's new end boss, Seth, fills the last spot and joins the list once you've unlocked everyone else. Character balance is absolutely spot-on across the entire roster, and as a result, you should never feel that you can't compete simply because you've chosen one character over another.
You'll need to finish the game multiple times and in special ways to unlock the complete character list. Doing so will make fan favourites Cammy, Sakura, Akuma, Fei Long, Rose, Gen, and Dan playable. Like previous games in the series, Street Fighter IV lets you perform powerful super combos, but it has removed air blocking and parrying completely. Developers Capcom and Dimps have added a completely new gameplay system: focus attacks, a new multipurpose offensive and defensive ability that can be charged to one of three levels by pressing and holding the medium punch and kick buttons simultaneously. There's no onscreen bar to show how charged your attack is, so you'll need to rely on the progressively darkening ink splashes surrounding your character model. Each character features a unique focus animation, so you shouldn't have any trouble working it out after a few rounds with each. Focus attacks make you vulnerable to damage because you need to be standing still to charge them (though you can dash forward or backward to cancel them), but the trade-off is that you'll absorb the first hit without the penalty of an animation reset, allowing for an instant counterattack if you land it. They can also act as armour-breaking moves, shutting down more-powerful attacks. Successfully landing a fully charged focus attack will deal damage and crumple your opponent to the ground, giving you the chance to follow up with an unblockable hit as he or she falls.
The new mechanic also lets you use part of your EX power-meter charge to exit animations early and chain bigger combos together. They take a little getting used to and some serious thumb dexterity, but once they're mastered, you can perform moves such as dragon-punch stalls directly into super moves or use them to juggle players in midair with multiple hits. Your revenge meter builds as you take damage, whereas the EX meter fills as you dish it out. EX power rolls over to the next round, but revenge must be built from scratch each time. This becomes a crucial risk-versus-reward mechanic. Do you take hits to build revenge and power up an ultra attack, or do you deal damage to burn your EX on improved moves, cancels, or save it for a super finisher? The flexibility of this system means that you're free to play according to your strengths and style. But just like reversals, EX power-ups, and ultra combo attacks, focus attacks serve to mix up the experience only for veteran players; such is the game's balance that they have never been required to win a match, and they act more as an additional weapon in the arsenal of a skilled player. They're waiting for you when you want to take a step up and learn how they work, but well-timed basic punches and kicks are just as effective.
The single-player mode is robust and has a lot to offer across several components. Arcade mode pits you against a set number of fights from your unlocked-character roster and culminates in a showdown with Seth. Along the way to your goal, you'll always encounter a rival fight. These are regular fights accompanied by an in-engine exchange with your opponent. They're a welcome mix-up but often add nothing to the character's storyline because some fighters clearly don't even know why they hate one another. Each character's adventure is bookended by an anime-style cinematic movies that explain his or her motivations for attending the tournament. They're quite short and keep story to an absolute minimum, but they get the message across and do a reasonable-enough job of filling in the gaps. Given the amount of additional content shoehorned into this game, we were slightly disappointed to find that no bonus levels have been included, especially since we had high hopes of reliving our car and barrel smashing from Street Fighter II.
Regardless of whether you're down with busting out a tatsumaki senpukyaku at will or think it's some kind of egg-noodle dish, there's a difficulty mode here for you. Eight levels ranging from very easy to hardest are available, so you're sure to find one appropriate for your skill level. That said, even at the gentler difficulties, Street Fighter IV is no cakewalk because your opponents will occasionally mix things up with surprise super and ultra combos. First-timers will have no trouble picking up, playing, and learning as they go. Playing on the medium or above difficulty will also enable score tracking, letting you submit and compare to other players on the game's online leaderboards.
Street Fighter IV's training mode will challenge even experienced brawlers to improve. Given that SFIV straddles the line between classic SFII and SFIII gameplay, there's bound to be some confusion about which of your old mainstay combos work and the timing that you'll need to pull them off. The training mode is an excellent resource and is one of the biggest jewels in the SFIV crown. Once you've chosen your character and your sparring partner, you'll be able to pose them in either a standing, crouching, or jumping position, toggle CPU control (and adjust its intensity), or give player two control of the action. There's even the ability to switch to your opponent's character, record up to 10 seconds of custom moves, and loop their replay. It's a great way to practice your evasion, attack timing, and counters without requiring another player or needing to search for online games. As you'd expect, there are plenty of switches to fiddle with here, including changing your target's block mode, stun frequency, ultra and super power-bar start, and regeneration levels. Live attack data can be enabled to show how much damage your moves are dealing, whereas input display can show you which way you're pushing the sticks and mashing the buttons.
A built-in move list is available through the menu and details all of your characters' skills, saving you the hassle of fumbling around for the manual when you can't remember if it's a double-quarter-forward fireball with a kick or a punch, or finding out which moves have EX variants or armour-breaking properties. Though training modes aren't new, the amount of control here will have a genuine impact on your game, and can be used to pinpoint, and subsequently correct, your play shortcomings.
Training mode aside, one of the single best features of Street Fighter IV is the Challenge mode, which is made up of several sub-modes. Old faithfuls such as Time Attack and Survival mode make an appearance and see you completing fight after fight to best your rival before the timer runs out or you empty your vitality bar. The new addition to Challenge mode is Trial mode, a multitiered training tool that will teach you not only how to perform moves, but also how to string them together to best deal damage. Although the Training mode gives you the full arsenal and space to try it out, in Trial mode you'll need to perform a specific manoeuvre or combo to continue. The five normal difficulty levels cover basic character-specific moves such as dragon punches, charge moves, and throws, but they get significantly tougher as you progress to cover specials, canceling attacks with focus, and stringing multipart combinations together. If you can get through these and feel up to the challenge, there are an extra five levels of bone-crushing general-purpose moves designed to help you improve your competitive play.
Street Fighter IV supports both online and offline multiplayer modes. In offline you'll be able to go head-to-head with a second player using your unlocked characters. Online you'll be given the choice of either friendly Player matches or Ranked games. Winning a ranked match awards you with battle points, which are used to both show off your prowess and help with the matchmaking process, though you can search for games beyond your skill level. Stat tracking will let you see your competitor's win-to-loss ratio for the session. And if you're after the true arcade experience, you can toggle online competitive challenge mode on and off to work with single-player. Just as you would expect in an arcade, if you're battling the CPU and someone issues a challenge, your game will pause and you'll automatically accept the invitation. Once the game has finished and you leave the multiplayer lobby, you'll restart your offline game from where you were. You can set it to either player or ranked matches as per your preference. We'd recommend leaving it off if you're keen to just play through arcade matches, given that we received back-to-back invites while reviewing. We played online against opponents with both strong and weak connections, and even at slightly less than full connection strength, you'll receive an offline-like, seamless fighting experience. Poorer connections are more akin to a slide show, although we did manage to find games with supposedly poor connections that played quite well. There's also no online tournament mode to be found here, a surprising omission given its inclusion in the downloadable game Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.
Though it was unavailable for us to test at time of review, Capcom has confirmed that at some time postlaunch a free download dubbed the Championship Mode Expansion Pack will be released and will let you record, upload, and download player match videos. The patch will also add three more point systems--Championship, Tournament, and Grade points--and improve matchmaking for beginner and mid-level players. We're hoping that the patch also addresses players who leave games early to avoid point loss, considering that currently there's no penalty for bailing if it looks like you're going to lose. Collectors also have plenty of work ahead of them, with coloured outfit variations, taunts, medals, icons, and text tags being rewarded for completing online and offline challenges. These can be assigned to your online profile and are unlocked by finishing games with certain percentages of your vitality bar remaining, dishing out perfect victories, or successfully performing reversals.
Street Fighter IV's visual presentation is outstanding. The art style appears a lot more adult this time around, swapping the bright Saturday-morning kids' cartoon looks of previous games for large, menacing characters with bulging muscles and environments with more muted colour palettes. The game's pseudo-cel-shaded character-art style uses thick black borders and splattered ink to great effect, while fast, fluid animation sees your favourite fighters dance across the screen with grace. Long hair flows and trails, facial expressions contort and grimace as you deal blows, and eyes bulge as opponents see an ultra attack successfully executed. We observed a few minor character-model clipping errors during play, such as legs passing through each other and the odd missed sweep when we were sure that we should have landed a hit, but these are small quibbles because they appeared few and far between. Battle environments are a mix of old and new, reinventing favourites such as Guile's airbase tarmac (complete with destructible plane wings), Blanka's jungle walkways, and Chun-Li's marketplace alleyway. New environments include a secret science laboratory, a highway underpass, a classic martial-arts dojo, and the rim of an active volcano.
Audio is a particular high point in SFIV, and though the J-pop soundtrack and cheesy intro theme will be driven into your head within minutes, it's also worth mentioning the subtle environmental effects that go otherwise unheard in the heat of battle. The cheers of crowds, the rattle of old trains, and the barking of dogs in alleys all help create a genuine sense of immersion. Purists are even given the option to choose between Japanese and English voice-overs during cutscenes and as characters enter the ring.
From our extensive play on both platforms, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game appear identical both in terms of visuals and performance. Even during the most frenetic battles, the frame rate remained solid. Both versions of SFIV offer an optional hard-drive installation, and though it lowered load times from about 30 seconds per game to the 10-second mark on the PlayStation 3, on the Xbox 360 it had no tangible effect, presumably because those loads are already around 10 seconds per match. Xbox 360 analog sticks seemed slightly easier to perform ultra moves with, though the Microsoft controller's D pad left plenty to be desired. By contrast, the DualShock 3 analogs felt slightly sluggish, but the D pad made double fireballs and ultra combos easy. Your best bet, of course, is to invest in a good arcade stick or one of the controllers designed specifically for this game.
Street Fighter IV will welcome you with open arms, whether you're a lapsed fan concerned that you've been out of the loop for too long or you're dipping your toes for the first time. Amazing presentation, intricate and enjoyable fighting gameplay, and long-term appeal with online play make this a must-have. Street Fighter IV is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of the fighting genre in this generation.