A step forward and a step backwards for the quintessential fighting game series.
Having grown up with the series, I just admit, the graphics were a turn off for me. They are by no means bad, and the style is certainly pulled off nicely, but as a long time fan, I guess you can say I am a purist; to me, it just isn't Street Fighter if its not sprites.
Having said that, I don't think the graphics are bad at all for a fighting game, and as a cell-shaded game, they are some of the best, although I still think the title goes to Dragon Quest VIII. The oil paint effect during focus attacks looks particularly good, however, and I wish it came up more often than with just the single move each character had. In fact, if the entire game has used that visual effect, I'd probably have found it much more visually appealing. Besides visual changes though, the choice in going with polygons also leads to a slight tweak to the gameplay.
The old sprite based Street Fighters were all about frames of animation timing. That was how you executed tech attacks, counters, parries, and supermoves at a perfect opening. A trained eye got these moments down to a single frame, but as of yet, I do not believe this is possible with SF4. The animation is much smoother, even, and inconsistant (meaning you're not getting the exact same 7 frame kick animation that sprites give).
Again, this is the gripe of an old timer stuck in the past, but it's not just about Street Fighter. This is about sprite based fighting games as a whole, and this is where SF truly departs from the 2D fighting game class.
Beyond the changes from the classics, the fighting is still good 'ol Street Fighter, with a few differences. For one, it has taken a step back from SFIII, and opted out of parrying. This comes with a mixed reaction from me, as I was never a master at parrying in that game, but to take it away certainly makes the game a lot less about defense this time around.
Truth be told, this SF is all about offense. Every new fighting feature revolves around it. You can use focus attacks to stun opponents for combos, and cancel out of moves by sacrificing a little EX bar to keep things on the ground, or to quickly recover from a launching move to do an air juggle. This makes the game feel a lot like Guilty Gear X2, and having past experience with it certainly allowed me to jump right into that depth of the pond.
Another thing that has changed is the emphasis on throws. Throws now work like in 3D fighters, by pressing weak punch and kick at the same time. This already felt kind of awkward to be doing in a SF game, but it was nice to actually be able to counter throws, especially since the computer AI does it ALL THE TIME.
My very first match was against Zangeif, the throwing champion, so I thought it was just the AI's way of playing him. To my dismay, the AI plays ALL characters like throwing machines, and playing a close range game is basically suicide if you're not on top of your timing.
This is not a bad thing, neccessarily, and is a far cry from the perfect match chain throwing you can do in Soul Caliber IV, but it's still pretty annoying. Just to be sure I wasn't just imagining things, I threw in SFIII, Capcom vs. SNK 2, and SFAlpha2 just to see. Sure enough, the computer rarely threw in those games. So get ready, because if you're not playing against human opponents, this SF plays like a very different animal than you may be used to.
Another different animal is the revenge meter and the ultimate attack. These are new super moves that can be done if you're getting your ass handed to you. Most of them are performed the same way the super move is done, just with all three punches or kicks. These are particularly stylish to watch, and do quite a bit of damage to help even the battle field. These moves, however, come up a lot, because you fill the meter when you lose just under half of your life bar, so you can realistically use them every single round, and they eventually kind of got old to me.
As for the super moves, Capcom really went back to basics with these. The characters from Super SFII Turbo all have the same super from that game, and they're all performed in the same manor as well. What that means is the super moves are, for the most part, really unimpressive, and charging characters like Guile and Chun-li are a major pain in the ass to do on a gamepad, especially the 360 pad. Charging back then pushing forward, back, forward is no easy feat on that wannabe analog stick.
Another thing that is quite different is the music. Admittedly, every SF game has come with very different music. SFII was drastically different than what came with the Alpha series, and SFIII was another giant leap. This time, I don't even know what to say. The main theme song sounds like a Back Street Boys song of some kind, and a lot of the stages sound like Techno. The music certainly is different, but I would say, overall, it grew on me, just like SFIII's did.
The rest of the sound, however... did not, and probably will not. Make no mistake, the english voice acting is flat out bad. Change it to Japanese, right away, and if you must have that authentic feel, you can beat the game to unlock character specific voices, so your americans speak english, and your japanese speak japanese, and your... others speak... english or japanese. The announcer, though, is always in english, and is REALLY bad. I think you can mute him in the audio options, but don't remember what that 4th bar was for off the top of my head.
All-in-all, Street Fighter IV is a pretty good fighter, and an okay entry in the Street Fighter series. It brings classic game play with some fresh ideas, and a new visual style. While it may not be a change everyone can agree on, it is by no means bad, and reaches to a new generation of gamers while still keeping something for the long time fans.
Edit: I take it back, the theme song sounds more like NSync than Backstreet Boys. The lead singer could seriously be Justin Timberlake.