Ul­tra Street Fighter IV

360, PC, PS3

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Cap­com For­mat 360 (ver­sion tested), PC, PS3 Re­lease Out now, Au­gust (PC)

Street Fighter II’s combo sys­tem was an ac­ci­dent. Cap­com never meant for play­ers to be able to can­cel an at­tack’s an­i­ma­tion with an early in­put of an­other move. It was spotted dur­ing bug test­ing, left in place, and went on to de­fine a genre. De­vel­op­ment team sizes are much big­ger nowa­days and QA pro­cesses are more thor­ough, but you still have to won­der how much of what play­ers have found in the Street Fighter IV se­ries was part of Cap­com’s orig­i­nal plan.

SFIV has al­ways been a lit­tle bit bro­ken. The first game had in­fi­nite combos and char­ac­ter bal­ance prob­lems. Su­per SFIV and its Ar­cade Edi­tion ex­pan­sion had what were col­lo­qui­ally – al­though tech­ni­cally in­cor­rectly – called un­block­ables, where a spe­cific se­quence of moves would end with a jump­ing at­tack that ran­domly hit you in front or from be­hind. And the com­pet­i­tive scene has been dom­i­nated by ‘vor­tex’ char­ac­ters, who can knock an op­po­nent down, use one of half-a-dozen dif­fer­ent ways to dole out heavy dam­age there­after, and then put them back in the ex­act same sit­u­a­tion. So with Ul­tra SFIV – seem­ingly the fi­nal it­er­a­tion of the game that brought a for­got­ten genre back to the fore – Cap­com had quite the job on its hands. The re­sult is a game that, as well as boast­ing 44 char­ac­ters in its ros­ter and the ex­pected raft of lit­tle tweaks, con­tains brand-new sys­tems that fun­da­men­tally al­ter the way the game is played.

Some are sim­pler than oth­ers. De­layed Stand­ing, per­formed by press­ing any two at­tack but­tons as you’re knocked down, makes you stand up 11 frames later than nor­mal. It kills un­block­ables stone dead, and nul­li­fies vor­tex play too – at least for the time be­ing. In Ja­pan, where Ul­tra SFIV launched in ar­cades in April, strate­gies are al­ready be­ing formed to counter it. A suc­cess­ful De­layed Stand­ing in­put dis­plays a mes­sage on­screen for a full sec­ond be­fore the knocked-down player re­turns to their feet, so play­ers are learn­ing to look for that and de­lay­ing their next as­sault ac­cord­ingly. For the time be­ing, how­ever, the so­lu­tion works. The re­sult is a game that’s slightly slower paced, per­haps, but for the right rea­sons: a sin­gle knock­down is no longer enough to turn a round in a player’s ab­so­lute favour. Ja­pan’s re­sponse to that has been mixed, and your own will likely de­pend on your char­ac­ter of choice. Akuma, Cammy, Seth and Ibuki play­ers sim­ply have to work a lit­tle harder now. Ei­ther way, it’s a sim­ple so­lu­tion to two com­plex prob­lems that Cap­com has fixed with just two but­tons.

That’s ap­pro­pri­ate given that the Fo­cus At­tack, per­formed with a si­mul­ta­ne­ous press of both medium at­tacks, was SFIV’s most trans­for­ma­tive ad­di­tion to the genre tem­plate. It’s a move of tremen­dous power and ver­sa­til­ity, used both de­fen­sively (to ab­sorb a hit) and when on the at­tack (can­celling it with a dash to ex­tend combos, or charg­ing it up to crum­ple an op­po­nent to the floor), but it has its draw­backs. That it can only

Red Fo­cus adds an­other layer of ver­sa­til­ity to the most re­ward­ing combo sys­tem this genre has ever pro­duced

ab­sorb a sin­gle hit makes it no help when es­cap­ing the re­lent­less pres­sure of a rush­down or vor­tex char­ac­ter, for in­stance. And when on the at­tack, the dif­fi­culty of ex­e­cut­ing the move in the mid­dle of a lengthy combo makes for a steep learn­ing curve for the be­gin­ner play­ers that Cap­com so craves.

The so­lu­tion is the Red Fo­cus At­tack, which is per­formed with three but­tons in­stead of two and costs Su­per me­ter to use. Used de­fen­sively, it will ab­sorb ev­ery hit that comes your way un­til its an­i­ma­tion ends. Used in combos, it will in­stantly crum­ple an op­po­nent when the but­tons are re­leased, ir­re­spec­tive of how long it’s been charged for. The for­mer of­fers an es­cape route from en­tire combos, while the lat­ter opens up a host of pos­si­bil­i­ties, es­sen­tially giv­ing ev­ery char­ac­ter in the game a way to combo into an Ul­tra. It par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fits grap­plers: the likes of Zang­ief and Hakan used to have to rely on very spe­cific set­ups to land Ul­tra combos, but now a sin­gle punch can be the gate­way to half a lifebar’s worth of dam­age. And for Ryu and Ru­fus, who al­ready have plenty of ways of set­ting up an Ul­tra, Red Fo­cus adds an­other layer of ver­sa­til­ity to the most re­ward­ing combo sys­tem this genre has ever pro­duced. If Red Fo­cus sounds pow­er­ful, it’s be­cause it is, but it’s been smartly bal­anced. When used in the open, it costs one of your four chunks of Su­per me­ter. Any ab­sorbed hits make a grey­ish dent in your health bar that slowly re­fills un­less you take a hit, in which case you for­feit the grey seg­ment. Mean­while, a mid-combo Red Fo­cus Can­cel costs three-quar­ters of the Su­per bar, a hefty chunk of what was al­ready con­sid­ered the most im­por­tant re­source in the game. A failed Red Fo­cus Can­cel can be ev­ery bit as dis­heart­en­ing, and fa­tal, as a blocked Su­per or Ul­tra.

Red Fo­cus is a log­i­cal fit for the fi­nal it­er­a­tion of SFIV. It’s an ef­fec­tive bit of kitchen-sink de­sign, as if Cap­com is a pri­mary school teacher un­lock­ing the toy box on the last day of term. Ul­tra Combo Dou­ble re­in­forces that feel­ing, let­ting play­ers take both Ul­tras at the cost of dam­age out­put. It’s a boon for grap­plers, who once had to choose be­tween a ground-based Ul­tra and an anti-air one, but oth­ers ben­e­fit as well. Ken can take both his pow­er­ful Shin­ryuken and the anti-fire­ball Guren Sen­pukyaku, for in­stance. It’s a wel­come ad­di­tion to Ar­cade mode, too, where the in­abil­ity to se­lect the best Ul­tra for each match-up has al­ways felt puni­tive, but it’s hard to rec­om­mend a mode where op­po­nents can read your in­puts, teach­ing you noth­ing and breed­ing bad habits. On­line is, as ever, the place to be.

There are changes here, too. A new Team Bat­tle mode repli­cates the tour­na­ment scene’s pop­u­lar three­v­er­sus-three, win­ner-stays-on for­mat. On­line Train­ing en­ables two war­riors to ex­per­i­ment with­out tire­some dips into the pause menu to tweak AI dummy set­tings.

And re­plays can now be up­loaded in HD, mean­ing we’ll never again darken our YouTube chan­nel with shaky phone record­ings of our finest mo­ments. Yet matches them­selves are con­fus­ing at the time of writ­ing, full of old hands learn­ing new sys­tems, while a leader­board re­set has thrown A-rank killers in with the beginners.

Play­ers are also learn­ing five new char­ac­ters, four of which have, like the game’s half-dozen new stages, been brought across from Street Fighter X Tekken. It’s a smart, if cyn­i­cal, way of mak­ing the most of the as­set li­brary from a game whose player count quickly fell off a cliff. The most strik­ing is Hugo, a Ger­man wrestler of such vast form that he ob­scures the health bars at the top of the screen and whose Ar­cade mode cin­e­matic ex­plains that he is fight­ing the world’s great­est war­riors be­cause of some­thing to do with pota­toes. He’s more mo­bile than the aver­age grap­pler, with a run­ning lar­iat, an anti-air grab with tremen­dous pri­or­ity and limbs of such length that he can hit you from two-thirds of a screen away if you stick out an at­tack at the wrong time.

His Fi­nal Fight ac­com­plice, Poi­son, has a flex­i­ble toolset for those pre­pared to look past one of Cap­com’s more cringe­wor­thy and las­civ­i­ous char­ac­ter de­signs. Her gen­er­ous spe­cial move list in­cludes riffs on Ryu’s fire­ball and dragon punch, Fei Long’s Rekkaken, and Adon’s Jaguar Kick, the last of which can be used to start combos. Mean­while, Elena, who de­buted in Street

Fighter III: Third Strike, is un­wieldy at first thanks to her floaty jump and a cu­ri­ous nor­mal moveset, where even punch but­tons per­form kicks. But that’s capoeira for you, and with legs as long as hers, we’d use them a lot too. She’s dev­as­tat­ing in the cor­ner, where she has sev­eral ways to combo into one of her Ul­tras. Ro­lento is mer­ci­fully far less pow­er­ful than he was in Street Fighter X Tekken, al­though an Ul­tra setup off a sin­gle EX at­tack is not to be sniffed at. And the jury is still very much out on the fifth char­ac­ter, De­capre, a re­skinned Cammy whose moves are per­formed with charge mo­tions in­stead of quar­ter cir­cles and only suf­fers in com­par­i­son to her pow­er­ful dop­pel­ganger.

Get­ting to grips with these new char­ac­ters is harder than it should be, given there are no combo tri­als, which gave in­valu­able in­sight into a fighter’s tools and set­ups in the se­ries’ pre­vi­ous games. Cap­com says they’re on the way, but they’re a frus­trat­ing omis­sion. In the mean­time, at least there’s the In­ter­net. Fo­rums and video sites are al­ready teem­ing with the dis­cov­er­ies of one of the most sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ties in videogames.

And therein lies quite the caveat. Cap­com has seem­ingly fixed Su­per SFIV’s prob­lems, but those prob­lems were first dis­cov­ered by the very same com­mu­nity that may also even­tu­ally break Ul­tra SFIV. Only time will tell what cracks lie be­neath the sur­face. In the mean­time, how­ever, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to ad­mire the el­e­gance with which Cap­com has tack­led some com­plex sys­temic chal­lenges, and the ef­fect its so­lu­tions have had on the way the game feels. Ul­tra SFIV is a slower, more de­lib­er­ate game, one in which suc­cess isn’t solely about putting your op­po­nent into a suc­ces­sion of 50/50 de­ci­sions. There is also a re­newed fo­cus on the fight­ing game fun­da­men­tals: space con­trol and the psy­chol­ogy of com­pe­ti­tion. It feels, in other words, an aw­ful lot like clas­sic Street Fighter, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

ABOVE Hugo doesn’t need the pint-sized Yun to look like a monster; he even looks mas­sive next to Zang­ief. He’s tremen­dously pow­er­ful, but strug­gles in cer­tain match-ups. You’ll soon wince at the sight of Gouken

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