Earlier this week, someone showed me how I could cancel a normal move into one of the new Street Fighter IV Focus moves, dash forward to cancel the Focus move, then hit the opponent with an Ultra move while he was up in the air. Or was it that I could cancel a special move into a Focus move and then into a super combo? (Or maybe I was just focusing on canceling the gaming session so I could dash down the street to get a super gyros combo?) Anyway, it was something having to do with some piece of jargon or other, and I'm sure if I paid more attention to it, I'd probably be a little more successful in beating random opponents online.
Since the original Street Fighter brought Ryu and Ken into our lives, I have been a big fan of the series. I have a circle of friends that I enjoy competing with, and I do well against most players. However, just by reading The Next Level Forum's Street Fighter IV discussion, I know that there is a whole subset of players out there that take strategy and game balance so seriously that they spend time studying game videos, watching tournaments, and talking in a dense code about cancels, parries, rolls, and a dozen other equalizers. Me, I bust out four-hit combos all right and I have a handful of go-to characters I rely on when playing strangers, so since I'm the one writing this review, you're going to get a rundown of this game from the perspective of someone that is very familiar with the Street Fighter universe but not anywhere near an upper-level player.
Above anything else, Street Fighter IV is a direct evolution of Street Fighter II. Most of the characters are back, the storylines are one step removed, and the innovations from the third game seem to have been largely put aside. For example, you can no longer pick a super move going in to a match or use parries like you did in SF III. (Though the Focus mechanic is inspired by the parry system, it is very watered-down and newb-friendly.) Similar to last year's Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, this game's purpose is largely to take the classic game you love, balance it out over twenty-five characters, and make it prettier.
The best addition is an expanded slate of single-player activities that will keep you busy refining your technique to unlock not only trophies like titles and medals, but also extra colors for your costumes, extra taunts, and added background elements. The challenges start out very easy, but get extremely difficult at points. When you don't see any friends on that you want to challenge and you don't feel like playing against randoms, it's surprisingly enjoyable to go through the various time attack and survival challenges, as well as the character-specific ones that ask you to perform various finger-twisting feats. Trophies you unlock this way can be displayed with your user name, and there are hundreds of names and icons to choose from for a more personalized touch.
The worst and most frustrating aspect of the game has nothing to do with how cheap the boss is or how hard it is to pull off super moves. Rather it is the way the online versus lobby is set up. Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix allowed up to six players to sit in one room and the four that weren't fighting could watch the two that were. Street Fighter IV's multiplayer system, on the other hand, is much clunkier and quite dated. If you have even three people that want to play one another online, you will have to deal with one leaving the room after each match while the other sends a new invite to the third person. Terrible.
The gameplay is classic Street Fighter with an amazing amount of polish and flash. There are two main types of super move that you earn, one based on the damage you are doing and one based on the damage you are taking. The latter, Ultra moves, are more elaborate and fun to look at, besides being good ways to even the score. Unfortunately, even given the many super moves some of these characters have had in years past, Ultra moves tend to be glorified versions of the regular super moves. So Ryu's super move is a classic super fireball and his Ultra is just a more elaborate version of the super. So his Ultra fireball is a souped-up version of his super fireball, which in turn is a souped-up version of his regular fireball. It gets even worse when all of Akuma's other supers, past and potential, are ignored just to give him two versions of the Raging Demon. Somehow, I think it would have been better to save the raging Demon for the Ultra and maybe given him an air fireball for the super. We already have EX versions of specials moves; do we really need Ultras to be EX versions of combos?
Besides that, there are no glaring gameplay problems from the point of a mid-level player. Zangief and newcomer Abel seem a tad overpowered at first, but any character can be turned into a real threat with some practice. The single-player game is much harder than you might expect on the default setting, but there are plenty of training modes and there are easier difficulties you can choose. Hell, who knows? Maybe if I stick with this a few weeks, I'll even start talking like all those upper-level guys on the forum.