Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC (Reviewed)
Capcom are notorious for upgrading each chapter of the Street Fighter saga, with each entry in the series having gotten at least two or three re-releases with changes made to their roster and mechanics. Ultra Street Fighter IV is the fourth iteration of 2008’s SFIV, which in some ways makes it a bit of a critical no-brainer: it’s still great, only now there’s more of it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to talk about, especially when it comes to where the fighter genre has found itself recently.
Ultra preserves the tight, super-precise mechanics that we’ve all come to expect from Street Fighter IV but also throws in some important additions. The already monstrous character roster has been boosted with five new additions, including Final Fight alumni Hugo, Rolento and Poison, Street Fighter III‘s Elena and evil Cammy clone Decapre, as well as a raft of new stages taken from Street Fighter X Tekken. There’s also a wide range of new techniques, tweaks and rebalances that revitalize previously disadvantaged characters and ensure that even the experts still have things to learn.
Of course, by and large the experts are the only ones who’ll really notice a lot of this stuff anyway, which points to an irony which has haunted the game for some time: The original SFIV was conceived as an exercise of going ‘back to basics’, an attempt to woo older fans back to the franchise as the games had become almost impenetrably dense and complex. Yet with each new update SFIV has gradually gone back to courting the hardcore crowd more and more to the point where we’re basically right where we were in terms of technical denseness.
Indeed, as an example of modern fighting game mechanics at their very finest Ultra is a tour-de-force. It’s the best Street Fighter has ever been, a lean, finely-tuned machine of virtual pugilism that is simply astounding in its precision, smoothness and depth. Older fans, however, who may have drifted in and out of the Street Fighter world over the years, may need a bit of time to get up to speed with where the game is at these days. Unfortunately the game still suffers from the traditional fighting game flaw of ill-serving new or returning players, the sparse tutorial/challenge mode now allowing online play with a friend but still feeling rather thin when it comes to actually teaching people the nuances of the fighting system.
Those who prefer to play against AI will find themselves even more out in the cold. Single player has always been looked upon as the red-headed stepchild of the fighting game world, that weird thing that some people do even if it’s never really been the point of the exercise. Fighting games have traditionally been designed for local multiplayer on an arcade machine, and while the arcade scene has declined severely in the last 10-15 years the design philosophy has lingered on, with online multiplayer at the very least considered essential to truly enjoy the games. As a result of this philosophy, complaining about the lack of single-player content in fighting games has always been slightly verboten; even as an appreciator of a good fighter who generally plays single player, I’d always refrained from protesting too much because at the end of the day I knew that I wasn’t really playing these things properly.
2010’s Mortal Kombat 9 and developer NetherRealm’s followup, the DC heroes-themed Injustice: Gods Among Us, changed that assumption. They proved that including substantial single-player content in a fighter was not only a viable approach, but that there was a huge audience out there just waiting for someone to do it. Going from these games to Ultra Street Fighter IV is a sobering experience, a backwards shuffle to the time when if you wanted to play on your own you had to take your repetitive, lazily-structured Arcade Mode and like it. It’s still enjoyable, but often feels like rationed-out morsels of a much bigger feast.
Of course, there is still online multiplayer to try but as always it seems to be a mixed bag. The Steam version is plagued with lag (Though Capcom are reportedly working on the netcode so hopefully this will improve soon) and opponents’ skill levels are predictably diverse, but newcomers will probably not want to venture into the online arena without getting to know the fighting system first – which brings us back to the game’s anaemic tutorial and single-player content. Those who have hardcore friends who can show them the ropes will thrive, but the game does little to help lone students along.
These criticisms don’t change the fact that Ultra Street Fighter IV is a fantastic fighting game. It’s bursting with style, its roster is impeccable and its systems strike a keen balance between complexity and accessibility. The problem is, you really need other people around – preferably, other people huddled around the same screen as you – to actually get its full benefit. It’ll either be everything you’d ever want in a fighter or just not good enough, depending on your skill level and circumstances, and while that used to be a dichotomy that was par for the course in the fighting game world, it doesn’t have to be so now.
Hopefully the inevitable Street Fighter V will move with the times, but for now we’ll just have to make do with a masterpiece for a very select crowd.