Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ultra Street Fighter IV rewrites the formula

Executed by pressing the medium punch, medium kick and light punch button at the same time, Red Focus functions and serves a similar purpose as the standard Focus attack. However, instead of nullifying a single hit, it's capable of absorbing multiple at the cost of two EX energy bars. But there are certain subtleties to the mechanic that must be mastered for it to be used effectively.

Although Red Focus can eat the game's most devastating attacks and lengthy combos, it can only do so up until its attack frames begin. This means that a player will need to have familiarity with their character's Focus attack animations and time a Red Focus properly to get the most out of it. Having a good grasp of the enemy's moveset will help whoever is on the other end in exploiting its vulnerabilities.

From an offensive standpoint, Red Focus is particularly useful if it is hit immediately after landing another move, since it results in an instant crumple, rather than a stagger like a normal Focus. Again, the benefits of this are balanced out by damage scaling, so using it in large combo strings results in diminishing returns on damage. It's great for resetting opponents to put them in a position to mixup, or for getting that little bit of extra damage needed for the kill.

Where previously players were forced to pick between two Ultra Combos to take into battle, the new Ultra Combo Double option lets them have both. Since each character's Ultra usually has a particular situation or setup it's suited for, having both makes everyone just a little more versatile.

However, the trade-off is that the Ultras will do a lot less damage if both are brought into the fight. At high levels, the decision on whether to take one or both will be strategically assessed on the different threats the opposing character presents. Sometimes power may be a better option over flexibility.

The final new mechanical addition is simple, but arguably has the most significant implications. As its name suggests, Delayed Wakeup lets a player extend how long their character stays on the ground after hard knock-downs. In effect, this new wakeup option could completely disrupt rhythm and derail strategies.

For characters such as Gouki, who uses well-timed moves that hit high and low, as well as crossover attacks, to create an almost unstoppable vortex, the Delayed Wakeup throws such play styles into disarray. Others will need to rethink how they pressure enemies, and reassess how they get into their opponent's head. To an extent, every player will need to re-learn and adjust their play style to accommodated Delayed Wakeup strategies.

Together, these three new mechanics rewrite the rules that players have spent years abiding by. The knock-on effect they have on various other aspects of the meta-game is huge, especially the viability of different members of roster at high levels, as well as the overall tier rankings of each fighter and their combo potential. It's enough to force the savants to earn their titles as the best players in the world all over again.

In addition to the new mechanics, numerous characters in Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition v2012's roster have been tweaked in a bid to establish a better balance and fairer competitive experience. The esoteric details of these are far too technical to explore in a review - frame data isn't awesome reading material fun - but their collective impact will require players to spend significant time in training mode figuring out what it means for their characters.

The success of these amendments overall can't be quantified yet. It'll takes months of experimentation and high-level play from the entire community before the ramifications can truly be understood. Regardless of whether the final conclusion is negative or positive, that journey makes Street Fighter 4 exciting again.

Ultra Street Fighter IV's other marquee new additions are the five new characters; Hugo, Poison, Rolento, Elena and Decapre. Each is a new chess piece on the board with unique strengths and weaknesses of their own, and the potential to become trouble for other members of the cast. Like everything else in the game, they need to be explored, studied and experimented with, but on a basic level each is fun to play with.

Hugo is a mountain of a man, towering to the very top of the screen. Like his previous incarnations, the wrestler is a slow, plodding character that makes up for his lack of speed with devastating power. He's most deadly when he's up close in grabbing range, but the quicker characters can get away from him and take potshots, but slip and he will piledrive bones into dust.

Rolento is a tricky character that has good manoeuvrability, capable of moving large distance to quickly jump on other characters when guards are down. With the aid of his stick, he's able to break focus attacks, establish a good poke game, and do damage with his Patriot Circles, which can be chained three times much like Fei Long's Rekkaken.

Capoeira fighter Elena's strengths lie in her strong kick-based moves, her exceptionally high jump and her very fast walk speed, which allows her move around the screen quicker than most other characters. Her relatively quick recovery from back dashes also add to her strong mobility, while her awkward kick animations can fluster anyone not familiar with the wildly flailing legs of a capoeira practitioner.

Poison is the most well-rounded of the new faces, with a strong mid-range game and good damage and mix-up potential up-close and a decent range of pokes and projectiles at long range to control space. Like Rolento, she also has a three hit Rekkaken-like move using her whip, the final part of which can be EX cancelled. (Pro tip: use the ongoing mystery about her real gender to your advantage by telling your opponent "she's a dude" to get the psychological high ground.)

The final new combatant, Decapre, is a character from the expanded Street Fighter universe that makes her playable debut in Ultra. Fans will no doubt be displeased with her, given the fact she was heavily hyped as a brand new character and is essentially a re-skinned Cammy. Although her move-set is also derivative of other characters such as Cammy, Oni and Vega, she's got more than divekick pressure and an English accent to offer.

Firstly, she's Russian, but only during every other voice sample it seems. But Decapre has a completely new and exciting style of play thanks to a varied tool-set. Underpinning her offence is a mixture of lateral and diagonal teleport dashes, which can be modified with sliding attacks and dive-kicks of different strengths, speeds and arcs. Her psycho-power imbued blades give her normal attacks good coverage and strength, and can also be used to launch characters into the air. She's also the only character that can combo into air throw; all-round an excellent addition, despite her uninspired visual design.

The cynical will no doubt point out that, with the exception of Decapre, the new characters are all plucked straight out of Street Fighter X Tekken for Ultra, as are the four new stages (Pitstop 109, Mad Gear Hideout, Cosmic Elevator, Blast Furnace, Half Pipe, and Jurassic Era Research Facility). However, the characters slot well into the complete roster and are satisfying to play. Understandably, they all feel a little more technically complex - owing in large part due to the more combo-heavy style of Street Fighter X Tekken - so playing them well will require a degree of finger-ballet, but this just makes them more rewarding to master.

The new stages, meanwhile, are bursting with personality and colour, though their more fantastical, over-the-top settings and design can feel at odds with the rest of the game. Duking it out in a cosmic space elevator isn't technically street fighting.

Completing the Ultra Street Fighter IV package is a number of new modes and options. Team Battle lets players join forces and engage in 3v3 elimination contests, with the health bar carrying over one match to the next. Training mode has been fitted with online support, fight request, and other smaller improvements such as save states to make training for certain situations easier. Players will now also be able to upload replays of their fights to YouTube directly from the game.

Finally, Edition Select is an interesting new option that gives players access to every version of each character that has appeared in the Street Fighter IV series thus far, letting players pick the version they most felt comfortable playing, and settling it's-because-they-nerfed-my-character arguments. Although it's unlikely to become popular in the competitive circle, Edition Select makes playing casually even more fun by throwing balance out of the window completely. Finally, we'll be able to find out which version of Sagat is most overpowered (sorry. Not sorry).

Unfortunately, Capcom did pull a few punches for the update. The new characters - including those introduced in Arcade Edition - still don't have cinematics for their rival battles, and at the time of writing the promised Trials for all the new characters have not been implemented and won't be included when the digital upgrade is released. According to Capcom they will be added at a later date.

For casual players or newcomers, Ultra Street Fighter IV is the same thrilling, deep, and accessible fighting game it always has been. And with the retail release featuring all previously released costume DLC content, it's a game that every Xbox 360, PS3 or PC owner should have in their collection.

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