Pick Up Post: Indestructable

After a year of damn-near uncontrollable anticipation, the sequel to my 2009 game of the year is now in my house. I was actually so excited for this, I was at Walmart at 7:00 AM buying this game, even though I wouldn’t get to play it till after work. After putting in about 20 hours this week into it (and waking up this morning with an arthritic right hand due to all the fighting action) I can positively say this game is good. In fact, it’s SUPER (sorry).

Last year’s game sent shock waves throughout the genre. It featured core gameplay that was familiar enough for lapsed Street Fighter II fans to jump right back in while adding it’s own set of gameplay systems to make it feel fresh and deep. The only major downsides were a few balancing issues and a mediocre online experience.

Super Street Fighter IV tries its best to fix most of the issues of its predecessor while improving the overall experience with new characters, stages, music and modes. Sagat fans may not like the nerfs placed on him, but so far, it seems as though that the game is a lot better balanced than the last one. It feels like almost every character has a viable chance of winning against any other character if you’re skilled enough. Granted, there are still going to be bad match-ups, but so far I don’t see anything totally unreasonable, like Sagat’s crazy damage output or Ryu’s ability to anti-air trade into an ultra.

On top of that, every character got a second selectable ultra and 10 characters were added to the roster, two of which are brand new to Street Fighter. In a lot of cases, the second ultra does help characters, either overall or in specific character match-ups. For instance, Dhalsim’s second ultra is great against fireball spammers, while El Fuerte’s second ultra makes him a lot more dangerous overall. Ideally, every ultra would be great and equally viable, but I think most people are going to stick with one over the other every time.

Capcom went out of their way to add 10 new characters to the roster, putting the tally of characters now up to 35. For a fighting game, that is really big. I really like the new additions to the cast, as they all fit the game really well while each having their own unique play styles. Right now, I’m in the lab with Ibuki, Juri and Guy, who are both fun to play with. However, I think all 10 characters are worth additions to the game. With 35 total on the roster, odds are there are a few characters that will fit your style of play.

Online play received a fairly thorough overhaul. Matchmaking does a much better job of setting you up in matches with good connections. It also helps you get into fights quicker. For the most part, this lends itself to a better online playing experience. However, you will still encounter lag in some spots. In one particular match, I was suffering from horrible lag while my opponent seemingly moved just fine. I was literally helpless as my opponent beat me to shreds and I literally couldn’t move.

In ranked play, there are two sets of points you can gain or lose instead of just one overall score. In the first game, because there was only one score that tracked your overall performance, people were reluctant to play with anyone but their best character. Now, the system has both an overall score and a character-specific score, which works as motivation to mix up your character choices.

Player matches and championship mode are completely gone, with endless mode and team battle in their place. Endless mode allows for 8 players to be in the same lobby, so that everyone can talk and watch the fight as two people duke it out. Winner stays on, which is a great way to emulate the arcade experience. While it’s awesome with friends, having to wait upwards of six matches in a room with no one talking can be a bummer. Team battle is a long-overdue addition to the suite of options, allowing for 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3 and 4 vs. 4 match-ups. It works really well and does a great job of bringing people together.

The replay channel has also been buffed. It’s not perfect, but is far more comprehensive than any other fighting game on the market. The game automatically stores your last 30 matches for you to watch as well as the ability to save videos to your hard drive. When you meet certain conditions, you can upload your replay for the world to see in the replay channel, and you can watch a number of replays either through a list of new uploads or in a “channel” with upwards of 8 people. This feature lends itself well for players wanting to talk about strategy.

Which brings me to what I think is the only real down-side to this game. This isn’t a new problem and is in fact prevalent in virtually every fighting game ever made. To be fair, SSFIV has handled this better than any other fighting game to date, but I feel it’s still well short of where it should be. For a game that can be as complex as it is, Super Street Fighter IV overall does a poor job of teaching you how to play.

The core of this problem is that the game is built around you learning how to play the old-fashioned way. That being, you play others, get beaten up repeatedly and hopefully learn from your mistakes. Challenge mode does a decent job of showing you how to do basic moves and combos, but never actually tells you how to execute these within the context of a real fight in order to build a strategy. Training mode is great for players who know what they want to get out of it, but novices will just be wasting their time beating up a dummy with no rhyme or reason. The replay features and the ability to talk with others are excellent, but if you’re watching by yourself or no one is talking and you don’t know what to look for, you’re just watching people fight rather than using it to get better.

Even for someone like me, who has played Street Fighter games for almost 20 years, learning this game is tough. I have built my way up to the point where I’m currently the #42nd best Akuma in North America, but I am where I am through hundreds of hours of practice, hours of watching Street Fighter tournament videos and literally losing over 1,000 matches online. Now I’m trying to learn new characters, and the game isn’t quite there in terms of giving you the knowledge you need to get better. Replays and training mode are great, but I’m going to have to watch more tournament videos and read FAQs in order to step my game up with Ibuki, Juri or whoever else I want to try.

For the next game, I would like to see the training systems featured in the iPhone version of Street Fighter IV put into it. It actually had great tutorials that taught users how to play this game properly. It went over everything from basic combos, to how to tech throws, to specific strategies against certain characters. Something along those lines would make the community as a whole stronger and not turn people off from the game who get beat down repeatedly and feel that they’ll never get better at it.

Anyone into fighting games should seriously give this a look. This is Capcom at its finest and easily the best fighting game on the market. What they’ve delivered this time is a notable jump over what was an already amazing game with smart balance tweaks and an online system that is beyond every other fighting game out there. Even after 230+ hours of regular Street Fighter IV, I’m ready to drop another few hundred hours into this new one. I’d be playing right now my right hand wasn’t so sore from playing Super Street Fighter IV over these past few days. In the meantime, I will watch videos in the replay channel, take mental notes and throw a heat pack on my hand in hopes of a speedy recovery.

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