Street Fighter X Tekken review: The Pandorica opens

Aside from annual increments, each Capcom fighter is distinctly different from its siblings: Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Super Street Fighter 4 are wildly disparate experiences, for instance, as were Street Fighter: Third Strike and Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

That trend of differentiation and innovation continues with Street Fighter X Tekken, but the ingenuity of the game's excellent fighting engine is muddied by its unpolished, poorly designed and shoddily implemented framework. Think of it as the console port of an arcade game that never existed; an uninspired checklist of prerequisite features tacked on to an otherwise solid fighting experience, with predictably underwhelming results.
%Gallery-144912% Make no mistake, Street Fighter X Tekken is definitely a "Street Fighter" game. Tekken players expecting familiarity with their favorite characters will be widely disappointed; despite having some of the same moves, these are Tekken fighters in the Street Fighter world, and they control like it. Combos often require frame-specific inputs and cannot be buffered to the extent that they can in traditional Iron Fist tournaments.

Street Fighter characters, on the other hand, should be immediately familiar and are extremely similar to their Super Street Fighter 4 counterparts, though not identical. Street Fighter veterans will have an easier time picking up and playing than Tekken alumni, but that's to be expected considering that this is a 2D fighter. At high levels, however, the learning curve is broadly the same across both teams. New mechanics like Cross Cancels and Cross Assaults, which allow the player to counter incoming attacks or attack with both characters simultaneously, apply to every character.

That being said, there is a bit of palatable Tekken zest in the recipe, specifically the game's tagging mechanics, air-juggle combos and Tekken Tag Tournament-style health bar (the round ends if either character on a team is knocked out). Juggles are one of the primary differences between the two series, aside from their dimensional count, and Street Fighter players will likely find extended juggle combos frustrating and/or infuriating to sit through. It's actually not entirely dissimilar to the juggle combo implementation in Mortal Kombat, although Earthrealm has appreciably less gravity than the world of Street Fighter.

A new gem system allow players to equip each character with up to three gems of varying types and effects, which can do anything from altering damage output to reducing damage received or increasing the amount of Cross Gauge meter earned during a fight. There are also gems that alter basic gameplay functionality by making input motions easier, or automatically blocking at the expense of the Cross Gauge. Each character is assigned two default sets of "sample" gems, but fastidious fighters will assign new gems that best compliment their team's character composition.

It's all fun to tinker with and serves as a great distraction for the theorycrafting types out there, but the shelf life of this heavily advertised addition is questionable. As with all talent or skill-tree systems, a "correct" build for each character will eventually be calculated and implemented, and anyone not using said build will be unable to keep up at a competitive level. This removes the illusion of customization inherent to such systems and negates the purpose of its existence. In other words, once the system is cracked, a high level player that wants to win will have as little control over their character's attributes as they would were the gems completely disabled.

It's frustrating, because Capcom has wasted development cycles on a very complicated mechanic that will ultimately nullify itself (at least for competitive players). If it's found that allowing any gem for any character greatly changes the game for the worse -- a likely possibility -- tournament organizers will either opt to disable gems entirely, or restrict players to a character's default gems. Had Capcom refrained from building an inconsequential, self-destructing gameplay mechanic, it might have had time to focus on fixing the game's inexcusably shoddy and sometimes literally broken presentation.

Capcom crafted entirely new netcode for Street Fighter X Tekken, which turns out to have been a mistake. During both PSN and Xbox Live matches, my opponent's sound effects were not played the majority of the time, and around half of my own moves fell deathly silent. This issue was consistent across every single round of every match, and was completely unaffected by my rival's signal strength, location or other variables.

It's broken, and disorienting to the point of being performance altering. Capcom is working on it, but I refuse to believe that this wasn't experienced during play testing, and am honestly disappointed that something so egregiously defective made it to retail.

I was also underwhelmed and frustrated by the game's archaic matchmaking system, which combines its lack of features with needlessly inconvenient UI design to create an experience that's almost more trouble than it's worth. The player is never given the ability to request a rematch, for instance. When a Ranked Battle is over, you're simply given your stats and kicked back out to the main network menu.

Why? If allowing rematches would somehow damage the integrity of the Battle Point ranking system, at least let me queue back up from the match summary page. It may only take a few seconds to navigate back through the menus and get back in line, but they're unnecessary seconds, and that's poor, inefficient design. I'm itching for another fight the very instant my current match ends, as is everyone else playing this game, and anything that gets in the way of that was a bad idea.

Other than Ranking Battles, your only other choice for solo online play is the Endless Battle system. This works the same way it does in Street Fighter 4: A room of eight people take turns fighting, two at a time, with the winner staying on for the next match. It's essentially the "I play winner!" ruleset that's existed in every living room since the dawn of time, and if you're playing with a group of close friends that really enjoy watching each other's matches, that's fine.

I don't play that way, however. I play online for practice, and having to wait my turn in a virtual living room is a boring, time consuming and ineffective way to do that. The superb lobby systems in Mortal Kombat and SoulCalibur 5 both allow for immediate, continuous matchmaking between available players, and the fact that SFxT has no comparable mode is straight up baffling.

Capcom has been in the game longer than anyone else and should be innovating in this space, rather than lagging behind. Needlessly, I might add, as I know for a fact that they can do better than this. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3's online implementation is nowhere near perfect, but at least it lets me request a rematch, for crying out loud.

The offline experience is just as disjointed and unfinished for the most part, at least until the actual match begins. There's framerate slowdown on the character selection screen, of all things, as well as the loading screen, which you'll spend quite a while staring at on account of Street Fighter X Tekken's lengthy load times.

Arcade mode also suffers from No Rematch Syndrome, sending the player back to the character selection screen after losing a match. Why not give me the option to immediately restart the match? I liked the characters I had, that's why I picked them, but now I have to sit through another loading screen while the time I spend not playing continues to pile up.

Trials mode suffers from the same inadequacies as the tutorial modes found in most other fighting games, in that it gives you a laundry list of commands with which to form a combo, but makes no effort to actually explain or demonstrate said combo's timing. This system wasn't much of an issue in Ultimate MvC3 since that game's combos are flexible when it comes to input timing, but in a frame-specific environment like Street Fighter X Tekken, it's not exactly helpful.

There is a silver lining, though, which is that actually fighting is pretty damn fun. The Tekken characters, while not particularly Tekken-y, are essentially 19 brand new Street Fighter characters, which adds a fantastic level of diversity to the rapidly stagnating Street Fighter 4 formula. It's also a blast to play new versions of classic-yet-underrepresented characters like Hugo and Rolento, who until now had been all but abandoned to the annals of Capcom lore.

The inclusion of a juggling system also does wonders for reinvigorating this particular flavor of subdued fighter; they may not be as impressive as Ultimate MvC3 air combos, but they're beyond anything you'll see in SSF4 in terms of flashiness and wow-factor. Combine that with other new mechanics like Pandora mode, where you sacrifice one character to dramatically empower the other, and you've got a fighting engine that's crazy enough to be engaging, but controlled enough to avoid overwhelming new players.

So long as it's consumed in an environment where all you're doing is playing offline, like at an arcade or in someone's living room, Street Fighter X Tekken's excellent engine is enough to carry the game. Delve any deeper, however, and that excellence serves only to highlight each tragic decision that frames it. Capcom has spent countless hours meticulously crafting the gaming equivalent of a Ferrari 458's V8 engine, only to shove it under the hood of a 1987 Chevy Caprice on cinderblocks.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Street Fighter X Tekken, provided by Capcom. Additional testing was done on a PlayStation 3 copy, purchased by Joystiq.

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This article was originally published on Joystiq.