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GDC08: hands-on with Street Fighter IV


After playing Street Fighter IV on its (fantastically expensive) arcade cabinet at GDC for well over an hour, I can't help but feel like Capcom will soon pull off one of the best cons in gaming history. You see, if you've played Street Fighter II then you've essentially played Street Fighter IV. There are a few differences, of course -- we'll get to those in a minute -- but for the most part it's the same game it was nearly two decades ago. There's a common axiom that states, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," or in Capcom's case, "if it ain't broke, keep repackaging it and selling it to the same people over and over again." That's basically what Street Fighter IV does once again. My would-be journalistic sensibilities tell me I should be angry about that. Honestly though, I was having too much fun to care. Hence, a con.

Playing Street Fighter IV is like visiting an arcade (remember those?) in the mid-90s. Capcom's trademark rock solid controls, flamboyant characters, super moves, it's all there. It's more closely aligned with the original series than, say, Street Fighter Alpha. Don't expect any huge chain combos or extreme juggling. Combos are small and mostly rely on the tried and true 2-in-one system, which allows players to fire off an attack while performing a special move (like having Ken follow up a crouching fierce punch immediately with a fireball, for example). There is no air blocking (though certain characters do have air throws) and there aren't midair combos either.

Traditional super moves make return. Rather than choosing them before a round as in SFIII, each character has two from which to choose at any given time, assuming the combo gauge is full. It's also possible to power up normal special moves by using two buttons instead of one. This causes special moves to do two hits instead of one, but it also drains some of the combo gauge.

Removed from the game is the parry system introduced in Street Fighter III, which allowed players to negate all damage and counter an attack if they were quick enough. In its place is the new saving attack, which a rep told me is being renamed focus attack for North America. To initiate a saving attack, one has to press both the medium punch and kick buttons simultaneously. Holding down the buttons allows players to charge the attack for up to approximately one second. If fully charged, the attack is unblockable and will knock opponents to their knees, opening them up to a free combo, though they will collapse if the attacker doesn't act fast. While charge moves are nothing new, what makes the saving attack interesting is that it allows players to absorb one attack without stopping the attack. Because of this, it's possible to use the saving attack as a sort of counter. This is still a dangerous strategy though, as any follow up attack will interrupt the saving attack. Still, with practice, saving attacks could easily become one of the most important elements in the game.

Finally, there is also a new revenge meter, which fills as players take damage. When full, it allows for the use of devastating super combo.

The full Street Fighter II cast makes a return in SFIV, and players should instantly be instantly familiar with old favorites. Ken is Ken, Blanka is Blanka, and Zangief is the same mad Russian he's always been. Pick your favorite, pull off your standard combos, and enjoy. Abel is currently my favorite of the two new characters. He utilizes a fast wrestling system (I'm pretty sure it's Judo) that feels a lot less ponderous than other heavy characters like Zangief. Abel's most interesting special move is a custom two hit combo followed by a throw. Both the combo and the throw can alternate between high and low attacks, which allows players to mix it up. He also has a throw that pulls opponents directly out of the air and a special throw that requires spiral joystick input akin to Zangief's spinning pile driver. Crimson Viper, whom I actually didn't try, uses several dashing maneuvers and a ranged shock wave attack.

But enough of all this talk about gameplay. What about the fancy "three-dee" graphics we keep hearing about? I can safely say that screenshots really don't do the game justice. In motion, Street Fighter IV has a lot going for it. Character animations are top-notch, and 3D does allow for detail that was never seen in previous iterations. You'll notice facial expressions change depending on the situation. For example, when moving towards and opponent, Blanka's face is contorted in a snarl. When backing up, he looks almost timid, as though he's afraid of the beating to come. The touches are subtle, but definitely cool. There are also lots of background details to notice, like a dog stealing a chicken from a vendor's stand in Chun-Li's busy China street.

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