Nearly eight years after Street Fighter 4 first hit Japanese arcades, Capcom has launched what it describes as the pinnacle of the publisher's flagship fighter, Ultra Street Fighter 4. I'm not going to argue that claim. Ultra Street Fighter 4 expands on its predecessors with more characters, more moves, more stages and more gameplay modes – and unless Comcast has suddenly become inexplicably generous with my bandwidth, Ultra Street Fighter 4 even features slightly improved online functionality.
Despite this, Ultra Street Fighter 4 will not end the perpetual argument over Capcom's tradition of updating its Street Fighter games with minor additions every few years. Some say it's a cynical cash in, while others claim Capcom's updates are aimed at (and can only be truly appreciated by) the hardcore fighting game community. For all its new features, Ultra Street Fighter 4 does little to make the game more inclusive to new players, and if you aren't already hooked on the publisher's particular brand of 2D fisticuffs, it's unlikely that Ultra Street Fighter 4 will convert you.
Gallery: Ultra Street Fighter 4 review screenshots | 11 Photos
The biggest additions in Ultra Street Fighter 4 are undoubtedly its five new cast members. When combined with the 39 fighters found in Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition, the full roster now stands at a very respectable 44 virtual combatants. More impressively, Capcom has gone to great lengths to differentiate these new faces from those we're already familiar with. For example, Decapre, the psychotic Russian who bears a striking resemblance to Cammy, plays almost nothing like the amnesiac Briton, and is better described as a fast, hyper-aggressive M. Bison alternative with highlights drawn from other speedy cast members. Hugo, a massive wrestler originally modeled after Andre the Giant, could have easily been a slight alteration of Street Fighter mainstay Zangief, and while both characters are focused on grappling attacks, Hugo's playstyle is far more deliberate, and requires more patience and precise timing from players (though this is countered by Hugo's arsenal of insanely damaging attacks).
Of course, none of these new fighters are truly original. Hugo, Elena, Rolento and Poison all appeared in Street Fighter X Tekken, and despite a few minor aesthetic changes (especially notable in the new DLC costumes), it's clear that Capcom has reused the same basic character models. Decapre, the most original additional, likewise borrows her base model from Cammy, though a complement of chains and a metal facemask lend the new challenger a far more menacing air. This trend of recycling assets continues in the new stages Capcom has included in Ultra Street Fighter 4. All six were likewise pulled from Street Fighter X Tekken, though unlike the characters, these stages have been altered, usually to make the backgrounds less distracting during battle.
That's where my list of complaints ends. Once you get past Ultra Street Fighter 4's "efficient" design style, you dig into the real meat of the game: combat. I've only spent a handful of days with Ultra Street Fighter 4, and won't claim it's either perfectly balanced or horribly off – it will take months of hardcore fighting game fans digging through the game's quirks to figure that out properly – but I will say that the handful of new combat features drastically alters how a given match might play out. The Red Focus Attack, for instance, offers additional armor over the standard Focus Attack without increasing its warm up time, making it that much easier to shrug off minor blows while powering up a devastating attack of your own.
While prior Street Fighter 4 entries forced players to choose from one of two Ultra Combos before each battle, Ultra Street Fighter 4 offers the option to go into combat with access to both, in the form of the Ultra Combo Double. The tradeoff here is that each will do less damage than if they'd been chosen by themselves, but having access to an extra, high-damage attack adds a wealth of tactical options to any character – particularly Elena who is able to launch into an impressive string of kicks, then regenerate a sizable chunk of health while her opponent lies in a crumpled heap.
The final major tweak, Delayed Standing, allows players to alter the amount of time they lie on the floor after a hard knockdown. Not only does this add a new layer to wake up mind games, but it also demonstrates that Capcom's focus in Ultra Street Fighter 4 is clearly on multiplayer combat, whether it be online or in meatspace reality. Though Delayed Standing is available in the various offline, single-player modes, it has no real effect on computer-controlled pugilists. They have no human brains, so there's no point in trying to guess at their expectations. On higher difficulty levels, the computer will totally ignore your attempts at subterfuge, and usually reward your efforts with a flurry of kicks, punches and physics-defying projectiles.
This apparent focus on multiplayer fisticuffs to the exclusion of all else is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's disappointing that Capcom has yet to introduce Trials for any fighters added to the game since the original Super Street Fighter 4. On the other, Ultra Street Fighter 4 offers a far more comprehensive, entertaining selection of online combat options than its predecessors. Team Battles split players into two groups, which then pair off until one of the squads is out of viable fighters. Online Training, while not a competitive gameplay mode, does a far better job of preparing players for the rigors of online combat than the offline Training mode. You can learn a lot by hooking up with a more experienced player, then spending a few hours practicing your attacks and defensive maneuvers in an environment where neither fighter is in danger of being knocked out. Online Training has worked wonders for my embarrassingly latent stick skills, and given its freeform nature, there isn't any aspect of the game that you can't learn from a proper online practice session.
For a specific audience, Ultra Street Fighter 4 will be greeted as a godsend. It improves on nearly every flaw of Super Street Fighter 4, while giving fighting game aficionados enough to dissect and examine for months, if not years to come. Is it perfect? No, not at all. Capcom should have added additional polish, those aforementioned Trials, and maybe a single wholly new character. But Ultra Street Fighter 4 delivers where it counts. Capcom's trademarked brand of two-dimensional combat is as sharp and refined as it's ever been, and while a final verdict on character balance won't be available until the pros spend a few months poring over the game, any fans playing purely for fun won't be disappointed by the apex of Street Fighter 4.
This review is based on an Xbox Live download of the Xbox 360 version of Ultra Street Fighter 4, provided by Capcom. Ultra Street Fighter 4 is available as downloadable content for Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition. A boxed retail version will be available in August.