Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Street Fighter X Tekken (PlayStation 3) (Capcom, Dimps, 2012)
This game is trash.
Okay, let me back up there a second. At the competitive level, Street Fighter X Tekken is definitely the worst fighting game that Capcom has released since Capcom vs. SNK 2 (2001) at least. Capcom and producer Yoshinori Ono were clearly counting on this game superseding the Street Figher IV (2008) series and lasting a few years as the major title in the fighting game community. They gave it a heavy push, including highlighting it as the main event game at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament. If you watched any of the play from that tournament, however, or from the last two Evo championships (don't expect to see it back at Evo next year), then what you saw was a game intolerable to spectate, and quickly abandoned by the community, but for a few players likely competing for prize money rather than out of any fondness for the game. Among many in the competitive scene, the game just never caught on in the first place, because, whereas it usually takes at least a couple tournaments before a new game's brokenness at the highest level is exposed, even an SFxT novice playing casually against the CPU is certain to come up against the game's most egregious design flaw.
Far too frequently do rounds end by time over. Do the math and there seems to be an obvious issue that should have been caught and addressed well before the game ever saw release. By default, the clock starts with the same amount of time (99 seconds) as other Street Fighter games, and it runs down at the same speed. But, in a typical one-on-one Capcom fighting game, they grant you that much time to KO one character. In the two-on-two tag-team SFxT, you potentially have to beat two characters within that same amount of time. You can be laying a beatdown on your opponent's first character, and then, within an inch of taking them out, you see them manage to tag out, at which point you're almost starting from square one against a new character with full health. You may even see advantage shift dramatically against you, depending on how much health your first character lost in that effort to get to just short of victory. It can be a demoralizing moment, and this is something you'll encounter even without delving deeply into the game.
Of course, the popular Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a three-on-three game, and it runs according to an elimination format, meaning that a player is not beaten until all three of their characters are knocked out (unlike SFxT, where the round ends as soon as one character goes down), so you'd think that game would have the same issue to an even worse degree. The clock is a factor in MvC3, and tournaments see a lot of matches ending in time over, yet it is not an inordinate percentage, and running out of time is never an aggravating inevitability as in SFxT. It's not just that SFxT gives players too much work to do in too little time. It's how that time gets spent that makes SFxT such a joyless experience when playing to win. In SFxT, the clock is the most important factor (more critical than your super meter or even perhaps your health), and, as a result, every player ends up playing the "run down the clock" game.
Because, when your opponent tags out their nearly dead character for one with full health, you're actually not starting from square one. Between you and your opponent's active characters, they may have the lead now, but if you still hold the overall life lead (meaning the sum of your two characters' health is greater than the sum on your opponent's side), then theoretically, if the match were to end right then and there by time over, you would be declared the victor. And, after wearing down their first character, you probably are much closer now to the clock running out than to being able to take a second character down to zero health. So the play is obvious. Don't go for the KO—that ship has sailed—but hold that lead and run the clock down. And, unfortunately, it's pretty easy to hold a lead and run the clock down in SFxT.
In MvC3, a healthy character can be KO'd in a single combo, and momentum tends to stay with the player holding the numbers advantage, so eliminating three whole characters in under a minute is not unreasonable. SFxT has, as Capcom's nod to the Tekken series, some lengthy combos of its own, with characters routinely losing half their health in a single string, so you might think that, just as in MvC3, time would not be such an obstacle, especially since you don't even technically have to KO more than one of the opponent's two characters. But MvC3 operates at lightning speeds, and the assist system has multiple members of a team attacking in tandem. There's just too much crap to track and react to on defense, so you're encouraged to be aggressive and open up the other player first before they can open you up. That's not the case in SFxT, where characters move and attack at more normal Street Fighter speeds. If you can find an opening, then, yes, you'll have a chance at a combo that will drop the receiving character's health dramatically. But, when you're behind and trying for a comeback, that's a big "if" in SFxT, where defensive play is relatively safe and easy.
The Tekken Tag Tournament games, whose tag-team format SFxT may be more closely modeled after, surprisingly also don't have anywhere near such bad clock issues. Tekken has never really had much of a range game. Characters are always in each other's faces, and defense is harder because you can't just block the majority of attacks by guarding low. SFxT, like other Street Fighter games, is full of projectiles, and characters can cover a lot of ground backward almost as quickly as forward, enabling a defensive "run away" style of play that would be extremely impractical in Tekken.
Although the designers of SFxT probably had noble intentions in trying to craft a game that, mechanically, would honor both Street Fighter and Tekken, the result only proves how incompatible the two styles are. It's hard to imagine how it could have been handled better. You could slow down the clock or add more time, but the pace of the game already drags so much; you don't really want matches to last any longer than they already do. Lowering characters' health wouldn't really help, because combos already do far more damage than in a normal modern Street Figher game, and, anyway, the problem isn't that characters take too many hits to KO; the problem is that the game so favors a low-risk defensive approach that it takes too long to land a clean hit. If anything, the high-damage combos only further encourage low-risk play, because players are so wary of losing a big lead very suddenly that they don't loosen up even when way ahead. That heightened wariness even encourages competitors to play defensively before either has the lead. Competitive play thus typically begins with players "respecting" one another—each just twitching at the fringes of the other's range, because neither wants to risk making the first move—for several seconds. Then, eventually someone does land that first huge combo, whereupon the player with the lead may try for the KO, until the opponent switches out. At that point, the player with the lead goes full-on into "turtle" mode, while their opponent must take all the risks the rest of the way to chase them down and try to break through those defenses.
It's a shame, because SFxT does have a lot of things going for it. I bought it when it came out, played it for a weekend, and had fun with it when I wasn't trying to play seriously. For someone like me, who has always appreciated the artistic elements of Tekken rather better than I have ever been able to enjoy the gameplay, it's a treat getting to play the Tekken characters in an engine much more familiar to me. The looser, Tekken-inspired combo system can also be gratifying for casual players who struggle to link attacks in the mainline Street Fighter games. Much of the game's art is carried over from SFIV, only with less of a cel-shaded look, but the vaguely Namco-esque CG-animated cut scenes are a significant step up from SFIV's hand-drawn cinematics. The "Gem System," on the other hand, allowing players to equip their characters with selected power-ups during pre-match configurations, is not one of the game's brighter ideas; the interface is so cumbersome that matches start dragging at the character select screen.
The game's best feature, by far, is its support for multiple players on the same team, allowing up to four players to go at it in true two-on-two matches. This was something I loved in Street Figher EX3, and I always wanted to see it in a more traditional Street Figher game (which SFxT kind of is, as far as its physics and its cast). I even feel that four-player is how SFxT is meant to be played. Not that it fixes the game's core problem, but turning Street Fighter into a team competition produces genuinely a different experience in a genre that has otherwise not fundamentally changed in twenty years (not that it needs to).
In fairness, I can't say that a game that favors safe, patient, defensive play—even one that consistently ends in time over—is objectively bad or broken. I do find it extremely boring, and I think a boring game is bad. SFxT's failure to catch on with the community, which, five years since SFIV's debut, is still playing some version of SFIV, seems to support my position on that. It is unfortunate that the game's unexpectedly short lifespan has left Capcom without anything else to relieve SFIV but yet another (rather half-assed) update to SFIV. Oh well. Bring on Ultra Street Fighter IV anyway.