Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ultra Street Fighter IV (Capcom, 2014)

Ultra Street Fighter IV Cover

Historically, the final revision in a Street Fighter series has always been the most radical. Super Street Fighter II Turbo was the first game in the series to feature Super Combos, juggles, and the ability to soften throws. It also implemented the most drastic changes yet to individual characters’ move sets, most notably distinguishing Ryu and Ken by their new punches and kicks. Street Fighter Alpha 3 introduced multiple fighting styles (or “ISMs”), the Guard Power Gauge, Air Recoveries, two-button throws, projectiles that weakened as they traveled across the screen, and the most liberal juggle system in the series. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike added the Guard Parry (better known as “Red Parry”) and allegedly more pixel-accurate hitboxes via the “Progressive Hit Frame System.” Ultra Street Fighter IV, which is almost certain to be the last titular update to Street Fighter IV, continues this trend, being actually the first to introduce any significant mechanical alterations to an engine that had remained basically static through four editions.

Ultra Combo Double

The most obvious yet least meaningful new system is “Ultra Combo Double” (or “W Ultra”), which allows players to enter into a match having access to both of a character’s Ultra Combo options, rather than having to choose between them. In previous games (beginning with Super Street Fighter IV, when the second Ultra Combo was first made available), players had to consider the matchup and decide accordingly whether to go with a character’s more reliably damaging Ultra, or the usually “alternative” Ultra with perhaps special situational utility. In Adon’s case, for example, his Ultra II, “Jaguar Avalanche,” is much easier to combo into for heavy damage, making it definitely the preferred choice for offensive output. Ultra I, “Jaguar Revolver,” meanwhile, is a long-range attack that is easy to see coming, but it comes with the advantage of being able to travel through projectiles, allowing Adon to wield it defensively as a potential punish against fireball characters, who would otherwise give Adon a hard time. Ultra II is still the more useful in most cases, but now, with W Ultra, Adon players no longer have to trade utility for damage, or vice versa, but can actually enter into battle with the versatility of both. At least, that’s the selling point for W Ultra.

In actuality, W Ultra is merely a third choice now available, in addition to Ultra I and Ultra II. In order to keep things balanced (and not have W Ultra render the other choices obsolete), the price for choosing W Ultra is that the damage dealt by either Ultra Combo is reduced by a not insubstantial 25 or 40 percent, depending on the character (and “power up” Ultras, which do not deal direct damage, are equivalently reduced in duration). Thus, using Adon again as an example, the decision between Ultra I, Ultra II, or W Ultra comes down to whether you want utility, damage, or options. Damage generally being the priority in this game, Ultra II is the obvious choice in all but a few matchups. In those specific matchups, Adon players may consider going with W Ultra, if they need Jaguar Revolver to keep fireball-happy opponents in check, but don’t want to give up Jaguar Avalanche as a potential combo maximizer. You must also keep in mind, however, that, with the sting of both Ultras so lessened in W Ultra, an opponent may not even respect the threat that Jaguar Revolver is meant to pose. So perhaps you might just as well commit to Ultra I, if you’re going to have it at all.

Furthermore, Adon is actually a rare case in having a second Ultra that is still somewhat useful. The majority of characters, in this edition as before, have one Ultra that is clearly better than the other, so W Ultra is entirely pointless for them. There are only a select few cases—characters such as Dhalsim, who essentially have two utility Ultras (Ultra I as a momentum-shifter and escape tool, Ultra II as a situational punish)—that might gravitate toward W Ultra as a serious choice. And, even then, it’s not likely that you’re going to be able to use both Ultras in the same round, so you might just as well commit to one or the other, so as to clarify, for your own benefit, your objective and strategy for the match.

Red Focus

A far more significant addition is the “Red Focus Attack”—as its name implies, a souped-up version of the Focus Attack. Like the regular Focus Attack, Red Focus is a universal technique available to all characters. It has a few different applications. In previews, it was mostly presented as a defensive mechanism, able, like the regular Focus Attack, to “absorb” a foe’s attack. The user will still receive provisional damage (“white damage”) to their health, but they will not suffer any stun and can basically attack “through” the opponent’s attack. The difference with Red Focus is that it costs two bars of the Super Combo Gauge to execute, but, in exchange, it is able to absorb multiple hits (indeed, as many as the user has health). Unfortunately, it retains the regular Focus Attack’s susceptibility to throws and to Armor Breakers (character-specific attacks that cannot be absorbed). More importantly, there are very few situations that would actually justify holding a Red Focus long enough to absorb multiple hits, because the extended duration of the Red Focus would give the opponent ample time to react to the gambit.

The more useful application for Red Focus is as an offensive tool. In previous games, players could, at the cost of two bars of the Super Combo Gauge, cancel an attack of their own into a Focus Attack. Known as “EX Focus,” this was a way of slamming the brakes on your own move to cut it short and bypass the recovery phase. In Ultra Street Fighter IV, players can now also perform “EX Red Focus,” which costs three bars. The massive benefit of EX Red Focus is that, if it hits, it will “crumple” the opponent, setting them up for a followup attack. Thus, an effective use of EX Red Focus is to cancel into it as a combo, whereupon you can easily follow up with your most damaging combo against the crumpled foe.

This is a huge deal, as it means that suddenly almost every character in the game (ever-hopeless T. Hawk is the exception) now has the means to reliably land an Ultra Combo anywhere on the stage. Before, so many characters with poor offensive tools struggled because their most damaging techniques were highly situational, depending on the opponent being in just the right place at the right time. Either that or they required the player to master some high-execution combo (which would probably also be situational (e.g. only works in the corner)). Now, as soon as you have access to your Ultra Combo and three bars of Super Combo Gauge, it’s a simple matter of “land that hit, cancel into EX Red Focus, convert into Ultra Combo.” This doesn’t mean that suddenly every character can fight on an even level; it just means that even the weaker characters now at least have a puncher’s chance, if they can get enough meter and then land that clean hit. And, execution-wise, it’s as easy as almost any combo in the game, making this a more accessible edition of Street Fighter IV, as new players need only learn how to perform their character’s EX Red Focus combo in order to have that same puncher’s chance. Granted, it would still be an exceedingly slim chance for a newbie matched up against someone who has been playing the game competitively for the last five years.

Delayed Wake-up

For those high-level players, the most transformative change to the mechanics may be the ability to perform “Delayed Standing” (or “Delayed Wake-up” (DWU)). This is a new universal ability, whereby players, when their characters are knocked down, can opt to lengthen the amount of time it takes for them to get back on their feet (colloquially dubbed the “wake-up” period). The delay is subtle enough to be just about imperceptible to the untrained eye, but, in a game where movements are timed to the exact 1/60th of a second, this has drastic repercussions at the tournament level.

As the competitive game evolved over the course of the previous four editions of Street Fighter IV, the style that emerged as dominating toward the end was the “vortex” offense, most notably employed by Akuma and Cammy players. Essentially, these characters, once they knocked the opponent down, had a number of set plays that experts would time to run at the exact moment that the fallen foe would rise. The opponent could only guess which of the several plays was coming, and even guessing correctly would not yield a victory in the exchange; it would only mean successfully blocking the incoming attack—a draw, at best. On the other hand, if you guessed incorrectly, that would mean getting knocked down again, at which point the whole guessing game would start up once more. You were effectively caught in a “vortex” of repeated knockdowns, until you managed to guess correctly.

Delayed Wake-up at last foils the vortex, as the ability to vary one’s wake-up after being knocked down means that Akuma and Cammy players can no longer rely on set plays based on specific timing—at least, not without risk of being punished, if the Akuma or Cammy player guesses incorrectly whether the opponent is going to delay their wake-up. Thus, in Ultra Street Fighter IV, these guessing games have become a whole lot fairer, with actual risk and reward on both sides.

The Cast

The addition of Delayed Wake-up stifles Akuma’s offensive game somewhat, but, as with every new revision, Ultra Street Fighter IV also promises to reshape the competitive balance by bringing with it numerous changes to each character individually. This early in the game’s life, it is impossible to declare with any authority the new tiers and matchup charts. Not even the designers of a fighting game can accurately forecast how everything will shake out (or else somebody would have designed a perfectly balanced fighting game by now, which hasn’t happened). Nevertheless, with Evo 2014 running this weekend, what better time to speculate?

Based on the first few tournaments that have taken place for Ultra Street Fighter IV, it would seem that not too much has changed. The characters that were winning in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 are the same ones that are still winning now. But that may just be because it’s the same top players sticking with their signature characters. When Infiltration wins a tournament with Akuma, it may not say much at all about how strong or weak Akuma is. It may just be the case that Infiltration is a really strong player, who is really good with that character.

Rising in the community’s estimation is Evil Ryu. In the previous version, this was a character who could deal a lot of damage in a single combo, but that didn’t mean so much, because isolated combos were all he could hope for, whereas the vortex characters could cheaply multiply the damage they dealt. In Ultra Street Fighter IV, with Delayed Wake-up having dispelled the vortex, characters such as Evil Ryu, and perhaps also Dudley, who can deal damage in bursts, are worth a lot more than before, since even Cammy no longer gets free damage.

The supreme character, however, by a pretty clear consensus, is Yun. Yun was the dominant character two revisions ago in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Then he was nerfed for Ver. 2012 but was still a very strong character—among the group just below the elite tier of Akuma, Cammy, Fei Long. In Ultra Street Fighter IV, Yun has been buffed (some would say needlessly), the addition of Delayed Wake-up has hurt characters formerly above him, and, most significantly, Red Focus suits him especially well, as he builds Super Combo meter very quickly and has probably the easiest EX Red Focus combo of anyone. He is perhaps not as unfair as in Arcade Edition—he needs to take risks and can be out-struck in the neutral game (when both fighters are on their feet at a neutral range), which, between EX Red Focus and Delayed Standing, is where more of the action takes place in this edition—but top players and analysts are nevertheless already declaring him peerless in this game.

The new challengers have yet to make a mark on the tournament scene, and the outlook is not that bright for any of them. Hugo is the most fun and intriguing, as his design is very extreme. He has a few absurdly good aspects (an attack with tremendous range, which also blows through other attacks) and many absurdly bad aspects (he’s so big and slow that he can barely move without running into an attack). Elena and Rolento are pesky, but the former has limited offense, while the latter has practically no defense. Poison, a depressingly undistinguished character in Street Fighter X Tekken, has a good variety of projectiles to zone effectively in this game, but is still fairly middle-of-the-road overall.

Decapre, despite sharing many of Cammy’s basic traits, is an odd one. Unlike Cammy, she’s a charge character, which suggests she should be played more defensively. But she doesn’t have the counterpunching tools or quick self-launching attacks that charge characters typically possess. If you try to crouch in the corner with her, she has nothing that can command the opponent’s respect from that position. Or you can try to go in and play her like Cammy, but then you lose your charge. The closest comparison might be to Chun-Li, a charge character who fights on her feet at mid-range. Indeed, Decapre also has a rapid-button-press special move of her own. But then she lacks Chun-Li’s arsenal of excellent normal moves.

The most inscrutable part of Capcom’s rebalancing on Ultra Street Fighter IV is which characters got nerfed. Basically, it wasn’t any of the characters who were actually at the top last game. Akuma, arguably the best character in Ver. 2012 (and perennially a top 3 character throughout Street Fighter IV history), even got a few buffs. This is actually understandable, when you consider that the addition of Delayed Wake-up is already a major nerf to Akuma’s offense, and so Capcom probably figured he would need some individual improvements as a consolation to keep him from entirely plummeting in the rankings.

But then what about someone like Gen, by all accounts a mid-tier character? Gen was another fighter whose game plan revolved heavily around tricky setups against rising opponents, though to a far lesser degree of effectiveness than Akuma or Cammy. So the introduction of Delayed Wake-up deals a serious blow to him there. Gen’s other strength—the thing that allowed him to hang in there and make comebacks against the top characters—was his unique ability to combo his Super into his Ultra, allowing him to deal tremendous damage from neutral (i.e. not situational). The value of that ability has been negated now by the advent of EX Red Focus, which grants virtually every character a high-damage combo from neutral, and at the expense of fewer resources than performing a Super.

So, realizing that Gen would get screwed over by the universal systems changes, mightn’t Capcom have seen fit to compensate by giving him some good buffs? Not at all! In fact, if you check out Capcom’s official video detailing Gen’s balance changes, you’ll note that it proudly details the many nerfs that have been made to Gen. What’s so peculiar is that the video is presented from the perspective of Gen’s opponents, as it repeatedly makes mention of how players have complained about this or that when fighting Gen. Meanwhile, if you watch the Akuma video, it seems more sympathetic to Akuma players’ point of view, as it describes the changes that have been implemented to address their requests for better tools.

It just doesn’t make sense. Who were all these players whining about Gen being too strong? Maybe they would have had a legitimate case, if there had been multiple Gen players making top 8 at every major. But, no, there’s, like, one guy in the entire world who even places at tournaments using Gen. However, because that one guy, Singapore’s Xian, won Evo 2013 with Gen, it’s as though Capcom overlords, feeling threatened by this Gen player competing so far above his mid-tier character’s station, decided they needed to “restore order” by rigging the game against him.

It brings to mind 2001, when the NBA ruled to allow zone defense. Officially, the rule change was explained as intended to produce a more technical and artful style of basketball, taking it away from the superstar-dominated action of the ‘90s, when fundamental shooting and passing skills fell by the wayside, as instead a few physically gifted players could completely take over games with their relentless driving and above-the-rim athleticism. Quite a number of fans understood, however, that the rule change was really targeting one player specifically: Allen Iverson, at the time the most explosive scorer in the NBA. Yes, Iverson was practically impossible to guard man-to-man. Yes, his game amounted to a fairly simplistic and repetitive tactic of isolating the defender, then burning them with a devastating crossover on his way to the rim. But was Allen Iverson too good? Was he unfairly physically gifted? Please! Iverson was the only normal-sized guy on the court at most times, in a sport where you have to be a freak of nature in order to even be allowed the dream of competing professionally. But perhaps it was the very fact of his smallness—that he challenged established notions of what professional basketball was “supposed to” look like—that so upset the NBA’s old white guy judgemasters, such that they had to re-rig the game to stop him from winning so much, even though it was really the Lakers at the time who were the ones dominating the league.

No, I don’t seriously mean to suggest that there was some anti-Xian conspiracy behind the nerfing of Gen in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Sometimes fighting game designers make curious decisions, which seem clearly misguided in hindsight, simply because it’s impossible for them to exactly predict to what extent changing one move will affect a character’s overall viability. Still, what could possibly have been Capcom's rationale behind crippling the damage on Gen's already now-obsolete Super? And Gen’s not the only one. Why did they reduce Guile’s health, dragging him below the likes of Ryu and Ken and down into the soft range with most of the female fighters? Why did they increase the recovery on Sagat’s High Tiger Shots, effectively neutering the very essence of the character? These were mediocre characters in the last game, who needed help, not handicaps. The only weak characters who have been notably improved are Vega, who has received some upgraded ground tools, and T. Hawk, whose improved Condor Spire supposedly makes him quite frightening, although tournament results have yet to bear out such speculation in either case. Meanwhile, Cammy and Fei Long, top-tier characters in the last version, look to still be very strong, and Yun and C. Viper, characters formerly on the cusp of being top-tier, have been massively improved, which all seems very unfair.

But, again, it’s way too early to declare Yun unbeatable, or Gen hopeless. A few exceptional players, like Xian, managed to perform very well in Ver. 2012 with characters deemed mediocre at best. They dedicated themselves to learning all the intricacies of their chosen characters and got as much mileage as could be gotten out of what strengths they possessed. Maybe these specialists will learn new ways to push their characters even further beyond the popular perceptions of their limitations.

Or maybe Capcom will just rebalance things again in the near future! Despite Ultra Street Fighter IV’s billing as the final edition of Street Fighter IV, the fighting game community has already brought to Capcom’s attention a number of new bugs. And Ultra Street Fighter IV won’t even see a boxed retail release until almost a month after Evo 2014. With the game’s audience expected to expand considerably at that time, that might be a good opportunity to revise the balance once more and level the playing field, so that early adopters would have to relearn the game along with newcomers.

Et cetera

I would welcome more changes for the retail release, because, in its current form, Ultra Street Fighter IV doesn’t even feel like a finished product. In addition to the bugs, there is an overall lack of polish and lack of effort to this package. Mechanically, it may be the most radical revision to Street Fighter IV, but in other ways it is disappointingly the laziest.

There is no new intro video, and even the title screen still says "Super Street Fighter IV." Many of the menu screens do feature new background art, but I personally find the new art much uglier. The portraits for the new characters are also clearly done by a new artist, and while they’re not terrible, the style is noticeably and distractingly inconsistent with the artwork for the old characters. The new characters do get fully animated intro cinematics in Arcade mode (in contrast with the old characters, whose intros consisted of still images with animated elements), but these are basically worthless, since the game’s story and single-player modes are as garbage as ever.

The character select screen is the same as before, except for the addition of the new characters, which has been handled most poorly. The four Street Fighter X Tekken refugees have all been crammed together on the right, while Decapre takes the previously empty upper-left corner slot. This completely ruins the symmetry of the character select screen. Brothers Yun and Yang no longer mirror one another on opposite ends of the screen. Juri, in the second column from the left, remains the default character for Player 1, but the Player 2 default, Hakan, is located in what is now the third column from the right, offsetting the symmetry by one column. This is a minor thing, but the sloppiness of it really annoys me, especially since it would have been so easy to get it right.

On the bright side, one much appreciated new feature is the option to configure your buttons on the character select screen. Anybody who has ever watched a competitive Street Fighter stream is surely acquainted with the “button check”—that phase before a fight officially begins, when competitors enter a round only to configure and test their buttons, before exiting back out to restart the match for real. Waiting for people to get through their button checks can be a real drag for spectators. Giving players the option to check their buttons on the character select screen itself should speed things up considerably, though it won’t entirely eliminate the old button checks (some players will still want to practice their combos first, and some just use button checks to pysch themselves up before a match). Moreover, while the button config menu on the pause screen has always been set up in the “scroll to the function you want for each button” style, the new button config menu on the character select screen is presented in the “press the button you want for each function.” There are advantages to each approach, but this is the first game I’ve ever come across that actually provides both, which is very cool indeed.

Training mode has received some nice improvements, most significantly the ability to record and reload the training dummy’s actions and position, allowing players to more easily practice specific scenarios. Weirdly, there is no way to set the training dummy to automatically perform Delayed Wake-up, which is quite a glaring omission that will hopefully be remedied in a patch.

The most substantial new offline content comes in the form of the "Edition Select" mode, available only in offline Versus matches. Edition Select allows players to choose previous versions of characters, excluding minor or short-lived revisions, such as the early version of Ultra Street Fighter IV (where Dhalsim had a medium kick that hit twice) that was played in Japanese arcades for about a month. Edition Select is basically an edition unto itself, and it’s interesting to speculate on how characters from different versions might now interact to establish new tiers. Unfortunately, there’s not much to do but speculate, as Edition Select is, right now, a “just-for-fun” mode that has not been explored seriously at the competitive level (which is understandable, because there’s no way the community could embrace two versions of Street Fighter IV at the same time). In the few minor Edition Select tournaments that have taken place, players have consistently opted for the classic original Street Fighter IV characters. These are surely the cheapest characters to lazily win with, since they simply deal more damage per hit, so maybe Edition Select wouldn’t be that interesting as a tournament game. But who knows. Maybe if, in a year, the community manages to completely exhaust Ultra Street Fighter IV, it will move on to Edition Select as the new game.

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