There is perhaps no series quite as famed as Street Fighter when it comes to numerous upgrades and increasingly “creative” titles - to the point that Capcom even came up with its own parody, in Dead Rising 3’s DLC, Super Ultra Dead Rising 3 Arcade Remix Hyper Edition EX Plus Alpha. There are only a handful of core games in the Street Fighter series, but they span almost 20 individual releases; Street Fighter II alone has seen seven different versions, each improving on the one before it with new characters, modes, and balance changes.
Street Fighter IV is keeping up that proud tradition, and is up to its fifth release, Ultra Street Fighter IV. Thankfully, this title is less of a mouthful than the previous version: Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Version 2012.
As with previous updated releases, Ultra SF4 introduces a number of changes. Most noticeably, there are five new characters, rounding out the roster to an impressive total of 44; Rolento, Poison, Hugo, and Elena all make the leap from Street Fighter X Tekken, joined by a brand new character, Decapre.
The irony here is that the new characters are probably the least meaningful change brought about with the Ultra update. Sure, they’re interesting from an artistic perspective (Poison is one of the best things to happen to Street Fighter, ever), but Rolento is really the only one who brings anything new to the table in terms of playstyle. The others all feel like rehashes of existing characters; Poison and Elena play very similarly to each other, and to Rose and Chun-Li, who already had a lot of overlap. Hugo is a lot like Zangief - which is to be expected, given that he was 'Gief's replacement in Street Fighter III.
Decapre, the "new" character, is the worst offender. She's a clone of Cammy, both in plot terms and in her blatant reusing of Cammy's assets. Her model is, quite literally, just Cammy's with a mask on her face and a Nazi-like Shadaloo armband, and many of her moves are identical.
All these characters have their unique moves and qualities, of course, but the exception of Rolento, none of them really feel like they’re adding anything new to the game. This isn’t unusual for Street Fighter, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
A roster as big as Ultra Street Fighter IV’s will certainly be enticing for a lot of players, and makes for great advertising, but I can’t help but feel Capcom are simply adding characters for the sake of it, and that the game suffers for it. I’ll take a small, but carefully crafted roster like that of Killer Instinct or Guilty Gear Xrd over a huge stable of copycats every time.
Much more worthy of the “ultra” label are the new mechanics that the update brings: Red Focus Attacks, which allow a player to absorb and counter a string of attacks, and Ultra Combo Double, which gives a fighter access to both their Ultra Combo moves, instead of being forced to choose one at the start of the match.
Both of these have a massive impact on the game and the metagame (the overall picture of which characters are strong, which aren’t, and how they relate to each other), even if it’s not immediately apparent. Red Focus Attacks are a potent counter to the common strategy of using multi-hit moves or a series of fast, weak jabs to beat attempts at a regular Focus Attack, which can only counter single hits.
Ultra Combo Doubles, meanwhile, give fighters a bigger set of tools to work with in a match. They’re particularly useful for characters who have two Ultra Combos that are equally useful, but best used in very different situations.
Take Zangief as an example: both his Ultras are grabs (unblockable attacks that can only connect from very close range), one that only works on the ground, and another that only works in the air. Previously, it was fairly easy to avoid whichever Ultra a Zangief player chose - stick to grounded attacks when the airborne one is chosen, and aerial attacks when the grounded one gets picked. But with Ultra Combo Double, someone going up against the 'Gief has to respect both air and ground ultras, making that much harder to safely attack.
More subtle, but no less important, are a raft of balance changes to the existing characters made in consultation with the game’s competitive community. Some of the more powerful ones, like Cammy and Fei Long, have been “hit with the nerf bat,” so to speak, and are toned down. But most have received some welcome buffs, which will be sure to even out the playing field.
While these improvements are welcome, it’s a shame to see that many of the ‘quality of life’ problems that have been plaguing Street Fighter IV for six years are still left unresolved. The menus aren’t exactly user friendly, requiring far more inputs than necessary to do basic things like change the controller configuration. They're also full of minor, but annoying, little quirks, like not being able to access video and audio settings from anywhere but the main menu.
The questionable netcode used for online play is much more concerning; it's never been spectacular, but is now far outstripped by Street Fighter IV’s peers. All the online games I’ve played - even those with three out of four bars for the connection quality - have been laggy to the point of being unplayable. Admittedly, I’ve been unable to get any matches with players from New Zealand or Australia so far, which are likely to be a better experience. But with games like Killer Instinct out in the wild, which offers almost flawless online play, even with players on the other side of the Pacific, Ultra Street Fighter IV’s netcode just doesn’t hold up.
And then there’s the cost factor. Sure, Ultra introduces some welcome improvements to Street Fighter IV’s formula, but it’s hard to justify these coming through a paid-for update instead of a free patch, like Arcade Edition 2012. One could argue that the cost is mostly to do with the new characters, but considering how little they actually add to the game, and the limited resources that Capcom committed to them, this is still hard to justify.
This is a particularly painful kick on the pants for PlayStation 3 players, who have to buy the whole standalone game even if they already have Super Street Fighter IV, due to the update not being available in Australia and New Zealand.
In the end, Ultra Street Fighter, while good, doesn’t quite live up to that Ultra name. The new mechanics and balance changes will keep the game fresh for months to come, but the new characters - which are largely the reason this is a paid update and not a patch - bring next to nothing to the game.