I picked up Street Fighter 4 a few days late and following a very brief go at 2-player with some friends on Monday, I managed to sit down for a couple of hours last night to try the single player game. As context, I was a huge fan of Street Fighter 2 (and the ‘Turbo’ version) on the SNES 15+ years ago now, completed it with every character and had regular matches with friends. It was a staple of my gaming when I was in my late teens and early 20s, so I didn’t consider myself a total noob. I was wrong.
The first thing I learned was that, despite it being at the very top of the main menu, Arcade Mode is most definitely not the place to start playing. This fact cannot be stressed enough - unless you’re (recently) highly experienced in the genre already, do not touch this mode with a barge pole for a while. I’m not quite sure how they’ve managed to calibrate the game quite like this, but anyone who thinks that ‘Easiest’ mode should be tuned the way it is in SF4 lives a very, very sheltered existence, possibly in a pagoda on top of a windswept mountain, doing nothing but playing Street Fighter all day. To me, ‘Easy’ means exactly that - the average uninitiated Joe should find it, well, easy enough to pick up and have fun. Street Fighter 4 seems to interpret the word entirely differently - that it should be easy for the game to turn the uninitiated player into a small lump of demoralised putty.
I did manage to get to the end boss (Seth) on my first playthrough on Easiest, with pretty much zero experience, but I did still need to use a few continues, thanks mostly to Abel (who had me cursing the 2500th time he did that same damn spinning throw move) and Rufus (fat git who tries to trap you in a corner and do continuous spin / somersault moves). Seth however, lets you beat him once and then basically fills the entire last 2 rounds with continuous, and I mean continuous, special or ‘super’ moves. He’s already an incredibly cheap character anyway - oh yeah, let’s make a final boss that can use any of the other characters moves, that’s original! - but the incredible sequence of specials just takes the cake. And on “Easiest”! To my mind, no character should be pulling off as many special moves in a fighting game on the easiest setting as Street Fighter 4 does.
Anyway, the answer was to stop cursing like a trooper and go play the other modes instead. Challenge mode is calibrated much more as you would expect, and introduces you to characters and moves more gradually, and more importantly, gives the rank amateur the opportunity to play with the move set and actualy win at a far greater frequency. After spending an hour with that, I’d managed to master Ken’s special moves on the 360 controller (which was new in itself), and could even pull off Super and Ultra combos with relative predictability (except under stress, when it matters most of course). The side benefit is that I’d calmed down and started to enjoy myself, which is something the Arcade mode seems deliberately designed to prevent the inexperienced player from doing.
Clearly SF4 is a game that requires a lot of practice, which is fair enough. However, the Easiest difficulty level on Arcade Mode is clearly very poorly judged, to the extent that I’d say it’s actually broken. Yes, you can get past many characters just with ‘Hard Kick’, but that’s a feature of the way the AI has been designed, ie badly at that difficulty level. Really the AI should just be slower to react, less aggressive, and allow you to experiment with your move set. Instead, on Easiest the AI is quite capable of pulling off focus attacks, fast counters and special moves by the truckload, particularly Seth but others do too - they just don’t block that well for quick, simple attacks so that’s why the Heavy Kick trick works. That’s really not a good game design for an Easy difficulty, because it makes it very hard to learn a bigger range of moves without getting your arse kicked. Instead you have to go to the other modes to get the practice you need.
I haven’t made up my mind whether I like the greater reliance on special moves in SF4 compared to SF2. At first I hated it, since I was invariably only on the receiving end of said moves, but after I learned to pull off Ken’s super moves it was actually pretty satisfying to do in Challenge Mode, and can take some of the desperation out of being on the losing end of a fight. Also since they’re not unblockable, and you get a bit of warning about them, it’s maybe not that unbalanced. Except Seth’s ‘sucking you into his stomach’ move which is just super-cheap; it’s blockable, but he always uses it when you’re in the air, and he doesn’t even need to be near you for it to work. Cheap, cheap, cheap.
So, on balance I can definitely see a good game in SF4, even if Capcom do their very best to hide it from anyone but hardcore players with a lot of time on their hands and a very high tolerance for electronic persecution. I totally refute the assertion in some reviews that it’s friendly to a wide range of players - only professional game reviewers who have no concept of what it’s like to spend your time doing something other than playing games could lay claim to that rather bizarre lack of perspective. Nevertheless, I think it is possible for regular people to like it given some practice, even if the game seems to be resisting that every step of the way. I went from ‘ready to put it on eBay tomorrow’ to having quite a bit of fun by playing Challenge Mode and 2 player. But clearly I shouldn’t go back to Arcade Mode until I’m more competent, since my blood pressure can’t take being that pissed off at a game for any length of time.