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Street Fighter IV

Hands-on with Ryu and friends

Very few gaming series can boast a pedigree as rich as Street Fighter's, and while Capcom has mined a rich seam of downloadable releases even in the technically lavish "next-generation" age, it is surprising that there was still resistance to a new 'numeric' installment within the Japanese publisher, who perhaps saw the series best-utilised from sepia-tinted downloadable perspective. Producer Yoshinori Ono had faith, however, and managed to persuade the powers that be to back not only a new arcade Street Fighter outing, but also a release on home consoles, too. We first played the results of this renaissance in early 2008, and over the festive season we finally got our sweating, RSI-addled fingers on a preview build of the beat 'em up. "Saiko!" as the Japanese are wont to exclaim.

The preview code we've been enjoying isn't a final build, but does offer a cross-section of the game's environments and characters, as well as a firm insight into the nature of the gameplay itself. Ono hasn't created a "new" Street Fighter before, but despite this fresh perspective its clear that the producer is a firm fan of the retro classics of-old, and isn't about to try and reinvent the wheel. Street Fighter IV is certainly more than Street Fighter II with pretentious next-generation visuals, but it goes to great lengths at the same time to ensure that the baby isn't dispensed with the bath water.

Upon loading up the PS3 build Capcom provided, the first thing noticable are inevitably the visuals. Street Fighter IV is looking slick and refined in a way the series seemed almost at pains to avoid in past incarnations. The resources lavished upon the new-look title are apparent from the outset, the game twinkling with polished presentation, menus, art and video-sequences all fitting perfectly into the new style Capcom have clearly spent considerable time honing.

Other Capcom favourites like Okami have seemingly been an influence, the game featuring lavishly detailed and animated 3D models, finished with a hand-drawn effect, complete with occasional hints of brush-stroking. The effect is to create a colourful manga-like world, but one that through its exuberance and stylisation is very clearly still a Street Fighter game. From what we've seen the designers appear to have pulled off quite a feat on the graphical front. Street Fighter IV will potentially delight those that get misty-eyed reminiscing over Street Fighter II, while at the same time everything has the 'evolved' look of a proper next-gen game, essential if Capcom are to sell the new beat 'em up to the legions of less crinkly gamers out there.

If the visuals have been most obviously overhauled, the gameplay alterations at play are far more subtle - occasionally undetectable in fact. Furious button pressing, blocking and combo-seeking is the still the meat of the action, while some of the special moves are once again a delight to execute. Instead of radically changing things on this front, and risking the wrath of old-school fans, Capcom have instead expanded and tweaked. More characters, for example, are available to play with and against - and new faces, along with fresh trademark moves should add longevity, as well as fiery pub debates over favourite fighters.

Abel, Crimson Viper, Rufus and the exuberant El Fuerte all arrive as new characters, which seem for the most part to stay true to the traditions of the series. Likewise, the hidden fighters Seth, Akuma and Gouken should also add some outlandish fun to the proceedings. Of course, all the stalwarts from past titles, and their respective styles, make the cut - lead by the likes of Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, E. Honda and Blanka - while the special moves performed by the likes of Dhalsim, Guile and Balrog have never looked so good.

A few slightly more obscure characters from the series' past also make it into the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Street Fighter IV, including Dan, Fei-long, Sakura, Cammy, Gen and Rose. Not all of these fighters were present in the preview code, but we did take Sakura for a spin, our young heroine looking rejuvenated in Japanese schoolgirl get-up. At this point, a word on the animation seems apt, the game's creators having obviously worked overtime to create an experience of deceptive variety, each character moving in a unique manner - while once again staying true to the outlandish cartoon stylings of Street Fighter's past.

Two player tussles remain the ultra-competitive slogs they always have been, while the AI fights are still all about finding the right approach based on your competitor's style and actions. Capcom have made some attempts to alter gameplay, albeit very subtly, via the addition of Focus Attacks, which add another layer of tactics to battles, and should in theory prevent players using repetitive moves ad nausium. The impact of this new system, which allows players to absorb an attack and launch a counter attack remains to be seen, and Ono has in the past assured that this isn't the death of linked moves and combos, but is simply another tool in the player's arsenal.

Capcom have also bolted-on a Revenge Guage, which fills as players take damage but then allows them to hit back with almighty Ultra Combos just when all looks lost. Successful use of this feature is quite a sight to behold, the camera swinging to a more dramatic perspective as you surge back, hammering your opponent in spectacular fashion which can often see tussles reaching a shock outcome. Then there are the Super Combos from Street Fighter II Turbo, which instill yet more variety, although as I've stipulated to the point of boredom none of this really changes things.

This is Street Fighter for the purists. A colourful, fun-filled, button-a-thon, complete with absurd characters, lavish if unimportant exotic backdrops and a firm focus on polished arcade excellence. How the final product sits together remains to be seen of course, but we're not expecting any surprises: time to brush up on those combos guys and girls. We'll deliver a full review in February.

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