Super Street Fighter IV
Street Fighter is always guaranteed to provoke a response. From the legions who will return the game in a week because of their disgust at repeated online batterings to those who will invest in an arcade stick costing hundreds of pounds and countless hours of their life, Capcom's iconic fighter is a dense, complicated arena of rules, moves, tics and ultra combo finishers.
It's an emotional game, one as diverse as the players who inhabit its strict world. New revisions to Super Street Fighter IV make is so eight players can sit around in the same multiplayer lobby, but the game's a one on one through and through - a true mano-a-Blanka, if you will.
The game's most dramatic additions over last year's incarnation, and also the one easiest to explain, are the 10 new fighters. They're a thoroughly fantastic bunch, and they bring Street Fighter IV's roster to a formidable 35. They're all unlocked from the start, too, which should come as a tremendous relief to many because it means players can sidestep the droll singleplayer mode entirely.
Alas poor Singleplayer: I knew him. He was Street Fighter's weak link and, other than a quick rinse for Achievements, I'm glad he's finally gone for good. Not even the returning car smashing mini-game is going to make me want to see him again. Goodbye forever.
When it comes to the new roster, it won't take long to find your new favourite. Dudley, the gentlemanly British boxer, stands out for me. He's built like Balrog with half the bulk and three times the finesse, with a fighting style of intricate target combos and half-circle specials and a right hook that hits like a brick steeped in cologne and wrapped in gold leaf.
Fancy something a bit more complex and you can get stuck into someone like Makoto. She's the slowest character of the game, but comes with raw, explosive specials that make the other player feel like they've been caught between two hit speeding freight trains.
Dudley and Makoto are both from Street Fighter III originally, of course, with the svelte and speedy Ibuki rounding out the pack. There's also Dee Jay and T. Hawk returning from Super Street Fighter II, but I didn't like playing as them back in the day and not much has changed. Still, I've been duffed up by the pair enough times in the past couple of weeks to know they're devastating in the right hands.
Street Fighter Alpha players will be one step ahead with Cody, Guy and Adon, who all make reappearances to the series. There's also Juri, who is a bit evil and uses a mixture of taekwondo and purple flames, and Hakan, who covers himself with cooking oil and slips and slides around the ring.
There's something for everyone, basically. That's why it works so well: just because a certain character doesn't click for you doesn't mean you won't get humiliated by someone using them as soon as you nip online.
Other changes look less flash on paper but are just as important to the overall game. All of Street Fighter IV's returning characters feel like they've had some work done, and current players will need to spend a couple of days familiarising themselves with new combo timings and adjusted power levels.
It all goes into creating a more aggressive game, where risk-taking often finds itself rewarded instead of brutally punished like it was in Street Fighter IV. Rushdowns and mix-ups have an added potency, and while last year's game felt like it favoured defensive play the new iteration makes the offensive/defensive weighting seem closer to that desirable 50/50 mark.
Each character also has a second ultra move. These high-powered attacks generally give players more of a choice when developing their style of play. Poster boy Ryu, for instance, can now pick between a super-powered Shoryuken and his signature giant Hadoken. If you're playing against someone who likes to jump in, then, it makes a good deal of sense to choose the former.
A fair bit of work has also been done under the bonnet, with Capcom focusing plenty of efforts on making the patchy online mode work with a greater degree of efficiency. Online play seems to be running on a less temperamental framework, with both matchmaking and stability given some much-needed spit and polish. The age-old problem of being unable to join certain games still makes a frequent appearance, but on the whole the whole process - finding, joining and playing - seems to have been vastly improved.
It doesn't mean you won't be matched up against legions of scrubby Akuma players, though. The sods.
Better netcode should make it easier for you to ascend the leaderboards, with winning in ranked matches giving you a handful of both Battle and Player Points. The latter steadily ticks up over time, but Battle Points are tallied up on an individual character basis, encouraging players to be creative and use the whole roster.
It's all very clever: Player Points, which decrease when a player records a loss, show a player's long-term commitment to the game and overall skill level and perfectly complement the Battle Points, which show the familiarity the player has with the current character.
There's also a greater choice in multiplayer options. Alongside ranked battles and unranked winner stays on lobbies is Team Battle mode, a round-robin series of eliminations that allows two teams of two, three or four to go toe-to-toe. A tournament mode will also arrive in June as free DLC, although specifics on that mode are still scant.
The learning curve is still ridiculously steep, but that's always been part of Street Fighter's charm. Capcom could (and probably should) have put a bit more effort into their training mode, though, and while the game offers up a cursory series of challenges to guide players through a character's moves and combos, it still provides no instructions or practical tips on how to implement the bevy of tricks and tools available at your disposal in an actual game.
A new replay channel goes some way to providing tutelage, and it's certainly nice to be able to scour your matches to work out where you've been going wrong. Capcom have missed a trick with this feature, though, by adding in very few options to determine what it is you'll actually be watching. You'll definitely be better off sticking to YouTube if you're looking for high-level replays of particular characters.
It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone, but learning the game isn't easy. Street Fighter has always asked a lot from its players, but its most important directive is that they keep in contact with others of a similar skill level. It's always possible to learn by losing, but the gradual process of refinement is a lot easier to swallow when you've also got a peer group of similar ability. It's not something to buy if you're just looking for a bit of a casual scuffle here and there.
Last year's game revived an entire genre, but this year's instalment smoothes over the odd crack and spruces the place up a bit. For the avid Street Fighter fan it's a definite must-have, but for anyone who's been sitting and thinking about learning the game - and I know there's a few of you out there - there really is no better time to get stuck in.
It's a big game, and one that requires a serious amount of dedication and commitment. You can't just dabble in Street Fighter, but you shouldn't really want to: spend a few hours trying to learn it and you'll be hooked for life. This is the epitome of hardcore gaming, a masterclass of competition that demands the upmost in technical proficiency and mental clarity. As my friend Dudley would probably say, it's a game with plenty of dignity.