Ultra Street Fighter IV: fists-on with the newest additions to Capcom’s cast

Publisher: Capcom Developer: TBC Format: PS3, PC, 360 Origin: Japan Release: June (360, PS3); August (PC)

Yoshinori Ono, Street Fighter IV’s grinning mascot producer, is off the project – as is, more worryingly, Dimps, the fighting-game specialist team set up by series creator Takashi Nishiyama to handle the development of each of iteration of Street Fighter IV to date. Capcom is unwilling to disclose the company working in its place, but whatever studio it is will benefit from a supremely balanced foundation on which to build this, the final update in Capcom’s flagship fighting series. Five new fighters – the fifth of whom is still yet to be revealed – bring the roster to 44 characters, the largest in the series’ history. Two new online modes, a handful of new stages and a host of re-rebalancing tweaks for the established cast aim to make this the perfectly balanced package, if such a thing were actually possible.

Three fundamental changes provide the greatest threat to that balance. The Red Focus Attack is a new, more powerful move available to every character. It can absorb multiple hits, instead of the single attack of the standard Focus. The cost for the additional defensive capacity is two blocks of special meter, but when any Red Focus Attack causes an opponent to crumple to the floor, giving every character in the game a way of comboing into Ultra, it’s a price worth paying.

Then there’s Delayed Wakeup, which lets you stay on the floor a little longer after a knockdown to put your opponent off their rhythm. It’s primarily designed to nerf characters like Cammy, Akuma and Ibuki who are at their most effective when an opponent is getting up off the ground, but making it a universal mechanic risks hurting those of the cast who need all the help they can get.

One look at Hugo confirms that the new fighters are no mere copy-and-paste from Street Fighter X Tekken. He’s cartoonishly bug-eyed and gurning throughout battle.

There’s help for everyone, however, in the new Ultra Combo Double system, which lets you take both of a character’s options into battle, rather than having to choose between them before a match. The tradeoff is that whichever one you deploy will do less damage, but the choice can offer huge benefits to certain characters. Zangief is the most obvious: one Ultra grabs grounded foes, the other snatches those that jump away, so taking both puts his opponent in a dangerous guessing game. Of the new additions to the cast, it’s Elena who’ll benefit most. She’s the only character to enjoy both offensive and defensive Ultras, the latter of which restores up to half of her health bar. The gigantic Hugo is comfortably the largest and slowest character in the game, but he compensates for his sloth with devastating power, though our hands-on confirms he is nowhere near the force he was in Street Fighter X Tekken.

Neither, thankfully, is Rolento, although he retains his infuriating hop move (in which he uses his baton as a pogo stick to alter the angle of his jumps) and has plenty of ways to combo into Ultra. Poison retains her hyper-sexualised SFXT animations (Love Me Tender sees her wrap her legs around a foe’s neck; Kissed By A Goddess triggers a kiss then a face slap and, finally, a kick to the groin) but she is the most immediately playable character of the new set.

With launch months away now that vague early-2014 release date has slipped to June, and most of the game’s new features fully working, Capcom and its mystery partner face the long and arduous task of balancing the game. It’s something that’s happening in closer collaboration with Capcom’s community than ever before through location tests across the globe. Daily builds show its commitment to getting this right – a necessity if this supposedly final iteration of Street Fighter IV is to stand the test of time like Super Street Fighter II Turbo and SFIII: Third Strike.