Street Fighter 4 is finally here, with several perfect 100/100 reviews. Here's a few things I noticed about the game.
In ranked matches, you can see the opponent's name before the match and kick them or reject the challenge. This allows you to cherry pick who you fight and negates the entire purpose of a ranked match.
In ranked matches (well, all matches) there is no double blind character select. This means the optimum strategy is often to wait until the opponent chooses first so you can counter-pick. This is a very annoying situation.
When lag inevitably happens in an online fighting game, there are different ways to handle it. Some SF4 matches I played had large input delay, maybe as high as 15 frames. This is the time between your button press and seeing the effect happen. Adding input delay is really the worst way to handle lag. GGPO's amazing netcode shows that avoiding input delay and hiding lag in other ways is the way to go. That technology has been readily available for years, so it's disappointing to feel input delay in an online match.
The button config screen is "the wrong way." The right way is for the screen to list functions, then you press the buttons you want to assign. The wrong way is to list buttons, then you scroll through lists of functions to assign. The reason that one way is right and the other way is wrong is pretty clear when you watch people try to configure buttons. I've had to watch what must be thousands of people do this over the years in all the tournaments I've helped run (not to mention local gatherings). When the config screen says "Jab" and requires you to press the button you want, you just press the upper left button on your stick (or whatever button on your gamepad). This is a one-step process. But if the screen lists "X" and then requires you to scroll through functions until you find jab, it requires a two step process. You have to know which button on your controller is labeled "X." When this screen is the right way, no one has to know if the upper left button happens to be X or A or B or whatever else.
If you think this is negligible, you have never seen people set buttons. The wrong way turns what should be a 3 second task into a fairly confusing affair. Yes I know the wrong way allows you to have lots of functions in your list, but this can be done the right way also.
On to gameplay issues. The jumps have strange acceleration to them. While that's subjective, look at Zangief's jump that seems to have the acceleration of a flea. (Incidentally, why does his splash not stay out the whole time in the air?). Also, getting hit out of the air is extremely floaty, which means it takes unusually long to get back to a state where you can actually move again. This "moving in jello" feel is reinforced by many throws that have dead time at the end when it seems like you should be able to move (see Vega's for example).
The size of the stages is extremely large relative to the size of the characters. This helps runaway tactics.
Optimizing for the 1% rather than the 99% case. There's two examples, the first is tech recover (quick get up from a knock down). 99% of the time, I want to get up fast, but this is the action that requires button presses. Why not admit that getting up fast is the intent and make it default, unless the player holds down some buttons to get up slow? That's how it works for Robo-Ky in Guilty Gear, by the way. Incidentally, don't the two kinds of get up timing only lessen the importance of knockdown by allowing you mess up the attacker's timing a bit? Like the decision to have large stages, this seems not to favor offense.
Next is the 2-button throw, a bad idea in fighting games with 2D gameplay. 3D Fighting games are different beasts, so they are excused here, but note that even Dead or Alive offers a macro to turn its 2 button throw into a 1 button throw...and maps that macro to a face button by default. Anyway, 2 button throws solve a non-problem that no one has ever actually had. That's the problem of accidentally throwing and being sad about it. Street Fighter 2, Guilty Gear series, and Street Fighter Alpha 2 all demonstrated that 1 button throws work just fine and don't actually create any problems. Adding a second button press just adds complexity where it's not necessary, and helps nothing. (Edit: it does add a throw whiff which could be a good thing, but simpler is still better...)
Other non-problems we might solve in 2D fighting games would be to make blocking 1 button and jumping 1 button (each are traditionally zero buttons). We certainly could add those button presses, but it would make more sense to reduce the button presses to as few as possible: zero to jump, zero to block, and one to throw.
It's especially unfortunate that Cammy's hooligan throw requires a 2-button throw in the middle to complete it. Why exactly is this necessary, rather than one button?
2 button throws actually introduce the problem of kara-throws, a bug from SF3 that we now have again in SF4. This is when you cancel a forward moving attack a frame or two into it with a throw command in order to greatly extend your throw range. Do the designers want a long throw range or do they not? If they don't kara throws shouldn't be in the game. If they do, then base throw ranges should be extended for all players, not just the ones who input a difficult command.
Another similar bug is the chain combo cancel bug. As an example, consider Sakura. Low short does cancel into special moves. But if you rapid fire the low short (do it 2 or 3 times quickly each one cancels the last) then you CANNOT cancel the last hit into a special. I'm not saying this is a problem at all, necessarily. This restriction is there for good reason: to prevent the game from degenerating into low short -> big damage stuff. It would make more sense to give players a reason to start combos with bigger moves sometimes. Guilty Gear does a great job of this by reducing your entire combo's damage by 20% for each low short. (Hey Guilty Gear players, I know I'm simplifying there.)
Ok so what's the problem, sounds good that you can't do low short, low short, special move, right? But you can do it. If you make the last short a link rather than a chain (do it slowly, but not so slow that it doesn't combo) then you can cancel it into a special move. So really, you can get around this restriction if only you have high dexterity skills. Now, this is also true in ST and SF HD Remix, but that's not so much intent as what we were stuck with. For an entirely new game, I'm surprised to see this still there. I'm even more surprised to see combos that use this in the challenge mode, meaning the developers know about it and accept that low short is really this powerful. SF4 Sakura, for example, can low short, (link), low short, ex shoryken, ultra. She can do a lot more than that, but you get the idea.
This issue of rapid fire moves using a bug to cancel into specials is actually minor compared to the next topic though, a topic that will dominate much of the game: link combos in general. The game is filled with difficult 1-frame links. These are moves that just barely combo into each other with 1/60th of a second timing. In high level play, players will master these and they become common. So Sakura doing low jab, (link), low fierce, short helicopter kick, (link) low short, ex shoryuken, ultra for 50% will be common. One friend of mine already does this combo in real matches after only 2 days of playing, as well as other scarily damaging combos off low short that involve hard links.
Other examples, Ryu can now link low short, low jab, low forward. He can also link low strong, low strong, low roundhouse. Linking is the name of the game, which actually makes the game closer to CvS2 than to 3s or ST. The effect of all these links is to hide the actual game behind an impenetrable wall of execution. If you practice (ie, develop 1p skills unrelated to strategy and unrelated to interaction with the opponent) then you gain access to the real game, a game of high damage off small hits, but only for the dexterous.
Of course some level of this is inherent in just about every fighting game. It's a question of how far to turn the knob towards 1p activities and away from strategy. Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo has dexterity requirements of course, but winning tournaments while using zero or very few link combos is entirely possible. That simply isn't the main focus of the game. The existence of many, many new links in SF4 shifts the focus toward that though.
Next up, we have ultras. All I'll really say here is that in real matches I find myself having to pump qcf x 2 over and over looking for the right moment to do the ultra. When I find that moment, I have to complete the qcf x 2 command with PPP. Let's hope I don't press PP in those moments, because that command gives me a super, which is an entirely different move. I'm not sure what qcf x 2 + PPP is doing in a "casual friendly game" in the first place.
Then there's focus canceling. The idea of paying half your meter to cancel a move is taken from Guilty Gear where it was called roman canceling. It's a wonderful mechanic in Guilty Gear, by the way. The command in that game is press any three buttons--I use PPP. This is actually pretty natural because when using a joystick, your right hand's natural resting position is on those PPP buttons usually. In SF4, the roman cancel command is medium punch + medium kick, then tap forward, forward. This is really awkward and a whole lot of inputs for one decision (the decision to roman cancel). I wish I could map this command to PPP or something, rather than having to do button presses AND double taps. There's many combos involving this that you'll need to be able to do to be competitive, so I'm not sure why this ended up requiring so many extraneous inputs.
When I read about the 100/100 scores, I see again and again how "simple and elegant" the game is. Two super meters, a 3-tier focus attack system, and all the complications above seem to fly in the face of that. Even more though, I hear how "casual friendly" it is. This is deeply mysterious and I'm not sure why this so often claimed. Not every game has to be casual friendly, so it would seem more honest to just explain how casual unfriendly all these things are. Qcf x 2 +PPP all the time, extra button presses to throw, extra button presses to roman cancel, and many, many extremely difficult link combos work in concert to create that impenetrable wall of execution between you and the actual game (the interaction between you and your opponent). I wish we could get rid of all this stuff and focus more on the gameplay itself.
Edit: I forgot to mention two more things. First, the unlocks. I'm very surprised to see basic functionality of the multiplayer game--the characters--locked behind tedious 1p tasks. I had to pay a tax of fighting the computer on easiest for long time just to get the core features of the game. (I did this picture-in-picture while watching episodes of Frasier.) I'm fully aware that casual players love unlocks, and that's why non-essential content like costumes, movies, icons, and titles are all perfectly fine to give as rewards for playing 1p content. But the *characters*? This steps on the toes of those wanting to play the multiplayer game by making our first experience with the game a very boring one. I wanted to hire a MMO gold farmer to do this for me.
And the last thing I should have mentioned here is that despite all these many problems, there is fun to be had in the game...