Arcade aficionados have been banging on about how good Street Fighter IV is for months, but now console gamers have the chance to throw themselves into what - even this early in the year - could be game of the year.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Street Fighter is a one-on-one combat game. Throughout the years, new characters have been added and tweaks made to the gameplay, but the core values of playability and almost limitless challenge have remained intact.
Street Fighter IV is a culmination of years of fine tuning, and, after ploughing around 16 hours into the game so far, I think it's the finest Street Fighter to date.
Experienced Street Fighter players will instantly take to the game, with old combos and button presses yielding familiar results. However, new players needn't feel intimidated. Yes, there is a lot to learn, but picking up the pad for the first time, it's still possible to string combos together, win some matches in Arcade Mode, and feel like you are making progress.
For the old hands, Capcom have introduced some new features. First up is the Focus system. By holding down Medium Punch and Medium Kick simultaneously, the player can charge up a Focus Attack which results in a powerful and effective new move. It can also be used defensively, allowing you to guard against incoming blows.
Along with the Focus Attack, a Super Combo is also open to the player. As you fight, a Super Meter fills along the bottom of the screen, when it flashes blue, the player can pull off a powerful Super Combo.
The third new addition is the much talked about Ultra Meter. When this builds up, the player can execute a move which is not only incredibly powerful, but visually stunning. The camera shifts perspective and the player can sit back and watch this cinematic move in all its glory. It looks incredible.
All this might seem like a lot of hard work, and it's true that practice really does make perfect, but you can hone your skills outside of Arcade Mode in either Training Mode or Challenge Mode. It's well worth investing significant time in these modes to learn your chosen character's combos and special attacks.
The character roster this time around is sizable, with all the old favourites such as Ryu, Ken, Dhalsim, Chun-Li and Sagat returning to the fold. There are also many other characters to be unlocked, while Street Fighter IV introduces new characters Abel, Crimson Viper, El Fuerte - who's sure to become a cult favourite - and Rufus.
Visually the game is stunning. The detailed and well-animated characters now sport impressive facial animations, and the game action is played out in front of beautifully crafted backdrops.
These background canvases are animated and packed full of neat little details. It's sometimes hard to concentrate on the fighting with so many things going on. The game's intro is also worth mentioning, as it is one of the most visually spectacular videogame openings I've ever seen.
While the Arcade Mode is the main focus for unlocking new characters, the main draw for many will be the robust online aspect. I have now played more than 30 bouts online, and I've only experienced hiccups in the framerate twice. That is impressive stuff.
To add to the enjoyment, Capcom have also delivered a wealth of unlockable extras. New online titles, icons, medals, character costume colours, movies and artwork can be unlocked as you make progress, giving the player extra incentive to keep playing. Gathering Gamerpoints on 360 and Trophies on PS3 also adds an extra layer of rewards for those willing to dig deep into what Street Fighter IV has to offer.
And that's not all. For PS3 players, it is possible to unlock Street Fighter T-shirts, which can be worn while you wander around Home - Sony's social networking hub. Again, it's another nice touch and shows that Capcom have tried to include as much as possible with this latest addition to the series.
Add to this feast of fighting fun the option to track your character's stats via the Player Data menu and the ability to change the English voices and music to Japanese, and Capcom have delivered the most comprehensive Street Fighter package to date.
The only downside to this magnificent fighting game is the controllers. The 360 pad and the PS3's Sixaxis just weren't build to accommodate the precision needed to get the most out of Street Fighter IV. While it's possible to execute every move in the game, it's sometimes harder than is should be. Of course, this is a criticism that has always followed the franchise on home consoles, but it is worth noting again.
Serious players might want to look at investing in something like the excellent Hori Street Fighter Arcade stick. It might be expensive, but it's certainly a worthwhile purchase if you plan on devoting yourself to this wonderful game.
I've never been much of a fighting game fan, but Street Fighter IV is one of the best games I've played in a long time. As you would expect, it's receiving great reviews acrosss the board, scoring a 93-94 at Metacritic and and an 8.7/10 from Test Freaks
Its rewarding gameplay, excellent sound and visuals and classic fighting action are second to none, and as a gamer, you owe it to yourself to check out this magnificent and landmark title.
Images courtesy of Capcom