Review by Meho Krljic
Fighting games are back. Technically they never went away and yet this is exactly the year in which we can talk about their return. They came, they saw, they smashed. Living to see such high profile releases as the PC port of Street Fighter IV reminds me that despite what Slipknot say, all hope is not gone. Join us today in reviewing three recent fighters: Street Fighter IV (PC), King of Fighters XII and BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. Raise your fists in the air, brothers and sisters, because it’s fisting time!!!
But first, I am adding this line to the article because otherwise it messes up the code!
One of the best things that the so-called next generation of gaming (hardware) managed to bring forth is the unexpected and awesome resurrection of one-on-one fighting games. Arguably, the genre’s golden age happened during the ‘90s, when it moved in gigantic steps taken taking the mechanics and philosophy from Street Fighter II to Soul Edge inspiring a whole new gamer subculture, together with a new vocabulary, tournament circuit, unofficial gaming rules and customs.
Fighting games managed to unite everything that is good about videogaming in one comprehensive, easy to understand and hard to master package. Happily devoid of the need to invest resources into storytelling, gameworld history of even level design, the developers were free to focus on the mechanics and balancing issues, producing as a result perhaps the ultimate tests of both gamers’ strengths: the hand-eye coordination/ quick reflexes and the tactical/ managerial thinking under pressure. Simple and often silly as they look, fighting games are as much about the management of resources and screen space as they are about the muscle memory that allows one to pull complex combos that couldn’t be done properly if you were to think about them.
While this underlying complexity ensured that these games are among the most loved and the longest played in the history of the medium, it is also true that this is exactly what boxed them into the corner as the new millennium marched on. New gamers found out they simply stood no chance against seasoned pros familiar with each of the game’s tricks, exploits and combos and they decided they prefer other games, the ones with interesting stories and sprawling worlds to explore.
So the genre got itself sidelined, confined to the hardcore ghetto in which the admirers of the noble art of fighting had to develop specialised social networks to ensure having a chance to fight similarly inclined opponents. Home console market arguably made this even harder than having to visit arcades and spend money for each fight because, it turned out, fighting games fans were few and far between, so “willing to travel” almost became a prerequisite.
Then the “next gen” arrived. And, regardless of what you think is the true definition of the next generation (high-definition graphics, motion-sensing controls, the death of a health pack…) what the next gen is the really about is being connected. This is probably a topic for a separate article but if you think about it, from downloadable content, through episodic games, firmware updates and hunting stray wi-fi signals in one Nintendo DS game, all modern gaming platforms are about being connected, about being the exact opposite of the isolated antisocial nerd lost in a fake videogame world.
This also means that online play is aggressively the norm these days. And this also means that the fighting games geeks are finally vindicated for their perseverance.
We thought it could not be done. We said “No, true fighting games are all about precise input and knowing exactly which frame of animation is critical for success. Playing it online is impossible, the lag would, nay, the lag will destroy everything”. And then came Virtua Fighter 5. And we were pwned.
Suddenly, online play, proper, lag-free, precise input and awesome cancel-powered combos are the reality, our reality. Suddenly playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix over Xbox Live or PSN felt better than playing it in a real life arcade. Suddenly, we had the world at the palm of our hand, the community of fighting game fans realising that they aren’t as few as they thought and that being far between means nothing in this world of instantaneous connectivity.
2008 was good for fighting games. It gave us Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Soul Calibur IV and even, heh, the final (?) Midway’s attempt at saving face, the-unexpectedly-solid-but-still-kinda-underwhelming Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. More importantly it gave us the definite Guilty Gear game (the improbably titled Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus) and it gave us the home version of Arcana Heart. And yet, 2008 was just the appetiser for the real festival of fists that 2009 proved to be. So far into the year, we have had several truly historical releases and with Tekken 6 and the western release of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom on the horizon, it’s safe to say that this is the best year for fighting games ever. Hell, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has just been released on Xbox Live, with the PSN release to follow in a couple of weeks and in any given year this would be a reason for some serious celebrating. But this year, MvsC 2 is just a footnote. Fantastic and more than welcome footnote that I’ll gladly buy for the online play the day it hits PSN, but still, we are here to talk about big new releases today. And with that out of the way, let’s waste no more time.
Street Fighter IV
Released 7 July, 2009
Available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC (PC version reviewed)
Time Played too much to be healthy
Verdict: 5/5 Gold Star
Arguably the biggest fighting game released not just this year but probably in the last seven or eight years, Street Fighter IV brought the ruckus on home consoles earlier this year but what really put tears in my eyes was Capcom’s dedication to releasing this game on the PC.
If you’ve only ever owned a PC in the last ten years or so, your fighting games appetites were only served by a curious port or two (say, some of the Guilty Gear games) a M.U.G.E.N. package that never felt just right or a dōjin game such as Melty Blood that plays well indeed but is still not THE real thing in terms of prdcuction values. You played through MAME, honing your skills in all those Capcom’s and SNK’s games, longing for a proper human opponent who is not your wife.
And Capcom felt your pain. Let me make this as clear as possible: I purchased both, the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 versions of Street Fighter IV and I still feel the PC version is worth paying for. Yes, it is because I’m crazy, but also, if you’re sane, don’t own either of the consoles and would love to play one of the best fighting games around, you need to buy this game now.
There was a time when Capcom thought PC was unworthy of proper attention. That time actually was just a couple of years ago. We still remember Capcom farming its ports of Devil May Cry 3, Onimusha 3 and Resident Evil 4 to third parties and how those games made us cry. For some reason, a few years down the line, while everyone and their uncle are abandoning the PC or at least are trying to put as much distance between themselves and it as possible, Capcom has discovered that PC is a viable publishing platform. The new batch of Capcom’s games are ported to Windows in-house and they are actually very faithful to their console originals, often coming with additional content that might or might not be meaningful, but still, having the core experience of Devil May Cry IV or the upcoming Resident Evil 5 and Dead Rising 2 come through on a PC is all we were asking for anyway. Capcom even built the MT Framework engine specifically to ensure smooth porting of their games to PC, which surely deserves a pat on the back.
Now, Street Fighter IV was not ported using this engine because it is a different kind of game to the usual 3D action adventures we get from Capcom these days, but rest assured, this is a very faithful port of the game that set the consoles alight last winter and in some cases, it is even improved.
I am not even talking about the three graphics filters that let you make the fighting on screen a little more stylish. True to the spirit of an easily tweakable platform, Street Fighter IV allows the PC crowd to experience it in a really stunning high definition with insanely high framerates to boot. The console versions were running at 60 FPS and that looked amazing, but with proper equipment you can easily make the PC version run at 120 FPS and enjoy the glorious insanity.
However, tech-talk aside, it is important to underline: Street Fighter IV is in many ways the definite Street Fighter experience and this is the first time in history that an official PC version is available providing the goods that are just as good as in other versions.
One of the fears many people had during the development of this game was how the precision input will be handled considering that a traditionally 2D environment was now rendered using three dimensional technology. Playing it for about two minutes last February I understood that there was no need to fear. Yes, this game uses 3D graphics in place of sprites. No, aside from it looking really lovely, you can’t tell the difference. The controls are just as everyone remembers them allowing for precise input inside the short frame-windows that result in spectacular combos. The game plays really smoothly and yet everyone who’s invested years into learning advanced techniques will be awarded proportionally.
Yoshinori Ono, the producer of Street Fighter IV focused on making the game look simple enough as to ensure that less experienced gamers are not scared off with all that complexity under the hood. He famously said he expects this game to be played by grandparents and their grandchildren and made sure to repeat many times that this is, in a way, a return to the Street Fighter II era basics, after the complex developments in subsequent games. While this is partly true (there is notable absence of parrying and air guarding, for instance), seasoned players should not be scared, Street Fighter IV gameplay remains as deep as it ever was with some additional features thrown in to encourage mixed styles and experimentation.
Basically, the game comes along with the standard six-buttons control scheme and the usual assortment of special and super combos. These have been around for the last fifteen years and they feel as good as ever. What is new is the focus attack technique that allows for some fine tactical planning. Essentially, focus attacks take long to pull off, but they allow the player to absorb one hit from the opponent before retaliating. The lost heath is not only regenerated if the attack is successful, but it will also leave the opponent open to an unblockable followup attack. Skilled players will know how to combo these attacks into supers, essentially punishing their opponents in style. Ono claims that this technique was developed to encourage more frequent ground based attacks since a lot of Street Fighter gameplay relies on air to ground attacking but the psychological potential of this technique can not be overstated.
There are also Ex attacks, more powerful versions of proper special attacks that consume portions of the super gauge. Used well, they will chew through the opponent’s life gauge in a blink of an eye.
And then there are hyper combos. These insanely flashy, preposterously powerful combo-attacks are a blast to watch but are also an attempt to balance an already well balanced game an additional notch. They work similarly to the standard super combos (and are usually more powerful versions of those) but they rely on a completely separate gauge. While super gauge gets filled as you successfully land hits, the hyper gauge is filled as you receive damage (which is why it’s also called the revenge gauge). Essentially, get hit often and you will be given a chance to retaliate with a really strong combo that has the potential to turn the match upside down within seconds.
It works fairly well with players who dominate the match having fewer chances to pull hyper combos and the weaker players given the opportunity to deal greater damage if they use their revenge gauge intelligently. This is certainly not a new concept for fighting games but it is worth stressing how well implemented it is and how it adds to the balance.
Speaking of balance, the game is balanced pretty well. Yes, you will hear people left right and centre complaining about how this or that character is overpowered and stuff, but the truth witnessed online is: out of the 17 available characters, perhaps 6 actually get played with anyway. This might mean that the rest are not balanced well, but these are the six characters the SF community always played with so what would be the point in making another ten characters that would play exactly like Ken, Ryu or Chun Li?
When I say the game is balanced I mean that a good player will be able to win against any other character given a similarly skilled opponent due to the complete lack of glitches and exploits (other than the ones made into features over the past two decades). It is very refreshing to play a game completely free of infinite combos and always be sure that when you lose it is your fault. This is the result of having the luxury of developing essentially the same game for the best part of two decades.
For the people who prefer to play against non-human opponents, the single player is as entertaining as it ever was and unlocking every character in the game will take you some time. Of course, the final boss, Seth (a newcomer to the series) is still a cheap, cheating bastard he was in the console versions but you will feel a tremendous sense of achievement once you beat him.
Speaking of achievements, this game has them as it is a Games for Windows Live-enabled title. This also means that the online matches are handled through Microsoft’s infrastructure and… well… Yeah. It works, sure, although even as we come to accept it we will be lamenting the limitations that PC gamers should not have to put up with. Then again, you do get near impeccable netcode that allows for some really awesome online play here, but I do suspect this is more to do with Capcom’s coders’ skills than with Microsoft.
In conclusion: Street Fighter IV is a masterpiece, a reinvention of the series and a game everyone should at least try. Yes, there have been more complex SF games before (notably in the Street Fighter Alpha series), but the accessibility that SFIV brings to the table, accompanied with the serious depth and great balance AND the availability of really well implemented online play means that, naysayers be damned, this game deserves classic status. And it’s on PC.
Official Website: http://www.streetfighter.com/
YouTube showcase: All Characters Ultra Combos
King of Fighters XII
Developer SNK Playmore
Publisher SNK Playmore, Ignition Entertainment
Released 28 July, 2009
Available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Time Played much less than I expected
Verdict: 3/5 Middlin’
If there ever was a franchise that was considered a direct opponent to Street Fighter, it was SNK’s King of Fighters series. Similar but different, complex and deep, yet fast and engaging, King of Fighters was in its best incarnations like Street Fighter with all of the fat trimmed, slick, intuitive, yet insanely tactical. It never made it to the mainstream the way Capcom’s fighter did, due to the ludicrous number of iterations that looked much too similar to each other to be deemed worthy of yet another purchase by the masses and, also, due to the lack of marketing push that giants like Capcom could afford.
Yes, SNK made some outstanding fighting games (take Samurai Showdown, for instance) and the best King of Fighters games were not just able to hold their ground when compared with whatever version of Street Fighter was in vogue that year, but were arguably better. However, challenging Street Fighter IV that I’ve just proclaimed a classic was no small task.
SNK did understand that the new times demand changes. So they went back to the drawing board and redesigned their game to fit the next gen agenda. Unfortunately, they completely missed what the next gen is supposed to be about.
Because, despite the popular belief, next gen is NOT about graphics. And this is arguably the only thing that SNK improved about King of Fighters. Redesigning the game essentially meant drawing new sprites and then digitizing them into the game to give it a modern, HD look and retain the proper KoF aesthetic.
The trouble is, as a game, it’s spectacularly underwhelming.
I have to say I was very excited about its arrival. SNK made sure to remind me of the greatness of the series by rereleasing the KoF: The Orochi Saga last year on Wii and PSP and I played various King of Fighters games in the days preceding the KoFXII release, memorising the input combinations and having a lot of fun.
King of Fighters XII is, unfortunately a very sparse package doing little more than improving the resolution of the graphics. The menus are ugly and badly designed. The training mode is unintuitive and confusing. There are only arcade and online modes of play which I personally don’t really mind but most other fighters offer story and challenge modes and I understand this is an issue for some gamers. To top it off, the game ships with essentially broken netcode that makes it damn near unplayable online out of the box. Yes, SNK worked around the clock in those first few days of the game’s official life and made a patch available that fixes a lot of the netcode issues, however, there are two things about this that don’t help their case:
1) Not all of the issues are ironed out and, depending on your position on the globe, you may or may not encounter game-killing lag in your online play. As explained above, noticeable lag in 2D fighting games essentially murders any chance of you enjoying them.
2) Perhaps less important, but still significant: what does it say about a game if your first experience with it is being forced to download and install a piece of code several hundred megabytes in size when you just want to jump online and show off your arsedestroying skills accumulated over years?
So. This game is not exactly rich in features and getting it to work properly online requires some voodoo magic, patience and luck. But still, it’s King of Fighters, right? The gameplay is what matters and my wife can still be a fearsome opponent if she can be arsed to pick up that second controller and play? Right? RIGHT?
Well, yes and no. King of Fighters XII is an enjoyable game in single player or local, sofa-based multiplayer providing you fall into one of the following categories:
1) The last fighting game you played was Yie Ar Kung Fu. KoF XII will floor you with the advanced combat mechanics and its innovative concept of chaining attacks into unbreakable strings of punches and kicks, sometimes called combos. Wait until you figure out supers!!!
2) You’ve played a bit of King of Fighters in the past but do not own any of those games and you don’t really care about fighting games that much but you still think you might like playing one from time to time and you don’t want to be the slave of Capcom’s hype-machine. KoF XII will give you a reasonably good understanding of what modern fighting games should look like.
3) You just want a KoF game with high-resolution sprites in it. You won’t necessarily play it that much, but, damn, those sprites are surely lovely to look at.
The thing is, I expected this game to deliver more. Yes, I am aware that it’s been an iterative development, crawling through annual and numbered releases for more than a decade, so expecting a dramatic departure from the basic King of Fighters mechanics would be foolish and ultimately unwelcome. But KoF XII is just a bare bones KoF experience featuring most of the stuff that has been standard for this series since the late nineties but missing practically every single opportunity to improve on it. At this point we should remember that having a series of fighting games going over the years is essentially an exercise in fine tuning, in deep exploration of the finest detail and changing only so much that the experience becomes tangibly different with disproportionally high input from the player. So no one was expecting KoF XII to be a radical rethinking of the basics.
But if there was any rethinking at all, it all went into the Critical Counter system which is a nice addition to the game that allows you to deal severe punishment to your opponent if you time your action well. This is an easy to pull feature and it adds another layer to the game tactics and it looks cool. But that’s about it. The rest of the game is just giving you the same old mechanics that you know from the previous iterations.
This is not necessarily the end of the world. And, taking off my cynical mantle for a moment, I’d say there is also a fourth category of gamers that will have fun with King of Fighters XII: the hardcore. The ones that want everything to stay just the same as they remember (and optionally have nicer graphics).
They will be happy, for sure, because the game is essentially KoF ’98 with a fresh coat of paint. The gameplay is the same, the combat system is almost the same and, as proven over the last decade, it all works pretty nicely. King of Fighters does indeed have deep, intuitive yet advanced fighting mechanics and with the improved, soft sprite animation in the new game, it all works very smoothly.
But is that enough? I can’t help but feel it’s not.
The character roster is the slimmest yet with only 22 characters to choose from (two characters added in porting the game from the arcade machine, one of them being my favourite KoF character: Mature), which, again, I don’t think is a problem in its own right, but it adds up to the feel that the budgeting process for this game was probably pretty painful.
The battles still feature three-character teams but nothing new there. I was secretly hoping SNK would allow the players to switch characters mid-battle in order to open up tactics and perhaps expand psychological warfare. I wasn’t really hoping for Marvel vs. Capcom type combos featuring more than one character, but that’s besides the point, because we get none of it. Characters only enter the match once the previous character was beaten and that’s it. Again, this is how it always used to be but it does get increasingly hard to justify buying a new game.
Also, and here your mileage may vary, but if you’re buying this to play on your own, you may want to think about how deeply in love you are with the franchise. As we said, the online play is still shaky, but the single player, while being sparse in terms of different modes (meaning: there is only one mode) is also very sparse in terms of depth. If you enjoy playing fighting games against the CPU, learning tactics and attack patterns, unlocking stuff, seeing new backgrounds and generally enjoying more complex gameplay with each new stage, well, you’re a reasonable human being. You also won’t get much enjoyment out of this game.
Let me put it this way: I beat the arcade mode of King of Fighters XII with a random three-character team on the first try without using a single continue. Were this happening in an arcade, that would mean I spent only one coin to beat the game. On the first try. Ever.
Now, I am aware that my liberal use of fighting games jargon makes me sound like some kind of a semi-pro, or at least a seasoned veteran of the genre, but I am by all accounts not even an average quality player. My online scores on Street Fighter IV and Soul Calibur IV are pathetic. As for single player, just to put things into perspective: last year when Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus came out (a series that I have generally played much more than KoF) it took me nearly a week to beat the arcade mode with a single character. Granted, I only played it about an hour per day or so, but still it took me many, many continues to reach the end.
So, if it took me precisely one try to walk through the KoF XII’s single player mode, imagine what it’ll take anyone with two functional thumbs and half a brain. No, challenging and durable this game ain’t and there are no visible spikes in difficulty, even on reaching the final fight.
But, at least it looks lovely, yes?
I won’t argue with you there, in the sense that the game is colourful, that the sprites move smoothly and softly and that, yes, in this department you can tell that this is a next-gen title. But, alas, again you could throw the word “sparse” at its graphics at random and still hit something every time you try.
There are merely a handful of stages to choose from. Some of them are busy with a lot of animated stuff in the background. Some of them are just colourful boxes.
And characters, redrawn and refreshed as they are still sport jaggy edges (oops, hopefully Tim Langdell doesn’t read this article or SNK might be in trouble) that make them look oddly low-res, even on the anti-aliasing enabled Xbox 360. If graphics were the main reason you wanted to sink your teeth into King of Fighters XII, you may want to reconsider.
So there you have it. KoF XII is by no means a terrible game. Yes, it’s sparse and downright poverty-stricken in some departments, but its core mechanics are sound and functional and still very good, despite the lack of innovation.
However, as it offers significantly less than the competition and, critically, limps in both single player and online multiplayer portions of the game, it can be described using many words but one will do: disappointing.
Official website: http://www.kingoffighters12.com/
YouTube showcase: Arcade Infinity player matches
BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger
Developer Arc System Works
Publisher Aksys Games
Released 30 June, 2009
Available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 (Playstation 3 version reviewed)
Time Played much less than I want to
Verdict: 5/5 Gold Star
Arguably, we managed to save the best for last. If you consider yourself a serious fighting game enthusiast, fancy complex gameplay in near-perfect online conditions and only have money for one game this year, then by all means you should buy BlazBlue. Yes, Street Fighter IV is a classic, I know I said it in this very article, but great as it is, SFIV is fighting game mainstream. BlazBlue, pretentious as it may sound is the avant garde, the evolution of the concept made for people who enjoy depth and are not afraid to learn. A lot.
Arc System Works is of course the original underdog. A company that dared walk into the arena dominated by Capcom’s and SNK’s fighters back in the late nineties and punch a niche of its own, one bloodthirsty heavy metal riff at a time. Of course, we are referring to the Guilty Gear series, started back in 1998 on the original Playstation and instantly spotted as being one of the most original fighters in the market.
A decade later, an insane number of sequels, revisions and versions were released, improving the outlandish presentation (a combo of decadent anime-style graphics and heavy metal soundtrack) as well as the combat system. It never sold as many copies as the biggest games in the genre but it had undivided respect of the critics and managed to build a healthy community around it, tournaments and all. Yes, some of the spinoffs sucked bigtime (Dust Strikers, anyone?) but the core series managed to only become better.
And then Arc System Works apparently went and lost (most of) their Guilty Gear license to SEGA.
Shit. A small developer having a highly recognisable IP that funds most of its existence loses the rights to the IP. That spells doom, right?
Not exactly. Not yet anyway.
Because there are two things to be aware of here. The first is that Arc System Works were never really a one-trick pony. Yes, they invested most of their time into Guilty Gear games, but they made other stuff too. Even in the fighting game genre, you may remember games such as Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) that never made it to the west in its console port form but was pretty popular among the import crowd. And you may also remember the Capcom-published Sengoku Basara X that featured two-character combos among other things.
The second thing to bear in mind is that, despite its eccentric graphics, loud metal music and supposedly goofy characters, (that regularly provoked stuff like this lengthy piece of satire over here), Guilty Gear games were not popular because of their presentation. It was the complexity and quality of their gameplay that kept people playing it.
This is solid ground to build on providing you are dedicated enough.
So Arc System Works sucked it up and went to work on new great games. Earlier this year we got the home version of their new fighting game called Battle Fantasia. It was a slight departure from the Guilty Gear template, featuring full 3D characters (but retaining the pure 2D gameplay) and a notably simpler combat system. Battle Fantasia certainly didn’t come across as shallow, but it was also notably closer to Street Fighter games than any of the Guilty Gear titles in the past ten years. Its relative simplicity and utterly beautiful graphics brought it as close to an entry level fighting game as Arc Systems Works are likely to make. It’s good, try it if you haven’t.
But, of course, for the hordes of GG fans out there, the real question was when are we going to get a home port of BlazBlue, the game everyone and their cousin pronounced not just a spiritual successor of Guilty Gear but essentially, a Guilty Gear game minus the license.
Well, if you live in Japan, or North America, your question was answered gracefully more than a month ago. If you, like me live in Europe, you either turn into Hitler and make hilarious YouTube videos or grab your wife’s credit card and order the fucker online. Remember the last time we talked about region-locked games? I haven’t grown any less angry since.
I hate doing it. No, wait it’s a lie. I love doing it. I love finding obscure or rare or just cheap games online and getting them in the mail despite the crime syndicate that passes for customs service in this country. But I hate having to order a high-profile fighting game console release all the way from Hong bloody Kong just because the European date has never been confirmed. I want to buy this stuff in local stores, because that’ll make them order more of those games in future, resulting in profit for everybody.
But in this case, I just couldn’t wait. Plus, of course, getting it across half the planet and all fees included, it cost me less than it will cost once it does arrive into our stores. Chew on it a little bit. This is why running a business is magic when it should be science.
Back to the game. So, BlazBlue is a spiritual successor to Guilty Gear and apparently its combat system is so damn complex that the first edition of the game comes along with a separate DVD featuring tutorials for all the characters. Does it get more hardcore than that?
Well, it’s not like Arc System Works haven’t done this before (Hokuto No Ken pulled the same stunt for its Playstation 2 release) and it’s not like BlazBlue will be impenetrable for anyone who’s invested any significant time into Guilty Gear games. But it’s not just a rehash either. BlazBlue is an evolution of the complex, but solid, tried and tested fighting system the players have been exploring for the past decade and while it does play similarly to Guilty Gear, it is notably different at the level of detail.
Or, in other words, the intuition will get you through it far enough so that you feel comfortable but mastering the game will require careful in depth exploration of each character and some dedicated training.
What I always liked about Guilty Gear games is still true about BlazBlue: I wouldn’t necessarily call it noob-friendly but even at the most basic level of gameplay, that is without special combos, one hit kills, combo breakers, gauge management and difficult three-button-cancels, it is a solid, enjoyable experience. Of course, as you play you will naturally familiarise yourself with advanced techniques and indulge in the higher level play, but even in its simplest matches, BlazBlue is a lightning-fast, explosive experience. There is a new control system added as well that allows for one touch-combos to be pulled. The hardcore hate this and you won’t see it allowed in custom matches online but if it makes the new players more relaxed and shifts the emphasis from digital dexterity to tactics, I say it makes sense.
Equally important is the fact that it is a game that scales down well to a less experienced fighter but absolutely punishes button mashing. The old “I just keep tapping one button repeatedly and kick my husband’s arse in fighting games” line simply doesn’t work here. You will learn to block. You will learn to manage screen space. Or you will be destroyed even without the advanced techniques, drive attacks and astral finishes.
True to its Guilty Gear ancestors, BlazBlue trades quantity for quality. There are only four attack buttons here (plus a taunt button) and three of them act as weak, mid and strong attacks, giving the player a choice between slow but damaging and week but quick techniques. This is the most basic tactical level, of course and the fourth button (the drive attack button) summons forth each character’s individual techniques. They vary greatly in type, range and tactical philosophy and this is just a hint of how deep this game’s combat system will go to satisfy the hardcore.
To this one should add the usual assortment of special attacks, distortion drives (super attacks), and astral finishers that act as the instant kill uber finishers – the flashiest way to end the match and humiliate your opponent. And this is just the attacks!!!
As for the defence, in addition to normal blocking, BlazBlue offers Barrier Blocks that are not only stronger in nature but also allow for deviously effective counter attacks as well as barrier burst attacks that damage your opponent heavily but leave you fairly vulnerable for the remainder of the match.
Then there are cancels and where Guilty Gear had its Roman and False Roman Cancels, BlazBlue has its own three-button Rapid Cancel that skilled players will use intelligently to pepper their opponents with improbably long strings of attacks.
It does sound a little… intimidating to an outsider looking in, I will admit that much and walking into an online match without a basic understanding of the combat system will get you pwned repeatedly despite the matching system that theoretically prevents newbs from ever accidentally running into tournament-level players.
But it’s also intoxicating. There’s so much to learn and practice here that you can’t help but fall in love. Even though it superficially looks like, say, boxing (crazy boxing on LSD, mind), your brain will keep telling you that it’s much more familiar to chess. Just look at it, all those rolls, dashes, throws and launchers and air-combos that make it one of the most complex airplay fighters this side of Marvel vs. Capcom. Playing Street Fighter after this feels somewhat… basic as BlazBlue is so rich in possibilities and so fast in execution.
Or look at the way the tide of the match changes several times within just one second, people cancelling their guards and counterattacking, but being stopped mid-combo, only to be thrown but interrupting their fall with one button press before unleashing a powerful distortion attack… It’s exciting, it’s exhilarating and it’s so much fun.
The game is also well balanced. Yes, the characters are so different in style and approach that it’s arguably difficult to discern whether the winning player is winning because they are good or because they have a better character, but rest assured: every character here can dominate the match providing you invest enough time.
Arc System Works have in past made sure that stringing attacks in a combo lessens the damage of each individual attack, thus giving the weaker players a fighting chance and this is true for this game too. On top of it, I haven’t yet run into a case of infinite/ unbreakable combo being used online which sounds like the game was rigorously tested. Both, Hokuto no Ken and Sengoku Basara X were plagued with these exploits that unscrupulous players made use of whenever they could, thus killing the fun for everyone involved. That BlazBlue seems to be free of such glitches is such a relief, especially because this game, unlike its predecessors can be played online.
But before you take it online, there is a robust single player experience to be had with increasingly difficult fights at every stage, many unlockables and several different modes of play. Even if you never ever want to play against another human being, you’ll have many hours of fun in this game. The story mode is appropriately crazy with improbable characters saying impossible things. I still don’t know why game designers make these in fighting games, but it’s good to have it around I guess.
But when you eventually do take it online, be ready for probably the best netcode in any fighting game to date. I can not stress enough how important it is that Arc Systems Works nailed this aspect of the game well. Frankly, I didn’t expect online play to measure up to the standard set by Street Fighter IV. With all the flashy graphics and the speed of the gameplay and relatively small budget at the team’s disposal I expected online play to be passable at best. Even the opening animations suggest lower framerates and lag.
But, in reality, BlazBlue leaves Street Fighter IV in the dust sporting such a smooth and lag-free gameplay that I keep forgetting I am actually playing against someone from another continent. In all the hours I have invested into BlazBlue’s online portion so far I haven’t seen the game miss a single frame despite the ludicrously fast and complex action on screen. This is just like playing it in the arcade only you get the benefit of your wife telling you you still look manly enough to her despite having your arse handed to you by someone called blazOTAKU996 mere seconds ago.
As a bonus, Arc System Works clearly had the YouTube generation in mind so the game allows you to record all your matches played online and the playback options let you analyse them in great detail, slowing the action down to individual frames. No fighting game to date has given the player such powerful opportunities to study and improve their technique.
So, it has great maths working under the hood, it translates them into great gameplay, but that still doesn’t begin to describe how fantastically great this game looks. Admittedly, this is “pure” 2D business here, so the character animations are stiffer and less natural than what you’d get in KoF XII or SF IV, but true 2D fans know that this is basically the real deal. You can’t trust a game where you can’t count the character animation frames yourself, right?
Now, I don’t know whether the game box boasting true 1080i graphics is bullshit or not, but I’d say it is considering the arcade version ran at 768p (at least this is what Wikipedia says, don’t look at me!!) but it looks gorgeous. It’s not just the detail of backgrounds and sprites, it’s also the style. Now, admittedly, aggressively anime style is not everyone’s bag of beans, but BlazBlue just emanates character with its sprites being equal parts funny and cool even before they throw the first punch.
Also, I find some of the characters downright sexy. Both, female and male. And whatever the hell Arakune is, he/she/it is not sexy, thank you very much.
But seriously, visually and aurally, BlazBlue is such an assault on your senses that you forget about the technicalities of hi-def graphics (and also the technicalities of underage sex law) and just enjoy the ride. You may not be particularly attracted to flashing lights and loud noises but these are some really pretty flashing lights and loud noises.
So, yeah, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger is a triumph on all fronts. It looks like a proper next-gen fighting game without actually going 3D or changing the company’s traditional approach to style. It stays faithful to the mechanics painstakingly forged through a decade of Guilty Gears but it builds on them in meaningful ways unafraid to experiment and go overboard here and there. Most importantly, it delivers where it matters the most providing equally to the veterans and noobs, to the single player crowd as well as to those itching to go online and destroy arse. It is as perfect a package as it gets in this day and age and if you have ever wanted to move beyond the tried and tested Street Fighters and Tekkens of this world and explore the wilderness I urge you to give BlazBlue a chance. You will not be sorry.
Official website: http://www.blazblue.com/
YouTube showcase: All cast Astral Finishers