Sunday, October 31, 2010

Achievements, Their Ilk, and What They Mean to the Culture

My XBox gamerscore is 33,055. This score is representative of the hundreds (thousands??) of hours I've spent playing games on the XBox 360. For those who may not be familiar with achievements, trophies, or any similar performance-based reward system, all XBox games (and now, all PS3 games) have achievements that can be unlocked and permanently fixed to your profile if their conditions are met. For XBox profiles, each achievement corresponds to a numerical score, with more challenging or time-consuming achievements typically harnessing a higher score. Typically, high-profile achievements will unlock fifty to one hundred gamerscore, with every game shipping with a maximum of one thousand. Playstation games unlock Trophies, which are very similar to Achievements, except on a different console, and some Steam games have seen the implementation of achievements.

To put this into some perspective, beating Halo: Reach by oneself on the hardest difficulty will unlock an achievement worth one-hundred twenty-five gamerscore. By contrast, in Halo 3, killing ten enemies with headshots during a campaign mission is worth five gamerscore.

Achievements are an interesting introduction to this generation of gaming. Many gamers find themselves chasing after these achievements, with their tasks ranging from the grandiose (Seriously 2.0 - Gears of War 2) to the mundane (My Brother's an Italian Plumber - Borderlands). Gamers' fixation with unlocking achievements and trophies vary from player to player, and some players hardly acknowledge them at all. Some players are looking to increase their gamerscore and some gamers are completionists, and when playing a game simply wish to leave nothing unexplored.

Achievements have no tangible reward. A high gamerscore and a high rate of unlocking gamerpoints-per-game earn no special recognition, no early access to betas or demos, no discounts, no certificates, no printouts, no special esteem. They simply exist to be earned, displayed, and impart bragging rights. Given their lack of utility, it is interesting that they have surpassed the point of being a temporary fad, and that the implementation of unlockable achievements has taken over the industry in the past few years.

There is good reason to believe that the idea of unlocking achievements preys upon an internal, natural desire to see things through to completion. Many games have even implemented non-gamerscore related achievements and unlockable features into their games. The Call of Duty games have an abundance of multiplayer-related tasks that can be completed, called "Challenges." "Challenges" unlock points, which contribute towards leveling up one's online profile, unlocking weapons, icons and special abilities. Killing a specified number of enemies with a certain weapon, conditionally using a certain ability, and completing objectives all go towards unlocking challenges which help one level up and gain access to more gear and weapons, and the process repeats itself. Modern Warfare 2, the most recent (as of this writing) addition to the CoD franchise featured challenges with near-astronomical requirements, demanding dedication and repetition while playing, although enough variety in the challenges are present to cater to just about every style of play.

So you may be wondering by now what I'm trying to accomplish by pointing out Call of Duty's expansive opportunities for leveling up... the point is that the general populace of gamers, which may be representative of the population at large, love to see progression. We love to see filling bars, growing meters, and swelling numbers. Many of you are likely familiar with the "Prestige" option in the Call of Duty games. For those of you who are not in the know, when a player hits the highest possible level in CoD's online multiplayer, they're given the option to brand their online profile with a shiny new insignia, representing their elite rank and dedication to the game. The catch?? All weapons are re-locked, challenges are reset, and experience is reset to zero, and the player can begin the process of leveling up anew.

The fact that so many player choose to gain prestige at the cost of hours of work unlocking new weapons and gear basically proves that we love to see progress, and a parallel point is that we hate to see all those points and experience towards nothing as we sit atop the level cap.

Achievements prey upon the axiom of our completionist inclinations and it has affected the gaming industry in a few ways. Whether an achievement is a positive influence or a negative influence on a gameplay experience -and the industry at large- depends solely on how they're implemented into the game.

Achievements will positively affect a game if they reward the player for overcoming significant obstacles and trying things they normally would not bother to attempt. In these cases, the pursuit of gamerscore is a reward in itself in that a player will experience more of the game for themselves and therefore have a better perspective on the game as a whole. Mass Effect had a good achievements placed in it, with a good bit of them being unlocked through the natural progression of the game. Events like beating bosses, clearing levels, and beating the game all unlocked some achievements, and anyone who enjoyed the game enough to beat it will see the bulk of these added under their profile. However, achievements also encouraged the player to play through the game with different party members, use different weapons and to use the different special abilities that were with each of six unique classes. I can personally attest that I played through the game with the Infiltrator as my class, and ended up enjoying the special abilities that are special to that particular class quite a bit. If not for the achievements of using some class-exclusive abilities, I likely would have started another new game as a Vanguard.

Badly placed achievements are more variable in their repercussions than well-placed achievements. Poorly-implemented achievements can even negatively affect others' experience of the game if multiplayer achievements are mishandled. Some achievements are tedious, and if completed, yield no great reward. Hours and hours of gameplay to complete a mundane task is less than commendable, and is rewarded as such, and these are likely to be ignored by players. The worst sort of achievements encourage unsportsmanlike conduct in online arenas. Because of the nature of these achievements, players are discouraged from teamwork and cohesion for the sake of inflating their gamerscore.

A prime example of poorly-handled multiplayer-related achievements are the achievements in the original Gears of War. An achievement is unlocked each time a player earns their hundredth kill with any given weapon. This sounds innocent enough, but many games revolved around teammates struggling with each other for control of the power weapons, instead of supporting each other for the team's victory. And one hundred online kills in Gears of War means a lot more than one hundred online kills in most modern shooters, so it was a real time sink and demanded a lot of attention. Personally, I only netted a few of them before I concluded that they encouraged unsportsmanlike conduct and were too much of a hassle to see their unlocking.

Personally, I feel like some gamers put too much emphasis on unlocking achievements, and that they are not enjoying a game as they best could be. Achievements ought to be cut down to just a handful of tasks that unlock in-game items or abilities. I believe an ideal achievements system would include five to ten performance-based achievements, and each of them unlocked a special costume for the character, a special game mode, special weapons, concept art of the game and videos of the development team during the project. Ultimately, achievements, trophies, and gamerscore are placeholders for spare time. They could disappear altogether and I wouldn't lament too much. From the looks of things, though, they are here to stay. As long as they're around, however, they need some revision before they become recognized as rewarding pursuit, and worthy of the time and effort they require to be earned.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The New "It" Thing: Console Multiplayer- An Old Note

I posted this as a note as a means to incite discussion during the summer of 2009. It was a success. Although the games mentioned in here have all since been sequel-ized, the topic is still pertinent and interesting. See if you agree with my stance...

IGN recently posted an article about how Halo 3 is currently the most-played game on XBox Live on a day-to-day basis.
Now, in addition to this, Halo 3, Modern Warfare, and World at War have been vying for dominance each since their release. Both Gears of War games have had a significant presence online as well.
The purpose of this note is for you to voice your preference in online-shooter genre.

I am working on my fourth prestige in Call of Duty World at War, I played Gears of War 2 online nearly exclusively for the first five months of it's release. I have hundreds of online EXP in Halo 3 as well as shameful quantities of time in Halo 2 over the years.

Now, as a veteran of all three of the most popular franchises on XBox Live, I personally find that Halo 3 delivers the most satisfying and rewarding experience. Here is a list, in no particular order, of why I arrive at this conclusion.

1: Skill-based victory. I find that Halo 3 most rewards its skilled players and encourages people to improve their tactics with time and experience. This includes factors like...
Skill in accuracy- actually hitting your target. While every shooting game of COURSE emphasizes accuracy, Halo 3 puts the most emphasis on it. Call of Duty lets people get away with "spray & pray" tactics **cough**MP40**cough** which means someone can essentially run into a room with the trigger pulled, aim in the general direction of a foe, and get a kill or two or three. Also, shotgun battles are way too emphasized in Gears of War. A shotgun battle basically involves two people shooting a shotgun and dive-rolling laterally. It takes a lot of emphasis away from using the tactics brought forth by the rest of the weapons in that game.
I find that Halo 3, kill-for-kill, most rewards being able to aim at your target and pull off a clean kill, regardless of the weapon.
Tactics- not running out into the map and getting double-teamed time-and-time again, and similarly, working with your team double-teaming your opponents. I have found that Gears of War most rewards players who work together, so I must give Gears the title for being best co-operative experience in competitive, online gameplay. Working as a pair in Call of Duty often enough leads to a double kill, because whoever finds one of you likely found both of you. Halo 3 falls right in the middle of the two, because working together definitely is advantageous, but not quite as potent as it is in Gears of War. Also, depending on the use of grenades, rockets and other explosives, you and a friend may very well meet your demise simultaneously, but this also gives a player the capacity to score double kills :-)

2: Cohesion among teammates. I have to admit that working together is equally satisfying in Gears of War as it is in Halo. Both games feature gameplay that rewards thoughtful collaboration. The excitement of securing power-weapons and controlling sections of the map with brute force and planning is successful because of the communication amongst the team. That is to say that communication makes a game more exciting. While rolling around a map two-at-a-time is directly more efficient in Gears of War, communication and general teamwork are key in both of them.
I find that working together in Call of Duty is restricted because of the frantic pace of the game; more specifically the low hit-to-kill ratio (2-4 shots to kill) and the ability to start the game with any class the player desires.

3: Incentive to play. Call of Duty blows the other two franchises away with the leveling-up and prestiging option, as well as the new weapon you acquire as you climb the ranks. Halo 3 gives us new armors and keeps our EXP (basically, one's win record) on public display. Playing online in Gears of War recently implemented a level-up system with capacity to DE-LEVEL (yes, just like Halo 2!!), but honestly it's just too late for me to care.

4: Objective games. Gears of War, in my opinion, has the most enjoyable objective-based game modes. Submission, Annex, Guardian and King of the Hill all offer unique and (mostly) enjoyable games. Running a close second is Halo 3 with Assault, Capture the Flag, team Oddball, and a plethora of other run-of-the-mill (but effective nonetheless) game modes.
Call of Duty drops the ball with producing enjoyable objective-based games. While it finally entices us you use our otherwise dormant special grenades, it's just not as enjoyable as doing hit-and-runs and pick-ups in Warthogs and controlling the Annex point in Gears of War. From the albeit brainless Headquarters to the tactical War, many Call of Duty games turn into a skilled, collaborative team running out the clock for the sake of killing your team as many times as possible. Search and Destroy is a unique offering, though.

5: Incentive to play together. This is different from "Cohesion among teammates." While "Cohesion" deals with working together in a game with your team, this refers to your incentive to pair up with people in the first place, be they from the game you just played or from your friends list.
While I prefer to partner up every time I go online, I most prefer to play with people on Halo. The fact that the power weapons carry a TON of momentum and working together is so effective makes me want to make sure that I'm not working with a bunch of tards.
In the same vein, in Halo and Gears of War, you're playing to WIN. COMPETITION is the keyword in Halo and Gears of War. Call of Duty has WINNING riding in the backseat, with "Leveling Up" in the driver's seat and "Completing Challenges" riding shotgun. As cool as it is to have a leveling system, it's affecting online play almost as negatively as the first Gears of War's online-only weapon-based achievements (100 kills with each weapon), and it takes the competitive edge away from the game. The drive to win is almost absent, and no one really cares as long as they personally had a decent performance. Match bonuses aren't nearly different enough between winning and losing to entice someone to care about actually winning a match.

6: Consistency. Halo 3 has the most balanced weapon set. Are some overpowering? Yes, but you have to be good to use them all the same. Except the rocket launcher, but that's the point of a weapon that only has 2 or 4 shots every time it spawns in. Halo 3 has me screaming "That's BULLSHIT!!" into my headset mic a lot less than the other two do.
Call of Duty features a weapon, unlocked at level 10 (out of 65) called the MP40. It is the most powerful and versatile weapon in the game, and it's also broken as hell. Equally effective at 200 yards as it is at 2 yards, and with more ammo in a clip than most of the guns in the "Heavy Machine Gun" class (not counting the double clip option) the MP40 is arguably the only gun you need for the rest of the game.
In both Gears of War games, everyone starts with a shotgun. While the capacity to be slowed while running about the level if you're under fire is present in the second one, it doesn't to much to balance the issue of players relying on dive-rolling and open-sight shooting to win the day. The fact that this is arguably the most effective method of combat is indicative of some serious balance issues.

Now, on a side note, many people cite Call of Duty's "realism" as the reason they prefer it. While I certainly don't care who prefers one game or another, I need to address the fallacy in calling Call of Duty a realistic game.
The only standout realistic thing in the game is the fact that you can shoot someone two or three times and they die. This is offset by the fact that no one is ever wounded (i.e. impaired aiming and/or movement), and that you are back at 100% 5-8 seconds after you get out of harm's way.
Also arguing against realism is the accuracy of a gun. I can hit someone across the map with a light armament, like the Thompson submachine gun the same way I can with a 30-caliber rifle: just by aiming down the sights. While this is understandable and expected of the semi-automatic and bolt-action rifles of the game because of their power, it shouldn't be happening with the lighter guns. Especially pistols.
Bullets fall, just like every other free-moving body. Falling is not taken into account in Call of Duty.
Guns kick - A LOT. Have you every actually fired one? Shooting the M1 Garand or Gewehr 43 four times in a second's timespan and having the shots land all within a few in-game inches from each other is nonsense. It is equally nonsensical when letting a hail of fire rip from one of the game's many machine guns and having your sights move just a few degrees from their starting point. Nonsense. Unrealism.
Now am I saying the game's not fun? Of course not! There's a reason I'm going through the 65 levels for my fifth's ton of fun to play. It's just not realistic.

Now if you just skipped all my nerdgasming, I prefer to play Halo 3 online instead of Call of Duty or Gears of War. How about you?

The New "It" Thing: Your Mom Plays Games

"Casual" gaming is a phenomenon by which demographics that do not normally care to play games become regular gamers. Regular could mean with friends, before bed, after dinner, on the weekends, during lunch breaks, or every day. Also, casual gaming means that the player has a very narrow perception of the gaming industry and gaming culture at large. If a player is so heavily involved with a Facebook game that they spend multiple hours per day on it, but this is the only thing they play, they are a casual gamer. If someone plays two hundred franchise years of Madden every year, but that's the full extent of their gaming, they are a casual gamer.

Now that "casual" has been clearly defined within the context of gaming, let's get on to the pressing issue: casual gaming is the new cash-cow of the gaming landscape. For some, this is of no concern because they have no interest in casual-style games. For others, this is a sign of changing times and great worry, because the gaming enthusiasts are no longer the core audience for many publishers. Free-to-play games dominate social websites like facebook, and more still are found on many free-to-play websites.

Casual gaming seemed to creep into the gaming landscape in the early 2000's with the launch of websites like addictinggames and newgrounds. Suddenly, parents, teachers and other professionals were playing games for free, from their web browser, and having a good time about it. Launching animals and other objects, falling columns of multi-colored jewels, bouncing balls and pinball machines were lighting up millions of browsers, and a fad was born.

I believe Nintendo was the first major-league gaming company to take note of this phenomenon, and take appropriate steps to capitalize on the newfound curiosity and urge to game that crept into the consciousnesses of millions of non-gamers. The Nintendo DS was released with, and continues to be supported by, a multitude of games aimed towards older people, professionals, women, and other typically non-gaming demographics. Brain Age, Big Brain Academy, Sudoku are just for starters... the DS is a playground for publishers trying to make the next big hit with the out-crowd, and unfortunately, the Wii has turned into a similar conduit for such "shovelware."

As previously mentioned, many of us gaming enthusiasts with a passion for gaming and playing many kinds of games are concerned because games can now be commercially successful and rake in millions of dollars for the right party without fancy graphics, cutting-edge engines, or years of development by a dedicated team. A few guys in a garage can now feasibly crank out an iPhone game that will sell millions and millions of times with the right combination of gimmick and accessibility. As such, many gamers are worried about being left in the dust of the fiery, money-spewing chariot that is casual gaming.

The most recent developments in the race for dominance of the casual gaming market are PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect. Each of these peripherals are fully-functional with each company's currently supported console. The PlayStation Move is attempting to capitalize on the disappointing aspects of Nintendo Wii. Sporting a nearly-identical motion-sensitive controller, Move claims to be very sensitive to player movements, giving it more applications than sports and party games. Kinect is doing away with controllers altogether, utilizing hardware that recognizes bodily movement and photo-recognition.

Regardless of which is the superior platform, one thing is sure: casual gaming is a gigantic base of people, waiting to be exploited to buy millions of units of hardware and software alike, and therefore spending much of their money. Given the escalating quantities of killer games in the past six or so years during the fall season, 2010's fall lineup of heavily-advertised and hyped games consist largely of games that are exclusively for use with the motion-control peripheral.

Enthusiasts' worries are justified that they may fall from grace as the crowd to please, only to be replaced by their mothers, little sisters, and grandparents.

Reflections: Shank

Shank was first advertised as an up-and-coming game a few months ago(at E3 2010, I think), and I was immediately intrigued. It has a cartoon-style art direction and crisp, clean and fast movements. Smart platforming action and combat that demands clean maneuvering and quick reflexes looking to be part of this winning recipe, so I had been following this game for months up until its release.

Shank delivers. At 1200 Microsoft Points pretty much everything is overpriced, but Shank delivers; especially if one plays through on the unforgiving hard difficulty. The stages are either platforming levels or boss battles, and all are high-quality entertainment - all killer, no filler. While there are no levels that stand out as particularly memorable, this is more a testament to the consistently fun and challenging level design than a lack of jaw-dropping moments.

The game plays out like the side-scrolling action-platformers of the 16-bit and 32-bit eras of console gaming. Platforming includes dodging environmental hazards, bottomless pits, climbing, wall-running, swinging to and from appropriate ledges and other feats of acrobatics. The feel is very much like that of a two-dimensional take on the Prince of Persia games from a few years ago. All movements are very smooth and intuitive, and regularly-placed checkpoints ensure that the more challenging platforming sequences are minimally frustrating.

Shank's combat is very fast and smooth. A variety of enemies keep things fresh and challenging as they implement a variety of tactics and weapons to dispose of their renegade nemesis. All the modern brawling mechanics are here: weak and strong attacks, alternate weapons, ranged weapons, grappling and dodging. Some may consider Shank's lack of inventive mechanics a shortcoming, I must address that what is present is very intuitive, and very user-friendly. Every challenge can be overcome with nimble maneuvers and quick wits, and every death is the player's own fault (save for just a few sequences that involve random explosives raining from the sky).

The boss battles are definitely a standout feature for Shank. The boss battles again pay tribute to the platformers of old, as they follow the model of memorizing a pattern, reacting to telegraphed attacks, and survival. Every boss features a unique moveset, which is actually surprising considering the quantity of boss battles present in the game. Every boss is challenging, and "cheap" kills are kept to a minimum - Ninja Gaiden this isn't.

If Shank has any one feature that will separate it from the crowd, that feature is its visuals. A cartoon with intense colors and thick outlines reminiscent of some old cartoon-network programs like Dexter's Lab and Samurai Jack are the style of Shank. Even the gloomier, warehouse-style levels are booming with saturated colors, and demand your immediate attention. Also, all the characters, from the standard enemies to the bosses all have unique appearances. A handful of character models for each class of enemy prevent the screen from filling with clones, and this variety makes the game that much more visually appealing. Shank moves about the environments with ninja-like finesse, and the manners in which the player can dispose of foes are range from standard brutality to "DID YOU SEE THAT??!" awesome gorefests.

For those who are so enthralled with Shank's style and playability, such as myself, Hard mode offers the same exact game with amplified damage, more enemies, and NO CHECKPOINTS. That's right, die and start at the beginning of the level. Thankfully, (and mercifully) boss battles count as separate stages. Whew....

Shank is a great change of pace in a generation that floods the market with shooters. It's crisp visuals are a stark contrast to the post-apocalypse trend, and it's fluid gameplay is a throwback to our younger days, but it still includes some mechanics unique to this era. At 1200 Microsoft Points, it's a bit steep, but watch for this one on sale. It deserves your attention, and you deserve to play it.

Shank gets a B lettergrade.

Reflections: Mass Effect 2

Having beaten Mass Effect 2 about a week ago, it's time to dish out some reflections...

The original Mass Effect was given to me as a gift for Christmas '08 (represent, P-Shade) and it ended up being my favorite game! I never would have purchased it on my own because it's all about aliens, and spaceships, and lasers, and stuff I never really care to get involved with. However, when someone gives me something for free, I'm at least a little inclined to try it out, and then I got hooked.... and I played through six times in a year's time.

Mass Effect 2 (hereafter referred to as ME2) changes a lot of the things that I found gave Mass Effect 1 its identity. Not to mislead, they're not all complaints, but observations about profound changes in gameplay and mechanics.

First, the story is splendid. The story that absolutely hooked me and drew me in is done justice. The fact that the game permits you to do so many things in your own taste (via conversation wheel) and still has such depth just makes me giddy! There are probably 25 major choices that you make throughout the game, and they all have some kind of effect on the story and characters.

Destroying the Normandy in the first 10 minutes of the game?? Awesome. Resurrecting Shepard, and putting him at the whim of a radical, pro-humanity, xenophobic terrorist organization?? Also awesome. Collector invasion of the Normandy?? Yeah, it just happened. Being put under Cerberus for the length of the game puts ME2 in such a different tone than the first one. In the first one, you're a Spectre; basically a private investigator who doesn't answer to the law. Although you can choose to be a "paragon" or a "renegade" depending on how you make your choices, you always get the feeling you're doing things for the best interest of the galaxy, for all species. ME2 ditches the "good guy" feeling, and the whole game, with respect to the moral choices, is played in shades of gray. For every choice, there are winners and losers. Although characters can understand the importance of your mission, they view you with a suspicious light because you're an agent for Cerberus, instead of an Alliance captain, or a Spectre. I love movies and stories where good people are put in bad situations, and ME2 is just that kind of plot.

The revelations toward the end of the game, and the tie-ins with the novels are insane. On the Collectors' ship I almost went nuts with the magnitude of the plot twist. However, it should be noted that ME2 does plot twists with class, which I appreciate. It surprises, but never really jumps over the fence entirely. Some games (especially RPG's) treat plot twists like recycled boss fights, as in they're just thrown in to keep the player around longer. ME2 includes some truly stunning revelations, with some Hollywood-quality production behind them, but they aren't happening at every turn of the script, and they aren't used as an excuse to make the player backtrack.

Oh, and your squad. I love the new squadmates. There are like eleven of them, and they're all unique with respect to both function and story. The squad from ME1 was great, and they are all memorable characters (except Kaiden). However, ME2 takes the squad mechanic and makes it AWESOME because they all have their own recruiting missions to acquire them, and they all have their own missions to complete to gain their loyalty. Also, these missions expand upon all their stories, and are all-around memorable. Garrus is still the most badass, though.

Game-play wise, everything feels smoother. Yes, it feels like Gears of War... but Gears of War feels better than the original Mass Effect. Taking cover happens quicker and cleaner, popping out to shoot baddies and own them with tech/biotics is lickity-split! I like how there are a TON of abilities, and a TON of characters to use them. Unlike ME1, a specialist in one field will not be able to use all the talents of that field. This helps keep squad-selection dynamic and fun, because there are always people with different abilities to use.

If I have one complaint with the game, it is the dumbing-down of the level-up system. While I understand that it streamlines the RPG elements, it takes away some of the specialization that the first one boasted. For example, in ME1 skills for each weapon class could be upgraded, resulting in better accuracy and higher damage counts. At the same time, each talent (biotic/tech abilities) could be upgraded in the same manner. This allowed for a lot more specialization, especially early on.

In ME2, all weapon-related upgrades are filtered under one upgradeable attribute, and talents each have their own upgrades. This isn't a bad system, it's just a little generic after having played the first one so thoroughly.

One hot point of debate on which I can't really make up my mind is the lack of Mako missions, and addition of planet-scanning. For me, this is a trade-off. I favor the new system, but I can't really justify the tedious nature of planet-scanning for minerals. While I enjoyed side-questing and driving the Mako of the first one, it did get repetitive and predictable. There were only minor variations of the same mercenary base for the side-missions. ME2 completely renovates the planets, and every side-mission looks unique and has a distinct layout, which is AWESOME! However, planet-scanning for minerals.... I just can't see why it was necessary to kill the pace of the game with such a tedious way of obtaining materials with which to upgrade your squad and your ship.

Mass Effect 2 is amazing, and you, the reader of this blog, should play it for yourself. Mass Effect 2 gets an A lettergrade!!

Reflections: Street Fighter 4

Super Street Fighter 4, at the time of writing, is the most fun I've had with a fighting game, and arguably the most fun I've had with a single game in a long time. I mean a loooonngg time. Simply put, it is just a joy to play.

I think that one of the things that makes SSF4 so great is its uniqueness. The developers were not bound to the conventions and restrictions of reality. The fighters can all do crazy moves and are spectacularly agile by realistic standards. The special moves are absolutely ridiculous... fireball projectiles fired from the hands, flying punches and kicks, absurd throws and slams.

Focus attacks, EX special moves, focus attack dash cancels, and EX special cancels are some of the more advanced moves that players can use, although the game is still fun if you can't use them well.... they just allow the player to have an extra competitive edge if used correctly!!

Focus attacks are a charged attack that release automatically after about a second, or can be released at will. What makes them so important is that they can absorb exactly one attack. Two hits will break the absorption, as will EX special attacks. To absorb an attack and then release the charged attack promptly is key for getting some good surprise-attack counters. Also, victims of charged focus attacks flinch greatly and fall to the ground, likely leaving them open for another hit or combo.

EX special moves are basically jacked-up versions of regular special moves. Also, they all hit at least two-in-one, meaning they instantly break focus attacks and do extra damage. Also, most of them instantly do multiple-hit combos, and are likely to take priority over more powerful attacks. EX special moves are good for mixing up your gameplay and keeping the opponent guessing. The check-and-balance for this means that using one EX special move eats up a quarter of your "Super" bar, which when it's filled allows you do unleash a crazy attack... more on those later.

Stemming from the focus attack is the focus attack dash cancel (FADC). This is executed simply by doing a dash (double tap of a direction), and the fighter instantly dashes in the direction indicated, out of the focus attack. Simple in execution, but it is good for baiting opponents into doing special moves. Many special moves instantly break focus attacks, and many people will go for this focus break, and this is where the risk/reward of going for the FADC, or a "focus-feint" as I've called it comes into practice.

EX cancels are for players with exceptional timing and planning. Personally, I've only used a few but they are very effective when used correctly. An EX cancel consumes a quarter of the "Super" bar just like an EX special attack, and it immediately resets a fighter to neutral standing after executing a special move, assuming they are still on the ground. For example, many special moves can be canceled right after they make first contact. This allows a fighter to immediately execute a devastating combo of their choice while their opponent is completely open and vulnerable.

Super combo and ultra combo attacks are a different animal entirely. Also, they can be your enemy as much as they are your friend, because it's easy to be tempted to try them. Because they do massive damage, as soon as the ultra combo bar fills up (from taking damage), a strong temptation exists to go for the ultra combo and even the score. However, most of the leave a fighter very vulnerable for at least a second or two.

Super combos I believe are the less functional of the two, simply because it eats up an entire "Super" bar. The cost of going for a Super combo is not only being left open for a brief time, but also that the potential for EX special moves immediately resets to zero. Also, the ultra bar fills up every time your fighter hits about half-health, while the super bar fills up with every attack as well as every hit and block, it usually takes more than one round to fill entirely.

The fighting mechanics in SSF4 are great. They function such that the move sets are rather easy to learn, and therefore there is much more emphasis placed on wit and skill instead of memorization of combos and exploitation of nuances. Don't get me wrong, the two aforementioned features are present, but are minimized.

SSF4 has an incredible roster of fighters, and amazingly they all feel unique (except for ryu/ken/akuma, who basically only differentiate from each other with subtle timing issues and a handful of regular, non-special attacks). Many fighting styles are represented, although exaggerated. Some of the characters even use over-the-top, crazy move sets that don't emulate any specific martial art. Also, the fighters all have very distinct personalities, which are evident even from the subtle movement of their characters. El Fuerte is frantic and fast, Abel is calm and controlled, Balrog is a brute, Vega is vain, Ryu is confident, and all the other characters portray their attitude with everything from their neutral stance to their ultra combos.

SSF4 is a great fighting game, and I highly recommend that everybody try it. It's easy to pick up and hard to put down!!

Super Street Figther 4 gets a B lettergrade!!