Games 4/27/10: Super Street Fighter IV, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, Crush the Castle

Super Street Fighter IV
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

To decide whether you should pick up “Super Street Fighter IV,” just take this simple test:

A) If you scoffed at the notion of Capcom rereleasing the year-old “Street Fighter IV” in enhanced form as a $40 standalone product (instead of, say, a $15 downloadable update) but played enough “SF4” over the last year to justify its asking price several times over, then yes, you should.

B) If you squealed with delight upon hearing the news of “SSF4’s” arrival, then yes, you should.

The old-fashioned sensibilities of Capcom’s business model aside, “SSF4” earns its worth by leaving the underpinnings alone but adding, improving and occasionally swapping out parts in just about every department.

Most apparent straight away is the boost to the roster. Eight fighters from the series’ past (DeeJay, T. Hawk, Guy, Cody, Adon, Ibuki, Makoto and Dudley) and two new fighters (Tae Kwon Do expert Juri and wonderfully bizarre Turkish oil wrestler Hakan) join “SF4’s” existing cast to bring the total to 35. All characters are unlocked straight away, and the original 25 fighters all receive a new ultra attack.

Arguably more impressive is “SSF4’s” mode expansion, which potentially caters to terrified newcomers as well as “SF4” pros. The Quarter Match mode from 2008’s “Super Street Fighter II” reboot finally arrives here as the Endless Mode, and it supports up to eight players and spectators in the closest online approximation of the arcade fighting game scene. Newcomers, meanwhile, can enter the Replay Channel to download replays of better players’ matches and put their newfound knowledge to safe use in the freeform Training Room. The new Team Battles configuration, meanwhile, falls under the “something to bridge the gap” banner, allowing players of different abilities to team up in team elimination battles supporting up to four fighters per team.

Ultimately, though, it’s the devoted students of “SF4” who stand to benefit the most from the additional year of fine-tuning Capcom has invested in its baby. The immediate availability of all characters allows the truly confident to skip the single-player warmup and jump online immediately, and Capcom’s up-and-down tweaking of the entire roster gives players both a conceivably more balanced game and volumes of new discoverable matchup minutiae on which to feast.

Presumably, once the cream rises to the top of the online universe, the Replay Channel, team-oriented modes and year’s worth of improvements upon “SF4’s” online matchmaking system should also allow an easier uphill climb for new players who want to cut their teeth online without getting completely obliterated. But if you tried “SF4” last year and found the game too imposing for your tastes, it’s worth noting that this year’s edition doesn’t change the basic underpinnings in any way that would make it any less of a climb toward mastery. Nor has Capcom produced a more guided means of understanding the game beyond the hands-off Training Room and admittedly outstanding instruction manual. If you want to get good at “Street Fighter” and are hoping “SSF4” contains shortcuts its predecessor did not, consider that hope officially — and, as “Street Fighter” devotees would tell you, deservedly — dashed.

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

“Splinter Cell: Conviction” is a magnificently pretty example of how to present a mature game using vibrant environments and bright colors, so it’s a little bittersweet that its most beautiful moments take place when the lights are off and all that color is chucked by the wayside.

But only a little bittersweet.

“Conviction,” in a nutshell, is the reformed “Splinter Cell” game we’ve long been promised. Sam Fisher remains in the lead role — forced out of retirement to address a personal vendetta that cost the lives of his best friend and daughter — and he still does his best work by stealthily dispatching enemies instead of barreling forward with guns blazing.

But where previous games imposed all-or-nothing restrictions that left Sam as good as dead the instant players accidentally blew his cover, “Conviction” finally lets him give as good as he gets.

With bullets flying, “Conviction” plays like a contemporary third-person shooter: Players have powerful weaponry and environmental cover to aid their fight, and Sam is agile and tough enough to win a shootout when clandestinity fails. (During some of “Conviction’s” later missions, which take place in the bright light of day, barreling forward practically is encouraged.)

But what makes “Conviction” special is how deftly it mixes run-and-gun gameplay with the methods that have always defined the series.

Ubisoft introduces a number of new interface tweaks to make the pursuit of a perfect sneak attack accessible to anyone, and all of them pay off. The game’s graphics go gray whenever the player is safely concealed in the shadows, and alerting enemies of Sam’s location briefly marks the spot with an outline of his body. Disabling some light sources, tipping enemies off, executing an end-around and dispatching them from behind as they descend on your former position is as fun here as Jack Bauer makes it look on television, and “Conviction’s” engine is flexible enough to allow players who get caught in the act to fight their way out or at least attempt a dash for cover.

Experienced “Splinter Cell” pros might not appreciate all this emphasis on accessibility, but the Realistic difficulty setting should satiate their thirst for challenge. A brilliant mission inside a parking garage, where detection isn’t an option, also temporarily resurrects the original games’ sensibilities with exemplary results.

“Conviction’s” single-player storyline suffers a bit on the voice acting side — grunt enemies have roughly three sayings, and they spray the air repeatedly with them — but the actual plot is refreshingly personal compared to Sam’s previous assignments. Considering how concentrated that storyline is, the environmental diversity, and Ubisoft’s repurposing of different set pieces as stealth playgrounds, is absolutely terrific.

But “Conviction’s” arguable shining moment happens during a collection of two-player (online or splitscreen) co-op missions that doubles as a prequel to “Conviction’s” single-player story. (Quick aside: No competitive multiplayer. Sorry.) Neither player stars as Sam, but the full complement of his abilities lay at both players’ disposal, and coordinating stealth attacks with a teammate opens the door to numerous strategic possibilities that aren’t possible when fighting alone. Solo players can engage in most of this content by themselves if they prefer, but modes centered around cooperation — storyline portion included — are off-limits without a second player.

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Crush the Castle
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Armor Games
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild realistic violence)
Price: $2 (free lite version also available)

Anyone who ever took delight in setting up action figures with the sole intention of knocking them down can take similar delight in “Crush the Castle,” which skips step one and lets players use a catapult, some projectiles and gravity-intensive physics to reduce shoddily-built castles and their inhabitants to rubble. “Castle” isn’t a terribly demanding game: A couple taps determine the angle and force of the catapault launch, and beyond the arsenal of projectiles (rocks, bombs, mystical potions) players accumulate by advancing through the game, that’s all the strategy there is. But “Castle” provides as much enjoyment in watching the aftermath as it does in creating it: The physics are wonderfully condusive to chain reaction collapses, and whether it’s intentional or the byproduct of a shoestring budget, the sound and non-animated animation of the inhabitants is genuinely funny in a “Monty Python”-esque way. It’s unclear whether Armor Games plans to support “Castle” with new levels: The 90 levels available now are fun but quickly mastered, and while the level creator is outstanding, an inability to share creations with others hurts its value. But even if “Castle” never updates again, the fun and amusement it provides makes an easy return on the $2 investment it commands if you possess the mischievous state of mind that likely made its existence possible in the first place.