Resident Evil 5 is at Captivate 08 in Las Vegas, and that's big news for journalists assembled in Capcom's almost-penthouse at Palms Casino, which sits back from the Strip and bakes quietly in the 30-celsius heat. But the game's developers, Jun Takeuchi and Masachika Kawata, aren't letting us near the pad, so when the presentations are over, we have to make do with Street Fighter IV. Or would do, except the four arcade machines - linked in pairs for two-player combat - are permanently swamped. We've seen Street Fighter IV already of course. We've even played it already. But that hasn't dimmed anyone's enthusiasm.
Captivate 08 brings us face to face with near-complete code. Things yet to be added include Seth, a boss character revealed on Famitsu's website at the height of Capcom's shindig, but only spoken about with attending journalists in interviews. "Seth is indeed a new character and a boss. Seth is a really interesting character because he has connections to some other important characters in Street Fighter IV," Yoshinori Ono, SF IV's producer, tells Eurogamer. The Internet reckons he's the boss of evildoers Shadowloo's weapons division, and has modified himself. "If you look at him he's got a kind of expressionless face and a strange skin colour, he has some sort of device embedded in his stomach," Ono says of this.
There's definitely a "specific connection" between him, the returning M. Bison (thought dead after Street Fighter II, which saw the supposed fall of Shadowloo - SF IV is set just after that game) and the rest of the cast. "I don't want to give away too much now because that would be in spoiler territory then," says Ono, "so I'll have to leave it up to your imagination, but I will say he's in the arcade version as well." The arcade version, which is likely to hit Japan this summer ahead of PS3, 360 and PC releases at an undetermined point in the future, will have "a good deal of story" dealing with Seth, says Ono, but the console versions will have more.
The big question though is whether he will be playable. During Ono's group presentation of the game the previous day, he remarked that Capcom would be unlikely to fully animate characters without making them playable, so we ask about this. Ono bursts into laughter. "That's a good question. In fact, I would rather you just subtitled this whole section with three little ellipses down there!" he says. "If people express a desire to take control of Seth, we might see a movement in that direction at some point. I certainly don't want to say much more than that - I've already said too much!"
Capcom's been building SF IV up gradually since the game's original unveiling, and among the things it's also already said are that we'll have a minimum of 16 playable characters, all of whom are in the Captivate 08 arcade pods. That's Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Guile, Zangief, E. Honda, Blanka and Dhalsim, along with bosses Balrog, Vega, Sagat and M. Bison, and new characters Abel, El Fuerte, C. Viper and Rufus. Rufus, of whom we've seen very little, is a comically rotund yellow-suited fighter with a gelatinous, wobbling belly and a kung fu skill-set. Abel, our early favourite, has a monstrous reach and can pluck jumping enemies out of the air and slam them to the ground. Ono's current favourite, though, is actually an oldie, Dhalsim. "Making the character Dhalsim for Street Fighter IV is a huge challenge," he explains. "Getting him to look right, getting him to stretch right, getting the animation to work properly and the move-set to work properly. He took a lot of time to pull off."
Ono points out that, as producer, he should probably be promoting the new characters, but his decision to highlight SF IV's connection to its predecessors reflects Capcom's belief that enticing "lapsed gamers" is the game's primary objective. Using Street Fighter II as a base, rather than III, we're told it's meant to be familiar but also different. The fighting system restores all the original characters' signature moves and many popular combos. Probably the most obvious fighting system change is the addition of Focus moves, which replace SF III's parries ("I think we lost a large portion of our audience and maybe scared them away from fighting games," Ono says ruefully about parries). To use Focus, you hold the medium punch and kick buttons together to charge a move. A fully-charged attack is an unblockable knockdown, and you can absorb one attack without being knocked off-balance while building it up. Ono hopes Focus will provide a bridge between attack and defence for higher-level players.
Also on the cards are Super moves, which are built up through combat along a four-stage meter below each character. These segments on their own will strengthen special moves like Ryu's fireball, but together they allow for the double-quarter-circle-forward Super move, which is much more dangerous. Meanwhile, taking hits builds up a Revenge meter next door, which powers up the even more devastating Ultra attacks. Other elements, like Super Cancels (cancelling your own special with a Super) also return. So while SF II veterans will find an easy way into the game through tried-and-trusted techniques, those with time and patience have more to uncover. Ono says that the animation has been tuned so that it's possible to read the other player's attacks to some extent.
Upon which note, the graphics are beautiful. "The driving artistic theme was a 2D painting coming to life before your eyes," says Ono, aiming to deliver what people "imagined and remembered of Street Fighter II" but giving the game a distinctive appearance. This is also apparent in level design; Chun-Li's streets level has people sitting around eating and hanging lanterns swaying in the breeze, Blanka's jungle jetty backs onto a lagoon overhung by dense vegetation and home to monkeys and birds hopping and swooping about, and Sagat's Thai barge sits in front of a gorgeous ocean sunset.
For storytelling, though, Capcom has decided to go with anime sequences, which will form prologues and game endings for each character, and we're shown a demonstration video featuring Ryu. It opens as the beat-'em-up's most iconic character lies prostrate in defeat as a fire-eyed Akuma taunts him about his restraint. A sequence of flashbacks shows how this echoes periods of Ryu's training, before he recovers his vigour and engages Akuma with attacks including a dragon punch. But just as he's about to put Akuma out of his growing misery with a fireball, Ken rocks up, berating Ryu for trying to finish their arch-enemy without him.
The action then cuts away to a waterfall cascading over the top of a mountain range. Having set the scene, the water's downward pour is suddenly ushered 90 degrees away from the cliff-face, showering the surrounding area as the seismic force of a huge and unseen punch distorts the environment. Then we see a silhouette of what looks like Gouken. "We're not ready to talk about him yet," Ono says.
The anime sequences should be jarring, but on this evidence it's a wise choice; they're exquisitely designed and should give inquisitive players ample incentive to explore the depths of each character's campaign. We also get to see a new promotional trailer - a tussle between Guile and Abel on an airstrip, replacing the sumi-e ink wash-painting style of the original Ryu/Ken trailer with a sandy style that's just as beautiful, cut with footage of the two characters going at it in-game.
Unseen at Captivate, but announced while we're on the plane to Vegas, the console versions of SF IV (and a PC version) are currently being assembled at Dimps, Capcom's development partner on the SF IV project, back in Japan, and the subject obviously comes up. Online play has been touted, and Ono says "a lot of time and energy" is going into it. Asked how the team plans to combat lag, Ono says that there's simply no way to eliminate it completely, but there are ways to disguise it, and the developers are exploring prediction code and other ideas.
A key area of focus at the time of writing though is console controls on PS3 and 360. Ono points out that Capcom has done Street Fighter games for previous PlayStation consoles, which gives him an advantage when it comes to designing for that pad. "We know what kind of sensitivity adjustments need to be made and people can very easily control fighting games on the PlayStation controller, so we're very confident there - we think it's pretty well-suited to a game like this," he says.
Xbox 360, though, isn't as simple. "The 360 provides a bit of a unique challenge because the placement of the d-pad and the analogue stick is more suited for 3D games," Ono points out. "In a fighting game like this, an analogue stick is not necessarily the way to go - it would certainly make spinning pile-drivers easier to do if you're a Zangief player, but it's not going to do much else for other characters. So basically what we're trying to do now is figure out a way to make the d-pad work really well with Street Fighter IV.
"Given the controller is what it is, what we're going to do on the software side, we're looking to see what kind of sensitivity and timing adjustments we need to do - what we can do on the software side to make a controller that's not necessarily designed for fighting games work really well in a fighting game. We're confident we can do that," he reassures us. Expect this subject to dominate discussion of the game when Capcom gives us the chance to play the game on consoles rather than with the arcade controls.
What's most apparent throughout our discussion with Ono, and during the several hours we get to spend playing the game, is that it's a project very close to his heart. Although he says the popularity of the Xbox Live Arcade release of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting was critical to Capcom giving the SF IV project the green light, development master Keiji Inafune is also said to have been swayed by Ono's passion and ideas.
At times that passion crosses over into fandom, too, as Ono himself admits when we ask about his recent statement that he wants to restore the car- and barrel-smashing side levels that broke up the fighting in SF II. "When I say things like that you have to remember I'm speaking as the fan Yoshi and not the producer Yoshi," he laughs. "At recent interviews, people really seem to want that to feature. As soon as I get back to Japan I'll be going to the dev-team and begging them on my hands and knees to try and free up some time to do something like that."
There's a lot left to do, even though the arcade versions shown at Captivate 08 are virtually complete. Based on what we've seen, played and heard, though, the series in good hands. "This is not simply a remake," Ono says. "It's definitely deserving of the IV attached to it." We believe him.
Street Fighter IV is due out in Japanese arcades this summer with PC, 360 and PS3 versions to follow.