Coming from Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games comes the fourth in the long running side-scrolling beat ’em up genre, Streets of Rage 4. This has been hotly anticipated by seemingly everyone with an internet connection since its announcement, and now it’s finally here, available on Xbox One and downloadable through Xbox Game Pass. But, do we need an old-school vibed side-scrolling fighter in this day and age? Does the gameplay hold up to modern standards?
I’d like to start this review with a slight disclaimer/confession: this is the first Streets of Rage title that I have played. You see, back in the day, when my brother and I lived at home, he had a Megadrive and I had a SNES, and never the twain shall meet, as the saying goes. I had Final Fight, he had Streets of Rage, and due to the politics of brotherly love we never played each other’s consoles – in fact we had our own version of the stupid console wars right there in the living room. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that, while I may not be steeped in SoR lore and heritage, I do appreciate a good fighting game and so came to this with no preconceptions; no baggage if you will.
First off and the visual look of Streets of Rage 4 is great; modern retro with large, well-detailed sprites moving around with silky animation. The movesets of all the characters are surprisingly deep too – it’s not just a matter of pressing X an infinite number of times. There are special attacks, which drain your health, but the lost health can be recovered by hitting bad guys, and these can be offensive, defensive or even performed in the air. There are super moves too, with these tied to your ability to find and collect stars in the levels: with a push of Y + B together, you can wipe out hordes of minions, or put the hurt on a boss. Best of all, these attacks give you a small window of invulnerability; if you time it right, you can interrupt a boss’ big attack and do damage in your turn.
Finally there are weapons lying around on the ground, or in the hands of the bad guys, that can be picked up and utilised. These range from small knives right up to giant spears, via grenades, potions and even tasers. These implements can be used to hit foes directly, or they can be thrown across the screen, upsetting anyone who gets in their way.
The story of Streets of Rage 4 apparently follows directly on from Streets of Rage 3. With the demise of Mr X, his children, Mr and Ms Y, have decided to pick up where daddy left off ten years ago. They have developed some music that can be used to hypnotically control people, and plan to unleash it on the city, turning the citizens into brainwashed robots. When Blaze learns of this, she sends out the SOS, and Axel, Cherry and Floyd answer the call.
These are the four basic characters you start with, but you aren’t limited to just these four. As you progress through the game, there is a cumulative score kept as you finish each stage, on a bar that fills up. Along this there are various nodes to reach where extra characters are unlocked, ranging from Streets of Rage 1 Axel, the rest of the team, and then those from the other games. And in a nice touch, the SoR1 guys look pixelated and rough, the SoR2 brawlers less so, and so on. Fighting through the new levels with an old skool character is undeniably cool, and a real piece of fan-pleasing nostalgia.
There is also the ability, in certain levels, to find and play as some of the retro bosses. If you manage to find a taser – and if you don’t want to know how to find these levels look away now – hit an arcade machine with it, and you will be transported back into an earlier game to fight some mini-bosses and bosses that have appeared throughout the series. They are certainly very tough, and some Blanka wannabe with claws has happily ruined my day on a few occasions. Again, playing with a shiny new character in these levels is very amusing, with their smooth animation and look contrasting with the old skool look starkly.
So, we’ve established Streets of Rage 4 looks great, moves beautifully and sounds awesome as well, with meaty thwacks and clangs as a pipe is applied to someone’s cranium. But how does it play, I hear you ask? Fantastically is the short answer. Like a love letter to all the old side-scrolling beaters I’ve ever played before, is the slightly longer one.
You know the drill by now, you stroll onto screen, and enemies start to come from the left and the right, with the intention to make you sorry you ever appeared. It starts easy, with enemies going down after a single combo and, in a pleasing nod to the older experiences, flashing as they lie on the floor when they are defeated. Soon, you’ll start to find tougher enemies who are either tooled up or just take more punishment. A special circle of hell is reserved for whoever designed and coded the women in crash helmets, as they are a complete pain to take down.
So, you fight on, thumping, kicking, jumping, trying to attack police men with shields that recharge (another complete pain to defeat without being hit), until you reach a mini-boss, about halfway through the level then finally the big boss at the end. These bosses have extremely difficult attack patterns to overcome, particularly when there is more than one of them. At the end of one stage you have to fight two women, one of whom has a kind of fire snake and can set the floor of the level ablaze, while the other has a snake that grabs you, dragging you into giant pools of poison that she creates. All in all, it’s a hugely memorable fight, and a genuine feeling of elation will hit you when you finally see them downed.
Once you have completed Streets of Rage 4’s story mode, the option is there to go on to unlock the myriad of other modes that are on offer. You can choose to play arcade mode, which gives you one credit and tells you to crack on, but saving isn’t possible mid-game. Stage Select does what it says on the tin, allowing you to pick a level you want to play, possibly to get a little more experience with the fights. Boss Rush is again fairly self-explanatory, allowing you to fight each of the bosses in turn.
And then there is Battle mode – the obligatory PvP mode – allowing you to fight against a friend in an attempt to see who is the greatest. It’s not a mode I like, if I’m brutally honest, but then getting your ass kicked in lockdown by a nine-year old is pretty galling. Luckily, Streets can also be played cooperatively, either locally or on Xbox Live, and up to four people can join in to lay down some beatings. Friendly fire is on in this mode by default, so some careful play is required if you aren’t to hurt each other. Communication is key here; if everyone has an area of the screen they cover, accidental damage can be avoided to a large degree. Being killed by a co-op partner when you are on the last sliver of health of your last life is pretty upsetting. Playing online over Xbox Live is just as good as playing locally, and everything runs very smoothly. Obviously, if your buddy has potato-powered internet it can be a little choppy, but by and large it’s very easy to play, and a lot easier when you have friends around to share the beatdowns.
In conclusion then, Streets of Rage 4 on Xbox One is an utter triumph. Some of the enemies are annoying, like the big karate dudes who always seem to get their guard up, and occasionally it seems as if you are being hit from a ridiculous distance away, but you soon learn to adapt and overcome. Overall though it’s great fun to play, there is a massive amount of replayability due to the multiple characters to unlock and use, and it’s just a superb experience all round. In fact, playing Streets of Rage 4 is an absolute no-brainer and it is without doubt one of the best games of the year.