With any long-running series, there's a delicate balance between retaining the things that people love and refreshing the decor. With Street Fighter V [official site], Capcom have come close to hitting a reset button marked '1991' when it comes to fighting systems and yet this is the most forward-looking game in the series, with one eye fixed on the world of esports. It's a streamlined entry in the mighty fightin' series, for better and for worse, and we sent fisticuffs expert Andi Hamilton into the fray to see how it all works. He returned with these words of judgement.
Street Fighter IV’s release feels like a lifetime ago. It's the game that dug fighting games out of a particularly bleak spot, the game that pushed that genre in terms of quality and what an audience would now expect going forward, and the game that laid the foundations for fighting games to be part of the ever-growing eSports market, but it's also a game that was released before Twitch, before streaming and even before the term eSports. All of this stuff that is just a part of competitive gaming in 2016 showed up during Street Fighter IV’s lifespan, when outsiders would likely see it as the latest iteration of some old biff 'em up series that was really hard to get into.
Street Fighter V is Capcom pushing the reset button on a community that has grown exponentially during the life of its previous game. SF IV characters have been mastered, techniques have been discovered, learned, figured out and seemingly created. All of that knowledge and learning is now being pushed to one side to make way for this fresh start. Everyone, from the pro players who battle it out in the Capcom Pro Tour to the kid who picks the game up for the very first time, is going to be battling from the same, all-new base. One that is more accessible than the series has ever been before.
Gone are focus attacks and one frame links (moves where in order to make them combo you had to press the next button with the accuracy of ONE SIXTIETH OF A SECOND) and instead Street Fighter V is a much more stripped back and - whisper it - ‘easier’ game than the previous. It shares quite a bit in common with Street Fighter II, where your six attack buttons were your primary tools and learning when best to utilise them was what separated the best players from the rest.
Lowering the bar in terms of executing combos and simplifying a lot of the special move inputs means that, after a couple of hours, most players are going to be a lot further along than they would be at that point in other fighting games. This allows for a greater focus on the fighting meta - learning matchups, optimal punish combos and a whole load of things that don’t mean anything to the newcomer.
Not yet, anyway, but this time everything just seems more achievable and within reach of every player. It’s smart, because if Capcom really are serious about this eSports drive, they can’t turn away the majority of players with a vertical learning curve.
One thing that Capcom have been keen to implement this time around is a set of characters that are all unique. There’s no more Ryu/Ken palette-swap shenanigans, with both of those lads now offering substantially different means of playing Street Fighter. The roster of 16 fighters contains returning favourites, including Ryu and Ken, Chun-Li, Zangief and a few others from the series’ history. There are also four completely new fighters - fast-paced and acrobatic Rashid, grappler Laura, in-your-face aggressive Necalli and the tricky F.A.N.G, who brings a poison status to the series for the first time, allowing him to set traps and throw fireballs that cause his opponent to take damage over time. That damage can only be stopped if the opponent lands a hit on him, which should reward playstyles that switch between aggression and defense whenever he's in the fight.
It’s one of the most varied rosters in a fighting game for quite some time and the balance is, unsurprisingly, perfect. Every character feels like they have a fighting chance in any match up and you never feel like you’re out of options. That allows you to pick the character that bests suits your playstyle without feeling like you’ve backed a total duffer.
Further adding to the variation among this bunch are the three new systems the game is built upon, fittingly falling under the umbrella of 'the Versatile System'. Every character has a V-Skill, a V-Trigger and a V-Reversal, all of which are completely unique to that character. You can use a V-Skill whenever you want and they range from Ryu’s ability to parry, Dhalsim’s ability to float in mid-air and Zangief’s flexing, which allows him to absorb a hit of damage. They’re all little situational manoeuvres that allow you to get in or out of an exchange, giving you yet another option in the battle.
The V-Trigger affects the fight in a much greater way. For instance, when he activates his trigger, F.A.N.G starts leaking poison so he only need get near you for its effect to take place. Unpleasant. Rashid summons a tornado that slowly moves across the screen, offering him some breathing room or the chance for a bit of trickery. And Vega lobs a rose at his enemy then follows up with a damaging attack.
V-Reversals are the moves used to extract yourself from a high pressure situation, either by knocking your opponent away, setting them up for a special move or allowing you a free evasive move. Again, all are character-specific and work to the strengths of the roster. They all have universal inputs too, so you only need learn the commands once. Again, this is another way that Street Fighter V allows you to think about what you want to do and then gives you the tools to do it, rather than preventing you from executing a plan because you screw up the ridiculous button combo necessary to execute that plan.
At the time of writing, the online servers are being reset twice a day on average, which one can only assume is due to some last minute network testing. When the online play works, it’s fantastic - significantly better that Ultra Street Fighter IV. The slightly relaxed input times for moves and combos also mean that if you do experience a tiny bit of latency, it doesn’t affect your timings too much at all.
However, because of the type of netcode Street Fighter V uses, when things do go wrong the game is rendered absolutely unplayable. As the game tries to figure out what instance of action is the ‘correct’ one, you get all sorts of daft stuff like seeing special moves connect only to find out they actually didn’t, not seeing punches and kicks until they’ve already hit you and finished their animation, and fighters teleporting around the screen. Hopefully, after the significant testing that has taken place pre-release, this won’t be the norm at launch, but as always we’re only going to find out when the masses pile onto the game come Tuesday afternoon.
Despite the brilliant variety of the launch roster, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room regarding the single player content. In terms of modes, there’s a survival mode with four tiers of difficulty and a ‘story’ mode that is so bare bones it's almost certainly an afterthought. For example, Street Fighter main man Ryu’s entire story mode takes place across three one round fights. In fact, between Story and Survival mode, there’s no way to have a normal best out of three rounds fight against the computer in the release package!
Capcom have confirmed that a ‘true’ story mode is coming in the Summer as a free add-on - but right now there’s very little to satisfy those who plan on playing Street Fighter V on their own. Which is fine, as long as you know that in advance - I know people like to get wrapped up in things like ‘lore’ and ‘storyline’ and that, but the reason Street Fighter is such a beloved franchise and has lasted such a long time has very little to do with what M. Bison is up to this weekend. Street Fighter is a tool for players to compete against one another, like showing up to a park with a football.
The main issue regarding content is that there’s a lack of supplemental stuff to the multiplayer. The Challenge mode, which gives you ever increasing combos to test your execution against and improve your skills, is greyed out. That's being patched into the game in March. The same is true of the Store, which is launching alongside the first DLC character within the next few weeks.
There’s also a slightly baffling decision regarding alternative costumes. You unlock the ability to BUY them by playing the story mode scenarios - you don’t just earn them outright - but because the store isn’t here until March, they’re impossible to unlock. The most damning piece of missing content currently lies in the multiplayer lobbies you can create, ‘Battle Lounges’. As of launch, you can only have one other player in your lounge with you, increasing to eight in - you guessed it - March.
Now, I’m happy to sit here and defend the paltry amount of single player content. Look at Mortal Kombat X, with its wonderful, over-the-top cinematic single player campaign and a whole host of modes and unlockables, but with multiplayer that hasn’t worked properly for over a YEAR now and a PC version that may never be fixed. I know what I’d rather have if given the choice and it's a solid multiplayer mode with (mostly) excellent netcode, but there’s a still a feeling that this one could’ve been left in the oven for another month, launched fully featured and with an additional character ready to go.
Saying that, I don’t know a single Street Fighter player who wouldn’t take a multiplayer only version of the game a month early if given the chance. Hell, they’d Spinning Piledriver their own mother for it.
Critiquing the first release, in terms of its content, risks losing sight of what Street Fighter V is. Or what Capcom's intentions for it are. It’s the game that the publisher intends to build an eSport upon and the figurehead in a push in that direction for the entire genre. It’s not going away in a month. Hell, it isn’t going away for several years.
When played locally with others or when the netcode is as good as it can be, Street Fighter V is an astonishingly good fighting game. Simplified without being dumbed down, deep without being utterly impenetrable, it’s as good as the series has ever been. I’m glad that there's no need for a number at the bottom of this review because how do you score this game? In many ways, it’s the perfect fighting game, an easy 10, but it is woefully lacking in some areas. Waiting for content to be added to the game sucks, but what’s a month when you could be playing this for many, many years to come.
Hopefully, this botched launch doesn’t put too many people off sticking around, because when Street Fighter is at its best - when you’re learning, improving, competing and winning - there are very few games that even come close.
Street Fighter V is out tomorrow for Windows, with a Linux/Steam OS release planned for Spring. Linux/Steam OS support will arrive as a free update to the Steam version of the game.