Review - Street Fighter V (as of 04/2017)

I hate myself for it, but I do kind of miss Indestructible.

 

After 25 years of fighting games, Capcom has to position the fifth main entry in its most famous franchise as the home point for the entire fighting game genre. This is a game that was always going to be the most popular of its kind; the game to which everyone who played Street Fighter for any length of time would be forced to graduate. It’s amusingly similar to the forced switch from analog to digital TV signals a few years ago, and this transition has pulled us all forward with just the same amount of kicking and screaming as that one. Despite its tribulations, Street Fighter V is an unusual, but worthy addition to a legendary video game franchise.

Analyzing the game in April of 2017, 14 months after its release, it remains impossible to ignore that rocky initial launch. This is an online-focused game, and it had the wholly expectable, but unfortunately acceptable, server issues every online game does at launch. But Street Fighter V’s initial problems ran deeper than that. Right off the bat, the game’s main menu had options you couldn’t actually access, with placeholder text to mention these features would be added in a future update. When online matches did work, rank points rarely calculated properly, and when that soured players on the idea of playing online, the game’s offline options revealed themselves to be lacking as well. The only ways to play the game as a single player were its 5-minute Story mode and its awful Survival mode. The only meaningful ways to enjoy the game at launch were Versus mode and Training mode.

When it came out, February 16th of 2016, Street Fighter V was not a finished product. That’s not a good look for the most-anticipated fighting game in half a decade.

Naturally, the servers were stabilized in short order and playing online became a viable option. The competitive aspects of the game were exposed and, to be frank, the game became worthy of a purchase. It was still undercooked and unfinished, but there was finally a legitimate $40-$60 of game there.

From a gameplay perspective, Street Fighter V is fantastic. The core ideas that make up digital fisticuffs are represented extremely well here and the fighting system leans into those fundamentals more heavily than I can recall in any other modern Street Fighter. This is in part due to the game having looser windows on combo links and button inputs. It’s now easier to pull off combos and special moves, which pushes the game into the territory of focusing on how to apply your character’s attacks rather than how to perform them. For a person who has never played a fighting game, throwing a fireball as Ryu will still take some practice, but it’s still not nearly as steep a curve as in the past. For someone who’s been punching video game dudes for years, the muscle memory you’ve built up will still apply, and you may not even notice the change.

Beyond just the more lenient inputs, though, the flow of combat in SFV lends itself to learning the fundamentals of playing this kind of game. If you’ve ever heard fighting game nerds talk about things like footsies, or normals, or pokes, or cancels, these are basic things you’ll pick up fairly quickly because of how this fighting engine works. It puts a huge emphasis on the importance of just pressing one individual button with the correct timing and spacing, rather than throwing you into trying to execute combos and super moves.

CRUSH... COUNTAH

To accomplish this, SFV relies on two ideas. The first is called a Crush Counter. It’s a devastating hit that leaves your opponent vulnerable for an extended period of time, while giving the attacker a bonus to their V-gauge, which is used for other types of attacks. Every character in the game can perform a Crush Counter with a single button press, as long as it’s timed to hit the opponent while they’re attacking. By putting so powerful a maneuver on such a simple input, SFV trains players to play more cautiously and take fewer risks. It doesn’t hurt that the associated sound and visual effect of a Crush Counter is just delicious (or straight up heartbreaking).

 

The second idea is tied to the V system, which is comprised of the V-gauge (the red meter at the bottom of the screen which fills up as you take damage), V-trigger (a buffing ability that can turn the tide of a match), V-reversal, and the V-skill. This is one of those “easy to learn, hard to master” things for the most part, but the V-skill idea is genius.

V-skill is an ability that is unique to every character but requires the same input to perform, regardless of who you’re playing as. The upshot is, once you’ve learned that pressing medium punch + medium kick with any character is going to do something cool, you have a basis for figuring out how you want to play the game. For example, Ryu’s V-skill is a parry. If you time it right, you get a chance for a quick counterattack. For a new player, they’re likely to see that he can parry, then try to wait for an opportunity to parry their opponent and try something fancy on them. This little dynamic would force the Ryu player to slow their game down as they try to pay attention to their opponent’s actions to time a perfect parry. On a deeper level, however, this makes that new Ryu player subconsciously learn the ranges of the opponent’s attacks, slowly changing them into a more effective player.

On the defensive side of things, Street Fighter V emphasizes learning the basics, with a simple tweak to blocking. You still block attacks by simply walking backwards from your opponent, but you no longer take a tiny amount of damage from each blocked hit; you take no damage at all. Blocking now drains what is referred to as “gray life”: a portion of your health bar that reflects the damage you would have taken from an attack if you’d failed to block it. Gray life recovers over time, but if you take real damage (fail to block, or you get thrown) your gray life becomes real damage which you don’t recover. The more gray life you have, the more careful you’ll become to avoid taking that one hit that cashes in all that damage.

The best part of this little wrinkle is it means you can’t actually be K.O.’d while blocking in most cases. So even if your health bar is emptied down to .001 health, if you can keep blocking, you’ll still live. Due to the combination of Crush Counters to give you V-meter and expose your opponent, enhancements from using said meter to activate your V-trigger buff, and being able to block even when you’re a light breeze from death, mind-blowing comebacks happen in SFV all the time. They are also delicious (or straight up heartbreaking).

 

While fighting the streets is the best part of the game, there’s more to it than just that, and, in some of these facets, lie the game’s shortcomings. I truly believe this is the first time in the series where fighting online can be as viable as offline versus mode. As a person who didn’t play a ton of the previous games in any serious competitive capacity, I was able to play strictly online in SFV and learn quite a bit. After maybe two months, I reached out and found a local community of players who meet up on Saturdays to play and discuss all things fighting game, and was able to more than hold my own against some of those guys who’d put in thousands more hours than me. One of the biggest barriers to getting into a fighting game is not having anyone in close proximity to play with, so the possibility of serious, meaningful experience from online matches is amazing.

Along those lines, Street Fighter V goes to other lengths to educate players, via a feature called Capcom Fighters Network. CFN is an in-game database that allows you to watch replays of any match played online, including those of top-ranked pros. There are options to follow specific players, save certain replays, and even search for a replay using a filter system. If you struggle against Karin (you do), you can search for matches where Karin loses, in your rank tier, to your character. Within the replay itself, you can adjust playback speed, and also have the game show you each player’s button inputs. This is an incredibly valuable tool for learning how to up your game, and, despite a few attempts at the idea in older games (there’s a poor version of this in Street Fighter IV), there’s nothing really like it in the genre.

I definitely enjoy playing the game quite a bit, but what grabbed me initially was how well Street Fighter V is presented at first glance. On a basic level, the characters have vastly different appearances, but their looks fit their styles. This carries through from the models themselves, into their animations, and down to their actual moves. Series standbys like Ryu, Ken, and Cammy look better than ever before, and show far more personality just in their fighting stances than in the last 20-plus years. The game also runs super smoothly on PS4 and PC, which is important since both platforms are on the same servers, matching PC players against PS4 players online.

While I absolutely recommend Street Fighter V to anyone who has ever cared about a fighting game, I do feel like there are some noteworthy issues which may even be deal breakers. Visually, it’s a beautiful game… mostly. Graphics aren’t everything, and every game has its visual bugs, but SFV’s loading screens drive me crazy. They feature the characters in the upcoming match in huge, screen-filling close ups that look incredible at first. After a while, the clipping issues with hair and clothes stick out like a sore thumb. For my main character, Laura, sometimes her hair just pops through her body frantically for the duration of the loading screen and, if you’re like me, it’ll drive you insane. That’s just one example. In the post-match win poses, characters often have weird hair glitches as well. We’ve all seen worse in tons of games, but for a game where the characters are so alive, it just kills the expressiveness.

 

Visual issues are small potatoes though, compared to the larger problems. Street Fighter V’s biggest issues aren’t as much related to playing the game as they are to the business of running a modern video game. That said, it's even difficult to quantify those problems as wholly negative.

The first one you’ve probably heard about is that the game doesn’t have Arcade mode. Almost every other fighting game has an option to play through a gauntlet of CPU opponents in single player. I’m the first one to argue that this mode is useless since most people spend all of about an hour on it typically, but its inclusion is something people expect in every fighting game. When you combine the missing Arcade mode with the bevy of options that were hinted at, but unavailable at the game’s launch, it’s clear that SFV was released before it was ready. The main course really is playing against other human players, and the online options facilitate that better than any fighting game I’ve ever played, but when that option isn’t available, due to maintenance or anything, the only real option you can use is Training mode. It’s a good Training mode, but still, you’re not buying this game to fight a dummy. Capcom has added and tweaked some modes since release, such as a full, entertaining story mode that is laughably poorly written, but still the most story any Street Fighter game has ever had. It’s this post-release support that keeps hope of an Arcade mode alive, but at this point, over a year into the game’s lifetime, it’s hard to see it really swaying any potential purchasers.

Post-release support is another divisive part of Street Fighter V. There are some excellent parts to it. Upon the game’s first announcement, Capcom confirmed there would only be one Street Fighter V. It sounds obvious, but that’s a big deal for a fighting game. Street Fighter IV was re-released four times. All but one of the revisions had to be purchased, making the game an investment of over $200 for anyone who played it from the start, because those re-releases were the only way to get new characters. Other fighting franchises like Tekken (there are three Tekken 5’s that I know of) have used similar ideas and it’s always been kind of gross. If the developers are true to their word, you’ll never have to buy a “Super” Street Fighter V to keep playing.

Capcom has patched the game in “seasons” which include six downloadable characters, stages, and costumes. Players can purchase a season pass for these things, but, and this is crucial, all characters and most stages can also be bought with an in-game currency called fight money. You earn fight money through daily challenges, from the aforementioned single player modes, and from winning matches online. It will realistically take about a month of semi-serious play to buy a single character or stage, but I’ve found that in the pursuit of simply playing the game to rank up and improve, it’s awesome when I look up and realize I’ve earned enough points to buy a new character. It’s a really simple exchange in the end: if you like the game, you play it, and if you play it, you’ll get free characters.

We’re currently in season 2 and there are four characters yet to be released in 2017, via downloadable patch. Sometimes they strengthen or weaken characters, and other times, they make changes to the core of how the game systems interact. Again, these are balance updates we used to pay for some four years ago, without question. The issue lies in the update schedule or lack therof. Capcom has struggled to keep players informed about when updates are coming and what they will be, and they’ve missed release dates far more often than not. They’ve also released more than a few updates with small bugs, or just stupid oversights like having the wrong language in the text for some menus, or Akuma’s “Your naivety is simple laughable!” typo in his victory quote. These are by no means game-breaking problems, but it’s an awful look that a game which undoubtedly released unfinished stills put out content with rough edges a year later.

Of course, that’s a two-sided issue. No one wants them to keep rushing out things that aren’t quite done cooking, but it also sucks to have them promise things like a new character and balance changes for April, only to have them delayed. I honestly feel like the pros vastly outweigh the cons, though. Downloadable characters that you earn from playing a game you already have is just a brilliant idea. And, as sad as it sounds, I really appreciate the idea that the Street Fighter V I’ve already bought will always be THE Street Fighter V. These business ideas push my favorite genre forward in some exciting ways and if the development side handled announcements a little better, you’d perhaps see far less complaining in every single comment thread about this game.

If it isn’t obvious, I love Street Fighter V. I think the fighting game part of it is top-tier. It opens up the doors for new players to see what the fuss has been for all these years, and for players who thought they already knew, to put that knowledge and experience to the test online. Some parts of the surrounding game like, CFN, are incredible. Other parts relating to the business realities and development problems impact the game negatively, and that’s tragic.

Ultimately, the whole of the package is one of the most inspiring game experiences I’ve ever had. Playing this game has made me more interested in watching tournaments, studying technique, and in joining communities of other players online and offline. If you can get past the little things that show how unfinished the game was at launch, Street Fighter V is a game you can get hundreds if not thousands of meaningful hours from, even if you start now, a whole year later. It’s only getting better over time.