Fighting fans rejoice! Street Fighter has returned! This is the first numbered sequel for six years and the PS4’s console-exclusive fighter of choice, but is it a genuine step up from the erratic history of Street Fighter IV? Well, mechanically-speaking, yes. In other departments, not so much.
I want to get this out of the way early on so we can concentrate on the more positive things. Street Fighter V’s Character Story Mode is currently atrocious. Seriously, this feels like picking on Doom for having a poorly-implemented debate on the human condition, but I can’t stress how wrong Story Mode feels. Yes, the ‘proper one’ is coming in June for some strange reason, but that just makes this current prologue version all the more baffling. Each character has a short tale that lasts two or three fights and offers little or no substance in terms of plot, though to be fair, there are some nice flashback parts, but those are fleeting. The voice acting ranges from the abyss to excruciatingly bad and the writing is cringier than a Garth Brooks’ revival.
It shouldn’t matter, stories in fighting games are stranger bedfellows than Reality TV and real life. Yet it does because Capcom have included it. I can commend the company for trying to shake up the usual ‘fight through the ranks’ single-player fighting staple, but it has been done, and done better in the years since Street Fighter IV. The hope is that the Cinematic Story Mode expansion will vastly improve on this poor start, but first impressions count for a lot, and this one was negative enough for me to start the review with. Okay, that’s it, we won’t mention it again, just needed to get it out there.
So, what about actually playing Street Fighter V? Well it’s actually a really good fighting game. Where it matters, Street Fighter V is easily the best in the series since the later Alpha titles. Accessible to the casual player, and full of long-term mastery for the hardcore. The lessons learned over many iterations of the previous game have distilled the core experience down to near-perfection to produce a Street Fighter that feels like less of a chore, and more of what it should be, a competitive, fun fighter for all skill levels, with nods to the past quarter of a century of relevant Street Fighter titles, while also trying valiantly to freshen up the formula. Even the tutorial teaches you some of the changes whilst being presented in flashback.
A lot of the key control inputs remain the same, as they should, you can’t deviate too much from something that works so well, but whereas SF IV wasn’t exactly a slouch in terms of responsiveness and fluidity, SF V feels much slicker, and with new tweaks, it’s also more enjoyable to play. The big new addition to the series is the Variable System. This system works in several scenarios by providing amped up specials unique to each character by filling your V-Gauge via being hit or hitting your opponent with a V-Skill. Once full you can use it to access your V-Trigger, which allows you to use those time-limited character-specific unique moves, be it power ups that boost strength or grant immunity to certain attacks, special moves that add effects to existing moves or something else. It also works for defence with the V-Reversal giving you an opportunity to counter an enemy attack. The entire V-System adds an intriguing tactical layer that helps balance out certain characters against each other. All in all, a welcome addition.
It certainly feels the benefit of a monumental shake up for the starting roster. Controversially, a chunk of the established core roster have been culled (for now) with fresh characters added and some lesser-seen veterans promoted. It’s a move that works quite well, as the likes of Birdie and Rainbow Mika are welcome starters alongside the comfortably standard gang of Ryu, Chun Li, Vega, Zangief et al. That each of these characters is given a revamp in movesets and appearance helps to keep a balance of change and familiarity to proceedings, an essential strategy when your franchise stretches back over 25 years. It’s interesting to learn the new tweaks to old hands as it can change how you feel about your favorites, even amplify your original fondness for some. I’ve always been most comfortable with Vega and Chun Li (and Rolento, but he’s not present here), and the small changes have renewed my love for them, but I came to appreciate the revamped likes of Zangief and M. Bison too, which is odd personally as I’ve never been one for heavy-hitters in fighting games. It seems like Capcom have made it easier for players to break out of their established rut and experiment with other characters. That has to be commended, as not enough competitive games manage it, whether it’s enough for the hardcore to change tack is another story.
Then there’s the new blood. Laura, F.A.N.G., Rashid and Captain Inca are a mixed bag. Rashid is probably the standout at the moment, both stylistically and mechanically. He has a personality best described as 2008’s Prince of Persia with an Internet connection, but he’s the easiest to get on with straight out the gate, that’ll probably work against him in the long term for the more fanatical crowd though. F.A.N.G. could become something good in more skilled hands than mine, his strange, gangly demeanor and offbeat fighting style is interesting, but right now, personally, he controls a bit awkwardly. Brazilian combatant Laura is an ill fit. Irritating and nonsensical in the accursed story sections, and disappointingly, quite lazily designed. None of that would truly matter if she felt at all memorable as a fighter. Sadly, she’s a dud. Finally there’s the brooding, dreadlocked meathead Neccali. If Laura feels lazy and unremarkable, then Neccali is the work of a Nyquil addict who dropped off watching Apocalypto. There’s nothing to really commend about the character, and he feels like a waste of a roster spot.
What else does Street Fighter V offer beyond undercooked prologues and beating up your friends then? Well, currently, not all that much. Online battling is frankly disappointing at this stage. After a couple of days in the wild, finding fights has been as difficult as before launch,and connection has been a tad erratic, though mostly, when it does work, it works like a hot, buttery dream. The V-System really did work as a tactic during online matches, and fights are more evenly contested as a result (with exceptions for the frighteningly good combatants you will come across). Yet to experience this is like a gift from the Gods. I managed nine fights in countless attempts before launch, on launch day I played zero online matches. The day after I managed three, and since then, thanks to a bit more stability, I’ve managed another twenty-six in 7 more hours of play. To launch in such a sorry state when you want to use SFV as a platform for years to come is unacceptable. Made worse by the lack of launch content to satisfy a single player itch. Sure, there’s Survival, which is simply beating ten other A.I. fighters on one bar of health at heart, but contains a twist that means you can boost your attack, defence, health or V-Gauge between rounds for a slice of your overall score. A good risk/reward system. Then there’s Training of course, which is essential for learning characters, but not particularly noteworthy as selling points go, and when you can’t get a game online, a damaging reminder of how threadbare things feel.
There’s still plenty to come with Street Fighter V of course, the Capcom Fighters Network will act as a hub to all the online goodness we expect to eventually get from the game, and the business model for it seems to be making Street Fighter V a platform for new content and tweaks rather than Capcom throwing out ever-so-slightly different versions of the same game each year. A good move in the current climate as Capcom should support one Street Fighter consistently for the foreseeable future, looking to make it better and better with each update. The downside with this model is that the base game feels a little light right now, but with much of the updates coming being free, it’s a little easier to stomach. What isn’t so palatable is the inconsistent nature of the servers. If you want to hold off on features to make the base game better that’s understandable, but everything you do ship in the initial launch needs to be solid. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of grinding to unlock future DLC characters, nor being charged extra for them, but this is the way Capcom want to go in terms of compromise, so until it’s apparent how much grinding is truly required to unlock things, I’ll hold off from judging it too harshly just yet. Make no mistake, Street Fighter V is an excellent fighting game, it’s just not in the best shape right now.