Capcom moves the venerable series forward, but not without taking a couple steps back.
Published 15 February 2016 By Jason
It’s been seven years since we’ve seen the console release of Street Fighter IV. Back then, it took the world by storm and single-handedly revitalized the stagnant fighting game genre. In those seven years, it has remained on top as one of the most played fighting games--even to this day--due to a regular influx of new content, characters, and rebalancing. But Capcom (and Sony, who stepped in to fund enough of the game's development to make it a "console exclusive") feels like its time to move on. Ready or not. Street Fighter V is here.
Visually, Street Fighter V retains the 3D style of its predecessor, but with some stylish improvements. The new lighting, models, and painterly visual effects are striking and look great in motion. The overall tone moves slightly away from the colorful and cartoony side of SFIV and presents a slightly more realistic aesthetic. The game’s a looker. Street Fighter, you hot.
Background stages? Not so hot. There are eleven new stages with some decent variety, impressive visuals, and an improved sense of depth. However, some of the background characters are poorly modeled and animated. They weren’t great in the last game, and look even worse now when contrasted against the otherwise beautiful action going on in the foreground.
Sixteen characters is huge reduction from the last game’s tally of forty-four and many mainstays have not made the cut. Just eight fighters on this lean roster are returning from Street Fighter IV. The other half is a mix of fresh faces and fan favorites that we haven’t seen in action since the Street Fighter Alpha series. It’s an eclectic group, but most of the roster falls into familiar archetypes and playstyles. Players shouldn’t have any problem identifying with and picking up most of the cast.
But Street Fighter V’s new hook, the V-System (Variable System), is what helps set the characters apart from one another and adds a considerable amount of depth to an otherwise straight-forward fighter. It’s a simple system to grasp, but there’s some lingo involved and each character is different. Here’s the nitty-gritty and some examples in bullet-list form:
V-Skill - Costs zero meter. Example: R. Mika busts out a microphone, cuts a wrestling promo about Muscle Spirit, drops microphone, and her next command throw will do more damage.
V-Trigger - Uses full meter. Example: R. Mika calls in her tag team partner to dropkick the opponent.
V-Reversal - Costs one stock. Example: R. Mika just straight up does a Stone Cold Stunner.
To summarize, The V-System mechanics add a lot of variety, they’re easy to perform, and R. Mika is pretty OK in my book.
Critical Arts take the place of Ultra Combos, but now share a meter with your specials. Blow it on EX attacks if you need to, but those Critical Arts are something special to behold and provide some of the most impressive-looking attacks in the game.
Several other notable changes to the engine are not as immediately apparent, but are nonetheless welcome and positively impact the flow of the game. A visual stun meter returns, giving a clear indicator as to when someone’s about to see stars and helps raise tension. There is now an input buffer leniency window. That’s fighting game jargon for the timing of things like link combos and reversals are easier to do. As an old man, with old man hands, I greatly appreciate this. New quick-rise options allow you roll to either side as you’re getting up which goes a long way to help eliminate dealing with vortex and 50/50 guesswork situations.
One of the biggest changes under the hood is that you cannot die from chip damage--the exception being from chip incurred by blocking Critical Arts. Traditionally, if you’re nearly out of life and you block a special move, that’d put a big KO on the screen. But now, your opponent is forced to come to you and gives you more opportunity for a comeback.
These small (albeit significant) changes have altered the dynamic from Street Fighter IV. High burst damage, proclivity to stun states, and less damage scaling make for some tense, exciting, and short matches. In my experience with the game thus far, I’ve yet to encounter a single instance of the time running out. People are going for the jugular out there and it’s been fun as hell.
There’s a lot to learn about this new Street Fighter, but Capcom seemingly expects you to find out a lot of it on your own. The game does include a forced tutorial explaining the most basic of basics like how to jump, block, and hit buttons, but only gives a truncated explanation of the V-System itself--V-Reversals are not even mentioned. It won't even tell you about the quick-rise options at your disposal. Challenge Mode, which could present some idea of what your character is capable of, is also not available at launch. These challenges go a long way in getting newer players ramped up and it’s puzzling to me that they’re not available from the get-go. Just hit up YouTube, I guess. Or you could always look at the in-game Capcom Fighters Network.
I’ve been hitting this mode up a lot. It serves as a portal to some community features like leaderboards and adding favorite players/rivals. Most importantly, it’s also a repository for match replays. If you know the Fighter ID of the player you’d like to follow, you can search for them, or just do a general search for the character(s) you’re interested in, and you’ll get a list of replays which you can watch. I’m not at all against stealing tech and copying playstyles of people better than me and since every online match is automatically cataloged, you'll have plenty of options to learn new tactics from other players or scout out your potential opposition.
There’s also a staggering number of statistics available. Or, actually, there's room for a ton of statistics. The game looks like it's set up to track all kinds of things, like the percentage of First Attacks a potential opponent has landed. But the stat tracking simply doesn't work. The vast majority of stat categories are just filled with zeroes. Presumably that's still being worked on, but as of right now it's completely dead.
I mentioned Fighter ID. That is your platform-specific name. Street Fighter V is cross-platform, meaning PC and PS4 players can connect to one another. In fact, they play very well together. The downside to an agnostic network is that everything is tied to that Fighter ID, which is separate from your Steam or PSN name. Invites to other players must be made using that Fighter ID and not directly through Steam or PSN. It’s a bit cumbersome at first, and there doesn't appear to be any way to link the same name across multiple platforms or accounts, but the benefit of cross-platform play outweighs this small inconvenience.
Once you are online and logged into the network, you can queue yourself up for ranked or casual matches. You’ll also need to set up your player preferences such as your fighter, their costume color, and favorite stage ahead of time as joining a match will bypass character and stage select. It speeds things up if you’re only focusing on one character--and I think most serious players do--but having the ability to shake it up on the fly for casual matches would have been my preference.
Creating an online Battle Lounge (which is a chill name for lobby) is indeed an option in the menu, and you’ll get a lot more freedom in your parameters. Character select before match? Sure. Want to run a First to 5? Go for it. How many private slots do you want? Like 4? Too bad. At launch, the Battle Lounge only supports two people. An update down the road will accommodate for up to eight people with spectating, but until then, you can only lounge with one person at a time. That's hardly even a lounge. It's like a casual match with the options that the casual matches should've had in the first place.
Capcom has retooled its netcode and is now using a rollback style, similar to the highly lauded GGPO. In theory, the end result reduces the feeling of input delay and more closely resembles an offline experience. Mileage varies, of course. And if you have a bad connection, you might see the action on-screen do some crazy time travel forward and reverse stuff. It’s a bad scene. Luckily, I’ve yet to encounter much of this and I’ve been overjoyed with how smooth nearly all of my matches have been--even in cross-coast fights.
This is all completely dependent upon server stability, though, and Street Fighter V’s servers have gotten off to a rocky start. Upon launch, even logging in was a challenge, which gave us a look at how gracefully the game handles downtime and mid-match server outages. The answer? Not gracefully at all. If you're deep into the game's survival mode and the server drops, all your progress is lost and you're sent back to the menu, where you can attempt to reconnect. Costume color and title unlocks seem to be tracked server-side, as is all your currency. So playing offline won't get you any Fight Money, character levels, titles, or anything like that. The game doesn't seem to perform a resync when it reconnects, so this led to a situation where, if you played the story mode offline, you wouldn't get any of that currency unless you replayed the entire mode while connected.
In the couple of days since launch, the servers have seemed to stabilize considerably. Matchmaking is mostly consistent and the only drops I’ve encountered have been few and far between. For the most part--and perhaps the most important--the matchmaking and netcode have been encouraging, if not great. Occasionally, matches will fail to submit results, award points, or replay data. This is especially disheartening if you’ve just beaten a player ranked higher than you. Whether this is due to the opponent rage-quitting or just a general server snafu, is uncertain.
That’s one of the more major issues, but several other minor ones exist in the network. Match statistics don't reliably populate, searching for a specific Fighter ID can be a crapshoot, and inexplicably replay data just goes… missing. There are a lot of kinks that Capcom clearly still needs to work out in its network.
If you find yourself needing a breather from online play, you’ll always have an offline versus mode and training room, of course. But aside from that, the single player offerings are scarce, not very interesting, or not even in the game yet. I mentioned the upcoming Challenge Mode, but another odd omission is an overarching story mode. That’s months down the road. Until then, there are individual character story modes that serve up a tiny bit of backstory and personality. Presentation-wise, these play out as gussied up storyboards with a couple one round fights against a brain-dead AI opponent thrown in the middle. It’s a rough experience and feels unfinished or even placeholder. Several backgrounds are simply a screenshot of the 3D stages with a filter overlay.
They’re over quickly enough, I guess, taking maybe an hour to complete them all. You’ll also gain some Fight Money (provided you’re online) which is the in-game, earnable currency… to spend in a shop that will also not be open upon launch. Zenny is another form of currency, but you pay real money for that. Either form can be used to buy future DLC characters. Premium costumes will cost Zenny while story mode costumes can be purchased with Fight Money. Though we haven't seen the actual in-game currency prices for new characters, Capcom claims that you'll earn enough Fight Money for the first DLC character (SF3's Alex) by playing through those brief story modes.
Color unlocks are stuck behind the game's survival mode, which comes in four difficulties that determine how many fighters you'll have to face and how tough they'll be. Along the way, you'll earn points that can be used in that run to refill your health meter, give yourself a defense boost on the next fight, or raise the stakes by giving yourself a disadvantage in exchange for more points on the next battle. I don't especially want to play the survival mode. But I like unlocking costume colors and that's the only way to do it. So I'll play a little survival mode.
Obviously, I have some very strong feelings towards Street Fighter V--positive and negative. The lack of single-player content is less of an issue for me personally and I’m sure a lot of people feel the same and are really only interested in local or online versus. But there are a surprising number of modes and features that are either missing completely or coming later that should have been included at launch.
However, I don’t want to understate the fact that I am having an absolutely great time playing Street Fighter V. This is a really fun engine, I dig the new characters, love the reimagining of the old, and the netcode has been very good to me. Am I moving on from USFIV? Definitely. But there’s not as much spring in my step as I hoped there would be. If you're looking for anything other than a solid fighting game with strong netcode, you should probably hold off until the game sees a few more updates.