Street Fighter 5 review: it could be perfect… if it didn’t lack solo content

By Alex Donaldson, Monday, 15 February 2016 16:00 GMT

Brilliant and frustrating, Street Fighter 5 might become one of the best fighting games of all time… when it’s eventually finished.

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“Compared to past entries the timing required to string moves together into combos has been significantly loosened. It’s easier to perform combos, but the underlying metagame of when and why you should do a given move is as complicated as ever.”

There’s a lot riding on Street Fighter V. While every company under the sun is throwing cash at eSports initiatives, Capcom is one of the few with a series practically ready-made for that potentially hugely lucrative audience with Street Fighter.

I could write a whole separate article on why I think fighting games stand a strong chance of eventually eclipsing even MOBAs to become the go-to eSport, but here’s the short version: Fighting games are easy to understand. The life bars, the concept – a non-gamer can take a glance at a Street Fighter screen and sure, they might need a heads up on what the EX gauge means, but it’s easy to see who the dominant force in the current game is. It’s approachable.

Approachability and eSports potential are the two pillars Capcom has focused on most for the series’ latest, Street Fighter 5. As it launches, it’s gratifying to be able to report that on both counts I think they’ve been incredibly successful – though successes in these areas have come at a cost in others.

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To put it another way, SF5 feels like it has the groundwork to challenge as the best in the series and actually as one of the best fighting games ever made, but it feels like not enough has been laid atop that foundation in places.

To aid approachability Capcom has taken a number of smart steps to streamline the game. For a start, a lot of character moves have been simplified: The iconic motions such as a Quarter Circle Forward for a fireball or a Z Motion for an uppercut remain, but more complicated motions are gone and charge moves have been limited to a scant few of the title’s sixteen-strong cast. The most complicated special move execution-wise now is probably Zangief’s stick-twirling suplex.

The game is also generally a touch slower than SF4, and the ease of inputs has been loosened as well. Compared to past entries the timing required to string moves together into combos has been significantly loosened. The upshot of this is that it’s easier to perform combos, but the underlying metagame of when and why you should do a given move is as complicated as it ever was.

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This isn’t watering down; it’s purifying. Capcom’s argument, which I agree with, is that the metagame of Street Fighter – the mind games that help you determine when to dash forwards, when to throw, when to uppercut – are the core of the game. Complicated, difficult-to-execute combos are impressive, yes, but they don’t actually denote the true skill of being good at Street Fighter. In a weird sense, the game is more like chess. Fighting game players like to describe this as ‘Yomi’ – a Japanese term meaning “to know the mind of your opponent”. The idea is that not quite having the timing to pull off a two-frame link in a combo is an unnecessary barrier to truly embracing what the game is about, which is a battle of wills between you and your foe.

Based off my time with the final build, it works. People who were solid at SF4 are better at SF5, and people who found SF4 harder to get into appear to also be slipping into SF5 more easily. The game doesn’t feel diluted for it. In a sense, it feels like the purest form of Street Fighter ever created.

Mechanically it boasts a few new twists; rather than a unified skill for all characters like SF3’s parries and SF4’s Focus Attacks, every character now has a unique mechanic, a V-Skill. The power-enhancing V-Trigger replaces Ultra moves, filling up as you use your V-Skill and take damage as a revenge mechanic. As with Ultras you’re rewarded your V-Trigger in part for taking a beat down, but it’s a smarter mechanic in that it doesn’t equal free damage – it has to be wisely used. The age of the online wake-up ultra is dead.

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“Survival is a fine mode, and a good way to grind out Fight Money, but it’s bizarre that there’s not even a traditional arcade ladder – no series of three-round fights culminating in a battle with M. Bison or Necali.”

Wrapped about this, the most mechanically sound and balanced Street Fighter ever, is a layer of eSports-driven design. Online is powered by the Capcom Fighters Network, a platform that pools PC and PlayStation users together and offers private rooms, matchmaking for ranked and casual matches plus online stats so detailed that they resemble the sort of stuff a MOBA or an RTS spits out at the end of a match. Capcom’s clearly been studying.

So long as it holds up under real-world load, it’s the best online experience Capcom has crafted – with a caveat I’ll go into shortly – and feels a worthy competitive base to sit alongside the grassroots in-person tournaments as the basis of the $500,000 Capcom Pro Tour. Some small touches make all the difference – I adore how the game gets rid of character and stage selection by having you select before you even press the find a game button – smart and streamlined.

The decision to add content to the game periodically and make everything that’ll actually change the game (mainly new characters) potentially earnable for free MOBA style is a smart one, too, though based on how much Fight Money I earned during the review period I’m also fairly confident earning all six new characters this year without spending a penny of real money will only be for those with a lot of time to spend grinding the game’s various modes.

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So far Street Fighter 5 sounds like it might be one of the best fighting games ever made, then. Mechanically, it is. However, talk of modes brings us to where that statement begins to become a harder sell.

“It’s basically unfinished, and the trade-off is what you want from the game at this stage,” another journalist said to me over IM when we compare notes. “It’ll probably be a 10/10 in time,” I replied. That’s the truth. If the promises Capcom is making pan out, this game is going to layer excellent content on top of its near-perfect foundation. As it stands now, though, there’s just not much to it.

So, what’s in there? There’s no detailed Mortal Kombat style narrative, for one. That’s coming as part of a free ‘cinematic story expansion’ update. That’s great to know, but it won’t arrive until June.

There are however still individual character stories that tease and lead into the full story. These feature anime stills with voice over plus a few one-round fights with some unique dialogue before and after. These are fun, and satisfying for a SF nerd such as me; I was excited to spy new designs for some of the dolls and see SF4’s C. Viper put in an appearance narrating part of one character’s story. You can also catch a first glimpse at new designs of some returning DLC characters in these stories long before we see those characters in-game proper.

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Cool as that is, these modes are surprisingly bare; most of them are three fights book-ended with anime stills. Some characters have less still, and some of the content is shared – you’ll see the same scene or fight the same fight from both perspectives in a few different stories as character paths cross.

The other major solo component is survival mode. This resembles the traditional arcade mode but features one-round fights and a handicap style system where you either boost or handicap yourself between fights at the cost of already-earned score or for the promise of multiplying your next.

So, SF5 solo play is–

  • Short Story Modes, with a proper one to come later.
  • Survival Mode.
  • Er…
  • That’s it.

Formatted like that, the cupboard looks fairly bare.

Survival is a fine mode, and a good way to grind out Fight Money, but it’s bizarre that there’s not even a traditional arcade ladder – no series of three-round fights culminating in a battle with M. Bison or Necali, who’re seemingly the main antagonists (though we won’t even know that for certain until June). Shockingly there’s not even a way to go best of three with the AI – where SF4’s Versus mode allowed Player vs CPU and even CPU vs CPU, SF5’s is strictly player-versus-player. The only way to battle an AI outside the constraints of Survival and the limited Story mode, in fact, is to do it in training mode – which is baffling.

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“Street Fighter 5 features one of the most diverse and balanced casts I’ve ever seen in a fighting game and an online infrastructure design that seems poised to take the genre forward competitively. But it’s basically unfinished.”

March will offer one new single-player mode in the form of Trials, a SF4 mode that helps to teach character combos and moves. Not even online is untouched – the earlier mentioned caveat is that online lobbies are currently limited to a few players, with support for 8-man lobbies and spectating also arriving in March.

Some choices feel outright confused, such as how beating a character’s story unlocks the ability to buy their story costume with in-game currency – which would be great, except the in-game shop where you’d spend your hard-earned fight money also doesn’t open until March. It’s just a button on the menu that doesn’t work.

What isn’t clear to me is if these decisions are part of some strategic content roll-out or if these features simply weren’t done. Were the trials and the shop, prominent on the menu, coming in so hot they had to be pushed to March? While multiplayer is the heart of SF5, surely the fact that you can’t even play the CPU in ‘real’ conditions as practice is off-putting for newcomers?

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This is all frustrating because, as I’ve said, SF5 is an excellent game. I’m writing this article the day after having friends over to play it for nearly 10 hours solid – it’s excellent in that format, where none of the content troubles matter. That core of the game, actually Street Fighting, is brilliant – which exacerbates my frustration that the early adopters might find it lacking compared even to vanilla SF4, leave alone compared to later, updated releases.

Street Fighter 5 features one of the most diverse and balanced casts I’ve ever seen in a fighting game and an online infrastructure design that seems poised to take the genre forward competitively. But as was quoted earlier, it’s basically unfinished. So, what do you want from SF5? If you want local and online VS, it’s the best in class.

Ryu’s Street Fighter II ending, to me one of the most iconic gaming moments ever, declares that “The Fight is Everything.” If that’s true for you, Street Fighter 5 nails it. It’s one of the best ever. If you want a little more around your fighting, it might leave you wanting – at least for a few months.

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