Still in training.
In my nine years of reviewing video games professionally, I've never wanted to not score a game as much as I do for Street Fighter V. For all intents and purposes, this launch version of Street Fighter V is as ready to be reviewed in full as an Early Access game on Steam. It's more in line with a playable multiplayer beta, asking its competitive following to pay full retail price to acquire the access toward practicing for the upcoming season of eSports.
As Capcom has revealed (so far), a flurry of characters, stages, modes, patches, and balancing updates are already in the pipeline for Street Fighter V. That in itself isn't the problem, as The Witcher 3 ceremoniously had the best post-launch DLC campaign in 2015. The question is whether Street Fighter V is a full game for a console release, as it is missing not a small number of features you would expect from a retail release, let alone a modern Street Fighter game.
Yet even so, hardcore Street Fighter fans and EVO contenders might not care at all about its barebones offering since it has for them all the core required components: a robust combat system, online PvP, and a solid training mode. But if you're a casual follower of console Street Fighter releases—and don't let anyone tell you that you're not part of the Street Fighter community—you might be shocked and chagrined at the lack of a traditional Arcade mode and the lack of versus-play against the CPU in Versus mode.
It's a wonder why Street Fighter V opens itself up for criticism like this, because as far as the fighting is concerned, it strikes a fine balance between accessibility and skill. As a whole, the inputs for the majority of special moves and critical arts have been eased, removing almost every full-circle input with the exception of Zangief's signature grapples. Normal moves no longer change into a different move when they're in close range to an opponent, allowing for greater consistency. And every character comes with a handy diagram of their overall stats like power, mobility, and health right after the character selection screen.
For expert players, Street Fighter V's system encourages more close-range exchanges and aggressive tactics in finding openings. All knockdowns, apart from crush counters namely from roundhouse sweeps, can be quickly recovered, with the jump recovery option giving you the ability to add some distance from your opponent. This significantly reduces okizeme or vortex play in the wake-up game that was prevalent in Street Fighter IV, though you can still pressure your opponent with ground-game mixups in the right spots. Whether it's cancelling chain combos into special moves or attempting to punish whiffed attacks by an opponent or from a block, which is made slightly easier with wider frame windows, you'll usually find yourself on the winning side if you remain on the offensive (unless you're playing as Dhalsim or
Fucking Asian New Guy F.A.N.G.).
All non-light attacks accrue white damage on a blocking opponent which recovers over time but turns into full damage upon a clean hit, an important note for characters like Karin and Laura who excel at being up close and personal. Back-dashing is no longer completely invulnerable on startup as it was in Street Fighter IV and getting hit while in a back-dash counts as an automatic counter that can lead to nasty damage, so escaping cleanly from a close-range exchange is a bit more difficult than usual. The higher priority for throws and fierce attacks in footsie exchanges livens up the close-range game as well. More than that, you can't deal a finishing blow by doing chip damage (unless it's from a Critical Art) so you can expect to see more amazing comebacks on the competitive circuit than before.
Effectively replacing the focus attack from Street Fighter IV is the addition of a V-gauge that can be used in notable ways that skilled players will use to differentiate themselves from the pack and also helps distinguish similar characters from each other. The V-Skill, which is a bit of a misnomer since it often has nothing to do with the V-gauge, is a special skill unique to each character. Whether it's a taunt, a quick attack, a reversal, or even a parry, it is a free move that emphasizes a particular character's strengths. In exchange for a single unit of V-gauge, which generally accumulates as you take damage like SFIV's Revenge Gauge, you can perform a V-Reversal which pushes back an opponent while guarding, working similar to the Alpha Counter in the Street Fighter Alpha series.
Taking the entire V-gauge is the V-Trigger, a maneuver that typically imbues your character's moves with bonus properties like electricity or additional range, or triggers an attack that can turn the tides of battle like Rashid's tornado, which moves slowly and ominously across the screen similar to Urien's Aegis Reflector from Street Fighter III. It will take some time for new players to incorporate V-Reversals and V-Triggers into their arsenal, in part because the V-gauge confusingly builds in the opposite direction as the standard EX meter on the user interface. But you'll see more seasoned players use the V-gauge confidently, using V-Reversals when they're backed into a corner and V-Triggers for both its effect and sometimes as a cancel into other moves. Since the V-gauge drains after each round, it's important to understand its skill-based moves thoroughly.
At the current size of 16 characters, the same number as Street Fighter IV's playable roster when it first launched on console, Street Fighter V's lineup is satisfactory. Ryu and Ken still headline the roster as usual, but with Ryu's parry and Ken's rushdown as well as the differences between both of their hurricane kicks, they play quite differently for being in the family of shoto characters. Dhalsim, Cammy, Chun-Li, M. Bison, Vega, and Zangief return to the fray too with the majority of their moveset from SFIV carried over, though we can't leave out Karin, Birdie, and R. Mika who all make a fantastic comeback from their days in the Street Fighter Alpha series. Nash could also be included in that list, but his moveset is so significantly altered that Guile won't even recognize him (which may be the point).
Out of the four completely new characters, the turbulent wind-riding Rashid and the charming jiu-jitsu lady Laura are among my favorites. Rashid has the kind of mobility across the stage that would make even El Fuerte jealous, while Laura is a powerhouse in close-range and mid-range with solid footsies, a command grab, and strong pressure capability with her quick electric zap. Necalli, as his muscular frame and wild red hair suggest, is just a beast that can slash and obliterate opponents, while F.A.N.G. plays the new Shadaloo member that operates as a keep-away character who can annoyingly poison anyone who tries to get close.
Graphically, the character models are well-animated with a solid frame-rate (except for a few online battles, more on that later), and the ten stages feature a vibrant and colorful palette. The only noticeable issue is frequent but minor clipping when it comes to hair and flapping pieces of fabric on a character's costume. The soundtrack is solid as well, riffing on the classic themes for returning characters, while giving you the option to turn the music completely off (finally) if you so choose.
The main issue with Street Fighter V as a console fighter, however, is that it's paper-thin. Without a classic Arcade mode, the new Story Mode hastily goes through each character's backstory like it's going out of style, providing two to five one-round fights that are almost impossible to lose; in fact, you can go through the entire mode in about two hours without any real replay value. Cut-scenes are told through still art without any animation, making the prologues and endings from Street Fighter IV look like anime gold.
For some strange reason, Versus mode doesn't allow you to fight against the CPU, when it would be quite easy to program given that training mode gives you the ability to do just that. Survival mode fares much better as a meatier option that challenges you to get through a series of opponents, giving you the ability to apply supplements like extra health and more attack power after each match at the cost of a high score. Higher-difficulty courses are longer and tougher but reward you with more character experience, costume colors, and fight money, an in-game currency that can be spent on items in the shop once it's available in the future.
It's clear that Street Fighter V wants to funnel players toward the online PvP, which works smoothly for the most part once you figure out the fight request system and its integration with your battle settings and profile. Watching replays of the top players through the Capcom Fighters Network helps tremendously in learning the ins and outs of competitive play. The loading time to get into a match can be high, though, and about five per cent of all my battles online were undone by an awful framerate even though I set the connection rate to be from 4-5. I'll botch that one up to the unpopulated launch servers which haven't been patched yet, so we'll have to see if this continues after the game officially releases (I recommend using an Ethernet cord instead of Wi-Fi regardless). Additionally, rage-quitters aren't punished, Spectator mode is absent, and there aren't any lobbies that can fit more than two-players at this time, so there's plenty of improvement on this front.
Capcom has plenty of content slated for Street Fighter V's lifecycle, including daily challenges that award custom titles and extra fight money as well as Extra Battle mode that will test you against buffed bosses. To bolster the single-player offering further, Trials mode will make a comeback in March, along with Battle Tips which will ostensibly provide strategies for each character. This will be incredibly important if Street Fighter V wants to teach new players the actual fundamentals of its combat system beyond just teaching the controls and a few special move inputs.
Last but not least are additional characters, with Alex, Guile, Balrog, Ibuki, Juri, and Urien having been announced as free add-ons as the year progresses. Story mode and a few environmental stages, however, have several more cameos too including Oro, Sean, Crimson Viper, and Sakura. I would also like to see Rashid's butler, Azam, join the cast too as he is Zangief's old friend, but I'm sure Capcom has plenty of other fan requests to work through first.
Street Fighter V is a work-in-progress. The combat system stands as the game's strongest and most important pillar, which masks some of the minor imperfections with the graphical clipping and online performance. Having a console release now is understandably more important for the sake of the competitive community even if that comes at the cost of the single-player experience. However, asking for both a full single-player and multiplayer experience at launch should be the standard. The review score for the game will likely improve as more content is added over the course of the year, but unfortunately, I can't grade what doesn't exist. Along with the new Hitman which will release episodically, Street Fighter V makes the case for rolling reviews as a necessary practice moving forward. So expect periodic updates to this review or as separate reviews as Street Fighter V develops over its lifespan.