Street Fighter V upholds the series' legacy, offering a diverse cast of 16 characters that bring its great fighting engine to life. Combatants new and old alike vie for your attention with infectious personalities and unique fighting styles. Some of Street Fighter IV's iconic mechanics have been retired in favor of new ones that add to the distinct qualities of each character, stripping away universal actions in favor of specialized skills. While I was wary of the relatively small roster at first, it's clear that a lot of attention was put into making every character stand apart from the rest, including the veritable fighting game "brothers," Ken and Ryu. Though the roster makes fighting with a friend at your side an exceptional thrill, cracks begin to show when you try to engage with the game by yourself.
There's an immediately apparent lack of modes in Street Fighter V, some of which have been around since Street Fighter's early years. There's no Arcade mode, and no way to fight against the CPU in the traditional one-on-one versus mode. More importantly, there's almost no way someone without the drive and knowhow of a hardcore competitor can parse the game's movelists and mechanics, and the potential strategies these elements introduce.
One of the most noticeable differences between Street Fighter V and its predecessor is the removal of the Focus Attack, which was an easily-executable move by which any character could absorb incoming attacks and subsequently dish out a heavy hit that temporarily stunned their opponent. It was a tool that seemed designed for casual players, allowing them to mix up the flow of a fight at a moment's notice. But in practice, it ultimately slowed matches down, and contributed to the watered-down feeling of the game's cast, as it was available to every character.
Street Fighter V doesn't have a direct replacement for the Focus Attack, but it definitely has an answer for people who bemoaned the negative impact it had on the pace of fights. Now, every character has access to three V-abilities outside of their standard attacks: V-Skills, V-Reversals, and V-Triggers. All three moves are easy to execute--they only call for simple button combinations--but understanding how to leverage them during a tense battle requires practice and a deeper understanding of Street Fighter V at large.
V-Skills can be used at any time, and grant each character a different but equally useful ability. Ryu's V-Skill is one of the most iconic, as he can use it to parry an incoming attack--a throwback to the universal parry mechanic from Street Fighter III. Meanwhile, the benefit of Ken's V-Skill is less obvious at first blush: he simply runs towards his opponent. However, in the hands of a practiced player, it's an opportunity to surprise their opponent by linking unexpected combos to the seemingly simple action.
V-Reversals require a sub-unit of the V-Meter, which builds up after taking damage, and allow a blocking character to break free from an onslaught to turn the tide of a fight. This is similar to the Focus Attack in theory, but in practice, each character's V-Reversal behaves differently, with distinct advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Lastly, V-Triggers grant characters a special buff that enhances their abilities, though again, it varies by character. Zangief players can activate his V-Trigger to gain temporary super-armor, negating incoming attacks. Elsewhere, characters like Necalli and Ken benefit from greater damage and range while their V-Triggers remain active.
The variety introduced by these V-Abilities ensures that fights stay interesting, giving each character a particular means of getting into or out of a fight. This liveliness is greatly appreciated, and you rarely encounter two fights that play out alike. Because these moves are designed to keep the fight going, rather than stalling it, it's exceedingly rare to have a fight end because the clock ran out.
For fighters who are on their last bit of health, the reduced threat of dying from chip damage means they actually have a chance to make a comeback.
Other, more subtle tweaks contribute to Street Fighter V's unique feel. While characters take some damage from an incoming hit while blocking--known as chip damage--you only die while blocking if you're hit with a Critical Arts attack, the game's version of cinematic super moves. In the past, a diligent fighter could be defeated by a series of fast and cheap hits even if they were blocking. Now that that's no longer the case, the final moments of a fight are more tense than ever. Every move, and every mistake, has an impact.
For fighters who are on their last bit of health, the reduced threat of dying from chip damage means they actually have a chance to make a comeback. It's a very real threat, and in my experience, it happens far more often than it did in Street Fighter IV. It also keeps opponents with a health advantage thinking strategically, as they're no longer able to force a "cheap" victory. By and large, Street Fighter V's rules are designed to keep you honest, emphasizing the importance of skill, as opposed to facilitating luck.
Fighting within this system feels great, and Street Fighter V delivers tense one-on-one fights, either in person or online. Capcom's servers weren't stable at launch, but they are mostly fixed now, one week in. Occasional hiccups occur, where the results of a fight fail to report back to the server--a pain for anyone playing in Ranked mode--but it's a very rare occurrence, thankfully. Street Fighter V's netcode is largely stable and consistent, but if you ever find yourself fighting someone with an average connection or lower, the choppiness that ensues renders a fight pointless as the frame-rate becomes erratic and both players frantically attack in the hopes of landing a blow amid the chaos.
It's crucial that Street Fighter V's online components work, because outside of pure combat, there isn't much else for the average player to do. Challenge and trial modes are coming, but they aren't available yet, meaning that anyone who wants to learn how to play with skill must brave intimidating online battles and do their best to pick apart movelists. These upcoming modes are incredibly important to any fighting game, but for one with the broad appeal of Street Fighter, they're expected. The fact that they weren't ready for launch is a major disappointment.
For now, you can fight people locally and online, engage with the laughably short and low-quality story mode, and try to survive as many fights as possible against the CPU in survival mode. That's about it. The story mode offers a few fights and narrative tid-bits for every character, but you can complete all of them in less than an hour total. These chapters aren't just short; they're incredibly easy. The best reason to play the current story mode is that it gives you 100,000 Fight Money--a new, more robust story will come for free in June. FM is the in-game currency that you use to purchase costumes, characters, and stages from the in-game store, which sadly isn't open as of this review. Completing every chapter in the story mode affords you enough FM to purchase a new character, which costs $6 if you opt to pay out of pocket.
Street Fighter V has a long road ahead of it, and Capcom has to iron out the game's issues if it wants to keep casual players engaged.
Fight Money is a good alternative to real money, as you earn it by fighting online, completing story mode chapters, and levelling up characters (a benign statistic that signifies how often you use a particular character). Fight Money is only earned when you're online, however, which can present problems. Even though you may be playing survival mode, which doesn't really need an internet connection, you have to be connected to Capcom's servers to earn Fight Money. This relationship is a major issue if the servers take a dive while you're playing; the game will kick you out to the main menu, negating your progress altogether.
Street Fighter V has a long road ahead of it, and Capcom has to iron out the game's issues if it wants to keep casual players engaged. If it sticks to its projected update plans, that may very well happen; time will tell. Those willing to stick it out now will discover one of the best fighting engines around, with a great cast and intelligently balanced fighting styles making it both challenging and fun. That said, for the moment, for anyone other than the most hardcore competitors, Street Fighter V is a delightful tease, hinting at something special down the road.