Review: Colorful ‘Street Fighter V’ Hits Hard But Lacks Guts

Like its musclebound stars, Street Fighter is impossibly resilient. Since Street Fighter II put the series (and fighting games in general) on the map, Capcom’s venerable brawler has tasted both the sweet glory of superstardom and the bitter ugliness of near irrelevance.

These days, it’s back on top. After roughly a decade spent underground, the series returned with a vengeance in 2008’s Street Fighter IV. It proved to be the right game at the right time, tapping into the nostalgia of lapsed fans and latching on to the fast-growing esports scene. We used to line up quarters to play Street Fighter; now we line up to watch other people play it.

Street Fighter V isn’t just aware of its new role as a key esport, it’s positively guided by it. That proves to be both an asset and a liability. The game’s stellar mechanics and competitive features will surely keep it front and center on the circuit. But in its rush to appease pro players, it’s left more casual fans — along with a surprising number of features — out in the cold.

What’s there, however, is pretty brilliant. Street Fighter V looks fantastic, boasting big, wildly colorful takes on its eclectic batch of fighters. Sixteen make the cut this time around, running the gamut from mainstays Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, and Zangief to one-off oddities like Karin and R. Mika from the Street Fighter Alpha series. The four brand new fighters prove worthwhile, particularly the absurdly mobile Rashid and the poison-flinging F.A.N.G.

Unfortunately Street Fighter V dips its toe into uncomfortably misogynistic waters with some embarrassingly tone-deaf costumes. New brawler Laura, a Brazillian ju-jitsu expert, is practically falling out of her low-cut top, while R. Mika sports the sort of getup you might find at the Folsom Street Fair. It’s Street Fighter by way of Dead or Alive, and it registers as outdated and out of touch.

Look past the cheesecake, however, and you’ll find an excellent fighting engine that expands on its hadouken/shoryuken basics with the brand new V-System. Each character can use the new meter to bust out a special move, buff up attacks, or reverse an enemy’s combo. They’re easy to perform, so even novice players can feel pretty badass testing them out, and they add depth to a fighting game already deeper than most.

The powerful EX Attacks are back, and as before, turn a standard fight into a chess match as you look for an opening to unleash your boosted moves. The biggest attacks — Critical Arts (formerly known as Ultras) — summon scene-stealing, crippling beatdowns that play to the game’s absurd sense of humor.

Couple these with a wealth of under-the-hood tweaks and you get a more aggressive Street Fighter than its forebear. Matches are often swift and brutal; a few well-timed combos and smart use of the V-System can end a fight quickly. It should prove popular on the competitive scene, and indeed, Capcom’s gone to great lengths to ensure it plays well online.

Despite some pre-launch hiccups, Street Fighter V is working well enough for me online. Both Ranked and Casual Matches have been relatively lag free, which mostly means I have gotten thrashed by both awesome and mediocre players without being able to blame network delays.

It’s cross-platform, too, allowing PS4 and PC player to compete against one another. That’s very cool, but the downside is that it requires the use of a Fighter ID, not your Steam or PSN user name; if you want to play against a friend, you have to trade IDs rather than just jump in as you would any other online game. It’s wonky and perhaps the least stable thing at launch. (I’ve had the game wipe my ID several times.)

You can also set up a Battle Lounge, a sexy term for “room.” Here you can mess with fight parameters – time, number of wins required for victory, and so on — and can invite players to join you. Or, rather, make that player, singular. Despite its inviting name, the Battle Lounge currently supports only two players. (Capcom says it will eventually support up to 8 in a future update.) So a small room.

Perhaps the coolest online feature isn’t related to playing at all, but to watching other people. The ambitiously named Capcom Fighter’s Network is a hub that lets you follow players, spy leaderboards, and watch replays. That last bit is terrifically useful; the best way to improve at Street Fighter is to study advanced players. Replays run smoothly, and you can always find some good fights thanks to an in-game ratings system. The game was clearly made for people to watch it.

But not, sadly, for people to learn how to play it. For all its charisma and finely tuned combat, Street Fighter V blows it when it comes to offline content.

Training mode? That’s a misnomer; it’s just you and an unmoving opponent. Great for practicing a few moves, but it won’t train you at all. A Challenge mode that presumably helps get you up to speed by walking you through key techniques is yet to go live; the option is currently grayed out in the menu.

In classic Street Fighter tradition, there’s a Story mode. In a depressing new tradition, it’s terrible. Forget fighting through a tournament and getting some sort of ending cinematic; instead, you’re given a barebones background tale set against anime-inspired art from noted Street Fighter artist Bengus and fight just a few opponents. And that’s it. It feels like the sort of thing that was programmed in a month; you can complete the entire Story experience (that’s 16 characters, start to finish) in about an hour. Capcom is aware of how lame this is, and has promised that it’s just a placeholder for a free, downloadable, cinematic Story mode coming in June. In other words, it’s yet another mode that wasn’t ready for prime time.

Only two other options await offline players: your standard Versus mode, and a marginally interesting Survival mode that ramps up in difficulty but doles out selectable buffs in between matches to help you out (regain some health, increase attack power, etc).

It’s a real shame. Other fighting games (Mortal Kombat X, Super Smash Bros.) managed to pack tons of content for solo players, and it turns out that stuff’s pretty important, especially for getting new or casual fans hooked. With little in the way of training and a Story mode so ridiculously undercooked it’s almost worth skipping entirely, it’s clear Capcom ushered Street Fighter V out the door to get it in the hands of pro players as quickly as possible.

Even the game’s microtransactions aren’t ready. Fighting in any mode earns Fight Money that can be used at the game’s Shop to buy new characters and costumes, except the Shop’s not open yet, and no new characters are coming for some time. You can also spend real-world cash on a different currency called “Zenny” that sort of functions like Fight Money except it debits your checking account. Dedicated players will theoretically be able to earn enough cash playing the game to buy new characters for free, but it’s still a little shady.

Stack all this together and it’s simply not flattering: you get a $60 game missing some huge features and modes but packing a multiple-currency DLC plan. Welcome to video games in the year 2016.

The saving grace? The most important part of Street Fighter V, the fighting, is really good. The refined system, the gorgeous graphics, the great new characters, the smooth engine: there’s a lot to love about what Capcom has created here, and it will undoubtedly be a fine replacement for Street Fighter IV as an esports game and a living platform. Perhaps the slow drip of new characters as DLC means we won’t be subjected to another annoying round of Super/Ultra re-releases. You buy this game, you expand it as you see fit, you’re done.

And despite its frustrating lack of modes and features, I freely admit that I have had a blast playing Super Street Fighter V. It’s a genuinely fun fighting game that has a bright future. But its troubled present gives this mighty combatant a black eye.

: Looks terrific; V-System is cool; great new characters; solid online features

: Missing numerous modes and features; microtransactions could spell trouble; some tone-deaf character designs

Platform reviewed: PS4

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