Street Fighter 5's brilliant combat is let down by a barebones launch and server trouble.
In moving Street Fighter into the next generation, Capcom has rejigged the famous fighting game series not just in its core combat, but in its structure - each with varying success. The match to match fighting, as you'd expect from Capcom, is brilliant. It's just a shame that features you'd expect to be included at launch are missing, and online play is marred by disconnects from the company's servers.
On the face of it, Street Fighter 5's 2D fighting is ever so slightly easier to get to grips with than previous games in the series, with more forgiving timing on the linking together of attacks to form combos, and easier to trigger special attacks. But to say Capcom has made Street Fighter accessible would be overstating matters: fighting games are, by their very nature, hard, and Street Fighter 5 does little to address this long-standing problem with the genre. Venturing online to play against other people is as daunting a task as ever.
What we have here is an easier to learn, still hard to master experience. Linking together normal attacks and special moves and even the ultra powerful Critical Arts often feels achievable, where in previous Street Fighter games more advanced combos often felt impossible. I'm all for this. The focus is now squarely where it should be: on knowledge, mind games and tactics, rather than pinpoint button presses in excruciatingly tiny one-frame windows.
There was a concern that making Street Fighter ever so slightly easier to play would come at the cost of depth, but right now the signs are good. And while some of the more advanced techniques found in Street Fighter 4 have been ditched in favour of what appear to be simplified abilities, there's more variety of play on offer, without extra complexity.
Take the new V-Skill, for example, which replaces the Focus Attack from Street Fighter 4. Each of the 16 launch character's V-Skill works differently. Ryu's V-Skill is a parry - the only one in the game - and players are already using it to recreate perhaps the greatest moment in eSports history: Daigo Umehara's rousing parry of Justin Wong's Chun-Li for a dramatic Evolution tournament victory. Each V-Skill is triggered with the same, simple input command as the Focus Attack: medium punch and medium kick at the same time. More variety, then, without unnecessary complexity.
Similarly, each V-Trigger, a move that pauses the action and changes your character's properties, is different. Birdie's, for example, sees the British brute devour a chilli pepper. He burns bright red, but in the process deals out huge amounts of damage for a short period of time, and his special moves take on new properties. Bubbly wrestler R.Mika's V-Trigger sees her call her tag-team partner Nadeshiko into the arena for a quick-fire attack. Necalli, one of four brand new characters, goes full Dragonball Z, his hair burning red and his attacks supercharged. Nash's V-Trigger is a teleport. And like the V-Skill, the V-Trigger is easy to execute: all you have to do is press hard punch and hard kick at the same time. Again, more variety without unnecessary complexity.
If Street Fighter 4 was a defensively minded fighting game that occasionally devolved into mind-numbing fireball battles, Street Fighter 5 is positively barnstorming. It's a much more aggressive game that, while not significantly faster than its predecessor, is certainly more brutal.
The move to Unreal Engine 4 and a less cartoony art style has added a meatiness to the fighting, which now feels more grounded. Attacks land with a crash of sound and special effects. There's an added oomph to punches and kicks and higher damage-dealing potential to boot. Matches can whiz past in the blink of an eye as characters devastate their foes with a flurry of attacks. Rush-down specialist Necalli epitomises this new approach with a feral fighting style that sees the wild-haired soul-consumer swipe and claw with his bare hands. Let your guard down and you can find yourself knocked out before you've had a chance to launch a special move.
Important tweaks to the mechanics make Street Fighter 5 a much more up close and personal fighting game than Street Fighter 4, which was more about managing space and "zoning". Street Fighter 5 is more akin to Street Fighter 3, or Capcom vs SNK 2, in feel than its predecessor, and for me it's all the better for it, especially after eight years of the more considered Street Fighter 4.
There's a huge list of subtle tweaks that combine to form this fresh feel. Street Fighter 5 is a "crush counter" heavy game - that is, hitting your opponent with a heavy normal attack while they're in the start-up animation of an attack of their own triggers a devastating counter hit that stuns for half a second or so. This brief window of opportunity is a lifetime in Street Fighter years: with your opponent prone you can launch a high damage combo of your own, stripping away the life of your hapless foe in a flash.
Street Fighter 5 lets you, in almost all situations, quickly rise after being knocked down. This is yet another tweak designed to keep the action fast and frenetic - although there's a cool layer of strategy here, too. Stay down and you may throw your opponent off their mix-up timing.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as a change to the way chip damage works fuels this new more aggressive feel. Unlike in Street Fighter 4, in Street Fighter 5, chip damage cannot K.O. your opponent, unless it's from a Critical Art. So, tossing out a projectile designed to hit your enemy on wakeup won't end the round. You have to get stuck in to earn a win.
Unfortunately, Street Fighter 5's razor-thin suite of features disappoints just as much as its aggressive fighting impresses. At launch Street Fighter 5 lacks a number of modes we've come to expect from fighting games. When you complete each character background story, which, by the way, involves just a few still anime images and a few fights with unique dialogue, you unlock the corresponding story mode costume for purchase in the in-game store. But the in-game store doesn't launch until March, which leaves players in the ridiculous situation of unlocking a costume that's in the game but unavailable to buy. And let's not forget Street Fighter 5's big, proper story mode doesn't launch until June.
Then there's challenge mode, which includes four sub-modes: battle tips (out March), trials (out March), targets (out "soon after launch") and extra battle (available "soon after launch"). Targets are like daily quests that earn you fight money (SF5's in-game currency). Extra battle sees you fight against special computer-controlled bosses - what sounds like a minor distraction at best.
There's no arcade mode at all. But worst of all, at launch online battle lobbies only support two players. Eight person lobbies and spectator mode arrive as part of the March update.
What we do have at launch is a disappointingly limited suite of modes that will do little to keep single-player enthusiasts interested for more than a couple of hours. I've already mentioned the rudimentary background stories - players will burn through those in a half an hour just to unlock the story costumes. The opening tutorial is laughable. There's a simple survival mode that I bounced off of after a couple of attempts. And there is of course training mode, which, admittedly, is vastly improved over Street Fighter 4's. And, usefully, you can have the game search for an online battle while you're playing other modes (I often do this while experimenting in training mode).
In short, it's hard to recommend Street Fighter 5 to those who prefer to play single-player. Many who love competitive play will of course say single-player isn't the point of the game, and I subscribe to that school of thought. But when the likes of NetherRealm Studios puts so much effort into Mortal Kombat's single-player, Capcom's efforts are embarrassing in comparison.
The fact there are just 16 characters at launch fuels the sense that Street Fighter 5 is barebones. But Capcom just about gets away with it because each character is so unique and detailed. There's no padding here.
The eclectic line-up of characters is a triumph, and brand new characters breath new life into the series. Take the curious-looking F.A.N.G., for example. The tall and thin assassin has weird, bendy moves that revolve around poison "damage over time" attacks that he produces from his long, billowing sleeves. F.A.N.G is more than a curio - he's a challenging proposition whose secrets the fighting game community will unearth over the course of months, not weeks.
Old Street Fighter stalwarts have been reimagined to play differently to previous incarnations, and it's a welcome refresh. Ken is perhaps the most striking example of this approach. Gone are the days when the blonde-haired shoto was considered a palette swap for Street Fighter star Ryu. In Street Fighter 5, Ken has a new hairdo and a new style that pushes him ever farther along the opposite end of the spectrum to his long-standing sparring partner. Similarly, Birdie returns, but he plays nothing like his Alpha incarnation. Essentially, he's as good as a brand new character.
Back from the dead soldier Nash plays nothing like his comrade Guile, either, as he has done in the past. Nash is not a charge character, for a start. Rather, he's an aggressive rushdown character who favours delivering ever-changing attacks on bemused opponents. And in another sign that Capcom's done a wonderful job of making each character stand out, Nash has a special move that reduces his opponent's EX Gauge while building his own. It's early days, but players are already trying to build competitive playstyles based on this "denial" mechanic. The first few months of a new Street Fighter's life are my favourite as players discover, test and refine exciting new tech. Street Fighter 5 is no exception.
And Capcom once again excels when it comes to character design. Small details catch the eye - leave Birdie idle for a few seconds and he'll pick his nose and flick snot at his opponent. Nash dismisses whiffed attacks like he just doesn't care. And keep an eye out for characters in the background of arenas - there are more than a few familiar faces.
Street Fighter 5 at its core is a brilliant, then, and for competitive players there's plenty to be getting on with. It's just a shame that at launch there's little else to do than fight online. And even that's proving a struggle in the early days of the game's life. Since launch, Street Fighter 5 has been plagued by disconnects. In order to get anything meaningful from the game, including Fight Money, you need to log-in to Capcom's spotty servers. And even if you do manage to log-in, you're never far from frustration. If you drop out of Capcom's servers while playing the grindy Survival mode, for example, you lose your progress and have to start over. For me, though, the biggest frustration comes from being booted out of online matches, or having a victory fail to register. Things are slowly getting better, but the launch must go down as a disappointment.
Amid the launch troubles, there's a growing feeling that Street Fighter 5 fails to justify its full-price tag. I get more than a whiff of free-to-download about the whole thing. The plan to release a new downloadable character each month up to September reinforces the sense that the hugely popular, free-to-play League of Legends was an inspiration for Capcom's producers, as it was for the new Killer Instinct.
Capcom will point to the fact that most of the promised features missing at launch are due to be added to the game in March. I'm happy to wait a month to cast my judgemental eye over Street Fighter 5's in-game shop, microtransactions and Fight Money. Others will not be, and, frankly, that's fair enough. And to be honest, even if Street Fighter 5 had launched with all the features and modes expected to arrive in March, it would still pale in comparison to the impressive package offered by the likes of Mortal Kombat X.
The combat, though, is king, and Street Fighter 5 once again proves Capcom is fighting game royalty. It usually takes years for the fighting game community to deliver a verdict on a new Street Fighter (the debate over Street Fighter 4 rages even now, eight years later), but at launch we can safely say Street Fighter 5 is an exciting, hugely satisfying and deceptively strategic fighting game with an intriguing line-up of characters that demands further investigation. Just be warned: single-player fans will be left wanting - for now, at least - and multiplayer fans may struggle online as Capcom sorts its servers out.