We’ll be sitting on the full review of Street Fighter V until we’ve seen how Capcom’s new rollback-based netcode system performs in a live environment. But really we could sit on it for a few months after that. At launch, SFV is merely serviceable for the seasoned online warrior. For the beginner, it is simply abysmal.
The ‘cinematic’ story mode (presumably something along the lines of recent Mortal Kombat games) won’t be here until June. Basic features, such as spectator mode for multiplayer lobbies and a suite of character-specific combo challenges—both of which were in Street Fighter IV at launch all those years ago—won’t be available until March. What remains is by turns intoxicating and infuriating, a marvellous fighting game wrapped up in a truly miserable framework—especially for the single player.
There’s your standard multiplayer versus mode, which is the only part of the offline package in which I can’t find fault. Story mode, at launch, comprises a series of what Capcom calls ‘character prologues’: two to four single-round fights per character, interspersed with voice-acted comic-book frames drawn by renowned Japanese artist Bengus. The AI is set to ‘just sit there and get hit’ difficulty. In theory—or in Mortal Kombat—a story mode is a chance to learn the basics of each character in a low-stress environment, to find out who best suits your playstyle. After polishing off Ryu and Ken’s chapters, I moved onto Birdie, and figured I should spend a few minutes in training mode figuring a few things out. I’d surely need them. Or, you know, the other thing: you can win every fight, with every character, by just jumping about like an idiot and pressing random buttons.
Then there’s survival mode, a series of single-round scraps with perks, called Supplements, purchasable in between matches. You cash some of your score total in on varying strengths of health refills, damage or super-meter buffs. There’s a nice bit of risk/reward in the Double Down perk, which tags a multiplier onto the next fight’s score at the cost of a debuff. It’s a nice enough idea, but tests your patience long before your skill—the AI doesn’t really start trying until about round 26. And Supplements are governed by RNG: you’ll always get offered one in each category, but sod’s law means you’ll be offered a costly full-health upgrade when you’ve got 80 per cent of your energy meter left, then get the 20 per cent one when you’re down to your last sliver.
For the single player, that’s it. There is literally no way of having a traditional, best-of-three-rounds match against a CPU opponent. The game does nothing to try and help you improve: the tutorial is a three-minute insult, running you through jumping, blocking, different strengths of attack, throws, and how to activate Ryu’s V-Skill and V-Trigger. Useful if you’re playing Ryu, perhaps, but the V-mechanics are brand new to the series and unique to each character. No special move training. No combo instructions. Batter the computer offline for a bit, Capcom says, learn nothing, then go online and get destroyed.
It’s a tremendous shame, all this, because as a fighting game Street Fighter V is just wonderful. Each character having its own V-Skill and Trigger means that the cast feels tremendously diverse despite there only being 16 characters at launch. Both moves are easy to perform—V-Skill with medium punch and medium kick, V-Trigger with both heavies—lowering the barrier of entry and giving lower-level players easy access to their character’s most powerful tools. Combo timing windows are generous compared to SFIV, with a three-frame input buffer bringing even the tightest links within reach of the newbie.
For the more skilled, a lot of the nonsense system exploits that dogged Street Fighter IV as a high-level pursuit—option selects, invincible backdashes and so on—have been eliminated. This is the purest sort of fighting game: it is a battle of anticipation, psychology and reactions, not just technical skill. The winner is not the guy that has committed the 40-hit combo to muscle memory, but the person that presses the right buttons at the right time.
It looks marvellous, too, and is a fine PC port—a happy consequence of Capcom building the game in Unreal 4. Provided you’re prepared to seek out the help Capcom should be giving you themselves (in my case, finding the Pastebin transcripts of a series of YouTube videos and collating them in a Google Drive folder, for heaven’s sake) and put in some time to learn the way the game and its varied cast of characters work, you’re in for a hell of a time. If you’re not so inclined, you might be better off waiting a few months for the rest of the game to arrive. Street Fighter V may launch this week, but it’s a long, disappointing way from being finished.