Street Fighter 5 wants you to have fun. It is fully aware of just how much giddy, gratifying, intelligent, enriching enjoyment it contains, and its primary instinct is to deliver that to you, as quickly and directly as possible, at whatever level you want to play.
Whichever end of the fighting game skill spectrum you currently stand on, do not take that to mean that Street Fighter 5 has been dumbed down. Hardcore, high-level players will find a vast amount of depth, nuance, and long-term malleability in its bold, immediate systems. And the less expert have a very long and exhilarating road of growth, improvement, learning and discovery ahead of them. The difference this time is that the clarity of Street Fighter 5’s systems and presentation has been tuned to near perfection.
Before a single punch has even been thrown, Street Fighter 5’s disdain for overly complex barriers is obvious. Gone is Street Fighter 4’s Focus Attack system, most crucially. The mechanic was intended as a get-out-of-jail free card in hairy situations, allowing hits to be safely absorbed and counter-attacked, but its secondary use as the primary means of setting up SF4’s most powerful, showboating combos ultimately gated away the fun of the higher-end game from all but the most dedicated and dexterous. In its place – literally, activated by the same, simple two-button press – is the V-Skill. Or rather, the many V-Skills. Because instead of bottlenecking creative play via a very specific route, a la its predecessor, the V system initiates the open, utterly freeform, ‘anything can happen’ play that Street Fighter 5 revels in.
Tap both medium attack buttons together, and your character will instantly perform a special move or attack unique to them. No stick or pad waggling required. And I do mean unique. These things are simple, but immensely powerful game-changers. Zangief, for example, can absorb damage in a similar fashion to the old Focus, but he can also do so while advancing, radically reversing the glacial grappler’s old problem with getting into attack range. Chun-Li will launch into the air at odd angles, throwing off opponents used to her normal trajectories. M. Bison can grab fireballs out of the air and hurl them straight back. Ryu gains the ability to safely parry (and retaliate against) as many incoming hits as you can nail the timing for.
Holding out for Super Hyper Ultra Street Fighter 5: Turbo Wonder Edition? Don't. There will be no traditional expansions this time. Instead, Street Fighter 5's additional characters will be drip-fed into the roster as incremental updates. And in theory, you won't have to pay for any of them. In-game currency - known as Fight Money - will cover the cost, if you've earned enough. But of course, real cash will also suffice if you don't want to wait.
If you need an example of how fundamental an addition the V-Skills are, it’s all there in that last one, which rips out one of Street Fighter 3’s core systems wholesale, and hands it to just one character on the roster. Asymmetry is Street Fighter 5’s thing, you see. Asymmetry, and unpredictability, and dynamism, and creativity. The basics of attack, evasion, controlling space and stringing together combos come packing enough flexibility to keep you going and growing for months – and probably years - but when you want to crank up both the flashiness and the fun, the tools to do so are a simple button tap away.
The same goes the second part of the V system: the V-Trigger. Here, you simply need to hit the two strong attack buttons at the same time, and your character will enter a special, time-limited, powered up state which changes their fighting properties – furnishing, say, multi-hitting attacks, or greater speed or defense - or even gives them new special moves. Karin’s suite of charging-punches, block-breaking overhead hits, and defensive back-dashes is a particularly potent example. Yet more power, yet more options, yet still a minimum of challenge in execution. The various building blocks of Street Fighter 5’s strategic game are simple to grasp and simple to use, but they click together to build systems of immense power and versatility. It all creates the feel of a game that doesn’t want to present any hurdles to your progress, but which rather wants to give you all of its tools up front, and let you get on with building your own fun straight away.
And whatever level you start playing at, you will achieve that. Because all of these systems come alongside a core fighting set-up with clarity at its absolute centre. Control is immediate and flowing, with special move inputs noticeably stripped back for simplicity, quarter-circles very much ruling the roost these days. With combo timings more forgiving than ever, and a fantastic clarity of visual feedback running through every hit, block, and counter, it’s as easy to grasp the logic and strategy of Street Fighter 5 as it is to start having fun straight out of the gate.
The perfect fighting game then? Unfortunately no. Because there’s a rather frustrating irony in Street Fighter 5’s launch day set-up. You see, while the core game is a wonderful, player-minded blend of immediate enjoyment and friendly, long-term lessons, the current content array does not get that across terribly well. Not for the solitary player, anyway. While couch-based vs. play against another human will always be the best way to enjoy a fighter, in these post-Mortal Kombat X days, a strong, inventive suite of solo options is a must-have in terms of easing a player in. And Street Fighter 5, currently at least, does not have one.
Get past the baffling lack of a traditional arcade mode, and you’ll find only Story and Survival set-ups, alongside an unguided training mode featuring customisable AI. Story initially seems promising, but ultimately feels like a half-baked afterthought, delivering only two to four, challenge-free, single-round fights per character, strung together with rather cheap-looking and uneventful motion comics. A proper, cutscene-driven narrative campaign is coming as a free update, and will hopefully rival the later MK games’ fun and engaging equivalents – Street Fighter certainly has the personality to make the idea sing – but it’s only landing in June, which may be too late for players without an immediate crew of fight buddies.
Also coming later – March, this time – is Challenge mode, which should provide a decent training facility alongside the (seemingly now requisite) daily tasks, but being unavailable in the review build, it’s currently impossible to quantify either way. Its arrival isn’t too far off, but again, a very important part of the single-player offering is missing at launch.
This inevitably brings us to the realm of online play, in which findings have been decidedly mixed. When it works, it works very well, fights playing out as well as in a local bout. But in pre-release play, those kinds of results have only appeared about half of the time, the remainder taking in the full gamut of online performance from ‘slightly gluey’ to ‘full-blown slide-show’. Hopefully netcode will be improved over time, but once again we have an area of SF5 where underperformance pushes local vs. play as the only real, consistently viable option.
So Street Fighter 5 is brilliant with caveats, then. But it is, at its core, still brilliant. Being brutally honest, your mileage with it – during the early phase of its life at least – will vary greatly depending on the availability of fight-ready friends in your immediate vicinity. Its pleasures are great and many, but for all of their eagerness to please, you’ll really need to explore them shoulder-to-shoulder with others. That, of course, is why the heart of any great fighting game truly beats, and Street Fighter 5’s beats as hard and loud as that of any you care to mention. As such, it would be a real shame if the curious new players it has so much to offer were turned off by its limited early content.
This game was reviewed on PS4.