"Why do you need a Street Fighter V?" a colleague asked me at E3 ahead of my meeting with Capcom. "You could just play Street Fighter II forever."
It's not the worst argument. Street Fighter II, in all its iterations, stands over two decades as a near-flawless example of competitive game design. It's not often that a game pioneers a new genre and remains relevant within that genre for so long, pure and simple as the day it first came out. And no one ever asked for a sequel to chess, anyway.
But the art of Street Fighter is in its systems. As with board games or card games, the challenge is in designing a broad range of moves, abilities, and characters that remain as balanced against each other as possible. And, with Street Fighter V representing the first major overhaul to the series since 2008's wildly successful Street Fighter IV, fighting game players will take it as a rare chance to learn the new state of the art.
The big twist in Street Fighter V is a group of character-specific abilities named after the titular V: there's V-Skill, V-Trigger, and V-Reversal. Replacing Street Fighter IV's damage-absorbing Focus Attacks, V-Skill is the most immediate game-changer; each character has one of their own accessed by pressing the medium punch and kick buttons together that can be deployed at any time. Ryu has a Street Fighter III-style parry, for instance, while Chun-Li's move is a thrusting attack that can also be used as a forward jump. I'll miss the way Street Fighter IV's Focus Attacks added a tactical dimension on a level playing field for everyone, but if Capcom gets the balance right, V-Skills could be a neat, accessible way to set each character apart.
Street Fighter V opens up strong abilities to new players
V-Trigger and V-Reversal, meanwhile, are tied to a new gauge at the bottom of the screen. V-Trigger is activated by pressing hard punch and hard kick together when the gauge is full, and puts you into a glowing state with boosted attributes and access to new abilities, depending on your character. V-Reversals use half the gauge and let you perform powerful counterattacks by pressing all three punch or kick buttons out of a block.
Ultra combo attacks are still around, though they're called Critical Arts now. But overall, Street Fighter V has overhauled its high-level fighting systems and opened up more strong abilities to new players than ever before. Capcom will have to work hard to balance all this across the expansive character roster — representatives at E3 said Cammy is a little overpowered right now — but early indications are that the V system will add a lot of variety to matches, whatever your skill level. Of course, experienced players are still going to dominate. (Yes, I lost a lot of matches at Capcom's booth.)
Elsewhere there are all the subtler tweaks to movesets and movements that you'd expect. I was personally happy to see that Chun-Li's Lightning Kick is now activated with a quarter-circle, for instance, and no doubt you'll have similar discoveries to make for the characters you're used to. I was also impressed by Street Fighter V's visual style — it isn't anywhere near as dramatic a change as its predecessor introduced seven years ago, but it's a subdued refinement that takes the larger-than-life art to the next level. The painterly black lines have been toned down, with softer lighting and shading lending the characters a tactile, tangible feel.
Street Fighter V is coming out for PlayStation 4 and PC next year and will support cross-platform play between both versions. Capcom won't confirm whether the game will get an arcade release first, as is customary for the series, but a beta program planned this fall for both PS4 and PC could serve as an alternative way to help test and tweak the game before release. Wherever and however you end up playing it, though, Street Fighter V looks like it'll be the biggest thing in fighting games in quite some time.