Street Fighter V will be great when it's finished

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It’s not every year a new Street Fighter comes along. Beside the copious updates and tweaks to keep the series fresh, last week’s release of Street Fighter V marked the first legitimate new entry in the legendary fighting franchise since 2008’s successful Street Fighter IV, which itself was a surprise coming so long after 1997’s Street Fighter III. And, in a first for the series, V skipped the traditional trial by arcade fire in favor of a direct release to PlayStation 4 and PC.

Capcom tells The Verge there aren’t any plans for an arcade release. That’s sad news, but perhaps not a major shock. The arcade scene isn’t what it once was, despite some level of continued popularity in Japan, and building the first Street Fighter to prioritize online play on powerful hardware could result in a more modern, relevant release for today’s video game climate.

Well, that’s certainly what Capcom’s done. For better and worse.

First things first: Street Fighter V looks incredible. You really need to see it up close to appreciate the difference made by the shift to modern hardware. Street Fighter IV did a masterful job of updating classic 2D cartoon characters into vibrant 3D models, but the shift to Unreal Engine 4 here has done wonders, with stunning lighting and shading giving each fighter a more physical, tangible appearance. "We wanted the game to look like a moving painting," says associate producer Peter Rosas. Street Fighter V may have lost its predecessor’s inky flourishes, but between the simple yet vivid backgrounds and pulsing visual effects that feel like they’re going to spill out of the screen, Capcom came pretty close to achieving its goal.

Every Street Fighter game is a collection of rules, and Street Fighter V’s most obvious change to the previous ruleset is the new battle system based around a "V" (for "variable") gauge and its associated abilities. Each character has a unique, easy-to-perform V-Skill that replaces the damage-absorbing focus attacks from IV. V-Triggers are similarly simple, and make each character stronger in a certain way for a limited time. And V-Reversals are a powerful way to counter opponents’ attacks if you get the timing right.

The removal of focus attacks, which added a top-level element of strategy and could serve as a balancing equalizer, has the potential to upset casual Street Fighter IV players. But after spending more time with V, I think the V-Gauge system is a good replacement. It diversifies the range of accessible abilities while adding new layers of depth, and the moves make sense for each character. "As V-Skills are much more character-focused and unique, we can ensure that all V-Skills are useful for each character," says Rosas. "Since V-Skills help a character around a weakness they may have and are rather easy to understand, I think they’re much more accessible than focus attacks."

street fighter v

Opining on whether these new mechanics are good or bad right now isn’t really a useful exercise, though. Street Fighter V is here, it’s different, and fighting game fanatics are going to play it regardless. Though the rules have changed from previous versions, learning and mastering them is the whole point; all I can tell you now is that the game feels wonderful to play even though I’ll likely never grasp many of its intricacies. It’ll take a long time to evaluate Street Fighter V, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it isn’t the most popular fighting game in the world for several years to come.

Capcom had better be banking on that longevity coming to pass, too, because at launch Street Fighter V is simply not finished. There’s no traditional arcade mode, instead replaced with a series of three-fight "story" vignettes for each character, with a "cinematic" story mode set to drop in a free June update. Beating each of these vignettes will get you virtual currency to buy DLC costumes and characters in a store that doesn’t yet exist — that’s coming next month. A challenges mode on the main menu also remains greyed out 'til March, and the only real thing to do beyond the ultra-short stories is play the endless survival mode for as long as you can. Street Fighter V has outrun its arcade legacy, but in doing so seems to have missed what’s expected of a $60 home video game. Right now it feels more like a free-to-play title, except it’s very far from free.

The lack of single-player modes and content in general wouldn’t have to be an issue for many Street Fighter players — the beating heart of the series is in multiplayer, and with Street Fighter V’s core game so solid, a lot of people would be happy enough to do nothing other than take on other players. Unfortunately, a week on from launch that isn’t working very well either, with network issues causing interminable matchmaking delays. I tried hopping on to play a few rounds last night and it literally would have been faster for me to walk 10 minutes to Akihabara and find an Ultra Street Fighter IV arcade cabinet. That is perhaps not the case for everyone reading this, but you get the point. Capcom launched a series of beta tests ahead of Street Fighter V’s release, many of which were beset with issues of their own; that the final game is out on the market without reliable online functionality suggests it was rushed for release. The overall package is emblematic of the sell-first-fix-later attitude that’s getting more and more common in the video game industry.

street fighter v

Street Fighter V has a long way to go. But if the planned content is put in place and the online play works smoothly, the botched launch will likely be forgotten. I’d normally advocate waiting for an improved version — Street Fighter IV was rereleased three times, and the player base migrated to each new iteration — but Capcom has said that it won’t follow suit for V, instead iterating on the base game with downloadable content. While the content available today is probably only worth the $60 for hardcore fighting fans, then, anyone that does buy the game can rest assured it’ll stay relevant for as long as Street Fighter V itself does.

With the PS4 continuing to sell well as the leading dedicated gaming console, Street Fighter V could have a long tail, and it may even appeal to people who’ve never played a fighting game before. "I definitely feel that Street Fighter V will open the series up to new fans," says Rosas. "One of the primary design goals was to make sure everything within Street Fighter V not only looked intuitive, but also felt that way. This way, whether a person is a spectator or a player, everything is extremely easy to understand and hopefully results in more people giving the game a try."

You definitely should give Street Fighter V a try. You might just want to wait a bit.