Street Fighter 5 review

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[Reviewed on PS4]

Ever since the stretchy-limbed yoga practitioner made his debut in Street Fighter II, Dhalsim’s fireball has slowly puffed its way across the screen in a straight line following his ‘Yoga fire!’ cry. For fans, it’s every bit as iconic as Ryu’s Dragon Punch, Guile’s flash kick or Zangief’s lariat, a move that has become instinct for anyone who has spent more than a few hours with Capcom’s famous fighting game series – what it does, how to do it, why it’s useful. Except now, 25 years later, ‘Yoga fire!’ is followed by a fireball that dramatically arcs upwards before slowly floating back down to earth. Wait, what?

It might seem like a strange thing to focus on, but this seemingly minor difference is symbolic of the widespread change that Capcom has employed for its familiar cast, as it has tweaked and twisted established convention for Street Fighter V. Dhalsim’s fireballs are useful for air control and set-ups rather than ground control, being used alongside his long-reaching limbs to harass opponents from a safe distance.

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Every returning character has something that is different than what you remember – Vega now has two stances with their own target combos and moves; Zangief can activate body armour as a pseudo-parry; Nash has a teleport. And so on. If SFIV was the nostalgic jolt in the arm the series (and perhaps the fighting game genre as a whole) needed to become relevant again, then Street Fighter V is the confident push forward into new and uncharted territory, and nowhere is that more evident than the refreshed move sets.

Although, the differences don’t just come from revised move lists. Each character has a V-Skill, which can be called upon any time, and V-Trigger, activated once its relevant meter is full. These give each character something a little different to their  standard special moves – R.Mika can call in her tag-team partner from off the screen to set-up difficult-to-block situations for her opponent, for example, while Ken can effectively set himself on fire as his special moves gain new properties. It’s a welcome refresher to what we’re used to.

And, although they seem like minor additions on the surface, they help differentiate the cast by giving character specialists new tools to play with and change the dynamics of the match-up. Dhalsim can set the ground on fire for a damage-over-time effect, which gives his opponent a new problem to solve – stand in the fire and trade blows? Risk jumping towards Dhalsim to escape? Take the safe option of backing off but then giving Dhalsim room to breathe again?

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Then, of course, there are the new characters: Laura is disappointingly bland but Necali, Rashid and F.A.N.G. all bring unique gameplay to the series, feeling more like Decapre and El Fuerte-style additions rather than Evil Ryu or Oni-style bores. In this age of Ultra Street Fighter IV, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and BlazBlue: Central Fiction, the size of the roster in Street Fighter V is a little disappointing, but at least the new faces are fun and the returning characters are interesting.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the biggest change isn’t found with the revamped characters or even the addition of V-Skill and V-Trigger moves. It comes from the mechanics that power the game itself. Street Fighter IV became notorious for its ‘one-frame link combos’, which became lazy shorthand for those that bemoaned the strenuous execution demands needed to pull off the combos essential to compete at higher levels, particularly later on in the game’s life as players became more experienced and battle-hardened. Capcom has reworked its combo system for Street Fighter V so not only are combos easier to execute, they don’t lead to eye-watering damage either.

The result is that Street Fighter V echoes the competitive mentality behind its enduring classic Super Street Fighter II Turbo – matches are about finding the right distance to be effective, using your normal moves well and knowing match-ups, rather than overwhelming your opponents with one-frame link combos and option selects. You need to master your opponent, not the game engine; and that one subtle difference permeates the entire approach to play, making Street Fighter V far more accessible to those scared off by FADC Ultra attack shenanigans of the past.

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Perhaps it’s just as well, because Street Fighter V will be relying on its multiplayer appeal more heavily than it should. Arcade mode is three fights (three!) broken up by picture-and-text ‘story’, the most bare-bones of token efforts, and… there’s little else to entertain players outside of online modes. Story Mode DLC is on the way but given what’s currently here and the depressing dearth of game modes, it’s hard to believe Story Mode will measure up to the standards set by Mortal Kombat or BlazBlue when catering for the single player. There’s an argument that a modern-fighting game shouldn’t really have to focus on anything outside of multiplayer but if you’re going to include it at all, why not do it well and make it part of the core release?

Regardless, the real test for Street Fighter V isn’t now. That will come in the weeks, months and years to come. With the stripped-back combo system, slower game pace and removal of chip-damage deaths, there’s a chance that Street Fighter could feel too slow. But who really knows? That will only come after arcade sticks have been crushed under the weight of desperate Zangief players cranking out last-second SPDs, after dramatic victories deciding tournament finals between a bouncy Rashid and defensive Dhalsim, after an army of frustrated players scream at Ryu bores for throwing yet another full-screen fireball. Street Fighter has always found its glory in these moments and Street Fighter V has set the series up for another multi-year run amongst the elite of gaming’s competitive multiplayer titles.

8
Confident, exciting and fresh