Street Fighter V Review

The best fighter in years is also a missed opportunity.

Street Fighter V piques my curiosity in a way few games can. Its myriad character interactions gnaw at me, and I find myself playing it in my head between sessions. In the shower, I'll catch myself thinking; what happens if I use R. Mika's V-Skill when Ryu wakes up with a Shoryuken? As soon as I can, I run to my PC and test it in training mode. Turns out, you can nullify the uppercut and get a nice combo off if you time it right.

This is common for games with puzzles and mysteries to unlock, and that’s what a one-on-one fighting game like Street Fighter V is. Playing a fighting game is like putting together puzzles for your opponent as you dismantle theirs. What will my opponent do when I get knocked down as R. Mika? What tools do I have at my disposal to stop them from doing that? How can I play around what I know they can do in this situation? When you intuit these answers in fractions of a second and come out on top, there’s no feeling like it.

Street Fighter V does a better job of making this core more accessible to the average gamer. But everything else it does (and doesn’t do) will probably push everyone but the most die-hard fans away.

Full disclosure: I suck at fighting games. I love them to death, but if you apply any kind of pressure against me, I’ll probably end up beating myself. I’ll throw out random moves I know will be punished, and I’ll fumble many of the opportunities you’ll give me to fight back. But I can’t stop getting into these games, and I’m always trying to learn and improve. 

Street Fighter V understands that if the genre’s mind games were easier to get to, if they didn’t feel so intimidating, more people would fall in love with them. So it takes a few steps towards making that jump a bit friendlier. A few combos require strict timing, but every character’s most useful tools are far easier to perform than in Street Fighter IV. There’s no Focus Attack, no universal mechanic everyone needs to learn, and fewer apparent layers to suss out and understand.

This puts a strong emphasis on fighting game fundamentals, like knowing the proper range for each of your moves and knowing when to hit an opponent high, low, or go for a throw. It makes sure every player has every piece of the puzzle, and it makes creating and solving those puzzles fun.

Learning each character’s V-System (and how to fight against it) is part of character knowledge, which you gain mostly from playing more matches. For example, Dhalsim’s V-System gives him the ability to hover in the air for a few seconds as well as lay down a carpet of fire that will eat away at his opponent’s health if they stand on it. These changes affect how Ryu should play against Dhalsim, but not how Ryu plays overall.

Street Fighter V also has my favorite roster of any game in the series to date. It’s filled with a bunch of weirdos, and even the familiar characters have new tricks. Ken and Ryu have never been more different, long-time dormant characters like Rainbow Mika and Birdie return without feeling out of place, and characters like M. Bison and Dhalsim have received major overhauls that expand their playstyle. I even like what all the new characters bring to the table this time around. This cast is diverse and interesting, and I want to poke and prod at each one.

The online infrastructure is also much friendlier. Playing pre-release, and excepting one match, I couldn’t tell the difference between online and offline play. The launch servers are less stable as of this writing, but when you can get a match, you shouldn’t see much lag. You can play in ranked and casual matches, watch replays of high-level players, and even look back through some of your own and learn from them. The online ecosystem feeds back into itself, making most players want to improve after playing and watching several matches.

But if you want something to do between fights against real people, you’ll have to wait. Right now, there’s a story mode you can complete in a little over an hour and a survival mode that makes unlocking different color options for every character a chore. There’s no comprehensive story mode like Mortal Kombat X’s (for that you’ll have to wait ‘til June). 

Capcom says there’s more to come (with the first update hitting in March). But people are going to hear about these issues, about the lack of things to do, and opt out entirely instead of wait.

The problem is Capcom’s not making this game on its own schedule. The first event in the Capcom Pro Tour, which revolves around Street Fighter V, starts in about a week. A lack of content doesn’t stifle the game’s competitive prospects in the short term, but it does impede a casual player’s ability to enjoy the game and make the transition from spectator to participant.

That’s Capcom’s biggest failing here. They have a number of things in place (like simpler combos and a good online structure) to get some some new people to play, but they don’t capitalize on that at all.

While the fighting may be simpler, Street Fighter V doesn’t teach you enough about the genre for that to matter. It shows you the basic controls in a short tutorial, but doesn’t delve into the whys and hows of fighting games. What’s a mixup? Why are some moves “safer” than others? Why do I not want to jump at Ryu when he’s been knocked down? 

Without answering these questions, Street Fighter V fixes only half the problem people have getting into fighting games. As simple as it might be, the learning curve is still the same; you can either get good on your own or lose. And when games like Skullgirls go out of their way to teach new players how to fight, not having it here feels like a huge missed opportunity.

Battle Lounge lobbies (the only way to play online against friends) are also currently limited to two people and don’t seem to work at all, but the March update promises to bump that up to eight. Fingers crossed. Without these more casual lobbies, it’s hard to learn the game with other like-minded people.

There’s more to this than missing features, though. That cast I mentioned earlier, the one I adore? It does right by men, but retreads tired ground when it comes to women. There are men of several races and cultural backgrounds, but the women are almost universally white and, well, exaggerated in only the most cliched ways.

As it turns out, The Great Rainbow Mika Butt-Slap Debacle of 2015 was a red herring, as she’s one of the most tame characters in the game. Far worse is Laura, who has some odd wardrobe choices and feels like a missed opportunity. She’s Brazilian and has a dark-skinned brother (Street Fighter III’s Sean Matsuda), but still somehow falls squarely into the “white, with exaggerated proportions” trope, as so many of the worst examples of women in video games. At least there’s Karin Kanzuki, a Street Fighter Alpha favorite whose appeal comes mostly from being rich, haughty, and able to kick your ass.

Again, this matters because Capcom is so adamant about expanding its player base with this game. And once Street Fighter V has you in its grasp, once it gets you into the metaphorical store, it has a good chance of making you buy everything in it. But it fumbles every part of getting you into the store in the first place. These issues (of content, of learning, of representation) make it harder for everyone to have the power fantasy Capcom wants them to have.

I don’t think it’s too late, though. Street Fighter V is a phenomenal game, one capable of higher highs than so many other pretenders to the throne. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the way it lets me explore how its systems tick and how people work. In a world where Diablo III eventually became great and people still play Destiny, Street Fighter V could make a fighter out of you yet. You’re just going to have to meet it more than halfway.

Verdict: YES

Suriel Vazquez is a freelancer writer who will make it into Street Fighter V's Super Bronze league or lose all his LP trying. He's written for ZAM, Paste, Playboy, and many others. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.