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July 16, 2015

Street Fighter V (Oh, and EVO Too)

It’s worth noting upfront that this post was written in advance of EVO 2015, AKA the latest installment of one of the biggest fighting game tournaments in the world.  It’s kind of a shame, because it’d be cool to report on a couple of the blow-by-blow matches, or revel in the hype that’s sure to transpire (anybody remember the Garireo vs. Dogura grand finals in BlazBlue?  I sure do).  On the other hand, this post is more about Street Fighter V than it is about EVO, so it evens out.

I’m also working under the assumption that there’ll be a new character announced there at some point, so this might be outdated mere minutes after it goes live.  So hey, maybe we’ll find out who that guy at the end of Ken’s reveal trailer was supposed to be.  On that note?  Seriously, guys?  You look at that him and say, “Oh, that’s E. Honda” or “Yeah, Akuma’s back” when he’s got almost nothing in common between them?  Come on.  Let’s at least try to use a little reason, yes?

But enough of that.  Let’s get right to it.

Confession time: I’m not what anyone would call a Street Fighter expert.  (Shocker!)  The first game I ever owned in the franchise was Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, and that was only because I found it at random one day when my brother and I wandered into a now-defunct computer store.  After that, it was Street Fighter Anniversary Collection -- and that was only because my brother practically begged me to pick it up for him at a GameStop so he could get ready for the then-upcoming SFIV with Third Strike.  Not only did he not use it to get ready (having dropped it after a couple of weeks, tops), but I’m pretty sure he’s said that the two games are such different beasts that he might as well have not bothered.  Perfect.

So out of all the SF games, SFIV is the one I know best.  I pretty much had to know it best, because failing to do so meant spending hours upon hours getting virtually curb-stomped.  That was an outcome I preferred to avoid.  I still do, actually, but it’s not uncommon for me to get #rekt for the simplest of mistakes -- or for having the audacity to actually press a button…or God forbid, try to play the game.  So if nothing else, SFV means I’ll have a chance to get my face pushed in all over again.  And again.  And again.

Weirdly, though, I can’t help but feel excited for the game.  I guess it’s that aura of mystery around a new fighter -- that period where, prior to its release, it feels like anything is possible.  Who’s going to be in it?  What kind of crazy attacks will there be?  What about the new stages?  What about the new music?  If they turned Birdie into a punk rock slob, then what are they going to do to Guile?  There’s a lot that needs to be shown off, and even more that needs to be proven.  Luckily, Capcom and crew have done their best to prove plenty for us, even in (as of this writing) an absence of a playable beta…though that’ll change soon, of course.

There’s been plenty of footage, plenty of chances for the aces and pros to have hands-on time (with full tournaments, no less), plenty of demonstrations, and plenty of explanations; I miss the days when Seth Killian walked the earth, but for what it’s worth I’ve long since welcomed Combofiend into my heart.  Capcom’s even gone the distance and let us hear some of the music instead of having those songs pop up with zero fanfare a week before release -- a movie which I must say is much appreciated.  Yet with this being an eighth-generation game -- and therefore likely to be subjected to some sort of debilitating, demoralizing curse -- you just know there has to be a “but” to all of this at some point.  And who knows?  Maybe the final product will be a broken-ass piece of garbage that’ll make PS4s and PCs alike explode in the first minute of play.

As it stands, though?  I don’t think there’s a reason to not be hyped by this game.  Within reason, of course.

Here’s the thing: I think SFIV is a pretty good game.  I’ve enjoyed it.  I respect what it did for both the genre and the industry.  But even if it’s practically a tournament standard, its time may be about to pass.  I’m not just saying that because the next installment’s due out in less than a year (barring delays); I’m saying that because I can think of a number of fighters that are as good as or better than Capcom’s marquis title.  Guilty Gear Xrd is my go-to example, as is Under Night In-Birth.  ArcSys has been representing with BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena; meanwhile, Bandai Namco’s got a new Tekken in arcades and on the road to consoles, while teasing the return of Soulcalibur.  I think that even something like Pokken Tournament has a good shot at a home release, or at the very least an established presence. 

What I’m getting at here is that Capcom doesn’t exist in a vacuum -- and even if SFIV is a good game, it’s still got some weaknesses.  Those are weaknesses brought out simply because a lot of its competition is newer and built upon past successes and a strong foundation.  Ultra SFIV changed the game as much as it could, but it’s time for a fresh start.  That might be the only way to keep the brand going strong.  I say that because SFV has a chance to do what its predecessor can’t: bridge the gap.

If I remember right, one of the issues with Guilty Gear’s earlier installments was that it was a very hard series to get into, or play competently.  I’ve heard that I-No was borderline impossible to play for newbies, and even using Ky meant mastering Force Roman Cancels (which is exactly as intimidating as it sounds). 

And sure, learning the advanced mechanics or monstrous combos isn’t a prerequisite if you’re just going to sit on a couch and play with buddies, but there’s something important to note.  Speaking personally, I’ve always hated it when it feels like I don’t understand how to use a character, or what to do, or even what the end goal is.  It’s not a good feeling to stand around and press buttons in a desperate search to find something -- anything -- that works.  Plus, it probably won’t.

But that’s how I feel a lot of the time in SF4.  In more instances than I can count, it feels like I’m fighting the game more than I am fighting the opponent.  Do you have the dexterity to pull off combos that require inputs within one sixtieth of a second?  I sure don’t.  And even if those infamous “one-frame links” aren’t essential for every combo, they’re essential for some -- and even then, the sheer demands of all but the most basic combo are pretty steep. 

FADCs and Red Focus (the former especially) have some strict timing, and the combos tied to them are extremely easy to screw up, even in the hands of the pros.  And when you need to be frame-perfect to do your stuff, yet online battles can be anything but…well, you can see why people would say “fighting games are too hard” and back off.  Whereas a game like Smash Bros. gets huge traction because of its accessibility, I have a hard time recommending SFIV to anyone looking to jump into the genre.

At this stage, I’m working under the assumption -- based on mounting evidence -- that SFV does at least two things that’ll make the series better than ever: it goes back to basics, and it lowers the skill gate.  I would be genuinely surprised if there were no big combos period in the entire game, especially since the recent video footage has shown Nash, at the very least, stringing together a good half-dozen hits.  (To say nothing of the new Ken.) 

But it looks as if you don’t have to press ten buttons to do one or two things; with some of the frills removed, there’s a stronger focus on simplicity and strategy.  And while FADCs are well-known for offense, their removal means they’re taking away a prime saving throw -- meaning that if you throw out a high-risk, high-reward attack, you’d better make sure it hits.

What’s got me in good spirits is the implication that combos -- even the basic ones -- are a lot easier this time around.  That’s raised some debate on sites like EventHubs, but I think that’s a good thing.  I’m not saying that every Jimmy Xbox should be able to do 20-hit combos while half-asleep, but I am saying that if they know a good combo and have spent time either learning it or practicing it, then they should be able to do it on command.  No extra effort required.  No fighting the game.  Lowering the barrier of entry means that people will be able to do cooler, more in-depth stuff with greater ease -- meaning that there’s a greater incentive for them to strive to be better, and get the most out of their characters.

We won’t have to deal with another half-decade of Flowchart Kens -- because when even the basics are within the layman’s reach, it can make for both better competition and a more satisfying experience.  It’s not guaranteed, obviously (I hope that the game features a solid tutorial so that players can know in the first place what’s possible), but the day people realize they can do more than a jumping roundhouse into a sweep is the day that they get to feel what it’s like to be a World Warrior -- and not just flail around while pretending to be one.

What’s got me excited and worried at the same time are the characters -- and the character balance, by extension.  A lot of people call SFIV a boring game (my brother’s one of them, despite his religious playing of it on every system he can reach), and I can kind of see why: compared to some of the games that have come out since, it’s slower and more rigid, with its metagame and mid-match objectives on every level of play. 

Most distressingly, there are concerns of character tiers and viability -- so yes, even if there are guys online that represent their Warrior of choice, the fact that those with serious skill won’t even tough them is a disservice.  KojiKOG should never have had to wait this long to go all in with his T. Hawk, and it’s likely that poor Dee Jay will never get his chance to shine.  SFV presents a new opportunity, as it should -- but I’m starting to question whether or not it’s already too late.

The gameplay mechanics make a strong push toward action and aggressive play, with meter management that’s less about conversation and more about burning everything as soon as it’s there (on the grounds that it’ll be back before you know it).  What does that mean for defensive play -- for strategies, for players, and even characters?  I mean, just look at the six characters that have been on a grand tour so far.  Bison is a more offensive, pressure-heavy character than he’s ever been.  Cammy’s return means more shenanigans than you can shake a pair of pants at.  Nash has been completely revamped to go on the attack at the expense of defense.  Chun-li’s got a move specifically designed to get her in there, as has Birdie.  Meanwhile, Ryu gets…a parry?

I’m sure it’ll be a strong part of his game once people know how to use it effectively -- or at all -- but at this stage I’m worried that SFV is being built as an anti-Ryu game.  Four of the six characters have dedicated moves to screw up his fireball game, and Birdie’s leaping command grab technically makes it five.  He’s got his dragon punch, but the reportedly-removed invincibility and the removal of an FADC mean he’s taken some hits.  Air tatsu cross-ups are gone as well; in the E3 build they didn’t give him meter.  I guess his attack power went up to compensate, but it doesn’t paint a healthy picture for the character when Daigo has trouble carving out a win with him.

Not to dive too deep into my well of biases, but I kind of think pure rushdown characters are some ol’ bullshit.  Okay, I get it -- when they go at it, they’re the most exciting to watch, and they’re undoubtedly some of the most exciting to play.  But in a lot of cases, they can be so good that they make everyone else feel redundant; it’s one thing to have speed, but another entirely to have nigh-unmatched damage potential, and the options to make that happen.

Look at Yun, for example.  What’s his weakness?  That he’s got low health, or his reversal isn’t as good?   So what?  A Yun on-point doesn’t need to care about defense, because he can get in fairly easily, can do tons of damage, has lots of combo potential, can crack open an opponent’s defenses in seconds, and can still reliably play defensively even if he doesn’t have a straight DP.  When you’ve got characters that strong, why would you ever pick anyone else?  Or more importantly, why would you expect to have fun when there’s such a massive disparity between the haves and the have-nots?

The point I’m trying to make is that, even if I’m no fighting game expert, I have an idea of what they should be like.  In SF’s case, it’s about taking your favorite character and using his/her skills to win a match -- to use their strengths to gain the advantage, no matter the situation.  Every character has tools, and it’s a matter of applying them in the middle of a fight; in a way, it’s like solving a puzzle that can change from one second to the next. 

But when the solution to that puzzle is simply “get in their face and attack without repercussion”, then it hurts the game.  The one on the receiving end doesn’t get to do much besides wait for death, bet the farm with a desperate attack -- one that’s easily baited and punished, no less -- or give up.  And the one dishing out the pressure gets to go full ham without thought, and without a challenge.

There are multiple character archetypes in fighting games, largely because SF put them into the gaming consciousness.  Shotos, rushdown, zoners, grapplers -- all recognizable types that can suit anyone’s tastes.  All of them should be fun to play, and at a base level, they are.  But victories and losses should come from the application of wit, maybe even more than memorized, frame-perfect combos.  Learn the tools and fundamentals, and put them to good use.  When a game creates situations where whole swaths of the cast either have to struggle or end up being worthless, then there’s less variety, which means less excitement, which means less fun.  Every character should instinctively feel like they stand a chance.  And not...well...

(Actually, an ability like that might make him S-tier.)

I’m not necessarily asking for flawless balance of the cast (I have my doubts Capcom can do it in one shot, since they’re the ones that gave the world Vergil).  But when I see videos of Bison in SFV racking up wins because nobody can stop his pressure, I can’t help but groan inside.  The best fights are the ones where there’s a back-and-forth struggle between two opponents; is it possible for anyone to get hyped when one guy is going full tilt, and the other guy just has to sit there and twiddle his thumbs while he blocks?  And sure, situations like that can happen.  In some cases, they should.  But what’s important is that each character should be able to offer viable answers to the question “how do I win a match?”

Despite my concerns, I think SFV is on the right track.  Yes, Bison can apply some relentless pressure, and I’m working under the assumption that Cammy can as well.  But this time around, things aren’t the same as they were back then.  The V-Reversal mechanic is going to add a major boon, I think; it may cost you a little meter, but if used correctly then it can conclusively give the defending player a chance to get back into the fight.  And since it can be built with successful blocking, it means that the defender isn’t necessarily out of the fight.

Speaking of meter, V-Skills and the V-Trigger are primed to offer exactly what I might want out of a fighting game, alongside some of the character tweaks.  This new game gives me faith in the franchise, precisely because we have a new and improved Birdie in our midst.  Oh, he’s the grappler of the cast (for now)?  No problem, then!  Beating him is as simple as zoning him out with normal and projectiles, and neutral jumping to dodge his command grabs.  But no!  Not in this game!  Birdie’s gotten tools to help him get in, catch enemies, shut down their shenanigans, or just make them play to his game plan with all of his moves.  Granted he can’t do what he wants for free, but A at least he won’t have to struggle by design, and B) he shouldn’t be able to do what he wants for free.  That’s not what fighting games are about.

It’s my guess that Capcom understands that now more than ever.  It’s looking as if there’s a push for aggressive play, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s the answer to every puzzle.  Again, Birdie makes a strong argument for the changes that are on the way.  Plus, even if Ryu has a more defensive lean (or if he’s the most traditional of the returning cast members), it’s not as if he’ll suddenly be worthless.  His damage isn’t to be underestimated, and once people master his parry, I’d bet that they’ll be able to start an offense.  And not because he’s better by design; he’ll get in because his player earned that right.  Through skill…and a pretty hype moment, arguably.

The mechanics of SFIV were such that some characters benefited more than others, and highlighted the disparity.  In SFV?  The mechanics are more personalized -- tied to the characters so that they have special tools to their names.  Smart use of V-Skills can turn the tide of a match, while a power-up from a popped V-Trigger lets a player go all out.  It’s not about who can get the most out of an FADC or Red Focus combo anymore; it’s about who can use their tools -- however basic -- smartly and more efficiently.  That’s something that’ll make a lot more sense to beginners, while offering up something strategic for the top players.  Plus, it’ll mean plenty for the characters themselves.  Everyone has a shot at victory -- or at the very least, they should.

I guess the biggest question for now is: what’s going to happen for characters old and new?  How is the franchise that codified these archetypes in the first place going to take them to the next level, besides simply tweaking their under-the-hood data?  Again, Birdie gives us a good indication of what we might be able to expect -- a sort of revolution for grapplers of all breeds.  So what’s next?  Will a guy like Dhalsim be able to set some kind of yoga traps to bolster his zoning game?  If Sean returns, will he be able to use his basketball for some sneaky tricks?  How about combination grapples instead of a one-and-done SPD?  A character with a whole new stance system?  The franchise’s first puppet master?

We’re at a point where the possibilities are endless -- and even post-release, the sheer amount of potential is staggering.

There’s a lot that still needs to be proven (notably, whether or not Capcom/Sony will deliver on the promise of a dedicated story), and there are still a lot of ways for this game to go wrong.  It could be a buggy mess on release if handled poorly, and even beyond that I wonder if the fighting game community will be receptive as the early hype suggests -- because once upon a time, people were excited for Street Fighter X Tekken.  But for now, what’s here might be enough.  What’s here makes a pretty good argument.

I had my reservations about the graphics/art style at first, but the more I see of it, the more it grows on me.  Things look a little more realistic now, but it’s not as if the game has lost its character or charm; there’s still an inherent level of goofiness to the proceedings, if only because it’s the only game that lets you boot an evil dictator into a bus and laugh as he gets carted off.  Plus, Ryu and Chun-Li look like a grown-ass man and woman while also retaining their distinct flairs, so this new game is no case of homogenized visuals.  But the fact that it’s got a full color palate is proof enough of that.  Also, holy crap Ryu’s theme sounds amazing even if there’s only 46 seconds’ worth of it up right now.

So for now, all we can do is sit and wait -- and shove whatever news we can down our gullets until release.  I’m okay with that (aftereffects of forcible consumption notwithstanding), because…well, it’s been a while since I’ve felt like we’re in good hands from a big-name release that doesn’t have the Nintendo brand.  But here we are.  And maybe we’ll be in an even better place once the beta drops and everybody and their weird uncle gets to play it.

Until then?  Keep those red headbands tight.  Also, watch EVO or whatever.  I want to see some sick Xrd action.

See?  I said this post was (sort of) about EVO, so I pulled it back at the end.  WHAT AN ANSWER.

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