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February 29, 2016

Let’s discuss Street Fighter V (Part 1).


This might be both the easiest and the hardest post I’ve written in a while.

Let’s answer the basic questions right off the bat.  Yes, I like Street Fighter V.  Yes, I think that -- even with the rough launch and the controversies surrounding it -- it’s a good game overall.  With enough time and familiarization, whether it’s with casuals, pros, or someone nestled in between like me, it’s going to cement itself as the flagship title of the fighting game genre.  Well, if it hasn’t already.

But it’s hard for me to ignore the outcries right now.  Why?  Well, in one of my earliest experiences with the game, I sat down with my brother to play it.  And in the middle of our match, the game booted us back to the main menu because of Capcom’s server woes.  Despite us playing offline.  Despite the two of us sitting less than a yard away from each other.  And of course, that’s overlooking the obvious issue.  Capcom ran multiple betas and multiple stress tests over the course of roughly half a year, and the online launch was still a mess.

So, once more, let’s gab about Street Fighter V.  Even though a guy who can just barely land a combo has no business discussing it, but whatever.  It’s fine.


Let’s be fair to Capcom here.  Unexpected problems crop up all the time, especially with the eighth generation of games in our midst.  So on one hand, it might be a little unreasonable to expect an online-heavy game to work 100% perfectly; I don’t know how many people got into the beta, but I’d like to think that it’s not quite as many as people picking it up at any given retailer on release day…though the beta players’ additional numbers didn’t help matters. 

Given that Capcom’s war chest was famously revealed to be running on empty a couple of years ago, I’d like to think that they don’t have the resources on demand to make hairpin turns in development.  (Would we have even gotten SFV when we did if not for Sony’s involvement?  I wonder.)  So I’m willing to give the company slack.  It’s not just because of past financial woes -- which I’ll immaturely blame on the failures of Resident Evil 6 and DmC -- but because they’re catering to a niche we can’t always count on to be filled.  SFV (and the series in general) has style in spades as well as top-shelf gameplay, so if this sells well enough, maybe it’ll give Capcom a road map towards being the style-monger it once was.


And yet, there’s this nagging sense behind the game in its current state -- i.e. as of writing, prior to the March updates.  Full disclosure: I haven’t tried playing any online matches since the full release.  My brother has, and we basically came to the conclusion that it’s the best it could be -- though that hasn’t stopped some wacky things from happening via rollback netcode.  To be sure, I sympathize with anyone who grabbed the game and either had a rough online experience, or just outright hasn’t been able to play it at full capacity/as intended.  I know that local play is supposed to be the true ideal experience, but not everyone has that luxury.  Not everyone has a pack of pals -- or even one pal -- to battle in high-level matches.

Capcom and various gamers across the spectrum have said that if the online sector doesn’t work, then SFV is dead in the water.  Things haven’t gotten that bad, but for the online warriors out there, the problems aren’t exactly easy to ignore.  Or forgive.  And again, I thought the whole purpose of the beta and stress tests was to make sure everything ran smoothly.  Why did people take to forums all over to point out that things weren’t running smoothly?  Why does the game need patches and profuse apologies from producers?  Why is the game tied to online connections and servers so that if there’s a problem, all sorts of progress gets lost -- even when playing against friends within arms’ reach?  Why did the devs create problems that didn’t need to be there?

I have to ask, because online play isn’t the only problem SFV has.


Honestly, I don’t even know if playing online is going to be a big thing for me.  I suspect not.  I have a big backlog of games I need to start tending to, none of which have significant/necessary online components.  Hell, I didn’t even put in a huge amount of solo time into SFV because I wanted to finish the three Uncharted games first (and look forward to more posts on that hot mess).  So I wouldn’t take my complaints about the online play too seriously.  With that said, I have to stare some of the other controversies in the face -- namely, the question of whether or not the game is finished.  And to do that, I have to talk about one of the newcomers, Rashid.

I wasn’t all that into Rashid when he was first announced, and I pretty much glossed over him in my time with 1½ of the betas.  I was under the impression that he’d be a high-mobility character, and I tend to shy away from those because I can’t control the speed efficiently.  But I’ve started playing him now, and he might even become my #2 guy; he’s got some mobility, but in a lot of ways he’s a shoto with some really interesting tweaks.  I intend to learn more about him in the days to come.  But that highlights the problem here: time and time again, I’ve asked myself “Okay, what’s a Rashid combo supposed to look like?”  Or “What’s the key to Rashid’s game plan?”  Those are valid questions.  Too bad the game doesn’t give valid answers.


To be fair, it’s not as if the game should toss out every answer; fighting games are about self-discovery and creativity, along with skills honed through practice (or trials by fire, if you’re set on going up against foes leagues better than you).  And indeed, I’ve found some stuff with Rashid that can help me stand a chance.  But even if the answer lies in the heart of battle, it sure doesn’t lie in the game.  If not for the internet, I would’ve never learned some of the Turbulent Wind’s crucial abilities, and I’m still getting a grasp on his basic attacks.  How frustrating must it be for people who haven’t been following the game for months?  Or more appropriately, how frustrating must it be for people who’ve never touched a SF game before this one?

I thought Capcom said that they wanted to widen the audience here, and bring in new blood with a back-to-basics system.  That’s an admirable goal, for sure.  Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m always frustrated by fighting games when it feels like I don’t have a good grasp of the character, or what I’m supposed to be doing -- and I’ve been playing them for years.  I know that I’ll learn eventually (probably), but for someone who doesn’t even know what a DP is?  I’m frustrated by the potential frustration of others -- people who deserve to jump into the genre and see why it’s such a treat.

People have argued before that anyone who wants to learn fighting games should start with SF.  I’m not sure if I agree with that statement, even now -- because once again, SFV doesn’t do anyone any favors.


There’s a tutorial at the start of the game -- an unavoidable, albeit skippable one -- that teaches the basic controls.  But it doesn’t really teach everything needed.  True, it’s not as if I expect the game to go into a minutes-long discussion on footsies or super armor from second one; the problem is that, as others have pointed out, it’s a tutorial that doesn’t offer nearly as much as it should (dashing and throw techs are completely omitted, for example).  What’s a Crush Counter, and why is it good to land one?  What’s a Quick Rise, and what’s the difference between the two versions?  What are links and cancels?  Details on the universal systems aren’t as clear as they could be.

That means, inevitably, that details on characters are missing as well.  SFIV didn’t have a lengthy, in-depth tutorial either, but it at least came packaged with trials.  Some were more impractical than others mid-fight, but they at least showed you what a character was capable of and what you could use (reliably, with enough practice and insight).  In SFV, you have to learn on the fly -- which is both a good thing and a bad thing.  Tiny nuances and attributes can have a big impact on fights, and some of those aren’t immediately obvious.  What’s the difference between Ryu’s V-Trigger and Laura’s V-Trigger?  Good question.  Guess you’ll have to use the internet to find out…assuming you have the patience and commitment for it.


Okay, SF hasn’t always been big on tutorials and explanations.  But if the intent was to bring in new fans, then a better tutorial wouldn’t have hurt.  The execution barrier may have been lowered, but what does it matter if new players don’t know what to execute?  If ever there was a time for Capcom to make the learning process easier, it was with SFV -- not a couple of weeks after release (at best), but day one

When the first version of BlazBlue came out, it launched with an instructional DVD that gave a rundown of characters ad some basic combos; years later, it featured a character-specific tutorial in-game that went over game plans, abilities, and useful attacks.  Guilty Gear Xrd runs through simple concepts and complex elements like option selects, and makes a spectacle out of it by framing it as practice between Sol Badguy and Sin Kiske.  Skullgirls’ tutorial arguably explains fighting games in general.  So where’s SFV’s stuff?

In the game’s defense, there’s no guarantee that just because Capcom added a mode, people would actually give it a shot.  It seems like it’s akin to asking people to read an instruction manual, or do their homework -- hardly as glamorous as actually laying the game.  But first of all, that gesture is much-appreciated, and no one will actually bemoan tutorials if they’re included (and optional).  Second, running players through the basics could help in the long run, in the sense that it could improve the game’s overall climate and indoctrinate casual players into lifelong loyalty.  Third, it might be a good idea to have something to fall back on if and when people can’t play online.  But hey, there’s no chance of that happening, right?


Like I said before, I’m bummed by the fact that the real story -- hopefully the first installment of it, with more to come in the future -- won’t get here until June.  The story that’s here now is meager, to say the least; you’ll take your character of choice through a couple of fights and some 2D cutscenes, but it’s possible to finish any one of those episodes in a little over five minutes.  I think I like the “story” more than others, because there are some good insights into each World Warrior.  It leads me to believe that there’s an interesting undercurrent of thought in the SF universe, but I think I’ll hold that thought until the story’s full release.

In any case, I don’t blame anyone for taking issue with “story” mode.  I found something to digest, but with only two or three one-round matches per character, mixed in with art that’s proven…controversial (read: butt-ugly) in the eyes of some, I understand why people are up in arms.  Capcom teased a big, cinematic story for months, and then revealed within a month of release -- if that -- that the fans would have to wait till June to find out the mysteries behind Necalli, the ramifications of Nash’s return, and just how the hell this game ties into the venerable SFIII.  People have every right to be salty.


There are no real tutorials, no trials, and no story mode to bring the hype (though to be fair, some familiar faces do pop up in those cutscenes).  Mainstays like Time Attack are missing as well.  Survival mode is still in, but it’s not 100% ideal.  Setting aside the fact that server problems can lead to you getting booted out and forced to start over, the gameplay is less about testing yourself and honing your skills as it is pounding on CPUs that can’t even be counted on to block…that is, until you reach the last few rounds and there’s an unexpected, unwelcome jump in difficulty, necessitating a complete restart.  The upside is that you can practice your BnBs and big combos against a bunch of training dummies; the downside is that the mode is more likely to teach you bad habits, and ways to not play SF as intended.  Or effectively.  Or intelligently.

I’m happy with SFV as it is, without question.  But not everyone is like me, and they need more from their game.  Someday, SFV is going to be a must-own for everybody across the board -- but the problem is that that day should’ve been release day.  I know that Capcom pushed it out the door with promises that new content’s coming for free -- and beyond that, they want the pros to have enough time with it to prepare for upcoming tournaments -- but the current release leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 


I want lots of people to be happy with the game. I want as many people as possible, across all sorts of skill levels, to have the tools and opportunities needed to dive in.  Even with countless efforts from other games in the genre, people have cried out for years that “fighting games are too hard” or “they’re not good enough”.  As the biggest name in the business, the latest SF offers the chance to bridge the gap, with the popularity and prestige needed to draw attention.  Guilty Gear Xrd’s done some serious work, but it’s just too esoteric to have the mass appeal of a SF game.

Call me idealistic, but I envision a climate where the pool of competitors is vast and unbridled by the barriers of old -- where those that want to improve have both the tools and drive to do so.  That can still happen, but that future’s been jeopardized by Capcom deciding to deliver on its promises later rather than sooner.  Was it a calculated risk, and a small price to pay?  Maybe.  But when guys like Jim Sterling, AngryJoe, and scores of reviewers are all blasting your product -- all saying practically the same thing with slightly different words -- then that’s a problem.  You’re scaring off potential fans -- men and women, boys and girls -- who by all rights deserve to see the mechanical complexity and depth that a video game can offer.


I’m guessing that a lot of people have bought SFV already.  Something tells me that those who rushed to earn entry into the beta didn’t suddenly give their preorders the boot, and who knows how many droves of shoppers grabbed it on a whim by now?  So as always, as long as there are buyers (informed or uninformed), the creator wins.  Arguably, Capcom and Sony won just by unveiling SFV; the fighting game community practically has no choice but to accept it, up to and including the sudden drop of SFIV from the EVO lineup.  And with the PS4 installment of Ultra SFIV notoriously riddled with issues, casual observers have more of an incentive to pick up the next numbered release instead of a game old enough to be in elementary school.

Capcom’s under fire, without question.  The eighth-gen curse strikes again; in its current state, SFV is still another example of “the same, but less” mentality.  Missing modes, flawed modes, and malfunctioning modes don’t inspire confidence or trust -- and even though I’m willing to forgive, others aren’t going to be so kind.  Couple that with the potential for some real shenanigans (like the Fight Money/Zenny system, rife for exploitation and turning players into mindless money slaves), and I have absolutely no problems with those who think SFV deserves to get called out.  Because in a lot of ways, it really, really does.

And yet…I don’t think it’s as big an issue as the previous 2700+ words make them out to be.


I’m not trying to play apologist or devil’s advocate here.  Capcom made mistakes, and created problems that didn’t have to be there.  They have the power and resources (in a sense), and ideally it’s their duty to follow through on that -- use their abilities to produce games that Little Suzy PlayStation never could.  How many customers did they scare off thanks to negative press and/or word of mouth?  Hard to say, but there’s been some discontent.  More to the point, how many people did they let down thanks to a less-than-optimal release, in a world where Nintendo can nail it in a genre and environment they’ve never touched before?  Again, hard to say.

But we should be able -- if not required -- to judge a product by what it is, not what it’s lacking.  In that sense, even with a shaky start, SFV is still a game I can recommend to others.  It may even be one that nullifies every complaint I’ve brought up here.  And that’s largely because when it works, SFV is a good, good, good, good, good, good, goooooooooooooooood game.     

What do I mean?  Well, I’ll explain next time -- with a significantly less grave tone, no doubt.     
    

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