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March 7, 2016

Let’s discuss Street Fighter V (Part 2).

So in the last post, it sounded like I was pretty hard on Street Fighter V -- and I hate that it had to come out that way.  I wanted to sing about the game’s praises from dawn till dusk for the next eight months.  But with so many complaints and controversies spiraling around the game -- with more than enough justification -- it’s not like I can bury my head in the sand.  People that are angry have a right to be angry.  Those who are shaking their heads at Capcom have the grounds to do so.  The SFV launch is appreciable for releasing sooner rather than later, but it did so in a less-than-ideal state.

At least, that’s what it says on paper.  But the devs dumped a lot of time and effort into the actual game, and it shows.  I’m not going to say this is the best SF ever, because I’m way out of my depth on that one.  But this is still an amazing SF game, if you ask me.  It’s certainly my favorite Capcom fighter in recent years, since it’s got a lot going for it.  Chief among them, the music.  Survival Mode’s taken some heat, but everything was forgiven when I first heard the Congratulations jingle.

IT’S SO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD.  But anyway, let’s talk about the actual game.

You can probably guess what the basics of the game entail, but for posterity’s sake here’s a quick rundown.  It’s you and your character of choice against an opponent (human or CPU), and the first one to lose all their stamina loses a round.  First one to score two out of three rounds -- by default -- wins the match.  Simple stuff.

Since its launch more than 20 years ago, SF has established itself as a six-button fighter.  Light punch, medium punch, heavy punch -- or jab, strong, fierce, if you prefer.  Light kick, medium kick, heavy kick -- or short, forward, roundhouse.  SFV continues that proud tradition, and as always, mixes in all sorts of potential inputs and results from each of its (currently) 16 characters.  You’ve got your suite of buttons, a couple of command normals per character, and special moves of varying form and function.  Using them wisely is the key to victory.

Of course, what sets this game apart from previous iterations is that it adds the V-System.  Taking note from games like BlazBlue and Killer Instinct 2013, each character has a unique V-Skill that lets them unleash a special technique with the press of two medium buttons.  Series mainstay Ryu gets a parry move that lets him nullify any attack (barring throws), while second banana Ken gets the ability to dash a short distance -- and/or use one of his famous kicks.  Using these moves lets a World Warrior potentially gain an advantage mid-fight by countering foes, repositioning, or changing the playing field.

The secret benefit of using V-Skills (effectively, in an ideal world) is that it can help fill up your V-Gauge.  Build up a stock for it, and you can use a V-Reversal, i.e. an attack that lets you blow an enemy off you or escape from a bad situation.  Alternatively, you can fill up the gauge and hit your two heavy buttons to activate your V-Trigger.  Once again, it’s a character-specific ability that enhances stats, changes attack properties, or just unleashes a secret technique that’s sure to wreck your foes…assuming you actually use it properly.

Capcom seemed pretty proud of (and regularly emphasized) the V-System on the road to the game’s release, and I can see why: it’s one of the gameplay mechanics that’ll make it hard for me to ever go back to SFIV.  The latest installment doesn’t make the previous one any worse, but I understand now more than ever why people might have complained about IV.  Focus Attacks -- and by extension, Focus Attack Dash Cancels -- were solid, but not without issues. 

The FADC system profited some characters way more than it did others; even if it didn’t, there would still be a disparity between the haves and the have-nots.  Dee Jay can do some FADC combos, but they’re nothing compared to what C. Viper or Yun could get off of them.  Hell, Dee Jay couldn’t even land an Ultra on a foe he crumpled with his paltry Focus.  Well, not with Ultra 1.  But Ultra 2 uses that bizarre triangle motion, so good luck landing a successful Focus and holding the charge needed and inputting the move and landing it.

What I’m getting at here is that rather than widening the gap via overarching mechanics that not everyone can take advantage of -- and similarly, characters that just didn’t have the tools needed to avoid frustration -- SFV opts to make everyone the very best they can be by 1) emphasizing their individuality, and 2) supercharging each character into their ideal form. 

Okay, to be fair?  You could kind of argue that a lot of the V-Skills -- and move sets, to a similar extent -- are just there to make rushdown easier.  The increased focus on aggression means that most of the characters had to be retooled to fit the new mindset…even if it meant giving Ken a run and giving Laura a different run.  But that’s just surface-level stuff.  It’s a gross oversimplification.  Is there a focus on rushdown?  Sort of.  But the main idea behind SFV, even more than creating those “hype” moments, is about smarter play.  Better play.  And this time around, everyone has a chance to reach that plateau, thanks in part to helpful V-abilities (V-Reversals are vital if you need to escape a high-pressure situation, and you will) alongside overarching mechanics.

Counter hits have been a part of the genre for years.  Decades even.  For the uninitiated: land a hit on an opponent at the right time -- i.e. during the startup of their attack -- and you’ll reap the benefits.  Extra hitstun, bigger combo opportunities, and so on.  To the layman, counter hits seem entirely nonessential; however, SFV makes their importance overt instead of covert.  Landing a heavy attack as your counter hit results in a Crush Counter, which releases a burst of energy and leaves foes in an even more vulnerable state.  Granted Capcom’s latest wasn’t the first to create a specific breed of counter (it’s basically a Fatal Counter from BlazBlue/Persona 4 Arena), but this game’s new system is there to emphasize how much you screwed up by being reckless.  Or, alternatively, it’s there to reward you for a smart read or iron defense.

I’ve openly lamented the fact that the SF series has relied so heavily on links and split-second timing for some of its more in-depth combos.  I’ve created some lengthy ones in other games, like Marvel 3, Guilty Gear, Persona 4 Arena, BlazBlue, Tekken, and more, but for whatever reason I just could not get the timing right for anything substantive in SFIV.  I probably could if I put more practice time into the game, but even then I’d still be banging my head against a wall for hours trying to string attacks together.

With SFV, there was a conscious effort to lower the barrier of entry.  Performing combos doesn’t require a blood sacrifice to one of the dark denizens of Pandaemonium; once you learn the right buttons to press, you can do it without too much of a struggle.  Plenty of people have worried about that, but I’m thankful for the change -- because as I’ve said before, the player should focus on fighting the opponent, not the game.  I want to feel the flow of battle, not the frustration of trying to be frame-perfect and losing my offense because my move didn’t come out.  More to the point, it feeds into SFV’s philosophy.

I know that last time I called Capcom out for not including more in-depth tutorials.  But I’m not about to dwell on it for long, and I’ll explain why: if the game is doing its job right, then it should create environments and situations where you learn on the fly.  SFV not only accomplishes that, but excels in it.

Well, it’s not as if SF games beforehand stumbled in that aspect.  There’s always been something methodical about the pace and practices of the franchise, where it’s just as important to manage space as it is to blow foes away with fancy combos.  That hasn’t changed here.  You’ll need to use your attacks’ properties -- power, speed, range, trajectory, safety, et al -- to maintain the advantage or gain momentum.  Likewise, you need to watch what your opponent’s doing.  What’s he relying on most?  What patterns does he have?  What can you do to reverse a bad situation?  Win or lose, I’d say that the best matches -- and the best thrills -- come from cracking a foe wide open.

That’s part of the reason why playing against human opponents is preferable to fighting CPUs.  Even with the most advanced hardware, you can’t really count on AI-controlled enemies to have the same thought processes and reactions as a human.  Thanks to that, something gets lost in translation.  They can’t adapt to you, and you can’t instill fear into them.  You can’t bait them, and they can’t disrupt your game plan.  Well, they can, but only by virtue of perfectly-calculated, pre-programmed subroutines.  Or, you know, cheating.

As a reminder, this is the franchise that once let charge characters use their special moves without charging.  It’s not exactly a bastion of fair play we’re dealing with.

The common complaint with fighting games is (and may always be) “Fighting games are too haaaaaaaaaaaard!”  And in a world where a huge percentage of games let players garner huge accomplishments -- single-player campaigns cleared, and multiplayer matches won -- with only a handful of button presses repeated nigh-infinitely, approaching a game where there are six separate attack buttons can be pretty daunting.  Six attack buttons, times three types of attacks per button, plus addition commands, plus special moves, plus blocking properties, plus attack properties, plus EX attacks, plus Critical Arts, plus V-Skills, plus V-Triggers, plus wake-up options…there’s a lot to digest.

Here’s the thing, though: SFV is proof that all of the jargon and all of the mechanics are easy to grasp in a couple of sessions.  If that.  The wall between beginner and player is there, but it’s by no means unbreakable -- and that’s especially true with SFV.  I’m not entirely convinced that it’s for beginners in the sense that there are some complexities in the execution (even now), but the back-to-basics approach has made it so that you can focus on what really matters.  You don’t have to worry about doing an FADC into Ultra with pinpoint timing, especially if you’re playing in a less-than-stellar online environment.  Matches are won and lost on the strength of the players’ fundamentals.

I’d say that SFV sells the philosophy better than predecessors and contemporaries alike.  And the reason why is simple.  SFV isn’t testing your ability to press a combination of buttons in a sixtieth of a second.  It’s not a matter of fighting games being “too haaaaaaaaaaard”.  It’s a matter of fighting games demanding that its players actually learn.  And you will -- because I already have.

I have a better understanding of my weaknesses now, with just weeks of SFV time to my name, than I did with years of time with SFIV.  Removing a universal defensive mechanic like the Focus Attack has completely changed how the game plays.  In its place?  You have to know and commit to button presses without the safety net of an absorbed attack or an FADC to safety.  It helps create a more intimate understanding of your character, and makes you learn your foe’s limitations…alongside your own, of course.

Notably, SFV has a stat-tracking feature that lets you see how you’re doing across various categories.  Through that, you can figure out what you’re doing wrong and strengthen your gameplay as a result.  Still, you can do all right just by remembering and recognizing what you’re losing to after a match -- maybe even mid-match if you’re savvy enough.  In that sense, SFV is more of a puzzle than a fighter (albeit one reliant on punches and kicks).  If you solve the puzzle, you win.  If you don’t solve the puzzle, you lose.  And I don’t know about you, but being able to solve that puzzle -- to know that I’ve gained something, even beyond another victory -- is a thrill that not a lot of games can match.

But enough about that.  Let’s get superficial.

I’ll be blunt.  No, SFV is not a better looking game than Guilty Gear Xrd, at least in my opinion.  But for what it’s worth, Capcom’s latest has an amazing presentation.  The Ryu we’ve got now is EXACTY what I’ve always wanted out of the character, and now the hardware is showing off his ideal form perfectly.  I can hardly stand to look at the SFIV model anymore; compared to the newly-forged tireless wanderer, SFIV Ryu looks like a dunderhead.  Similarly, Chun-Li is as close to perfect as it gets.  SFIV made her an action girl; SFV made her a grown-ass woman.  And I love how they didn’t do anything to Zangief besides change his model some, and it’s perfect.

There are just all these quality-of-life improvements throughout the game.  In the absence of a dedicated story (for now), it’s up to the game/gameplay to characterize the World Warriors.  Sure enough, SFV doesn’t disappoint.  I love how when Rashid lands after his EX Spinning Mixer, he does a spin as he touches down on the ground.  I love how Laura slicks back her hair after landing a grab.  I love Necalli’s double stomp with his EX Valiant Rebellion -- and moreover, how he looks both crazy and overjoyed when he does his Critical Art.  I love how Ryu closes his eyes when he does his parry, just to prove how much of a badass he really is.  He doesn’t even need to look at you to stop you cold.

As I’ve said before, my brother practically needs SF more than he needs air.  He was ready for the new installment to drop, but I mentioned that there was one thing he’d miss from SFIV: for whatever reason, he almost exclusively picks the Overpass stage, and now he can’t.  I don’t know much of a loss it was for him, but for me?  I’ve long since been won over by the new stages.  The color palette for them -- and the game at large -- isn’t ultra-bright, but there’s color and style in each stage (except for the training stage, but whatever).  I actually couldn’t tell you which one’s my favorite right now, but if I had to narrow it down to the top three?  It’d be Union Station, Apprentice Alley, and Bustling Side Street.  There are all sorts of fin details in all of the stages, but not so many that they become a distraction.  They’re aesthetically pleasing, even if the most you’ll get out of them during a match is the occasional glance.

And of course, I can’t stress enough how good the music in this game is.  True, not every song is a winner (Bison’s theme is by far the weakest, IMO), but on average they make SFIV’s soundtrack sound like trash.  They were fine for the time, but Ryu’s theme back then was a techno-laced track that ultimately sounded tinny and distant.  That’s hardly befitting of Mr. Street Fighter.  This new game capitalized on that; you can FEEL the power and soul of each character just by listening to their songs.  There’s a part of me that’s tempted to do a whole post on Rashid’s theme, but I think I’ll just share Ryu’s new theme and leave it at that.

Given the stigma and bad press that’s swirling around the game right now, I think it’s safe to say that SFV got off to a bad start in the eyes of the average gamer.  People that are complaining have, in some ways, every reason to complain.  And with Capcom having toppled all but a few of its remaining pillars vis a vis its long-standing game franchises, they can’t afford to have SFV falter.  It won’t, arguably, thanks to dedicated fans and the fighting game community -- pros or otherwise -- but I hate to imagine a climate where people drop or refuse to buy the game because of some negative comments.

With all that said, this is no EA-tier or Ubisoft-tier debacle.  Many of their games and franchises have lost their luster because their gameplay doesn’t entirely justify repeated entries.  SFV does.  It’s missing some key features, but the gameplay, the presentation, and the love are all there in spades.  Games have been trying to sell themselves as experiences for a while now, but you know what?  This is one game that actually earns the title.

And that’s really all there is to it…for now.  Let’s see how the story turns out this summer.  Until then?

What, not good enough?  Well, I’m sure I can whip up something to pass the time…

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