To the untrained eye, Street Fighter V may look like last year's model with a fresh lick of paint. But for those who know the difference between QCF and HCB, the latest entry in the series will feel like the most aggressive shakeup of Street Fighter fundamentals since Third Strike.
If the game's V-Skill and V-Trigger systems aren't big enough indications of this, the changes made to veteran fighters such as Ken and Vega will be. But before we talk about the seasoned world warriors, let's shine a spotlight on a newcomer.
Necalli is the first brand new character announced for Street Fighter V. His background is shrouded in mystery, but it clearly involved hanging around with dangerous wild animals. He uses a feral style of fighting suited for close quarters, trapping his prey, frustrating them, and dealing big damage in a short space of time.
Necalli isn't quick on his feet, but makes up for this with a set of tools useful for maneuvering into an advantageous positions and capitalizing on them. To close the distance, he has a lateral dash that ends with a scratching attack. Since this move has some armor, Necalli can take a normal single-hit fireball without flinching, which is sure to keep Hadoken-happy shoto players in check.
Once close, he can rely on his array of slow but powerful punches and kicks, slotting them in between the enemy's poorly timed strikes to open them up. For those that turtle, Necalli has a answer in the form of a command grab. A half-circle-back-plus-punch motion that makes him snatch his prey off the ground, leap across the screen with them in tow, and slam them down; an excellent way to deal damage and move the opponent to the edge of the battlefield.
With his enemy stuck in the corner, poking and prodding normals are used to keep him or her pinned, and a Shoryuken-like rising scratch attack can shutdown attempts to jump away. It's also a good anti-air to dissuade jump-ins. Finally, his dive kick is ideal for mix-ups and guessing games.
The most interesting aspects of Necalli, however, are his V-Skill and V-Trigger. With the the V-Skill, he stomps on the ground and creates a shockwave, which emerges either close, mid, or far range, depending on what direction the player is holding. This is a great way to control or limit enemy movements, and it can also be used as a particularly damaging ender on a target combo.
The main goal for Necalli players will be to fill the V-Trigger bar as quickly as possible, ideally through landing his V-Skill, but taking damage will also fill it up. Once activated, the V-Trigger transforms Necalli dramatically. Visually, his hair and tribal body markings begin to glow red, signifying him being consumed by power. When in this mode, new combos and a different Critical Art is unlocked. The frame data on all his moves also changes, which means--in essence--Necalli players are learning two characters, and opponents need to develop strategies for both variations.
Unlike other members of the character roster, the benefits bestowed by Necalli's state change are permanent. Once he transforms, he stays that way for the remainder of the round. Smart players will be able train into behaving a certain way, then completely shift the dynamic of the battle by transforming into a character that behaves in drastically different ways.
Necalli didn't play anything like I expected. Based on watching the trailers, he seemed almost like a substitute for Abel, a lithe grappler character who also piles on the pressure and punishes mistakes. While there are some similarities, overall Necalli moves at a much slower pace than Street Fighter 4's French martial artist. His damage output potential makes him just as deadly, but he's not as explosive a character. Instead, he is most effective with careful planning, as well as anticipating opponents, and the thirst to punish mistakes to their fullest.
Narcissistic Spanish bullfighter Vega, meanwhile, has undergone significant changes that force you to throw away years of accumulated character knowledge. Vega has two different styles of fighting, which change depending on whether he is or isn't equipped with his claw.
With the claw on, he's a formidable ranged fighter who can keep enemies at bay with pokes, while quickly slipping in and out of the mid-range for footsies. Execute a fireball-plus-punch motion, however, and Vega will do a balletic twirl and remove his weapon, transforming into an aggressive character with a devastating command grab and higher combo potential.
Like with Necalli's transformations, Vega's two modes are designed as a means to keep players on their toes. When they think they've figured out long-range claw strategies, Vega can switch to his fists and turn the heat on. The Spaniard's V-Skill, called the Matador Turn, functions as a dodge, which has an animation that is strikingly similar to the mode switch spin. This is by design, as it creates the opportunity to cause some confusion for players to take advantage of.
Long-time Vega players will need to change the way they think about and play him, not only because he's no longer a charge character, but also because he now must capitalize on different situations than before. It takes time to get used to the changes, but for character specialists, fresh takes on old favorites like this are what make Street Fighter V an exciting prospect.
Finally, Ken has also undergone a major overhaul. Over the years, Capcom has slowly made changes to Ken to differentiate him from his sparring buddy Ryu, but the two have always walked parallel paths. Street Fighter V, however, is a pivot for the hot-headed brawler, who puts a decidedly American twist on the ancient Japanese fighting style. New Ken looks and feels closer to a kickboxer than a practitioner of a karate derivative.
At the centre of his gameplay style is his V-Skill, which launches Ken into a sprint towards his opponent. Depending on whether the player holds medium punch and medium kick, this can end with a lunging step kick. Ken faithfuls will immediately notice the reduced range of his normal attacks. This change has been made to encourage a playstyle oriented around aggressively rushing down and pursuing his opponent.
Almost all of Ken's normal attacks can be cancelled into his run, and the transition between a punch or kick into a run is fast. This ability to throw out a random normal, have it unexpectedly connect, and immediately dish out a crushing follow-up makes him feel unpredictable. Along with the changes made to the arc of his hurricane kicks and the combo potential unlocked by unleashing his V-Trigger--during which his feet actually catch fire--Ken has become more exciting to play than ever. He's got a playful bounce, a cocky demeanor, and a commanding presence; the perfect pick for show-offs.
The changes Capcom is making to classic characters are significant and smart. Clearly there's been a great deal of thought put into making the Street Fighter V roster look and feel diverse. It's exciting to see re-imagined characters that fans are deeply familiar with, and at the same time, newcomer Necalli feels like he has a lot of potential; a new puzzle for the fighting game community to solve.