Ever since fighting games’ first heyday in the early 1990s – when time froze for a critical frame or two as Guile smacked Ken so hard in the chops a bit of sick came out – Capcom has been using hit pauses and animations to give visual context to its genre-defining, industry-leading battle mechanics. Street Fighter V takes the concept to delicious, wince-worthy new heights.When, early in our first hands-on with Capcom’s PS4 exclusive, Ryu catches Charlie Nash in the face with a counter-hit fierce punch, the blow connects with an extravagant hit pause and the resulting animation pushes Nash back a few feet, spinning him round through 360?.Counter-hit – where one player’s attack beats an opponent’s while the latter is still in its startup animation – has long been important in fighting games. It extends the hit-stun caused by the attack, allowing for combos that would otherwise be impossible to string together. In Street Fighter IV, you had to be looking for a small line of text on the far side of the screen to confirm it’s happened: now it couldn’t be more obvious. It looks great.So does everything else, really. While Capcom’s decision to use Unreal Engine 4 for Street Fighter V raises weird, worrying questions about the state of the new-gen Panta Rhei engine it so excitedly parped on about when unveiling Deep Down in 2013, there can be no arguing with the results. The thickly inked look of the game’s announcement media has been pared back a bit, and the result is a more grown-up comic-book style that makes subtle, yet effective use of modern tech. M Bison’s cloak now has cloth physics. Particle showers fizz off projectiles. Cammy, one of the characters announced during Sony’s E3 presser, is the biggest change of the whole lot, still immediately recognisable (and with a familiar moveset) but no longer the baby-faced anime chick of games past.Another new addition, Birdie, isn’t a baby-faced anything. Playable in the original Street Fighter but absent from the roster since the PS1-era Alpha games, Birdie is a rotund British bike punk whose character design deceptively suggests another Zangief-a-like brawler. The reality is rather different: while Birdie does indeed enter the arena with a suite of highly damaging up-close grabs and throws, he’s equally capable from range thanks to his bike chain. Flung either horizontally or at an angle to catch jumping opponents, it’s a smart tool for keeping foes at bay. Hold the button down and he’ll twirl the chain around without releasing it, forcing your opponent to guess which version will come out when you let go of the button.Watch them squirm as they do…Birdie’s other keepaway tools are a banana skin chucked on the floor and an empty can of energy drink rolled along the ground (yes, he likes his grub), but they’re not special moves and are triggered by simply pressing two buttons along with a single direction on the stick. They’re V-Skills, one of two components to the new Variable system Capcom has designed as the replacement for SFIV’s Focus Attack and Ultra Combo.V-Skills, performed with a simultaneous press of medium punch and medium kick, are character-specific moves that can be thrown out at any time and as often as you like. V-Triggers, meanwhile, are governed by a meter that fills as you take damage, mapped to fierce punch and heavy kick, and either briefly put you in a lovely powered-up state or trigger enormously useful unique moves.V-Skills are flexible little things that give different characters some much-needed extra options. Cammy’s, for example, is a spinning backfist that passes clean through fireballs. Bison and Nash use theirs to absorb enemy projectiles; hold the buttons down after an absorb and Bison will fling it back. Chun-Li’s launches her into the air on the diagonal, hits foes on the way up and can be followed up with a normal jumping attack into a combo. And Ryu has a parry.You read that right. Ever since Street Fighter III: Third Strike fans have been clamouring for the return of the parry, in which incoming attacks are negated with a perfectly timed counter, giving the defending player a precious bit of frame advantage from which to launch an assault of their own. Now, they’ve got it, though only – currently, anyway – if they play as Ryu. (If Ken has it too, we shall simply scream.) It’s every bit as satisfying here as it was in Third Strike, but is harder to pull off.Before, you tapped forward on the joystick as an attack connected; if you threw it out in open play you’d just shuffle forward a bit (often into an incoming fist, admittedly). Now, because it’s a button input, it has its own animation; do it too early and the animation will play regardless, leaving you wide open to reprisal.While the impact of V-Skills on Street Fighter V’s feel and flow are obvious from the word go, four hours playing isn’t anywhere near enough time to get fully to grips with what V-Triggers offer. Nash’s teleports – which see him reappear above, behind or in front of his opponent depending on the direction pressed on the stick – give him combo options that his comrade Guile could only dream of, but we’re lost if we can figure them out in an afternoon.Similarly, Ryu’s more powerful blows, Chun-Li’s doubled-up attacks, Cammy’s faster, safer moves and Birdie’s chili-pepper power-up (okay, yes, he’s fat, we get it) are obviously bursting with potential, but it will take more pairs of hands than these to suss them all out. A three-stage public Beta – the first part of which kicks off on 23 July – will be a tremendous help not just for Capcom as it tests its new Kagemusha netcode system, but also for players, as Twitch and YouTube fill up with match footage and combo videos. Betas are the new demos, of course, used as a marketing tool as much as a testing ground, but here they will be of great benefit to players too. And Capcom says it’ll be using player feedback to guide the balancing process as it edges towards Street Fighter V’s full release next Spring.Currently, the only thing we’d change is the damage. Energy bars simply evaporate at the moment, and while that might be appropriate given the weighty animations and the luxurious severity of the hit pause, currently a three-hit combo can wipe off almost 40% of a lifebar and Critical Arts – the new name for Super Combos – can knock off half your health.That may, on the face of it, suggest that Capcom is moving away from the 20-hit combos possible in Street Fighter IV in a bid to appeal to a larger audience, but the reality is sure to be more nuanced than that. With respect, a group of European press are not exactly the people to unpick the combo possibilities of a brand-new Street Fighter. But rarely have we seen an event like this: the reaction almost universally positive, the room a cacophony of shouts and squeals, professional squabbles settled with polygonal fists and balls of fire.When you played Street Fighter IV for a 1,000 hours, a single afternoon with its successor is nowhere near enough. But we leave buzzing about what we’ve sampled, intrigued by what’s still to come, and giddily resigned to another thousand hours lost to the latest iteration of Capcom’s last true masterpiece. Bring it on.