PlayStation 4 console exclusive Street Fighter V is upon us. Aimed at expanding the fighting franchise's fanbase, much has been made of its approach to accessibility. Some welcome the push, while others are warier, afraid that accessibility precludes depth. Are these fears confirmed, or is the release a worthy successor to the series' legacy?

Let's get this done with: Street Fighter V appears easier to learn than ever, as in addition to assisting with trickier executional demands, Capcom has pushed the game's various systems to the front, more so than ever before. Newcomers should find themselves wondering "what just happened?" far less frequently, as the game is clearer and more transparent across the board. Opportunities to deliver extra damage, stun, and why blocking that flying kick over your head maybe didn't work – all's explained through clear audio cues and visual prompts.

Another nod to this approachability is the new service model: we're told that this is the only version of Street Fighter V that we'll ever have to buy. All being well, you'll be able to jump back into the game years down the line without additional outlay – a timely break from tradition. Characters and content will be released periodically, and you'll be able to purchase only the fighters that you intend to play, using cold hard cash or Fight Money – the title's in-game currency. The game's store is set to launch in March, however, meaning confirmed prices for extras are presently unavailable at the time of writing.

While the cast isn't nearly as large as Street Fighter IV's, each of the 16 combatants feel distinct, largely down to careful archetype selection, and, new to Street Fighter, the V-System – a series of easy-to-use tools that grant you access to V-Skills and V-Triggers.

V-Skills are unique abilities, executed by hitting medium punch and kick together. While the execution is the same, the results vary across the roster: Ryu gains a parry, Laura can cancel her moves into a dash or attack as appropriate, while F.A.N.G. launches a poisonous projectile to hassle the opponent into making mistakes. Successful completion of these V-Skills, as well as taking damage, adds a small boost to the player's V-Gauge.

And with a full V-Gauge comes a V-Trigger. Again activated by hitting two buttons together, these remarkably powerful and varied techniques significantly shift the flow of battle: Nash can teleport to escape a bad situation, or maximise his combo damage significantly. Vega flings a rose at his opponent with deadly intent, while Ken's V-Trigger soups up his special moves enormously. The V-System provides variety to the cast as a whole, depth to individual characters, and a comeback mechanic that's useful, but seems fairer than Street Fighter IV's Ultra Combo system.

Separate from the V-System, fights feature a Super Meter gauge, used to land devastating super combos – now titled Critical Arts – and to power ex-special moves. Largely unchanged from the various betas, Critical Arts often have a big impact on proceedings; Laura can grapple, electrocute, and slam her unfortunate victim around the screen, while, given the chance, Zangief will thrust his enemies head-first into the ground. And Ken... Well, Ken isn't shy when it comes to kicking people in the face and setting them ablaze. What's more, it's relatively easy to weave such attacks into combos, even for newcomers, and it's deeply satisfying.

Tweaks have been made elsewhere, too. Back-dashes are far less safe, and there's no way to ensure a misplaced dragon punch or cannon spike isn't punished. Crush counters, a new technique performed by hitting an opponent with a specific attack as they attempt to strike, are enormously powerful, and further emphasise frame-traps – tricky setups specifically designed to make an opponent attack at a certain, predictable time – to an unparalleled degree. Especially after knocking down an opponent, Street Fighter V seems to balance risk and reward exceptionally well.

There's plenty of opportunity to test this all out online, too, and it's more engaging than ever thanks to exemplary netplay and the new Capcom Fighters Network. Essentially a miniature social network for fighting, the CFN lets you look up players and characters, filter by rankings, and view potential opponents' statistics. Even better is the ability to watch their play history, as every match played online is stored for posterity – be they ranked, casual, or battle lounge matches. Sadly, the latter is only a two-player lobby. It's a disappointing blemish, though Capcom has indicated that this situation will be improved in March.

This network and focus on netplay permeates the game's structure. According to how permissions are configured, at more or less any moment, you're liable to receive fight requests from anybody – but if you're at a crucial moment in another mode, it's entirely possible to ignore these and press on. It's an engaging way to play the game, but it did take us a while to get used to it. At practically any time – whether you're in the menus, training, story, survival, or exploring the Capcom Fighters Network – you're likely to be challenged by new opponents, and we soon came to value the variety of things to do rather than just wait for opposition in specific modes or lobbies.

So, the online component's pushed to the fore here, but somewhat to the detriment of the single player modes. Survival mode is similar to BlazBlue's enjoyable Abyss mode – a series of fights with but one health bar, though between rounds you're encouraged to use your score to purchase buffs, or gamble points on making the next round more difficult for increased rewards. Given that the four difficulties of survival mode are the game's route to unlocking new costume colours, things can get pretty stressful when approaching a target with low health.

The game's story mode is both illustrated and played out in-game, featuring perhaps a touch more exposition than previous entries – but proceedings are very short indeed. While the game's fully fleshed out story is due to land in June, what we have here feels inconsequential except as a primer. A well implemented training mode rounds off the title's single player content at launch, with trials and challenges disappointingly pushed back to March.

Yet, in ways similar to Splatoon and Rocket League, the sheer strength of Street Fighter V's gameplay outshines these omissions. Once mastered, the precision, impact, and responsiveness of Street Fighter's combat is addictive beyond words, and with this iteration, feels distilled to its purest essence. Fans purchase such games to pour hundreds or even thousands of hours into the competitive scene, climbing leaderboards to master their chosen character, or fighting friends in a never-ending cycle of one-upmanship, hilarity, and bragging rights. And, as alluded, the network provisions here are first class.

Moreover, barring the cruel and unusual punishment of no Guile at launch, the soundtrack is stunning. Recreations of the cast's themes do a superb job of representing each character. Fallen hero Nash's theme is at once tragic, desperate, and triumphant, while M. Bison – given the timeline, here for perhaps his last hurrah – has an urgent score that harks back to his Street Fighter 2 arrangement magnificently. Similarly refined is the fighter's audio feedback; crunchier and clearer than ever, while the title retains Street Fighter IV's flexible dual-language configuration.

Continuing this trend of superb presentation, the visuals are fantastic. Combatants move with a smoothness like never before, and are animated with immense character: Zangief manages to appear good-natured and terrifying at the same time, while F.A.N.G.'s goofy silent mutterings and glances to the camera are a foreshadowing of a character whose unorthodox keep-away game plan will undoubtedly infuriate many.

Likewise, the 11 included stages are well realised and entertaining. Superhero-style battles in the background of Shadaloo's inner sanctum and the hot dog vendor in Metro City serve as humorous reminders that, despite its hardcore, competitive streak, Street Fighter has never taken itself too seriously.

Conclusion

Street Fighter V's gameplay sits with the best that gaming has to offer. The characters are truly distinct, the presentation first rate, and the netcode is utterly sublime. A lack of single player modes at launch dulls the sheen somewhat, and is the only element preventing the title from achieving true greatness. However, with the engrossing Capcom Fighters Network, the game's set up as a fantastic online playground in which to research techniques, stalk idols, view friends' failures, or simply sit back and watch – all the while waiting for your next challenger in this deep, enthralling fighter.