Version tested: Xbox 360
Street Fighter IV is the Beethoven's Fifth of fighting games. All weighty drama, considered changes and measured movements, it's an experience that heaves and builds to a studied climax. There are fireworks and flames, sure, but they are yoked to tradition, and for all the screen-filling Ultra finishes the game maintains a Ryu-like distinguished grace.
Marvel vs. Capcom 3, by contrast, is the Flight of the Bumblebee. Fast-moving and skittish, it creates its drama by bamboozling the mind with blink-and-you'll-miss-it florid action. The tradition here belongs to comic books, not martial arts, and Capcom's artists have been egged on to create ever more outlandish, screen-filling, Wolverine *KAPOW*.
Historically, the Marvel vs. Capcom series has been viewed as a light-hearted enterprise, an upbeat crossover to entertain the Westerners. Certainly this was true of the first arcade release, a game intended to introduce Capcom's poster boys and girls to comic book fans, and not much else.
But with the second game, thanks to the original title's popularity in the States, Capcom increased the complexity to turn a throwaway fighter into something worthy of tournament play. The shift was best exemplified by Magneto, by far the most technical character in the game, around whom high level play began to revolve.
Fast forward to 2006, and Yoshinori Ono convinces Capcom's top brass to let him start work on a new Street Fighter. Ono is paired with Ryota Niitsuma, and the two work together on creating the fighting game that will go on to spark a revival in the genre.
But, according to Capcom insiders, at some point, the two fall out. Niitsuma leaves the Street Fighter team to begin work on Tatsunoku vs. Capcom, while Ono starts work on Super Street Fighter IV. Following the success of his Wii project, Niitsuma is offered the chance to do to the Marvel vs. Capcom series what Ono was allowed to do to Street Fighter: update it for a contemporary audience.
Why is this petty company rivalry relevant? Because it goes some way to explaining why Marvel vs. Capcom 3, far from being a throwaway distraction, has been turned into a deep and complex fighter. Sure, there is an immediacy to it, an emphasis on simple-to-execute special moves that can give the impression of shallowness. But underneath the hood this is a complex beast, intended by its creator to stand toe-to-toe with Capcom's other great fighter in the ring.
That said, the two are very different. While Marvel vs. Capcom 3's vocabulary consists of Hadouken quarter circles and Shoryuken zigzags, the grammar and phrasing is completely new. Players hoping their Street Fighter IV game will be transferable will leave disappointed. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 requires you to go back to basics and – if you want to do anything more than splash around in the shallow end – re-build your game from the ground up.
As in the previous titles in the series, at a basic level play revolves around light to medium to hard combos. Land a light attack and you almost always follow up with a medium and then hard attack, and the sooner you learn to perform this piano finger arpeggio on instinct, the sooner you'll move towards proficiency.
A simple combo can usually be finished with a tap of the launch button, which will send your opponent into the air. Jump up after them and you can continue with a string of airborne attacks before rounding off with a special meter-draining Hyper Combo attack, or, alternatively, a tap-out to one of your other characters, who is able to continue the combo.
In this three-on-three fighter, you can either call on one of your back-up characters to pop in for a momentary attack by tapping their respective button, or tag them in to continue the fight by holding it down. As you fight you incur two types of damage: normal damage and red damage. Tag a character out and their red damage will replenish while they are 'sitting on the bench', so making careful use of your characters over the course of a match is a key tactical consideration.
Many basic attacks share the same input motions across the full roster of 36 characters, particularly the Hyper Combos, Marvel vs. Capcom's take on Street Fighter IV's Ultras, of which each character has numerous variations. The simplification of move sets and the reduction in the number of attack buttons from Marvel vs. Capcom 2's four down to three are changes intended to broaden the game's accessibility.
Capcom no doubt hopes challenge will spring from mental strategy rather than physical dexterity. In the main, the game accomplishes this, and the wall between a player's will and execution is perhaps the thinnest yet.
But past the basics, there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Much of the higher-level game revolves around off-the-ground (OTG) moves, attacks that bounce your opponent off the ground when they fall, allowing you to swipe them into the air again and follow up with air combos.
During an air combo, you can switch in a team-mate to carry on the attack by pushing up, down, left or right and the special attack button. The direction chosen offers one of a variety of effects; for example, pushing up lands high damage but doesn't fill your special meter, while pushing down does the opposite. Your opponent can break out of the combo if they manage to match your input, and fascinating mind-games ensue.
X-factor is another inclusion that adds tactical depth. By hitting the attack buttons simultaneously, your character will enter X-factor, a temporary mode during which red damage refills while in the arena, attacks are more powerful, and you no longer take chip damage. X-factor becomes more powerful the fewer characters you have left, so choosing when to deploy is of paramount importance, and will very often swing the outcome of a match. These simple yet robust ideas, while overwhelming at first, give the game an appealing and impressive strategic edge.
For many, however, the visual assault will be too much. In the game's more frantic moments, it can be difficult to both keep up with what what is happening on screen and to decipher it. Likewise, with a number of combo strings that will essentially KO a character before they can do anything, the gulf between experts and beginners is gigantic, and can be dispiriting.
Nevertheless, the sheer variety of attacks, Hyper Combos, crossover counters and other factors that allow you to string together elaborate sentences of attack make this one of the most flexible fighters to date. If you can imagine an attack sequence then, with a little practice, it's possible to execute it, and there will no doubt be some jaw-dropping YouTube combo showcases over the coming months.
Sadly, while there are areas in which the game improves upon Super Street Fighter IV's online modes, in most others it falls short. While lobbies are included, allowing players to gather and play-winner-stays-on round robins, inexplicably you cannot watch other players' matches while you wait your turn. As the point of lobbies is to offer a communal arena in which to cheer and jeer your friends and, perhaps more importantly, learn tips and techniques from your betters, the exclusion of viewable matches is a serious shortcoming.
Elsewhere, there are Ranked and Player matches available, but this represents the full range of online competitive avenues. The option to instantly replay a Player match without having to return to the character select screen is a welcome one, but being thrown out to the main menu if the game fails to pair you with an opponent, instead of being able to simply tap to search again as in Super Street Fighter IV, is a needless irritation.
However, the way in which stats are presented is stronger here, with an explanation for how to collect each of the various unlockable titles that you can assign to your profile, and a rather explicit readout for how many wins and how many losses you've occurred in Ranked Matches that will either inspire pride or shame.
Ultimately, Marvel vs. Capcom 3's appeal will depend on your own disposition. Far more welcoming to button-mashers than Street Fighter IV, this is a game in which you can tap stuff and watch sparkly miracles happen. But to begin to understand and master its systems will take just as much practice as it did in Ono's game – and quicker reactions to boot.
For a game conceived in the bed of fan service, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 arguably does too little for fans of its various mythologies outside of the characters themselves. There are precious few unlockables here.
But perhaps that reveals Niitsuma's focus : to make a game that can rival his own rival's, one that discards frippery in favour of density. In that regard, Capcom has a Hulk smash on its hands – at least, for those able to keep up with its tune.
8 / 10