Capcom's Marvel-licensed fighting games have been a constant build-up of ridiculous combos and juggles layered on top of a faster and often-streamlined take on the company's traditional Street Fighter roots. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 continues the trend along various lines, resulting in a game that may still be totally indecipherable for the average fighting game fan, let alone a comic book guy who just wants to see Captain America and Thor beat up on a wolf that happens to be a Shinto sun goddess. Despite attempts to offer simpler control options, Capcom's latest will register with some folks as a set of flashing blasts of cycling colors that earns its epilepsy warning. But if you stare at it and persist long enough to see past MvC3's flashy presentation--and you're in a position to play with friends of a similar skill level on a regular basis--Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is actually kind of awesome.
It's weird to even say that, because a lot of the changes to the fighting systems in MvC3 have their roots in last year's Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, which I kind of hated. Like that game, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 does away with separate buttons for punches and kicks, instead moving to three generic "attack" buttons for light, medium, and heavy. It's a dramatic change, and even after hours with the game, I still occasionally reach down for kick buttons that don't actually do what they're "supposed" to do. Decades-old habits are hard to break, and the game doesn't necessarily feel any less complicated due to this change. Though the way it genericizes combos across all characters with its Alpha-style L->M->H chains means that a lot of characters can bust out the same basic air combos using the same basic button presses.
If you've played any Marvel vs. Capcom 2, you've probably seen an air combo, where one player is launched into the air and decimated by a jumping attacker. The system wasn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to figure out, and the developers have simplified things a bit by devoting one button to your launcher, which lets you easily get guys up in the sky. By quickly chasing them up with a jump of your own, you can work your way up and down the attack buttons to execute air combos. You can also tag in one of your reserve characters mid-combo with this button. On the receiving end of a multi-character air combo, you're given the opportunity to break out of the combo by guessing which direction the attacking player is holding while attempting to tag in another character. The guessing game is easy to follow and the timing isn't too difficult to master, making the whole air combo thing feel a lot more manageable to a wider range of players, but since you can only break out when the attacker is tagging, the smarter attackers seem to just work in hyper combos and other single-character techniques instead of giving you an opportunity to escape further damage.
If all of this "combo system" and "hyper combo" mumbo-jumbo sounds like too much for you to handle, the game offers a "simple" control scheme that reduces things even further, like giving you one attack button that you can just mash to perform combos and another that throws fireballs or performs other specials. While the notion of making the game more accessible to people who aren't already crazy fighting game guys is certainly sound, the normal controls in MvC3 aren't exactly rocket science, and simplifying the control even further doesn't do anything to take care of what really matters when it comes to enjoying the game. It doesn't help you develop a sense of the strategies that will help you win the match. Instead, the game sort of dumps you in and expects you to pick things up the way we all did back when arcades were king: by bashing your head against it for hours and hours and hours, all while hoping that you'll learn something along the way. While that certainly works, a proper tutorial that actually explains the basics would have worked wonders for players who look at the screen and just see four or five characters on the screen at all times and can't figure out what the hell is happening. Getting over that initial hump is key to enjoying everything that follows, and the game doesn't do a very good job of giving you a path or showing you what you're doing wrong. Instead it offers the same sort of list of combos that must be performed in the "mission" mode that Street Fighter IV had, only now you have to pause and go into a menu to see the controller motion versions of what it's asking you instead of a lengthy list of non-obvious move names like "Million Dollars." It all feels like a missed opportunity to bring novice players a little deeper into the fold.
The game has a standard single-player mode with a decent final boss fight against Marvel's Galactus, though the endings aren't so great that you'll feel the immediate need to beat the game with every single character. As in just about every other fighting game ever made, the thing that keeps you coming back is the multiplayer. Locally, you can obviously sit with a friend and fight it out again and again. The game also has online support, which is reasonably good at matching you up with opponents and, when the network conditions are decent, the latency inherent to playing on the Internet isn't an issue. However, actually getting into a game might be harder than you've anticipated. Like Street Fighter IV and Super Street Fighter IV before it, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has the same issue of often preventing you from connecting to other players. At one point, I had counted two actual matches sandwiched between over 30 failed attempts to connect. And as if that weren't bad enough, failed attempts knock you back one or two menus, forcing you to navigate back to the online menu before you can try again. With this continuing to be an issue, using the "fight request" system, which attempts to match you into online games while you play the single-player modes, is the best way to find fights. It's sad that this continues to be an issue for Capcom's fighting games.
In addition to playing against one other person, you can also organize lobbies for up to eight players in the standard format, where the winner continues to fight while losers are sent to the back of the line. But this mode doesn't contain any sort of spectate mode, leaving you staring at a menu and the health meters of the currently active players. Unless you're the sort of person who wants to spend eight or nine minutes between matches chatting with other players--or if you're the sort of person that doesn't lose--this is a weak option, at best. And not to keep harping on the past, but this is also something that Capcom did very well in Super Street Fighter IV, making the whole thing even more confusing. Without it, group battles feel like a waste of time.
It's easy to pick away at the edges of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The menus could have been cleaner, the options could have been more robust. But the core action is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. The learning curve perhaps isn't quite as steep as Marvel vs. Capcom 2's was, and it's a great-looking game with over 30 characters that actually feel very different from each other. If you're into non-standard characters, the game has plenty of short dudes, like Viewtiful Joe and Amaterasu, or big lugs like Sentinel and MODOK. If you're looking for bread-and-butter fighting game characters, guys like Captain America, Ryu, and Super-Skrull all fit that basic bill. There's also a lot of great music in the game, including remixed versions of MvC2's character select screen music, which feels like a nice bit of silly fan service. Given the mashed-up nature of the game, there's a lot of solid fan service throughout, like a Punisher-style Captain America costume and lots of references to various things from Capcom and Marvel's past.
There are also some nice things at the periphery of the game that make it more inviting, like the ability to create three different teams ahead of time as your "reserve units." From the character select screen, you can pop up this list of teams and quickly select your favorites. Considering you need to pick three characters and three assist types every time you see a select screen, it's a great shortcut to have. There's also an in-game "license card" that shows you how you're doing, what your win/loss records are, which achievements or trophies you're close to unlocking, and a list of titles and icons to select from.
The key thing you need to know about Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is that just because you're a fighting game fan doesn't mean you're going to fit right in and have a good time. Capcom's Marvel-licensed fighting games have consistently been a different breed of crazy, over-the-top fighting that's just going to rub some people the wrong way no matter what. Even this attempt to simplify the action and make it more accessible isn't going to be enough for everyone. But if you've ever had an inkling of interest in Capcom's previous attempts but found them too impenetrable, MvC3 is probably your best bet at finally cracking that code and getting some enjoyment out of all this crossover madness. Just make sure you've got some like-minded, similarly skilled opposition to take on, or else it's going to get messy and decidedly unfun.