After a decade of anticipation, and a few long months of speculation, Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds is upon us at last. This venerable fighting series, renowned for its structured insanity, has finally returned with the same fire and intensity that was its hallmark. However, not all the characters from the previous game have returned this time around--but not without good reason. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was a game so completely dominated by a handful of characters and strategies that the majority of its design was rendered moot. Developer Capcom has since learned from this, and the changes made help distill this game's combat into a more well-rounded experience than ever before. The result is not the most technically demanding of fighters, but is certainly one of the most enjoyable. The white-knuckle intensity is still here--but this is not the same game you remember from 10 years ago.
In the extravagant world of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, there is rarely a dull moment. You and your opponent each have a team of three characters to battle it out in one frantic, continuous round accented by dazzling finishing moves and triple-digit combos. But beneath all its style, the game's core combat mechanics have been simplified and work harmoniously to drive you, and the action, forward. Locomotion plays a large role in this, even if the characters are slower than before. This change feels natural in the game's large arenas and affords you the time to plan out your next move without having to rely on blindly overwhelming your opponent. But even if you are slower, you never want to stop moving. There is safety in mobility when every character can clear the length of the arena in a single bound or pepper you with projectiles from a screen away. Stopping only makes things easier for your opponent.
Movement keeps the battle flowing and changing as you duck in and out of your opponent's reach, each side frantically searching for that break in the other's defenses. Sometimes opportunity is easy to spot. Other times you have to make your own luck. In either case, when it's time to strike, the number of tools you have in your arsenal is intoxicating. You might unleash a fierce flurry of blows, summon another character to take a quick shot, or employ a snap back attack for a more favorable match-up. When on the defense, a well-timed advancing guard can punish a nasty rushdown player, while a crossover counter can rescue a teammate under fire. Regardless, after each encounter you take away a little something to add to your repertoire--be it practice with your favorite go-to combo or knowledge that a new assist isn't all that great. There's a constant sense of progression as you endlessly experiment with new tricks and new combinations.
From beat to beat and blow to blow, it's the little touches that sell the experience. It's that slight pause at the start of a hyper combo--a breath just wide enough to fit a single expletive before the hammer falls--or the feeling of weight right as you launch someone into the air. It's the fact that combat can just as easily take place vertically as it can horizontally. The addition of the new launcher button helps expedite this process. And once you're airborne, a few quick hits lead you to an important crossroads: either end the combo safely or press your luck. If you go with the latter, you can bounce your opponent in one of four directions, after which you switch characters and continue the combo. That is, unless your opponent inputs the same direction as you, in which case you're the one who's sent tumbling down. It's a gamble, and one that keeps both sides of the beatdown engaged.
All of this would be enough, but then there's the x-factor. True to its namesake, the x-factor is your wild card in any match. Activated by pressing all four attack buttons, this ability temporarily increases your character's attack power and speed--and resets his or her current animation. Its potency and duration are determined by the number of team members you've lost, making it an excellent last resort to turn the tables on your opponent. But its applications run deeper than that. The simple animation reset lets you chain together moves that would otherwise be impossible, such as two super moves back-to-back. Or, if an opponent manages to flank you while you're caught helpless in a big attack, you can burn the x-factor to cancel that attack and face your opponent. The amount of diversity gained for something so simple makes this new feature a valuable tool rather than a mere gimmick.
Combat in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is an enjoyable blend of violence and intimacy. Surmounting your opponent is just as much about getting in his head as it is about getting around the controls. Some people like to mix things up and have fun, while others just want to win no matter the cost. Whatever your calling, finding characters who fit your style of play is paramount. This game offers a wide array of variations on a single character theme, as most of the rosters' techniques are executed in the same way. Several of the basic moves and combos you learn for one will easily transfer to several others. However, while these inputs may be similar, their outputs are wildly different. Every character brings something unique to the experience, and the game quickly moves from the tedium of learning individual commands, to the joys of mastering their timing and situational uses.
At the heart of the game is Ryu, whose iconic trio of moves--the fireball (hadoken), the uppercut (shoryuken), and the hurricane kick (tatsumaki senpukyaku)--serve as the foundation for many others. Some characters, such as Morrigan and Zero, emulate this style closely while adding their own variations to the execution. Arthur and Chris are characters who explore a single aspect of this style, the fireball, with a variety of different projectile attacks. Dante takes it to the extreme with a staggering lineup of 32 unique attacks. If you've ever had trouble perfecting the motions for these moves, the game address this with a new simplified control option. This aptly named simple mode condenses each character down into a few key moves which can be executed at the press of a button. While this severely limits your offensive options in battle, simple mode's simplicity makes it ideal for series newcomers.
Is this game's roster perfectly balanced? No. If it were, it would have only two characters who each played exactly like the other. Battles aren't won on spreadsheets using numbers and averages. They are won with experience, mind games, and a bit of luck. Capcom delivers a roster where every character feels powerful and fun to play. In a game this over-the-top, there's a way around everything. One strategy isn't going to work in every situation. The deadly trio of Storm, Sentinel, and Magneto is still a mighty combination. But this time so is everyone else.
These heavy hitters are brought to life in a style reminiscent of the game's comic book inspirations. Each character animates smoothly and stylishly, with hard black outlines and bright colors making them pop against the slightly muted backgrounds. Every uppercut and fireball is given just the right amount of exaggeration to keep the fireworks show going without distracting from the action. The stages, though severely lacking in number, are also equally lavish. From Resident Evil's overrun test lab to the majestic realm of Asgard, each arena has been loaded with details that bring their respective worlds to life. Furthermore, these stages do an excellent job of framing the action by populating the edges of the screen and passively drawing the eye to the center stage.
The characters themselves have been filled with personality. This shines through in simple taunts and win quotes as well as in smaller details, such as how Hulk refers to Iron Man as "metal man" or how Captain America mocks Zero at the start of a match. Each character even brings his own theme music to the fight. But, for all their flair, the epic struggle of these heroes falls flat on its face. The game's story mode is a strange holdover from an older generation, and its inclusion feels more like an obligation than a product of creative spark. In practice, it follows a typical series of battles--culminating in an interesting two-part finale with a unique matchup against two simultaneous enemies. More of these unorthodox scenarios would have been appreciated. And for all your troubles, you're presented with a meager series of stills detailing the character's ending, often a non sequitur.
Outside of the story mode, there are mission and training modes. These two modes do a good job of preparing you for the many battles to come. The mission mode in particular is an easy way to get started with a new character or to expand your toolbox with an old favorite. Each character has 10 missions, which start out with simple moves and quickly ramp up into situational combos. Early missions in particular are good at highlighting small details of specific moves that may otherwise go unnoticed--such as Iron Man's shocking follow-up to his repulsor blast.
However, the later missions, which typically involve long strings of normal attacks and special moves, expose this mode's shortcomings. For starters, you have to dive into the pause menu to actually see the specific inputs for the combos, unless you know all of their names by heart. This is a small, but constant, nuisance. The other problem with the presentation of longer combos is that their timing requires a bit more finesse than simply hitting all the buttons as fast as you can. Having the ability to watch the computer run through these sequences would have been an excellent training tool, but it is unfortunately absent.
On the other hand, the training mode is very robust. Aside from all the standard accoutrements, you can record 10 seconds of inputs for a character and then play it back in real time. This is great if you want to study the specifics of a move or combo and perhaps find a way to slip in a counterattack. Strangely, this interesting addition is buried within the button configuration screen and goes unmentioned anywhere in the game or manual. The traditional CPU versus mode is also integrated here. Once you turn off health and special meter regeneration, combat is performed the same as in normal play. Plus, when you finish a match, the game refreshes almost instantly, letting you continue the fight without pause.
However, far and away the game's most important mode is online play. Everything else is preamble, preparation for when you finally take the fight to the masses. Thankfully, it works, and it works well, but the online play lacks several of the luxuries found in Capcom's other fighting giant, Super Street Fighter IV. In all of our testing, the online matches ran smoothly on both PS3 and 360 versions of the game. Small pockets of lag did occur, but they were so infrequent that they had no impact on the overall experience. But outside of the matches, online mode is pretty barren. This isn't as apparent in the ranked and player battles, but when you group up in a lobby with up to eight of your buddies, or total strangers, it gets real boring, real fast. When it's not your turn in the ring, you're confined to watching the contestants' health bars move up and down in lieu of the match. And should you have a particularly interesting encounter, the game's complete lack of replay support ensures that your triumphant victory, or crushing defeat, is lost forever.
Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a blast to play, despite losing some of the high-level intricacies found in its predecessor. It's an exceptional synthesis of cohesion and chaos, and shows real improvement over its predecessor. Seeing it in motion for the first time in all its crisp, high-flying glory is an incredible sight; and thankfully, the game's controls are just as smooth as its visuals. However, when it's outside of the fight, the game stumbles and is found lacking in many of its modes. Nonetheless, this latest entry in the venerable versus series captures the spirit of the franchise and may wear the Marvel vs. Capcom title with pride.