They say good things take time but waiting eleven years for a sequel to a beloved franchise is enough to test the patience of any man, let alone that peculiar subset of man: the fighting game fan. But here we are, finally able to play a sequel to 2000's Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes.
Based in Capcom's latest fighting engine (likely a developed version of that seen in 2008's Tatsunoko vs. Capcom), Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds brings the series up to date with a bang. Marking the first time the series has been presented in 3D, one of our chief concerns going in was whether or not they'd be able to retain the "i can barely keep up with what's going on" chaotic action. If this is one of your major concerns, I'll not make you wait any longer for the answer: that action is here in spades. It's fast, furious and every bit as "on the very edge of control" as the earlier games - if not more so.
But let's step back. Eleven years is a long time to wait; chances are good some of you aren't familiar with the franchise. Most of what you need to know is in the title - characters from videogame developer & publisher Capcom (including, but not limited to, characters from Street Fighter) go head-to-head with characters from Marvel's comic books. The action takes place in a Street Fighter-standard 1-on-1 2D fighting plane, however the gameplay mechanics are occasionally markedly different from those seen in the Street Fighter series.
For a start, the landmark multiple character selection returns, allowing players to choose three different fighters as their team. These characters can be switched about at will and can even tag in for an assist before popping off the stage again. This can be incredibly useful, as we'll discuss in a moment, but it's also quite dangerous - tagged-in fighters risk exposing themselves to damage, meaning you can essentially take double damage if both of your on-screen characters are hit by the same super move (for example).
Another difference from the recently released Super Street Fighter IV is the control scheme. Gone is any concept of "kick" and "punch" buttons, replaced instead by Tatsunoko vs. Capcom's three generic "attack" buttons. This will mark the largest departure for dedicated fans of Street Fighter, who'll press a button expecting it to do one thing and having the resultant action be something else entirely. You do eventually get it (and it's easier with non-Street Fighter characters) but it does take time - particularly if you've been playing Street Fighter with the 6-button set up for twenty years, like I have.
It's not all different, though: while the presentation has a slick comic-like layer on top of it, underneath it's pure Street Fighter IV. All of the options are there, including the various titles and icons you can unlock and assign to your online persona. Even the announcer that talks you through the various parts of the UI sounds the same, lending it a familiar feel.
The main single player mode is the arcade mode, where you choose your team and go toe-to-toe with an ever-escalating-in-difficulty set of random AI-controlled teams. There's no real story, as such, with teams (yours and the AI's) being mixed and matched at random from the fighters available. There's no character-specific final bosses, either, with Marvel's Galactus filling those shoes for all concerned. For those familiar with the Seth fight from the original Street Fighter IV, you'll be "pleased" to know that Galactus is similarly cheap. He's also enormous, even when he scales himself down from "planet crushing" size, resulting in a fight not at all dissimilar to that seen in Super Smash Bros. - you literally spend time fighting his hand, for example.
Obviously the core of the title and where most players will spend their time after they've had their fill of the single player arcade stuff is in the multiplayer arena. All of the options from Super Street Fighter IV are there, bar the ability to spectate on other fights. There's also, obviously enough, good local multiplayer support. Similar to Street Fighter IV, the quality of the online connection is very good, so long as you're playing against people with reasonable / local connections. Once you get beyond New Zealand or Australian players, things can be a bit more random but fortunately the game is very good at finding appropriate matches. There are also a LOT of people playing this, making matches easy and fast to find.
Character balance is hard to measure this early in a game's life, with players still getting to grips with the various skills, abilities and mechanics on offer. What initially seems overpowered quickly becomes understandable once the appropriate counter technique is learned and you find out just how vulnerable that attack can make you (or your opponent!). Some things still seem a little odd though, like Phoenix's health pool. It's tiny; if you fart in her general direction she passes out. Still, presumably the designers specced her out that way for a reason - all we need is for a skilled player to figure out what that reason is...
The fighting engine itself is remarkable. It has incredible depth, ready to be explored and exploited by players like Daigo, and yet is quite probably the most approachable fighter yet. The default control scheme, with three attack buttons, is easy to use and there's a "simple" control scheme which dumbs thing down even further, making it incredibly simplistic to put up a decent offense. The difficulty levels scale incredibly well, too, meaning a total novice can win some bouts fairly soon after picking up the controller for the first time while the super experienced players will still find a serious challenge by dialling things up.
What that does mean, however, is that the skill level of players online is incredibly varied. A skilled MvC3 player will totally destroy a lesser player with a dazzling array of air juggle combos, supers and tag-team obliterations. Chances are good that, as time goes by, the casual player level online is going to fall away, too, so if you want to participate online at a competitive level, you'd better get practicing - there's a lot to learn here.
Outside of Arcade & Online, there are also "Training" and Mission modes to explore. Training is simply an opportunity for your to practice your moves against opposition that just stands there, with your health and super meter staying tippy-top for as long as you can stand it. It's useful to nail the timing of combos and supers, perhaps, but it feels rather limited for something labeled "training". It would have been nice if you could actually learn how to play the characters here, without having to constantly pause the game and refer to the move list (note: this may be alleviated somewhat by a manual - the review copy did not come with one so we can only speculate as to its contents).
The Mission mode... similar to modes seen in games like Mortal Kombat, the purpose of this mode is to set you a series of escalating challenges; perform this move to proceed, at which point you'll need to do this super move, then this combo - etc. Where it all falls apart is in the instruction; instead of giving you the input you need to perform a move, it only names them - and the list of moves you need to do gets very long, very quickly. The result of this is a lot of pausing to refer to the moves list and a lot of arcane memory trickery as you try to nail the arbitrary list of moves with a list of button inputs as long as your arm with split second precision.
Some of the moves you're supposed to execute don't even appear in the moves list - when these unknown moves appear deep into a long combo... chances are you'll give up in disgust as your chance of randomly getting it right and knowing what you did so you can repeat it should you fail to complete the combo is next to negligible. In a nutshell, this shouldn't be called "Mission" mode; something like "Impossible Mission" or "Frustration Creation" mode would be more appropriate.
The mix of characters on offer is outstanding. There's a veritable host of characters available, with 38 known combatants (more will likely be added via DLC over time). The variation between them is also remarkable, with each character having it's own style - even if it's possible to perform the basic chain combos with all of them. The way each of them controls manages to be simultaneously true to their nature and yet still appropriate for a 1-on-1 fighter, which is no mean feat given that some of the characters come from side-scrolling action games (Arthur, Viewtiful Joe, etc). Each manages to still feel very much like their original selves and yet they juggle a massively expanded set of abilities to bring them in-line with the grotesquely exaggerated fighting abilities necessary to remain competitive. None of them immediately stand out as being particularly useless, either, with each feeling like they have a particular way you can play them in which they will succeed against a particular type of foe.
Going into it, for example, I expected to stick to to the shoto characters (Ryu, etc) that normally populate my SSFIV rotation - after playing around, though, I found my teams were made up of completely different fighters like Sentinel and Super Skrull. Experimentation and exploration will consume a lot of time with MvC3, as the fighters don't just have their own move set, they also interact with each other. For example, if your super meter is full enough, you can perform combined supers that bring in your other characters (assuming they still have health) - having a complimentary set of supers amongst your roster can make a big difference to the damage output and even how you use your supers. Knowing how, when and which character to tag in for a juggle or air combo, again, makes a big difference to the effectiveness of your entire team. Decisions, decisions...
The presentation of the game is sublime. The characters look amazing and the two disparate worlds fit together perfectly, with Marvel and Capcom characters mixing it up like they're all from the same family. Characters have personality and individuality, with classic backdrops drawn from both Marvel and Capcom lore. The comic-like presentation of the game oozes off the screen like a digital version of your favorite comic book - a vibe which is helped in no small part by the outrageously over the top superpowers on display. The character voices are also ideally suited, with Magneto in particular sounding exactly like Ian McKellen. It's also packed with humour, with all sorts of little touches that bring the various characters to life (Arthur running on screen in his shorts before he collects his armour powerup, for example, is solid gold). There are also character specific lines of dialogue that are only triggered when fighting against certain other characters, resulting in a dynamic and rich experience - particularly for those who are familiar with the Capcom and Marvel character stables.
Ultimately, when the dust settles, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is far more than just a fun novelty. It's backed by a pure, serious fighting game engine and it manages to deliver on all levels. It's fun, approachable by the novice, works with any number of players from solo through online to a local party environment and has incredible depth. You can feel like a fighting game genius immediately and then learn how to play it properly so you can rise through the ranks online. It is, in a nutshell, the best fighting game on the market - assuming you can handle the rather over-the-top nature of the combat, naturally. Highly recommended.