Sacrifice your thumbs to save the world in "Marvel vs. Capcom 3"

Sacrifice your thumbs to save the world in "Marvel vs. Capcom 3"

Aarrrrrrgh! Why can't I beat anyone at "Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds"?

Offline, I've managed to learn the moves of a small cadre of fighters well enough to acquit myself decently against the machine, even at some of the harder difficulty settings. But the moment I face off against a human opponent online, I choke; all my mad skills go out the window.

Distressing, but I guess that has nothing to do with the actual game itself.

"Marvel vs. Capcom 3" is a 3-on-3, tag-team fighting game, where teams of superbeings from the Marvel comic book universe -- Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Doctor Doom, etc. -- and notables from Capcom's vast array of video games -- Chris Redfield, most recently of "Resident Evil 5," Dante, from the "Devil May Cry" series, Arthur of the "Ghosts and Goblins" games, etc. -- face off in button-mashing battles.

Well, that's not exactly accurate.

In the hands of a casual player like myself, yes, it's mostly a button-masher. Two different control settings -- simple and normal -- allow players to configure how difficult it is to trigger characters' super abilities. And while there's a few general, easily learned patterns that reliably execute lots of frenetic eye-candy moments, most players of my type (bad ones) rely on more than a bit of randomness -- especially in the heat of the moment.

Yet the tools have a level of precision that allows skilled players to fight with surgical efficiency. They're the ones who'll take the greatest advantage of the aerial combos and counters, cancels, reversals and advanced guard techniques that instill "Marvel vs. Capcom 3" with a heaping spoonful of tactical possibilities. In essence, I'd be very surprised if we didn't soon see this game used for high-level gaming tournaments.

And it's not just the controls that make me feel that way. It's the characters too.

Capcom and Marvel didn't just select fighters for this game based on their iconic value, though that certainly played a part. No, they represent a balance of powers -- melee specialists, range warriors, slow but brutal, fast and nimble -- that can be combined into all manner of three-member teams to fit individual players' strategies.

Best of all, the developers have been true to all the characters and their abilities. Wolverine charges forward with wild slashing attacks; he doesn't throw fireballs or do anything stupid like that. The Hulk has a ranged attack, yes, but it involves hitting the ground so hard it sends out an earthmoving shockwave -- perfectly in character. And most of Spidey's web attacks briefly immobilize his foes, but don't really do damage.

I was especially impressed that Dante can transform into his demonic form, though he got that way completely by accident on my part.

In other words, I haven't found any instance where a hero or villain was tweaked to make them better fit the fighting game mold.

As this is a tag-team game, you can switch who your active fighter is throughout the course of the battle, or just have the idle teammates pop in briefly to lend a hand at the touch of a button. However, they too are vulnerable to your enemies' attacks whenever they're helping out.

Pretty much everything takes place in a riot of color, though it's not a big chore to keep track of what's going on, except on the rare occasion that you and your opponent are both using the same character. Because while there will be slight costume variations when that happens, they aren't always drastic enough that you can tell your Thor from the other guy's Thor by sight alone.

As is pretty normal for a fighting game, in the offline arcade mode, you slog through a bunch of three-on-three fights against the computer until you reach the final boss. In this case, Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds. And he's certainly no pushover.

But the point of beating him is to unlock the ending story for the active character you win that battle with. Unfortunately, while these ending stories are definitely clever and amusing -- the Hulk in the world of "Resident Evil," for instance -- they are told through the unsatisfying media of two-panel comics. No animated scenes to reward all your hard work. Not even a full-fledged set of comic panels.

Of course, you can also play against a friend on your console at home, or you can dare to go online and try your luck against the faceless masses in ranked matches, which raise your personal prestige, and unranked matches just for fun. Or you can join a lobby that holds up to eight players, where the match cycles through the players in the lobby and the winner gets to keep fighting while the loser gets kicked to the bottom of the rotation.

I find it disappointing, however, that you can't watch whoever's match is in progress while you're waiting. The only information you're privy to is the lifebars of the players' characters. Sure, you can tell who is winning, but that's not exactly a thrill.

Personally, I'm not exactly a patient sort of person. I'd rather not stare at a menu while waiting for my console to match me up with another player online. And that's why I appreciate a cool, not-quite-hidden feature in the offline arcade mode: I can set my game against the machine up so that a real player can challenge me at any time. Thus, I get to play while I wait.

As far as the online play goes, I haven't had any problems during my matches over Xbox Live. No lag or stuttering, no dropped connections. And I'm not so worried about other players rage-quitting before a match is over. Mostly that's because they aren't really worried about ME beating them, but also because "Marvel vs. Capcom 3" is set up so that people who frequently quit in that fashion lose some of their online privileges after a while.

If you aren't that confident a player, there are two types of training modes to help you out. The first, aptly named "training," lets you practice your moves against enemies in a consequence-free environment. The other, "missions," has you pick one character, and then you try to execute specific combinations of moves in order to pass on to the next challenge. It's a great way of learning how to string moves together in a powerful combination attack, as well as how to incorporate "cancels" in order to reduce your vulnerabilities.

Frankly, I only have one minor bone to pick with this game, and that's continuing a game after you lose. If you choose to continue, you get sent back to the character selection screen. And while I don't mind the opportunity to change fighters if I'm not quite happy with my team, I'd like to first be given option to stay with my losing roster and get right back into the fight. As I said, it's a minor complaint.

A few pieces of downloadable content are on the way. "Shadow mode" will allow you to play against computerized approximations of championship gamers. Another will expand the characters' range of alternative costumes.

So should you buy "Marvel vs. Capcom 3"? Do you like fighting games like "Street Fighter V"? If yes, then yes. If no, then no. Pretty simple.

"Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Capcom.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: If you are into fighting games, you'll want to buy this one for your permanent collection. If you're not sure, it's a good rental.

Images courtesy of Capcom
First image: From right, Wolverine, Spider-Man and X-23, a female superhero cloned from Wolverine, form one player's three-man team.
Second image: Spider-Man entangles an enemy in his web.
Third image: Wesker, a "Resident Evil" villain, manhandles Iron Man.

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