There's a problem in contemporary fighting games. I'd call it "roster overcrowding."
Whereas there was a time we'd be dealing with twelve or fourteen fighters, today we are left with at least thirty different combatants. So many characters mean two things: first, a higher learning curve (more people equals more special moves and abilities to learn), and secondly a greater risk of imbalance between the capacities of the various characters.
Tekken's neck-deep in this problem, and the upcoming Mortal Kombat is reportedly carrying enough fighters to conduct its own football match.
Marvel vs Capcom 3 compounds the issue with the need to select three different characters in a row to play with. For a newcomer to the franchise, which hasn't had a release since 2000's New Age of Heroes (and later being repackaged on XBLA) the initial foray into the game can be overwhelming. Akin to taking your driving test in a transforming vehicle that transitions between car, space rocket and submarine in the blinking of an eye...with the controls labelled in Japanese.
So, let's break it down, because there's a lot to love and dig into here.
The long-running Versus franchise by Capcom has created excellent company-spanning crossovers: Capcom video game characters joined comics (Marvel), anime (Tatsunoko) and other characters from rival videogames (SNK), while maintaining a high quality gaming experience and geeking out fans worldwide with the smaller cosmetic touches the company's fighting games are known for.
The Versus series, however, distanced itself from the more canonical Street Fighter series, where coordination and perfecting complex combos (mostly) determined the winner. Versus has always boasted a more relaxed edge, action and pace heightened, but to the detriment of razor-sharp focus - at least, that's how it seems initially.
In Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the formula does not change: three characters are chosen from a wide list, containing some of the most classic characters across two different worlds, the crossover explained in short intro videos and tied up tidily with final vignettes.
Then, after the brief intros and little warning, you're dumped into the heart of battle that's candy for the eyes and intoxicating confusion for the brain.
As the Versus series has proven in the past, characters and their fighting styles are lifted directly from their previous incarnations, with most special attacks ramped up even further to fit in with the heady excessiveness of the gameplay - projectiles are now enlarged, attacks arcs widened or elongated. An O.T.T flair that gives the game its zest.
Combos, finishing and special moves are unique for each character, and added to this is the ability to call one of your remaining two character choices into the fray for a quick attack or tag them in as a permanent replacement if your fighter is bleeding energy.
Hopscotching between your chosen three and exploiting their individual skills against your opponent descends the game into a massive match of Rock, Paper, Scissors, that speeds along with all the energy of a drug-induced anime sequence.
There's plenty of flash, but you need to see past that to dig into a fighting system that does have its own strong strategies and formulas, no matter how colourful they seem to be. Its never going to be as precise as Street Fighter III and its parrying system, but the system is solid, and only time will tell if the developer has fine-tuned the stack of characters to produce a well-balanced experience.
It's still a series that welcomes casuals and newcomers. Of course, mastering the game requires commitment and dedication, but nothing comparable to Street Fighter IV, where the player's finesse with the fighting system basically the most important element (if compared to here, with its speed, chaos and spasmodic use of finishing moves).
This time, however, the developers introduced a new game mode specifically devoted to the less experienced players, selectable before each fight, which allows you to change the controls to an easier configuration. By opting for the easiest mode, almost everyone can play as a pro player, firing off special moves and knocking down enemies by simply spamming the buttons simultaneously.
The choice to go easy, however, creates a deep gap between the players going "normal" and the casual gamers. In my testing I was able to fight against a colleague who, playing as Ryu, had no idea how to do a classic hadouken. Result: although I knew every move of this famous Street Fighter character, he was still able to kick my asshoruken by randomly pressing buttons.
For you newcomers, fantastic. But once you've graduated and feel safe to take off the automatic controls, you might feel a little pissed to see your improved playing decimated by a newcomer who's spamming special moves.
This suggests the game may be unbalanced, and also that this method, that is supposed to bring equality between experts and non-experts, isn't implemented quite as cleverly as you'd like. For series veterans, a worrying example of how the online portion of the game may play out.
And so we're back to the massive character roster. The game's divided the characters into four classes: Power, Speed, Technical and Standard, again, that RPS element should mean a battle isn't weighed in the favour of one character of class.
Yet some fighters in the game - one out of all, the Super Skrull - are just too strong when compared, for example, to Okami's wolf-god Amaterasu. We're close to the game's release and from what the developer has said, the game we're playing is very much the final product. so, these problems may well filter into the retail version of the game. It'll be interesting to see what tag teams start dominating online matches in the weeks after release.
But there's no denying my time with the title was incredibly fun. The incredible levels of fan service here will please players who envelop themselves in the lore of either company. This feels like a solid product, and has enough flair to entertain. Its a game that will pull newcomers and casuals in for an occasional few hours here and there.
However, with the balancing system as it is, there's the question whether the game has the staying of many of its contemporaries. We'll all find out with the definite play test in under a month.