It's early days yet, but the opening screen of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a strong contender for Understatement of the Year. "This game contains sequences with rapidly flashing images," it reads, as if the visual hysteria were limited to one or two select occasions. It's not. MvC3 is a non-stop carnival of lasers, explosions and meteorological spells, orbiting a six-person orgy conducted by people in silly costumes. If you're the kind of person who actually needs to heed such warnings, then avoid this game like the plague: it'll leave you with a piercing headache and a carpet covered in froth stains.
But if the intro screen fails to prepare you for the graphical onslaught that follows, that's nothing compared to the impact of your initial fights. MvC3's brawls are hectic, mercurial affairs with up to six characters on screen at any given moment. Projectiles stream back and forth. Hapless superheroes are hurled into the air via lengthy, juggling combos. Special moves are announced via musical war cries, the audio stings looping over and over. "Have gun will shoot have gun will shoot have gun will shoot!" squeals Deadpool, before segueing into another trigger-happy hyper combo. "BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!"
Even in terms of the basic back-and-forth of combat, there's a huge amount to take in. In Street Fighter 4, Super and Ultra combos are generally wheeled out only once or twice per round. By contrast, MvC3's Hyper Combos are part of your most basic arsenal, in that you'll dish them out at what often seems to be 10-second intervals. Once you get to grips with the way aerial combos work you'll regularly find yourself juggling opponents with upwards of 30 or 40 chained hits, perhaps more if you really know what you're doing. There are mechanics for driving your opponents back, for forcing them to tag out, and for bouncing them off the floor. And then there's the X-Factor - a once-per-match boon that tools up your fighters and regenerates their health for a brief but oh-so-effective window of time.
The strange thing is, to a certain degree this game has been designed with newcomers in mind. Taken individually, none of the required inputs are hard to perform, and the fluidity of the underlying design means that it's fairly easy to produce effective combos without too much effort. If you really have no desire to learn any of the game's technicalities you can use the Simple Mode controls - this essentially maps all of your most abilities to single button presses - but even under the normal setup, it's surprisingly easy to lay down a powerful barrage of basic and special moves. Or to put it another way, you get remarkably far by mashing your pad and hoping for the best.
If you're confronting another low-level player, or perhaps the AI on easy, there's nothing particularly wrong with this approach. Video games are supposed to be fun, after all, and it feels great to watch your trio of comic and gaming stars as they utterly destroy the opposition with over-the-top powers. In short, it's always fun to watch the Hulk smash Chris Redfield in the face with a giant meteorite, even if you were actually trying to make the big lug do something else entirely.
Things only start to get a bit sticky once (or if) you decide to actually learn the game properly. There's an extensive Training mode, allowing you to practice your skills against a programmable dummy, and a Mission mode that tasks you with working through increasingly complicated combos, both the hard truth is that both of these offerings are more useful to players who already know what they're doing. The progression of Missions starts out by walking you through a couple of basic moves and then moves on to more complicated links and cancels, but there's never any explanation of the tactics behind these routines, or their relative uses. The Missions swiftly descend into punishing trial-and-error exercises as you desperately try to find the right timing window for the commands listed on-screen; there's no active demonstration of the moves being performed, so you're effectively left to stumble around in the dark.
Even the most basic gameplay concepts go unexplained. In MvC3 light attacks chain into medium ones and mediums into heavies, but unless you've read the manual or swatted up somewhere online, you'll be totally oblivious to this fact. This kind of Spartan approach to player education has long been part of the fighting genre, but given the supposed emphasis on bringing new players in, you'd think that Capcom might try to be a bit more helpful. If Arc System Works can throw in workable tutorials for the likes of their BlazBlue games, there's really no reason why Capcom shouldn't be able to follow suit.