What do Ryu, Deadpool and the Incredible Hulk all have in common? Well, aside from the fact that they hold a Phd in violence, gained after several years at The University of Twattem, the answer is that they all appear in Marvel vs Capcom 3. The vs series is one of Capcom's most beloved franchises, a marriage of over-the-top action and nostalgia for the developer's back catalogue, drenched in the company's unique special sauce (made with sun-dried hadoukens).

MvC3 was Capcom's most popular product at this year's E3, a fact underlined by the lengthy queue that formed near the developer's booth at the start of each day of the show. Few companies know how to make a one-on-one fighter (or in this case, a three-on-three fighter) quite like Capcom, and thanks to the rampant success of Street Fighter IV and its Super sequel, the genre is well and truly back in season. A total of 10 fighters were available to try at the show. In addition to the names I've already mentioned, the Marvel side boasted Captain America, Iron Man and Wolverine - all regular stars of the vs series. Joining Ryu on the Capcom crew were Morrigan and Felicia from Darkstalkers, Dante from Devil May Cry, and muscle-bound Resident Evil star Chris Redfield - the latter making his debut appearance in a fighting game.

For gamers who only have Street Fighter IV as a point of reference, the important thing to know about MvC3 is that it ditches the traditional "best of X rounds" format in favour of a three way tag battle - a rolling rumble where characters leap in and out of the fight, providing assistance and helping to forge elaborate, lengthy combos. Early games in the vs series used a Street Fighter-like set of six attack buttons - offering light, medium and fierce punches, alongside an equivalent trio of kicks; Marvel vs Capcom 2 switched this setup for a set of four attack buttons (two punches, two kicks) plus a pair of buttons for summoning your tag partners. MvC3 has changed the rules again, so now you get three "normals" at different strengths, two tag buttons and one "launcher" - a standard attack that sends your opponent flying in to the air. If you successfully connect with one of these, your main aim should be to follow up with some kind of air combo, perhaps using a few assists from your partners to keep the chain going.

This three-button arrangement may sound familiar to anyone who played Tatsunoko vs Capcom on the Wii - hardly a surprise, since both games where overseen by producer Ryota Niitsuma. As complicated as it all sounds, the ultimate aim of the three-button setup is to make the game a bit more accessible to newcomers. The launcher button also appears to be a further concession towards journeyman scrappers, since it gives every character an immediately obvious way of starting a combo. And my oh my, combos are something this game delivers in spades. By the time you start busting out cross-over Super Combos, with each member of your trio throwing out their own show-off contribution, you'll easily be hitting your opponents with sixty or more consecutive attacks.

It's all a bit over-the-top, in other words - but then that's always been the nature of the vs brand. Returning regulars keep their trademark attacks: Wolverine still has his Berserker Barrage and Tornado Claw, Hulk keeps his versatile Gamma Charge, and needless to say Ryu has his household-name Shoto techniques. Fighting as Chris Redfield feels a bit odd, since his moves are largely reliant upon the weapons he's been known for using throughout the Resident Evil games - notably a knife for close-up work, and a shotgun for distance attacks. While the latter proves surprisingly useful for keeping people at bay, it's Dante who appears to be the most powerful new addition to the line-up, thanks to the fact that he's damn quick and yet still has excellent range on his moves (this tends to be the case with people who walk around with guns and massive great swords).

But while Dante seems to be the most dangerous of the newcomers (at least until Capcom decide to nerf him), there's no doubt about who was winning the hearts and minds of the E3 masses. Deadpool's smart-ass wisecracks have won him legions of fans over the years, and on the basis of what I've seen so far he appears to be on razor-tongued form for his first Marvel vs Capcom appearance. As per usual, the motor-mouthed merc has few problems with breaking the Fourth Wall and addressing the player directly. "I hope you're watching this!" he cries before launching into his Super Combo, a frenzied attack that sees him leaping into the air and then spinning around with a blazing pistol in each hand. "BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG!" he adds, somewhat needlessly.

Like Nintendo's Smash Brothers series, Marvel vs Capcom 3 takes great pleasure in catering to its fans, serving up a banquet of nods and winks to the universes of its source material. One stand-out backdrop posits the fighters on a moving platform that slowly climbs the side of a New York skyscraper. It's a knowing echo of a similar stage in 1995's Marvel Super Heroes arcade, but the level of detail is extraordinary: it seems that there's some kind of street carnival in progress, and in the background a huge Spider-Man float watches over partying crowds and swirling confetti. As the platform climbs higher, we discover billboards featuring Ryu and Chun-Li, among others. It's a stunningly pretty piece of level design, eclipsing even the magnificent "African Watering Hole" level from Super Street Fighter 4.

The fighters themselves are equally sexy, boasting a semi-cel-shaded look that makes them look quite cartoony, but in a solid and convincing way. The MvC games have always been visually striking, but if the developers keep up the good work, this could well be the most beautiful game that Capcom has ever made. Street Fighter IV has led to welcome resurgence in the fighting genre; with MvC3, the developer now has the chance to really show off. Suffice to say, I'm wildly keen to play more.

Marvel vs Capcom 3 will be released next year on PS3 and Xbox 360.