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.
Enough bitching. The good news is that regardless of your skill level, MvC3 is an extremely enjoyable fighter. The offline arcade mode feels a bit basic, and the ultimate encounter with Galactus is so ridiculously hard that it teeters on the edge of self-parody - on anything above normal difficulty he'll instantly destroy you - but none of this really matters when the core experience is so gratifying, both immediately and in terms of long-term play. Once you've got to grips with the basics there's great pleasure to be in experimenting with different teams, subbing people in and out until you find a trio who compliment each other perfectly - or perhaps three who don't work that well, but whom you love anyway.
There's something hugely satisfying about finding moves that work well together - discovering that you can hit people with Hulk's Gamma Wave Hyper after you've bounced them off the floor, for example. The longer you spend with a fighting game, the more you get out of it - and this is particularly true of a game like MvC3, where there are so many characters and options to try out. The 36 fighters on offer cover a huge spread of play styles and strategic approaches. The villainous Dormammu plays a keepaway game with his area-of-effect magic spells, while the diminutive Arthur (of Ghost 'n Goblins fame) batters his foes with endless projectiles. There are loads of neat nods and in-jokes built into the character design, too - like the way Arthur is unable to change direction once he's committed to a jump, as per his handling back in his arcade days.
Such attention to detail is to be found throughout MvC3, right down to the fact that certain characters have unique pre-match comments when facing certain opponents (Iron Man to Bionic Commando's Nathan Spencer: "Just the arm? What, couldn't afford the whole suit?"). The whole game looks consistently beautiful, even if you'll likely miss most of the minutiae due to the insane carnage unfolding at any given time. There's a generous spread of gallery content for you to unlock over time, and while this may only strike a chord with a relatively small percentage of the people who pick up this game, they'll probably be very grateful that it's there. The comic book epilogues that arrive at the end of Arcade mode are less notable, sadly: you spend hours mulching your hands to a pulp in the battle with the immense Galactus, and your reward is simply a pair of rather basic static images, accompanied by a smattering of rather daft text. No sane person walks into a fighting game expecting a great story, but they're a bit disappointing all the same - especially given the attention lavished on the attract videos.
A far more serious problem is to be found in Capcom's handling of online play, which runs perilously close to being a major cock-up. The netcode is perfectly sound, but the surrounding infrastructure supporting online play leaves a lot to be desired. If you want to play a ranked game of MvC3, you have just two options: a random quick game, or a "custom" game, which allows you to specify preferences with regards to things like the level and location of your opponent. In both cases you're left staring at a text box while the game scours the net for a viable opponent. At no point are you shown the quality of the anonymous connection, so if you do get a game it's a lucky dip as to how the match will play. If, on the other hand, you don't get a match, you're immediately dumped back to the main page of the game. Not the main page for online play, but the front end of MvC3 as a whole. At this point you have to navigate back through all the menus to the Ranked Game section, cross your fingers, and try again.
Things are a little bit more bearable if you opt for the Player (i.e. non-Ranked) matches, as here you can browse a list of available lobbies and their respective connection speeds. Even so, there are still notable drawbacks here. There's no spectator mode while you're waiting for your turn to come around, and for some unfathomable reason the game doesn't properly track your records when you're competing in Player mode. Given the wealth of online options that were offered by last year's Super Street Fighter IV, it's baffling that Capcom has given us such a bodged job here.
It's also fair to say that if you're planning to play online, you can expect to fight an awful lot of people using Dante and Sentinel. While it was always inevitable that certain characters would emerge as popular favourites - this happens with every online fighter, after all - the big issue here is that of character balance. Sentinel in particular is a massive pain to face on a regular basis. He's got vast health reserves, annoying Hyper Combos, and normal moves that are more useful than a lot of the special moves found elsewhere. He's bad enough under normal conditions, but when he's using X-Factor, he seems ridiculously overpowered.
Naturally, there are ways to get around Sentinel players - the cheap and spammy ones at least - and in time everyone will learn how to handle the big bot. For the short term, however, he's another entry on our list of minor annoyances. Ultimately, his popularity is somewhat illustrative of the scruffiness that occasionally takes the sheen off MvC3 as a whole. It's a gorgeous fighter with vast depth, but it slightly lacks the tightness and coherence that made Street Fighter 4 such an instant classic. For all its apparent accessibility, newcomers may find this a harder game to get into once they've passed the sugar rush of the initial fireworks. Stick with it, however, and you'll discover your reward - a hyperactive but deeply rewarding fighter, one that should delight Marvel and Capcom fans alike.