Every once in a while the comic book industry tries to get kids interested in reading dusty old classics like Moby Dick or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While these efforts, from Classics Illustrated back in the 1940s to the current run of Marvel Illustrated, probably aren’t going to outsell 52 or The Civil War, the idea is still valuable. It’s good PR for comic publishers who want to get their fans interested in “important” literature and, conversely, to get highbrow types to take note of comics as a serious art form.

I think Marvel vs. Capcom serves the same purpose by giving fans of comics, Capcom, or fighting games in general a reason to learn more about other things they might like. Die-hard comic fans who are drawn to it because you can play as Captain America or Dr. Doom may suddenly find themselves wondering, just who is this Haggar person anyway? Likewise, gamers who are already heavily invested in characters like Dante or Amaterasu may start to broaden their horizons to include folks like M.O.D.O.K. or the Super Skrull. And if you’re that rare person who happens to be a fan of Capcom’s game and Marvel Comics, well, this is the gaming equivalent of chocolate and peanut butter.

But Marvel vs. Capcom 3 goes one better by offering a fighting game that’s satisfying both to ham-handed button-mashers and to thoughtful players who can consistently pull off intricate team-based aerial counters at a moment’s notice. The distinction between “simple” and “normal” control schemes even allows those players to play together without too much of a handicap. The one place this system really falls apart though is in training the button masher to become a button master. Despite the missions and tutorials and simplified move lists, players are largely left on their own to master the game’s intricacies. It’s a real shame too, because there’s a very satisfying and deep fighting game here, but newcomers are likely to become frustrated by the game’s reluctance to give up its secrets.

Fortunately, the game’s fast and flashy action are probably enough for most newcomers to keep at it long enough to get at least some level of mastery. The animations are superb and the effects are thrilling. Landing some of the more powerful combos, particularly the game-changing hyper combos, satisfies me both as someone who likes to be good at things, and as someone who likes to watch super-powered heroes bash each other with pipes and fry each other with energy blasts. What’s particularly impressive is the way the artists and designers have created ultra powerful moves and character designs that are all true to the individual characters and still maintain their consistency as part of a shared world. In other words, having She-Hulk and Viewtiful Joe and Arthur and Dormammu all on screen at once doesn’t ever really break the illusion.

It does get a bit silly towards the end of the straight arcade version, when you have to face the final boss, but even this is worth it to unlock each character’s unique ending sequence. Finding out how each hero celebrated his or her (or its) victory is a nice touch. Haggar, for instance, decides to be elected President. Wolverine, on the other hand, goes to a strip club.

Fans will appreciate the abundant details and references and cameos scattered throughout the levels. I’m a much bigger Marvel fan than a Capcom fan, so I naturally noticed more of those details, but there’s a lot of love for fans of either brand. Characters will call each other out by name and even reference their histories and backgrounds. If Phoenix finds herself matched up against Wolverine, she’ll say, “I wish it hadn’t come to this, Logan.” When she dies, she’ll just whisper “Scott,” the name of her husband, Cyclops, as she falls to the ground. There are loads of details in the environments too, from the mythical beings in Asgard, to the banners for Heroes for Hire on the skyscrapers in New York. It’s these little touches of fan service that make the whole game seem more like a sincere attempt to capture each franchise than just a cheap way to cash in on someone else’s popularity.

The characters themselves are also unique and genuine. Fans interested purely in the numbers will be dismayed that this iteration of the game has fewer characters, but it makes the game more focused by cutting out the redundancies. Really, have we ever needed a Ryu and a Ken? By trimming the roster, Capcom has made each character matter more, and is able to really hone in one each fighter’s personality. Even though many of the basic moves use the same inputs, Captain America fights like Captain America and Chun-Li fights like Chun-Li.

The only really disappointing thing about Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is the online play. After all that Street Fighter IV did, it’s kind of strange to consider why this new game feels so lacking. There are online options, sure, but the one-off battles against random opponents aren’t particularly compelling, and even the larger lobbies where groups of players can compete in a winner-stays format don’t let you watch the matches. I have no idea if it’s a lag issue or what, but there’s not much entertainment in just chatting with total strangers for ten or fifteen minutes while watching gamer cards bounce against each other as the fighting players’ health bars slowly drain away. Even when playing with friends, it’s kind of a downer not to be able to see the fights.

Bottom Line: Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a fantastic fighting game, full of flashy moves, fast action, and heaps of sincerity for the franchises and the genre as a whole. It’s approachable enough for newcomers and deep enough for hardcore fans but it doesn’t help the new guys out enough.

Recommendation: If all you care about is online play, skip this and go with Street Fighter IV instead. But if you love the either of these franchises and have a friend for local play, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is loads of fun.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

[rating=4]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
Genre: Fighter
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: February 15, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360,. PS3
Available from: Amazon, Gamestop

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