Luckily for Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite, looks aren’t everything. Even though its mixed cast of comic book and video game characters often look like they’ve been whacked with the ugly stone, the bold reinvention of this decades-old fighting game series’ tag-team mechanics is inspired.
While Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is definitely a strong fighting game deep down, it’s hard to get past just how distractingly bad and stiff the character design is. Captain America’s shoulders look like they’ve liberated his head from his oppressive neck, which is nowhere to be found. Spencer’s wide, dead eyes and odd teeth make him look like a jack o’ lantern. And somehow, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite manages to make Dante and Chun Li look like the counterfeit action figure versions your grandmother bought you for Christmas (even after Chun Li’s redesign). Mike Haggar’s head protrudes out, not up, from his shoulders. Worse, there’s no uniform direction for the art style, as some heroes’ designs seem to aim for photo realism while others are heavily stylized. Even characters from the same universe, like Jedah and Morrigan, look odd next to one another. Comic book characters aren’t known for their realistic proportions, but this is a ridiculous mess.
The single saving grace for the visuals is the background stages, which are bright and interesting. Most are mash-ups of environments from Capcom’s games and the Marvel Universe, like the technicolor X-Gard and the weird and foreboding Dark Kingdom. They are luminescent without being distracting from the already fast-paced, flashy action.
This uneven approach extends into the music as well. While the score is the sort of sweeping orchestral accompaniment we hear in the background of most superhero movies, it somehow manages to be forgettable and easily ignored. Even after days of fights, I never found myself humming these tunes under my breath at work the next morning. There is no life to the music, no real character, like the unique and funky (and sometimes odd) jazzy tracks from Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Twenty years later, I sometimes still find myself randomly belting out, “I wanna’ take you for a ride!” but the songs here, while pleasant, aren’t up to the series’ standards.
And then there’s the story, which is filled with cringe-worthy one-liners delivered almost entirely without charm. The tale of Marvel’s Ultron and Capcom’s Sigma attempting to meld their two universes using the power of the Infinity Stones in order to eradicate all organic life in both is riddled with thin justifications and obvious plot holes. Even the twist near the end is explicitly foreshadowed by dialogue early on. Outside of Frank West’s remarks about Mike Haggar doing paperwork and an awesome Hulk and Ryu team up, the three or four hours of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite’s story mode is a chore.
However, where it fails to deliver on story and in its use of beloved characters, Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s fights are brilliant. It’s impressive just how aggressively it completely upends traditions fans have known since X-Men vs Street Fighter in 1996. Things like being able to tag in your partner at any time, even while in the air or in the middle of a Hyper Combo, give a level of creative freedom in constructing combos that is truly refreshing. Between that and things like completely overhauling the old “off the ground” mechanics, removing the time-honored Assist system, and letting you use multiple launching attacks in the same combo, there is an admirable willingness here to take risks and push boundaries, and those bets have paid off well. At one point, I became so obsessed with creating new combos that I awoke in the middle of the night and scribbled ideas for Zero combos on a nearby sheet of paper in half gibberish before passing out. It’s really wormed its way into my brain.
But the crown jewel of Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s design is the decision to replace each team’s third character with your choice of six Infinity Stones that augments your characters with two new abilities. It works so well it makes the very idea of a three-character team now seem like old news. The Stones’ power adds another layer of strategy when deciding which heroes to use: if you’re playing two quick heroes with low-health totals, like Strider and Zero, maybe you’d like to use the Soul Stone to bring a downed teammate back into the fight. Or you could use the Mind Stone’s grab attack with characters like Dante or Doctor Strange, whose mobility and projectiles can make them hard to defend against – if they’re blocking in anticipation of your attack, you can just grab them instead. Playing with Infinity Stone combinations lets you approach fights differently, even when playing the same team of characters.
Capcom made another wise move by putting safeguards in place to tone down some of the excessively long and damaging combos we saw in Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. Damage scaling, which is an unseen system implemented to make it impossible to continue a combo after it reaches a certain damage threshold, will intercede at around four to five thousand damage, which is roughly half the life of most of the cast. Incorporating level three Hyper Combos can push the damage closer to lethal levels, but those opportunities are rare (and thus more exciting when you pull one off). This makes matches slightly more competitive at broader ranges of skill, which is always a good thing. If someone lands a hit early in the match, it won’t spell complete disaster by causing you to lose a character right out of the gate.
Moderate damage scaling means you’ll need to think more about how to land hits and maximize meter efficiency rather than optimizing and executing combos. It also means that if you enjoy playing at a distance, (like I do,) the damage you can put together between projectiles and your Infinity Stone is more meaningful, as their damage over time becomes comparable to combo damage. When I’m lobbing arrows with Hawkeye, I feel much more in control of my environment, aided by the Infinity Stones and with the knowledge that even if an opponent manages to get through my wall of missiles and land a combo, I’d still be in the fight.
The importance of the neutral state, when both fighters are jockeying for position and looking to land hits in order to earn damage, is increased when the emphasis is on shorter combos. The flow of fights feels much more like a duel rather than an exercise in waiting for an opponent to make a mistake. There is still plenty of the old razzle-dazzle, and you can still string together 75-hit combos; however, Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite refreshingly places most of its focus where fighting games are at their most fun: battling for position, trying to outmaneuver and outsmart your opponent.
In addition, almost all returning characters have been given new tools that make them much more enjoyable. For example, Iron Man’s damage and ability to control the screen with projectiles got a big boost, making him more viable. Even fighters who were strong before, like Dormammu, have new toys in the toybox he can now charge spells while using abilities. In fact, Dormammu was also given three new abilities which also charge his spells along with an all new spell and tweaks to the traits of existing abilities, like Flame Carpet, which can now be used in a combo. Zero can cancel each of his special moves into a charged Buster Shot to give it additional properties. Hulk can leap from the walls and cover its length in one horizontal jump. The individual changes combined with the radical reinvention of some of the mechanics makes old characters, some of which we’ve been playing for over 20 years, feel fresh and exciting.
At the same time, experimenting with the 30-character roster hasn’t revealed any obvious weaknesses, so hopefully this time around we won’t see a handful of powerful characters dominate the scene like in previous Marvel Vs. Capcom games.
But we have to address the mutant elephant in the room: there simply is no replacing Wolverine, Magneto, or Storm, and their absence here is immediately felt and noticeable. There are a few new faces occupying those slots, like Captain Marvel and Gamora, but they’re nowhere near as synonymous with the franchise. It’s just disappointing that these distinctive characters were cut for what appear to be political reasons involving the X-Men movie rights being held by Fox instead of Marvel and Disney.
Not filling that mutant-shaped hole with more all-new fighters feels seems like a missed opportunity to inject new blood into the series. Of the 30 characters available day one, 24 of them appeared in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. While changes to their move sets and to the fight mechanics mean that none are identical to their previous selves, I would have enjoyed learning more brand-new characters. For that, it looks like I’ll have to wait for DLC.
As far as learning those characters goes, training mode gives you a good range of options for control over both your own character and the training dummy, such as the ability to set different health and meter generation levels for both. Like in other recent fighters, you can toggle various levels of simulated latency from the Training mode menu, giving you the chance to practice your execution in an environment with frame delay. Also, you can now search for online opponents from training mode though I haven’t had to wait long at all for a match.
Finally, Mission mode feels familiar to character-specific combo tutorials you’ll find in other fighting games like Street Fighter V or Injustice 2. However, I found this to be a useful place to start when learning new characters, as the combos it teaches are practical and a useful starting point for exploring both the intermediate and more advanced capabilities of a fighter’s offense.