Let's start by addressing what otherwise would become the elephant in the room. Why is Capcom releasing Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 barely nine months after Marvel Vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds? It's not a new strategic approach from Capcom. As we've discussed elsewhere on this site they regularly release updated versions of games, and this is no more so apparent than with regards to their fighting games. For example Street Fighter IV was released in February 2009, the super version April 2010 and the Arcade version was available June 2011 (this time as downloadable content for the super version). The strange thing here is the extremely short space between each release; could it not have all been in the original package, or as DLC so as not to alienate owners of the original? The timing, it seems, is down to licensing of the Marvel characters (although why it still couldn't have been one big package we're unclear) and the disc release is due to the fact the Japanese market is not so big on DLC currently, and for a fighting game such as this (i.e. not the force of nature the Street Fighter games are) alienating such a large fan base would render the project worthless. To compensate there is a significant change log to the game versus its predecessor and the price is significantly lower. Still, releasing into the market in November, right in the middle of the swathe of Triple-A titles competing for placement in a limited number of Christmas stockings, requires a substantial end product. Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 delivers.
The series first started with 1998's Marvel Vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes although characters from each 'side' had been paired together from earlier that decade in X-Men, and latterly Marvel, Vs. Street Fighter games. The last new game (before this year's third entry) was released in 2000. It's been a long wait to get to this point, but given the popularity of the fighting game (thanks to Street Fighter IV's critically acclaimed release in 2009) and the rise in Marvel character's popularity and global awareness thanks to the various big-budget cinema releases, the time was right. With this ultimate version, players have the pinnacle of the series in hand.
The mechanics behind Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 are very different to those of the more typical one on one fighting titles. If you are a newcomer to the series it will take a while to get used to how the game plays, and likely require a full reworking of what you know in order to get anywhere in this crossover universe. The most prominent difference is that you command a team of three fighters - from either universe in a mix and match fashion - against another team of three. This brings with it a significant set of knock-on effects as well as making the onscreen action a completely crazy sensory overload.
You fight in a tag-team style. Your lead character kicks off and can engage the assistance of their team members by the press of a partner button. At this point the other character will jump in and perform their pre-selected (from a bank of three possible) assist move. A longer press of the partner button swaps out the old for the new, allowing the player to try a different approach as and when needed. As you become more familiar with the roster and an individual's fighting style and move sets any given fight will become easier as you'll know what works best against which character, as well as determining a set of teams which provide the requisite variety of performance options. Ryu, for example, is a well-balanced fighter with projectiles and other long-range attacks as well as powerful close range attacks and throws. Combine him with a more agile fighter such as Dante and a great hulking beast (like the um...Hulk) and the options open to you are broad. This team based aspect can really affect the outcome of any bout. The tactical side to this game is over and above anything seen in the more common beat 'em ups.
If you are used to the Street Fighter series you will not be able to jump in with a team you are familiar with from those games and compete. It just will not work. Aside from the fact that you are up against one or two at a time, and any one of three at various junctures, you only have three attack buttons. Not three punch or kick buttons. You do not get to choose whether to lay a punch or flight a kick. The reaction of your fighter will depend on where and when the attack button is depressed, as well as the fighter's relative position versus the opposition. If you take to the game thinking you know what to do, you will be battered by all comers. It's that simple. The game must be learnt from the ground up. Once this is understood it grants freedom to experiment and taste the whole cast list in order to see what does and doesn't work.
Approaching the game as if you know nothing is beneficial for other reasons too. Given there can be two to four characters onscreen at any one time, and the interchange is swift and regular, it is very hard to tell what's going on at first. The action is just a mess. Understanding you know nothing and realising time is needed to get to grips with it all allows for serenity in battle. In turn this means inputs and outcomes will be known and ingested, rather than getting shocked and confused all the time. At this point you can start to build combos, dispatch enemies with various specials and end on a hyper combo spectacular.
Once you have worked to make the game a level playing field, or if you're already an expert at Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, the fun can be found in working out your favourite picks, best teams and good / bad match-ups. To this end Capcom have outdone themselves. There are forty-eight characters available on-disc, plus the two downloadable ones developed for the previous game. That's twelve new characters for those who own Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. There are also eight new stages and on release an entirely new game mode (Heroes and Heralds - card based gaming) will be available as free DLC. The new additions range from the crazy (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney?) to the very cool (Ghost Rider).
The fighting itself has been rebalanced to minimise painful match-ups. Amaterasu (Okami) and Phoenix (as in Jean Grey from the X-Men - not the attorney!), for example, when played by somebody who really knows what they're doing, were so overpowered in the previous game when up against Chris Redfield or Haggar from Final Fight that it just wasn't fair. Of course, in the hands of anyone less than amazing at this game, such tiering issues become irrelevant. One of the fantastic things about Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is that it is a great leveller. As mentioned, a pro at Street Fighter will need to relearn how to play this game but equally given the team based approach, the assists and the easy to pull off specials and hyper combos, a button bashing novice can win. The game appears to be pure chaos to most and any result goes. Therefore, as an introductory fighting game this jumps up to the top of the list. Even if you're failing it's great fun anyway because the screen is always so busy and the characters are often so well known that it's hard to do anything but smile. The carnage is all the more spectacular thanks to the wonderful art and animation to be found here. The main mode is made out to be a comic book story and the fights appear to be moving comic book cells. It's fabulous to look at, with gloriously vibrant colours and a style consistent with the comic books or animated series' of the Marvel characters, with the Capcom ones mimicking the feel to ensure no obvious outliers.
In addition to the main mode are a variety of others which will be familiar to most. Mission mode sounds like it'll have fun Wolverine or Nemesis flavoured trials, but is actually just a set of levels whereby you're required to pull off the individual's moves and combos one by one. Glorified training, really. At least its focussed as the actual training mode is nothing of the sort - it's just a chance to spar against a dummy character. No surprises here then, but it still disappoints given a real attempt at explaining how to play the game, tactics and special moves would be very helpful to all.
It was not possible to try the online mode due to the lack of players available around the world at this time ahead of release. However, we're promised enhanced net code and as with the previous game there are ranked and unranked matches. Multiplayer is obviously a key aspect of any fighting game. Local multiplayer played fine and the sheer intensity of action throughout the whole of a fight will ensure battling with friends will be massive fun to anyone - novices, pros, experts and less capable folks. Of course, if one has a fight stick and the others don't, make sure you swap periodically - this game is like every other fighter. A stick is the best and easiest way to play. Those struggling with a pad have more chance here than with something very technical, like Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition, but will likely be cursing anyway!
Despite the swift return of this franchise so soon after its forerunner hit stores, Capcom have delivered a fantastic fighting game which is both at the top of its own series, but could also persuade long-term fans of rival franchises to consider switching allegiance. The package looks and sounds great. The roster is full of interesting well known avatars as well as nice surprises. The move sets are varied ensuring repeat play does not dwindle any excitement over time and once you get to know everything within, the way to approach any bout becomes much more tactical than people are perhaps used to. Failing that, button bashing works too. Really it's just an immensely fun game that looks and plays brilliantly and will continue to do so for an extended period of time. One suspects Capcom will not return to this series for a while now but it doesn't matter. This game has the quality to last another eleven years if needed.
This review is based on the PS3 version