Playing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite reminded me of a scene from Star Trek I saw as a child. It involved Kirk and Spock playing an intense game of chess, but on seven boards of varying sizes, all floating over each other. It was still a game of kings, queens, knights, and pawns strategically moving between colored squares, but the multi-tiered playing field unraveled my understanding of its fundamentals. What was the purpose of the smaller boards hovering off to the sides? Do the rules of movement change? How do you even get a checkmate?
The latest iteration of Capcom’s star-studded crossover fighting game is much like Star Trek’s three-dimensional chess. It takes familiar gameplay systems and characters but presents them in an entirely new way, demanding players re-examine their understanding of it as a whole. Infinite represents the most significant change to the Marvel Vs. Capcom formula since its creation, and the result is a game that’s not only fun and rewarding to play, but also remedies some of the biggest issues with its predecessor. However, like Star Trek’s three-dimensional chess boards, it’s all held together by a functional but crude frame.
The biggest shakeup in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite comes with the addition of the Infinity Stones, which, in Marvel lore, correspond to a different facet of the universe: Space, Time, Mind, Reality, Soul, and Power. One stone can be taken into battle alongside two fighters, and each of them has a unique ability called “Infinity Surge” that can be used just like any other special move. These abilities open the door to a world of creative combos, setups, and strategies that the series has never had before.
Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 quickly became a game about finding the best teams and optimising their damage output, but this meant everyone largely played the same way. Infinite’s Infinity Stones, however, encourage players to make characters their own, and they offer the tools to forge distinct playstyles. A Hulk player is now empowered to negate his slow movement speed by using the Time Stone’s teleport function, an aggressive Dante can use the Soul Stone’s health-sapping capabilities to mitigate damage from risky strategies, or a Thanos can cover his lumbering approach with the Reality Stone’s homing fireball. Despite the attributes the stones bestow, each character still retains what makes them distinct among the cast. So although Hulk might have a teleport, trying to play him like Strider won’t work.
The Infinity Stones also have a secondary ability called “Infinity Storm,” which is charged by taking damage. When unleashed, they unlock the full potential of the stone and give its user a big short-term advantage. In the Marvel Universe, the Stones grant immense power, and in the game each one bends a fundamental rule of fighting game design to the favor of its user. Power boosts damage, Mind refills the Hyper Combo meter, Soul revives a fallen ally, Time eliminates recovery on moves so they can be chained together, Space restricts movement, and Reality gives elemental properties to attacks. The Infinity Storm is what replaces Marvel Vs. Capcom 3’s X-Factor, which, while an interesting mechanic on paper, often felt like an unfair two-button death sentence. Infinity Storm briefly changes the parameters of battle in favor of the user but still gives the other player the ability to fight on through smart play and strategy. It takes X-Factor’s comeback potential, but makes it a possibility instead of a foregone conclusion, and in turn the inherent tension and drama of the moment feels more authentic.
The rabbit hole goes deeper when you factor in the tagging system, and it’s here where the series’ other big changes lie. Capcom has simplified tagging, but done so without sacrificing depth. At the press of a button, a teammate will sprint into the fray to take over, allowing players to extend combos for greater damage or to set up tricky situations that can potentially penetrate defenses. Teammates will always enter on the ground, which means low-effort health-melting chained air combos are a thing of the past. While it’s not impossible to make combos go on for absurdly long, it’s hard work since the character being tagged out is slow to leave. This places high-execution demands and strict timing requirements on players, who need to keep the combo going long enough to cover the tag cooldown. It might be frustrating to find yourself on the receiving end of one of these multi-tag combo strings, but you can be sure the player on the other side is putting in the work to make it happen.
Similarly, Infinite doesn’t feel like it revolves around “Off The Ground” moves (OTG) as much. In Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, these had very simple inputs and could pop a knocked-down enemy back into the air, leaving them defenseless against a continued barrage of attacks. These moves are a little trickier to pull off now due to a limited window of opportunity. Again, when you see one happen, you know it was well-executed.
Infinite feels like a much more grounded game than its predecessors. It moves at a slower pace than series veterans may be used to, but it also feels more honest. The fighting game community referred to Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 as a game about shenanigans; utilising the idiosyncrasies of mechanics and quirks of characters to create situations that often felt unfair. While it’s too early to tell whether Infinite’s systems are completely free of these, as it stands, the game’s mechanics feel much more open-ended. It’s less about using communal knowledge to pick the best characters, do the optimised combos, and employ the ideal strategies, and more about treating the game like a blank canvas and its mechanics as the brushes for painting your unique superhero squad.
Of course, there are those that won’t think about playing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite with such granularity, and Capcom has implemented a one-button auto-combo system to help the casual player pick up a controller and make cool stuff happen easily. The game’s control scheme features two buttons for light attacks and two for heavy, but by repeatedly pressing just the light punch button you can execute a full combo, starting on the ground, launching into the air, and finishing by knocking the target back to the ground. It’s a completely frictionless way to execute a full combo loop for those that just want to enjoy the spectacle of it all and have fun. To balance this, the damage these auto-combos do is considerably less than a manual combo, so a serious player shouldn’t have any trouble against someone doing auto-combos. The system is a simple and intuitive way to get people started. There were some fears that concessions for the casual player could impact the depth of Infinite, but the limitations of auto-combos and the complexities of manual ones creates a gulf between the casual and hardcore. But those that want to make the journey across are given a path to follow.
Capcom has made digging deeper easy thanks to a suite of training mode options that’ll be familiar to anyone who has played a recent fighting game. Infinite features a comprehensive mission mode that will walk players through the basics of movement, attacking, how the Infinity Stones work, and how they can be incorporated into play. On top of that, each character has 10 individual missions that start with basic special moves, but escalate into high-execution combos. At the later stages, these missions can be incredibly tricky, so even veterans are likely to learn a thing or two by completing them.
Capcom’s last major fighting game, Street Fighter V, was criticised for its dearth of content at launch, but this criticism can’t be levelled at Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite. In addition to the training modes, there’s a Vs. mode that lets you go up against another player locally or a computer-controlled opponent. There’s also an Arcade mode that pits players against a series of teams before ending with a final boss, and a suite of online modes including ranked and casual matches, a beginner’s league, and a lobby system.
Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s netcode has shown itself to be reliable in finding matches and, for the most part, those matches are stable in network performance. Matchmaking is speedy, often finding an opponent to battle it out with quickly. And when both players have full connections, it feels as smooth as playing offline. Naturally, with lower connection strengths the experience is more prone to stutter and, on the rare occasion, freeze for a second or two, with some input delay. However, this is at the very low end of the spectrum. Even with middling connections gameplay isn’t noticeably impacted.
One of the smarter touches in its online mode is the Beginner’s League, which pits players ranked 14th or lower against each other. Wins accrue points and once enough are earned, the player graduates out of the league, making it no longer accessible. This is a great way finding footing in the dog eat dog world of online Marvel Vs. Capcom online. The post match options also make it easy to keep the fights rolling, as they let you rematch or find new players immediately without being kicked back into the online section.
The other big draw in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is its Story mode, which follows an all-star cast of characters as they travel across around the amalgamation of universes to collect the Infinity Stones and stop the villainous Ultron Sigma, who is attempting to remake all of existence in his own image. Capcom’s story modes have always been severely lacking, especially next to NetherRealm’s offerings in the Mortal Kombat and Injustice series, but Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s story delivers. It’s a narrative that keeps it simple to allow characterization to shine through, and it does. Spider-Man is a wise-cracking goof, Tony Stark always thinks he knows better, Dante is a charming rogue, Hulk smashes, and Cap motivates. There’s a light, humorous quality to everything and, in its more absurd moments–like when Frank West, a normal human with a camera, is put up against Thanos, the mad Titan–the story takes the opportunity to poke fun at itself.
The battles that take place within the story are also engaging, often asking players to smash through Ultron Sigma’s mechanical robots, which are low in health but great in number. Fights against named characters are much trickier and the game will often layer on an objective, time limit, or have an outside party running interference. A few of the battles even serve as little puzzles, requiring the player to figure out how best to use an Infinity Stone to achieve victory. The Story mode is exactly the kind of fun, action-driven romp you’d want from a crossover of these universes. And there are a few nods for fans of the characters thrown in for good measure.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is really let down by its presentation. Much has been made of the visuals and, while it looks much better in motion than it does in still images, overall it’s inconsistent and severely lacking in pizazz. While characters like Captain Marvel, Thanos, Jedah, and Gamora look vibrant and detailed, the likes of Dante, Frank West, Ryu, and Spencer aren’t exactly easy on the eyes. The faces of human characters, specifically, are very rough, ranging from vacant-looking to downright ugly in poor old Frank’s case. Infinite swaps out the last game’s comic book style for something a little more realistic, which only serves to make the disparity between character models more pronounced. It’s a shame because the different arenas fights take place in are a very cool mashup of Marvel and Capcom locales. Capcom has put thought into how it can bring the two universes together and been successful. A.I.M has been combined with Umbrella to form A.I.M Brella, Asgard with Abel City from Mega Man to make XGard, and Monster Hunter’s Val Habar and Black Panther’s Wakanda for Valkanda. The games various stages carry its all-star mashup ethos through nicely.
The menus in Infinite also leave a lot to be desired. They’re a very workmanlike implementation of dreary-looking text on plain backgrounds, jarringly transitioning between each other, so moving around the game’s user interface feels dull and lifeless. This might seem like nitpicking at something that, within the larger context of Infinite’s experience, is insignificant, but as a fan, it was a letdown. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 felt like a celebration of the two universes; it’s a game bursting with reverence for source material. Its start screen literally screams the name of the game at you like that kid opening a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning, it plays bouncing beats in the background, its character select is a comic book that you flip through, and everyone makes references to existing relationships or obscure storylines before battle. By comparison, Infinite is bereft of enthusiasm. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is that person at a convention wearing an elaborate Dormammu outfit complete with a flaming head. Infinite is that person wearing a plain t-shirt with the Marvel logo on it.
Nevertheless, the mechanics underlying Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite make it an outstanding fighting game. Capcom has understood what caused the stagnation of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3’s competitive scene and, to some extent, the issues Street Fighter V currently faces. In response it has created a fighting game focused on individuality and expression, with deep systems that reward studious players but also accommodate casuals. As someone who both plays and watches fighting games, I am excited to see what the future holds for Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite.