What's the biggest release for Marvel Comics this year? Movie buffs will argue between not one but three 2011 blockbusters based on the imprint's biggest names. Avid readers pin hopes on the forthcoming Fear Itself crossover comic book series, the rare kind that sees distant heroes teaming up against impossible odds. And late night hosts will surely vote for the comically epic Spider-Man musical.
From that list alone, Marvel's in for its biggest-ever year of publicity, barely a year after being purchased by The Walt Disney Co. Yet before those books and films see the light of day, a little scrapper of a project launched last week with nearly every superhero imaginable on its cover: Marvel vs. Capcom 3, a fighting video game.
Big whoop. Marvel characters get the gaming treatment pretty often, whether tied to films or simply living out the comics' greatest storylines. But MvC3 is a rare bit of a perfect nerd storm, in terms of fan service, production value, and, er, being rather complicated. Nothing else Marvel makes this year will tap nearly as many geeky pressure points, for better and for worse.
Eighteen superheroes (and 18 characters from the Capcom gaming family) have run into each other for some reason. A volcano erupted, or Stan Lee lost a bet, or something. Doesn't matter. Point is, they all have to fight each other, in teams of three, in the Street Fighter tradition of punching, jump-kicking, and blasting to victory.
MvC3 comes from a hand-drawn legacy, but this is the series' first to give full 3D a shot. Perhaps the game took so long—11 years since its predecessor—so that the tech would befit the shift. Truly, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are brilliant canvases for this game's animated world. Tiny webs glimmer as Spider-Man blasts them. The Hulk seems to put all the weight of the world into his elbow swings. Six heroes can fill the screen at once without slowing the action down. And the voice acting befits such a melee, lead by dark fan fave Deadpool's jokes and snide comments.
Good thing, because the game has to look and feel just right to match its obsession with power. Every attack and maneuver comes super-sized—typically filling the screen with leaps, lasers, and an explosion of color—as if trying to outdo all other fighting games. Those other games don't have Iron Man or Wolverine, after all, so delivering on the promise of controlling the strongest men and women in the world has to click. Visually and aurally, it does. But what about the sheer act of slapping buttons to put such craziness in motion?
MvC3 offers two options. The game's normal mode requires that you know the ways of fighting games past: tap your joystick in a quarter circle, then immediately press an attack button, and something cool will happen. If you care to learn the rest of the game's system, you'll have your team of three heroes juggling foes in the air with all matter of confusing attacks, tags, reversals and counters. Or you can toggle "simple mode" and mindlessly mash three buttons—just three—to make the screen go boom.
The latter winds up feeling disconnected, not powerful. If I wanted one button to destroy X-Men villain Magneto, I may as well pop in an X-Men DVD and press the play button. Or, if you want to learn how to play the normal way, the game offers no training, no hand-holding, no "hey, I'm mild-mannered Peter Parker, and I'm here to help" video. Imagine asking a comic expert to lay some Captain America knowledge on you, and he responds by handing you issue #127—the issue where every third page has notes in the margin that read "To learn more, see issue #48," etc. etc.
So, in kind, MvC3 is another issue in a long, complicated comics series. It comes with tweaks and simplifications, the kinds that fanboys are already arguing about (and that I personally love), but a novice won't notice. And when I play online, try as I might to learn the system and compete, I get destroyed by hardcore fans, more so than any other fighting game. I respect the heroes and love the look, but in MvC3, the fanboy wall looms tall.
Marvel Comics wants to dominate the mainstream more than ever, but in 2011, nothing's more mainstream than a beautiful, power-packed, blockbuster video game. Certainly, that limits the audience—grandma's not the one spending billions of dollars on games like Call of Duty or Madden NFL—but even with the avid gamer in mind, Marvel has forced this game into the nichey comics racks.