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This has turned out to be a pretty stellar year for fighting games and, despite some early misgivings, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite doesn't buck that trend. While the package is a bit barebones, you'll find everything you need to make some cross-universe dream teams and then kick the stuffing out of your opponents.
In case the game's name didn't give it away, the Marvel universe's all-powerful Infinity Stones beat at the heart of this latest crossover fighter, both in terms of the campaign's story and the fighting engine.
And that fighting engine is where Infinite shines the brightest. It would have been easy for Capcom to just slap on a fresh coat of paint, introduce a couple of new characters and maybe tweak a mechanic or two and call it a day. Instead, they've altered things enough so that even series vets will have some learning to do. But once they've mastered the basics, there's enough meat on this brawler's bones to seriously reward dedication.
For starters, I don't think any of the returning cast plays exactly like their past iterations, so there are plenty of new moves, combos, and abilities to discover. Secondly, teams are now just 2v2 rather than 3v3, which means you'll have to change up some old strategies and experiment with team makeup.
Also gone are the assist moves from previous Marvel vs. Capcom games. Instead, you can now tag your teammate in freely but, instead of just swapping out, this can actually be used as a combo extender. If you get a pummeling going with one character and tag in your teammate, that original combo will keep going while you're put in control of the fresh combatant. You can either try to rush in and add to the damage, or wait for the first combo to close as you leap in at the right moment to continue the juggle.
Along with choosing a team, you also have to pick one of six Infinity Stones before heading into a match, which will grant you a couple of extra abilities. Each stone boasts an Infinity Surge and an Infinity Storm, both governed by an Infinity Gauge at the bottom of the screen. So long as you have some gas in the tank, you can use your stone's Surge ability. Build up enough levels in the gauge and you can trigger a Storm. The Mind Stone, for instance, instantly dazes your opponent if you trigger its Surge. Its Storm, though, keeps recharging your Hyper Meter, which means you can fire off your more powerful moves in quick succession. The Reality stone, on the other hand, has a Surge that simply fires a slow-moving projectile and a Storm that gives each controller button an elemental boost. The trick here is figuring out how to best use these stones to complement both your strengths as a player and the strengths of the team you've selected.
If any of that sounded confusing, you shouldn't be scared off from giving Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite a try. Capcom also included a couple of new systems intended to introduce new players to the game. The Easy Combo system means that you can simply tap on the light attack button in order to perform a mid-level combo that deals some decent damage while also looking flashy. And then there's the Easy Hyper Combo system, which lets you trigger a meatier series of attacks by simply pushing two buttons at the same time. That's a welcome addition to get new players into the game and, yes, both can be turned off.
Once you've got the hang of things, you'll find the usual assortment of modes and activities to punch and kick your way through. The Arcade Mode lets you tackle a series of fights capped off by a boss encounter while Vs. Mode lets you go toe-to-toe with a couch companion, online or against the computer. There's also a Training Mode with customizable parameters to try out new fighters and combos, as well as a Mission Mode that includes a series of general tutorials and a set of 10 challenges for each of the game's playable characters. These start off easy enough and quickly ramp up to pro-level maneuvers.
Finally, there's the game's fast and fun Story Mode. Ultron from the Marvel Universe and Sigma from the Capcom Universe have fused into a new robotic nemesis called Ultron Sigma. By doing this, they've also fused their own worlds into a single entity, which is why folks like Ryu and Chun-Li from Street Fighter and Devil May Cry's Dante are rubbing elbows with members of The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. The campaign is basically some light-hearted fan fiction that shows off a lot of fun team-ups and makes goofy, but appreciated, inside jokes. It's a lot of fun seeing these characters thrown together, even if the story never really goes anywhere unexpected.
And speaking of those characters, Infinite offers a roster of 30 combatants, 15 each from the titular universes. That might seem a bit slim by Marvel vs. Capcom standards, but there's some good variety in the lineup that should accommodate just about any playstyle. Still, I can't pretend I don't miss characters like Wolverine or Amaterasu, but Capcom wanted to put the focus on some of their more well-known characters and Marvel's cinematic universe.
Also smashed together are the game's stages. Xgard, for instance, blends elements from Thor's Asgard and Mega Man X's Abel City. And then there's Valkanda, which smooshes together Black Panther's Wakanda and Val Habar from Monster Hunter. Sadly, most of the maps are just different areas pulled from a few of those couplings, so I would have really liked to see even more creative amalgams in the mix.
But while the engine is solid and the campaign is a fun way to spend a few hours, it's hard not to find the entire package of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite a little lacking. The visuals aren't as striking as previous comic-inspired renditions, the UI and soundtrack are lackluster and, while the available modes are adequate, it doesn't feel like any effort was put into bringing the series on par with other great fighters of this generation.
Had Infinite come out at the start of 2017, I probably wouldn't even have this complaint. But now we live in a world where both Injustice 2 and Tekken 7 exist, fighting games that also nailed all of the basics and then went several extra miles to create new modes, systems, online functionality and gameplay hooks to elevate the genre as a whole. By comparison, Infinite just doesn't stack up.
Taken on its own merits, though, this latest entry in the Marvel vs. Capcom series is solid. There may not be much razzle-dazzle outside of its basic offerings, but at least those offerings are driven by a wonderfully refreshed fighting system and matches that are just a hell of a lot of fun to play. Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite might not become the genre's undisputed champ, but it definitely puts up a good fight.
This review based on a PlayStation 4 downloaded copy provided by the publisher.