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September 28, 2017

Let’s discuss Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (Part 1).

*stares at box art*


…Short answer: yeah, it’s good.

Less short answer: yeah, it’s good, but.

So.  There’s no way around it at this stage: Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is a controversial game.

It’s been a PR nightmare for Capcom.  Its visuals haven’t impressed, and neither has its roster -- leaked months in advance to fanfare about as triumphant as a wet fart during a wedding.  Fans have assumed -- probably rightly -- that legal issues and executive meddling have warped this storied franchise into a cash grab.  It’s a new fighter that’s coming off of Capcom’s other marquis title, itself mired in controversies and suspicions that it’s basically unfinished.  And on top of all that, it’s a new entry in an era where Capcom seems like it’s more focused on business and profits than pure artistry -- partially because, given the slate of high-profile failures they’ve released, one would think they have the financial acumen of a donkey stuck in a puddle of mud.

The house that Mega Man built needed a miracle.  They needed a savior.  They needed to win back the crowd, and prove to fans that they were still worthy of their unflinching loyalty.  What they gave us instead was a game that had a mandatory, 10GB, day one patch -- no doubt to fix some of the nightmare-freakazoid faces that now litter the annals of the internet.  But at the end of the day, does it really matter?  Is Infinite good in spite of its controversies?  Did it go past its limits to become a worthy inheritor of the Mahvel name?

The answer is yes.  But the answer is also no.

But I still like the game.

But I’m still disappointed by it.

I’ve put a fair amount of time into the game so far.  By the time you read this, I’ll probably have put in significantly more.  The issue is that, as a disclaimer, I’m not what you’d call a master at fighting games.  I’m okay, I suppose; if nothing else, I’m not the “scrub” you’d see on the bottom rungs of online play.  My skill level, such as it is, puts me in a weird place; I’m not the beginner that a lot of companies and games are trying to bring into the fold with gameplay concessions, but I’m not the expert who you would root for (or bet on) in the tournament scene.  I’m in the nebulous middle.

So in some ways, I get what Infinite is going for.  I can’t do everything that Infinite asks of its players -- I’m terrified at the prospect of wave-dashing to complete combos, and eight-way air movement sounds like witchcraft that demands, at a bare minimum, a virgin sacrifice -- but I can do some of it.  Even if execution is an important part of fighting games, I’ve always argued that the real key to the genre is situational awareness.  You have to know what to do and when to do it, not just memorize ultra-long combos.  Fundamentals triumph over all.

And fundamentally, Infinite is a vastly different game from Marvel 3.  (How different it is from Marvel 2 or 1, I’ll leave up to people who know those games better.)  You take a team of two characters into battle, and fight it out with every punch, kick, and special move at your disposal -- many of which lead to some high-flying, screen-filling dynamics.  The much-touted Infinity Stones play a pretty big role here; see, when you pick your character, you can also choose one of the six to be used as an individual input mid-match. 

So for example, if you pick the Soul Stone, then you can give any character a far-reaching attack that steals health from an opponent (if it connects) at the press of a button.  On top of that, once you have enough meter for it, you can activate a stone-specific Infinity Surge to get a massive advantage; with the Soul Stone, you can fight with two characters at once -- and actually revive a downed partner with a smidge of health for a last-chance assault.

I think that the Infinity Stone system is pretty strong -- simple, but effective.  Choosing the right one compensates for the lack of assists in Infinite, and in the best way possible.  The flexibility allows you to bolster your characters’ strengths, compensate for their weaknesses, or just give them a new option mid-battle.  Or, alternatively, you can pick the Stone that’s best for you, or a Stone that you know (or suspect) will cripple an opponent and his/her strategy.

As an example?  I didn’t ask him beforehand, but somehow I knew that in our first session with the game, my brother would opt for the Time Stone, which gives fighters a high-speed dash with a single button tap.  I expected as much, because I know the crux of his play style revolves around high mobility, which lets him swarm and overwhelm foes in seconds.  I completely shut him down by choosing the Space Stone, which at a base level draws foes in closer -- which means that you immediately make characters with command grabs like Haggar that much more lethal. 

The real hotness comes from the Infinity Storm, which works exactly as I hoped it would.  Activate it, and you trap foes in a box they can’t escape from.  So yes, that means they’re much more vulnerable to a level 3 from Haggar.  But more importantly?  Their offensive options almost drop to zero.  Even a basic combo in the game means you’ll launch a foe sky high -- but if you’re trapped by the Space Stone’s Storm, you’ll barely rise a few feet if you sneak in a launcher.

Praise be to the Shame Cube.

I’ve found in my online adventures that the Shame Cube isn’t perfect, of course.  Even if you trap an opponent, there’s still the question of how you’ll open them up for damage; Haggar can pile drive them, sure, but characters like Captain America aren’t so good at breaking through enemy defenses on their lonesome.  You also have to be wary of when and where you activate the Storm, because if you pin Chris Redfield while he’s on the other side of the screen, he’ll gladly continue to zone and wear you down.  And while I haven’t been on the receiving end of one yet, I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before I’m hit by a panic-induced Level 3 while making my approach.

Apparently, the Reality Stone is strongly favored among the FGC experts right now -- and I don’t blame them for it, given its screen-filling, time-delayed shenanigans.  Still, I’d think that each Stone brings with it strengths and weaknesses that players need to be mindful of as they put together their strategies.  Can the Soul Stone give you a second chance at life?  Sure, but it also makes it that much easier for an opponent to get a two-for-one beatdown -- the infamous “Happy Birthday” in a 2017 skin -- with the right timing or attack.  Does the Mind Stone’s Storm let you land a command grab that instantly stuns an opponent?  Yeah, but considering how heavily the damage is scaled afterward, you’d better plan on how to maximize your output beforehand.  So yes, there’s a lot to think about before you even leave the character select screen -- maybe before you even get there.

Still, the Stones alone don’t determine a match.  It all depends on the characters you choose -- and as always, you’ll duke it out until there’s only one team left that can stand.  Again, assists have been dropped in this game, so you won’t have to worry about Sentinel popping in to deploy drones, or Doom locking you down with a missile barrage.  Well, I say as much, but there are ostensibly ways to recreate assists.  In the same sense that there’s a dedicated Infinity Stone button, there’s also a tag button that lets you switch between your two characters in a second or two.  Marvel 3 had something like that through its Delayed Hyper Combos -- use a super move with one character, then input another super command to switch to the next character on your team for his/her super -- but here, your options are much more expansive.

As an example, I’m trying to make a team of X and Hulk work.  I don’t know which Stone I’m going to use with them, but I can see the possibilities I can make real.  X can toss out two different projectiles at once (and mix and match them), including a pair of boomerangs that sweep in a circular arc behind opponents.  So fling them out and hit the tag button; now Hulk is in, but thanks to X he has the cover to get in since the foe is forced to stand there and block.  And, theoretically, you can use that time while the foe’s worried about boomerangs to sneak in a command grab.  If they try to fight you off, they’ll get clipped by boomerangs and be open to your attack.  If they stand there and block, they’ll eat a Gamma Tornado.

When you switch, pretty much the only thing you have to worry about in terms of resource management is a brief cooldown period.  You don’t have to spend any meter to tag out (unless you do so as a combo breaker).  You don’t have to land an attack, whether you hit or get blocked.  You don’t need to assume you can only switch during supers.  You can just stick to switching during supers -- which means you’re manually doing DHCs -- but you can tag out during normal moves, special moves, hit confirms, whiffed attacks, on the ground, in the air, and the like.  It’s a safe bet that that’s where the “infinite” in Marvel Infinite comes from.

The general rule for combos is that you’re allowed one wall bounce, one ground bounce, and one off-the-ground attack in a single sequence; anything else, and it won’t connect.  But if I remember right, the single attack-type limit is broken when you use your other character -- meaning potentially, you can squeeze in two instead of one.  The bigger picture here is that you can and should use both characters and the tag mechanic to extend combos whenever you have an opening.  As an example: Haggar’s heavy Violent Axe causes a wall bounce instead of a ground bounce in this game, so once you send them flying, you can smack them with a pipe for that ground bounce.  Potentially, you can transition into an air combo with the Mayor of Earth -- or, potentially, you can switch to Captain Marvel so she can use her Strike Flurry special to relaunch and keep up the assault.

The possibilities are there.  The question is whether or not you’ve got the will -- or the reason -- to explore them.

For me, it’s a thin line.  Up until release day for Infinite (demo notwithstanding), I’m pretty sure it’s been roughly five years since I’ve played Marvel.  Tell that to my fingers, though, because muscle memory still forces me to try and perform some of the same combos I did back in the day -- and failing.  Even if they are there in some capacity, the deeper issue is that a lot of the characters have seen some noteworthy changes in their time since the last game.  On a more basic level, though?  The inputs required are dramatically different.  Infinite may also be a six-button fighter like its predecessor, but Marvel 3 had light, medium, heavy, and launcher.  This one has light punch, heavy punch, light kick, and medium kick -- so basically, like King of Fighters.  On a standard pad, Marvel 3 would have you draw a diamond shape to create your basic, standard combo.  Infinite has you draw a lightning bolt instead.

Based on the tournament footage that’s floating around, the experts and pros have already acclimated to the changes.  So have a handful of online players; you can mash one button for an auto-combo, but I’ve effectively been vaporized by guys that play like the game’s been out for years.  I’m partly playing this game so I can keep pace with my brother and his Spartan training regimen (and the inevitable beatdown he’ll dish out when we play together), but the main idea here is that there’s a lot of work ahead for anyone who plans to venture in.  If a Capcom employee -- Combofiend, an exec, the director, the company president, or anyone on the ladder -- were to argue that this game is easy for beginners to pick up, I wouldn’t believe them for a second.

Look over all the stuff I mentioned earlier.  Two characters.  An Infinity Stone.  Four different attack buttons.  A tag mechanic.  Meter management.  Multiple attack states.  And on top of all that, you have to nail the timing for each move so you don’t drop combos -- meaning that if you want to be even remotely competent, you have to spend some serious time grilling into your mind how to attack…irrespective of learning how to actually play the game, not just practice against a stationary training dummy.  Is it possible?  Certainly, and I’m not about to imply that Infinite is too complex for normal humans to touch.  But given that I’ve felt like I’ve had to un-learn and re-learn everything from Marvel 3 -- let alone how much time is needed to become just slightly, mildly capable -- it feels less like a game and more like I’ve been drafted for military service.

So I have to be honest.  There was a point where I was playing this game -- where I was in the training room, trying to learn some good combos for my Captain Marvel/Haggar team.  And as soon as I made a breakthrough on what they could do, I sighed and thought “Oh man.  I’m so tired.”  All of a sudden, I didn’t want to play anymore.  I didn’t want to keep practicing and perfecting my execution.  I didn’t want to train up for the battles to come.  I didn’t want to explore the possibilities that were available to me.  I didn’t want to put in the hours, the effort, the work -- largely because there’s just so much work to do

I think that, frankly, I wanted to go back to BlazBlue.

That might be a controversial opinion -- sacrilege in the face of Capcom’s latest being out and about.  But it really is how I felt…arguably.  There’s also a pretty strong case to suggest that I was eager to play a slew of other games, Sonic Mania well among them.  Still, BlazBlue did, and still does, feel like the more appealing option in terms of pure fighting games.  I’m more interested in bumbling around with Litchi and learning how to play Naoto than I am in figuring out how to use X or re-learning Captain America.  As a reminder: this game has barely been out for a week (as of writing), and I’m already feeling the fatigue.  Why?

I acknowledge that Infinite’s gameplay is good.  It’s the game’s strongest suit -- which is kind of important for a video game.  Even if there are controversies, it has enough potential to satisfy fans and make new ones happy.  Yet there’s this sense of weariness and disdain I have for myself and the game, respectively -- a dark cloud that hangs over it, and makes me want to turn right back around.  What’s the issue?  Have I been brainwashed by the hate train?  Am I being subconsciously influenced by months of bad press and fan outcry?  Possibly.  Probably, even.  But it goes beyond that.  Yes, the much-touted problems do factor in -- the less-than-stellar roster chief among them.  But the more I play the game, the more I realize something crucial: its gameplay isn’t as new and dynamic as I hoped.

This is basically just Street Fighter X Tekken.  X Marvel.

It’s not a one-to-one comparison.  The tag mechanic doesn’t work exactly the same way, nor do the gems from SFxT sync perfectly with the Infinity Stones.  But it’s dangerously close.  It’s almost as if the two games were made by the same company, and in the years since the first one’s release they tweaked the formula for future endeavors while taking advantage of the time gap between the two.  Fundamentally, both games have you using two characters as one, switching out and extending combos as per your pre-planned synergy.  Both games have you relying on the gems you’ve equipped to bolster your power or game plan.  Both games have had a shaky reception.

So Marvel Infinite occupies this strange space where it’s both the new hotness and the same old, same old.  Does it do things that are new to the franchise?  More or less.  But there’s still the fact -- the lingering sense that shrouds it like a block of molded cheese -- that the new is built on the corpse of the old.  The saving grace is that it’s still Marvel, but the problem here is that it’s still Marvel.  It’s a game, and franchise, half-built on the utter frustration caused by the shenanigans possible.

Didn’t block Ultron’s attack from his eight-way dash in time?  Say goodbye to a huge chunk of your health.  Dante catches you with a random hail of bullets?  Now Frank West can get to Level 5 and all you can do is watch as he powers up.  Don’t like zoners?  Break your controller preemptively so you don’t have to deal with Chris, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, and more.  Want to fight -- or even press a single button -- without impunity?  Good luck when you’re dealing with relentless, seemingly-safe pressure from Strider and Gamora.  And when you factor in conditions like human error, online lag, and general randomness, you know exactly what you’re getting into.  What good is all that training when you can get blown up for a single mistake, a Hail Mary, or netcode that basically turns every fighter into King Crimson?

(That's how it works, right?  I hope that's how it works.)

I won’t deny that Infinite has a breadth of options.  Those who dive in have plenty of tools to play with, and I’m happy for those that go deep into the watery caverns within.  But there are two questions that orbit around the game.  Sure, you can do this and that and this, but will you?  And sure, you can do that thing there and this thing here, but why should you?  You can find ways to dish out dozens, and potentially hundreds of hits, but will you?  If you’re a normal player, I have my doubts.  And why should you?  Even without a single tag to another character, guys like Captain America can do massive amounts of damage with some slightly-beyond-basic stuff.  No need to break your hands over fly combos or shred your brain by relying on sneaky shenanigans.  Land one light attack and you’re golden.

There’s a real sense of futility to fighting games that can’t easily be dealt with.  That would probably explain why it’s still a niche genre, and why so many people continue to back away from them with cries of “I’m not good at fighting games.”  Is there really a point in learning combos?  Is there really a point in earning points in ranked matches?  Is there really a point in winning?  Is there really a point in playing?  Ideally, every game in the genre should do its best to satisfactorily answer those questions, or at least provide reasons why someone should hunker down and train (even if it does just mean holding them psychologically hostage).  So the question then is simple: does Infinite do that?

To put it a different way: if this game wasn’t a Marvel game, or if I didn’t have to play to keep up with my brother, or if it wasn’t a new release, or if I didn’t just want to do some blog posts about it, then would I even bother?  Would I have dropped it after a cursory look?

I want to say no.  But I also want to say yes -- because there’s so much about it that’s disappointing.  And you’ll feel it as soon as you turn on the game.

See you next time.

*sigh*  Fuckin’ shit.

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