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October 12, 2017

Let’s discuss Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (Part 3).


All right, we can get through this.  It’ll be fine.

Let’s talk about Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite and its story mode -- because there’s a lot to UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH I DON’T WANNA DO THIS.

Okay, let’s do this.  (For the third time, I guess.)

So here’s the setup.  In order to win the favor of the fair lady Death, the Mad Titan Thanos -- unaware that he’s being played by Death and Darkstalkers alum Jedah -- hatches a plan to use the Infinity Stones for fun and profit or something.  Unluckily for him, he gets conned once he starts trying to work with Ultron and Sigma.  The vile machines decide that humanity sucks, so they should team up to wipe the entire universe of those trifling biological beings.  And, through the power of two of the six Infinity Stones, they combine to form Ultron Sigma and fuse the two worlds -- the Marvel Universe and the Capcom Universe -- together, so that their assimilation effort can go much faster.  Meanwhile, Thanos is imprisoned for his efforts and dealt the worst punishment possible: he has to wear a big dumb helmet that…uh…suppresses his power or something?  Well, I guess looking so stupid is punishment enough.

In any case, Ultron Sigma takes root in the transformed Asgard, and steals the throne for himself while his mechanized peons begin their march.  All hope seems lost -- but luckily, the mechanical menace’s machinations push the heroes of both worlds into action.  Soldiers, fighters, agents, assassins and more fall in to take on Ultron Sigma, claim the other four Infinity Stones, and save their respective universes.  Or not.  I mean, one of those heroes is Frank West, and I’m sure he’ll be extra-useful against a super-empowered nightmare machine with delusions of godhood.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s chat about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a second.  It’s kind of important.

I won’t deny that the MCU has its problems.  There are issues that need sorting out, and they’re starting to become more apparent with each new release.  The hubris is there, for sure, which you’d think would be something to avoid for a franchise that could collapse like a house of cards at any second (how close are we to a high-profile failure?  Maybe closer than we think.)  The less said about how it’s distorted the Hollywood God Engine, the better -- because otherwise we’d have to wrap our heads around the fact that someone wants to push a cinematic universe for movie monsters.  But the movies keep making money and tons of it -- so until there’s a big shakeup, we’re going to keep getting timeline JPEGs that span a half-decade or more.

Still, let’s not pretend like the MCU is utterly devoid of merit or quality.  As paradoxical as it sounds, you can be a big-budget, mainstream production and still be good.  That’s an inherent strength behind these movies; I wouldn’t call any of them cinematic masterpieces, but they’re good at what they do, and typically what they set out to do.  They tend to be simple, but they build off simplicity and familiar territory to lean into whatever narrative they’ve got lined up.  If there is complexity, it comes from the foundation laid by previous movies -- some of which date back to almost a decade ago.  And sure, the MCU loves its humor and jokes, sometimes to the point of excess.  But two things: one, generally speaking those jokes are real knee-slappers.  And two, the MCU isn’t just about jokes.  Civil War, Doctor Strange, Homecoming, and Guardians Vol. 2 all proved at a bare-ass minimum that the minds behind it want to do more than make the audience laugh or keep the overarching storyline maintained. 

Overall, the MCU has factors going for it that its competitors don’t.  So even if commercials and trailers for Justice League try to paint it as a more lighthearted romp than The Movie That Must Not Be Named, I’m inclined to believe it’s a half-assed attempt to get some positive word of mouth going.  Given all that, you would think that a product that skews so heavily for the MCU would pull lessons from the MCU.  Or, alternatively?  You would think that the Marvel movies’ influence is so widespread and understood that it would be easy to make something that captures its essence.

So I hope you’ll understand, fair reader, why I’m pissed off.  All Infinite had to do for was be a Marvel movie.  That’s all.  And guess what Capcom did?

Here’s the immediate problem with the story.  See, Ultron Sigma uses his (their?) two Infinity Stones to fuse their two universes together, which causes untold amounts of destruction even if it brings the heroes together.  Fair enough.  But those that remember the Infinite demo that came out after E3 2017 no doubt realized immediately that the content there is the start of the full game’s story mode.  The proper context for “Convergence Day” wasn’t offered in the demo, but I assumed that we players would get more in the full game.  And to be clear, you do find out exactly what led up to the Convergence, by virtue of a flashback showing the baddies in action.  Granted that happens, like, more than two thirds of the way into the story, but whatever.

The real issue is this: in the demo and the start of the full game, the overlaid text explains that our heroes have launched their assault 88 days after Convergence Day.   (The story at large runs to the 93-day mark.)  Okay, sooooooooooooooooooooo…what happened in the time between the world merger and the battle in Asgard -- sorry, XGard -- so that the plot could happen?  What I mean is, how did so many disparate characters agree to cooperate with one another?  How did they even meet?  I’ll grant them that the Avengers probably have their contact info on tap (minus Black Widow, because she’s hidden behind a pay gate for now…which is bullshit), but what about the others?  Rocket, Gamora, and Groot are all willing to venture from the depths of space to Tony’s side?  What kind of cell reception does Stark Tower have?

It creates a disconnection, considering that a game assumed to be shilling the movies has created a relationship that doesn’t exist in the movies (yet).  Still, I can sort of live with it.  Suspension of disbelief does allow, however shakily, for the Marvel heroes to be able to connect to and gather one another when trouble calls; this isn’t strictly Earth-616 or Earth-199999 we’re dealing with.  But dwelling solely on that means missing the forest for the trees.  Can the Marvel characters team up fairly readily?  Sure, I can buy that if I have to.  But when, how, and why would they team up with the Capcom characters?  Chun-Li and Chris Redfield I can understand, but Ryu going on research expeditions when he couldn’t even be arsed to stop Shadaloo in Street Fighter V

Free spirit Dante agreeing to toss his guns to Rocket and acting like they’re soul brothers?  X and Zero existing in general, even though it’s the present and Ultron Sigma didn’t use the Time Stone to fuse the worlds?  Spencer and Arthur doing anything?  And if all the Capcom heroes are on tap, then why not bring in the big guns who could save the world with a few clicks of their heels?  I mean, Amaterasu is basically a Reality Stone in her own right, isn’t she?  Can they not give her a ring?  Do these characters even have an awareness of who exists and where?  Have they not heard of Haggar before that point?  Because the game implies they have, but the game also implies that some characters haven’t, and…oh God, I feel a headache coming on.  Help me, Ammy, you’re my only hope.

What I’m getting at here is that I need context.  We all do.  Capcom, in its infinite wisdom, decided to skip past all of the important setup, worldbuilding, and foundation work (including the establishment of how dire this seeming apocalypse really is) in order to leap right into the action -- which means that it made the exact same mistake so many of the MCU’s rivals have made, are making, and will make.  Remember, it’s effectively been two console generations since X and Zero appeared in a game from their own franchise.  Casual and/or younger gamers might have seen the Blue Bomber show up in the trailer, or the character select screen, or the main story and thought “Wait, who the fuck is that and why is everyone getting hard over him?”  They didn’t build X up first, so now he’s just there because fanservice. 

The workaround for that is to use the time and space given to establish X -- especially this fighting game variant -- in the context of the story.  Who does he become friends with?  Who does he synergize with?  Who does he butt heads with?  What does he think about this situation?  What will he do to push back against the devastation?  How does his character from the Mega Man X games inform him in this new playing field -- and support or enhance him as a character?  There are a lot of questions that need answering, but they’re questions that could at least potentially be answered.  If only Capcom bothered to try.

I just love how X manages to get the lion’s share of the attention yet still feels like a glorified extra at the same time.  He’s the first one shown off in-game as he picks up Cap’s shield.  He gets a rival battle with a brainwashed Zero.  He gets to fire the Infinity Buster (which is basically his X-Buster, but loaded with cosmic Easter eggs.  How…on-the-nose).  Yet it’s all just a way for the devs to go through the motions.  Even if X gets to do stuff, he doesn’t shine any more than the rest.  He stands out just as much as Haggar, who stands out just as much as Arthur, who stands out just as much as Morrigan, who stands out just as much as Spencer.  Nobody in this game, on either side of the roster, feels special.  It’s all hollow lip service.

It’s not only a fundamental error, but a complete misunderstanding as to why the Marvel movies have succeeded.  Again and again and again, we’re given a movie that introduces a solo hero that explores their context and circumstances.  Once the first floor is finished, we move onto the second floor via sequels -- a chance to explore a character and idea even further, armed with the knowledge of what we’ve seen so far.  Then you move even higher, onto the third floor.  Outside of ensemble movies like The Avengers or Civil War -- with Guardians as an exception, though your mileage may vary -- the MCU tends to NOT throw in everything and everyone all at once.  It takes time to make as many characters as possible feel special, so that we build bonds naturally over time. 

That way, when we get the big crossover events, we already know who these people are.  We know who they care about, and what they’re about.  Hell, you don’t even have to go as far as crossover events; Homecoming put veteran Iron Man adjacent to newcomer Spider-Man, and it worked.  We know Iron Man from earlier movies, and while we originally only got a glimpse of this new Peter Parker in Civil War, the rest of Homecoming exists to characterize and contextualize the wannabe Avenger.  So when the two of them inevitably meet on the battlefield again, their interactions -- and their mere proximity to one another -- will actually mean something.

Compare and contrast that with Infinite.  Having two dozen Marvel and Capcom heroes stand together against Ultron Omega should have been the hypest shit ever.  But when you’ve got so many non-entities just standing around -- in their idle animations, no less! -- while only a couple of guys in the roster actually do something to save the day, it turns into anti-hype. 

There simply wasn’t enough time to give such a massive cast the weight and respect they deserve.  Infinite’s story is beatable in one sitting (I speak from experience), but the way it plays out, it’s not hard to see that there’s an insane amount of content compressed into a three-hour span.  I don’t mean that in a flattering way, either.  The quest for the Infinity Stones means that you’ve got a subplot where the heroes have to deal with Thanos, a subplot that has a squad heading to transformed Wakanda to beg Black Panther for the Time Stone, a subplot that has a squad running afoul of MODOK as he uses the Mind Stone to create BOWs, a subplot that has a squad going to Knowmoon to take back the Power Stone from the villain of the Strider games, and a subplot involving Jedah being corrupted by the Soul Stone.

But wait, there’s more!  Gotta have a subplot involving the symbiotes -- which fragments into subplots about 1) MODOK using the space goo to beef up his BOWs, 2) Jedah feeding the symbiote a million-ish souls, which goes forgotten and almost completely uncommented on, 3) a symbiote kaiju going on a tear in New Metro City, and 4) Spider-Man getting infected by the symbiote again so they can shoehorn in a match against his “evil” version.  (Wait, I thought the Venom suit only made Spidey into more of an asshole.  Why would he immediately turn on his friends once he goes black?)  That’s a lot of symbiote stuff to suck down, which becomes all the more baffling when you remember that Venom isn’t even in the story.

But believe it or not, there’s even more shit that players will have to deal with in such a short amount of time.  Gotta squeeze in Strider’s grudge match against Grandmaster Meio.  Gotta squeeze in a random battle between X and Zero.  Gotta squeeze in Thanos and Sigma and Ultron and Jedah and Death, because having more villains has never hurt a movie before.  Gotta squeeze in Cap and Iron Man having an out-of-nowhere disagreement and skirmish in Avengers HQ because Civil War.  Gotta squeeze in a late-game subplot where the heroes have to stop a huge bomb with the Sigma Virus from blowing through the city…which they fail because despite having Captain Marvel and Nova on tap, they can’t just safely detonate or push that shit into the vacuum space.  Gotta squeeze in an artificial time limit because now everyone’s infected with the Sigma Virus, even though Chris is the only one that shows it and their infection doesn’t factor into the story in the slightest.

Given all that -- and more, arguably -- it’s no wonder nobody manages to shine in this “story”.  Much like Street Fighter V, there are too many people and too many plot points to go through for Capcom to adequately tell the story they want in the amount of time they allow.  So again, I have to make an assertion: the story should have been episodic.  Deliver chapters of their tale in chunks over the course of a few months (ideally as free content, if only as a show of goodwill) so that the story has time to breathe and the heroes have time to shine.  Take that lesson from the MCU, if nothing else.  Otherwise, you get a game where Dormammu and Firebrand team up for no raisin -- and the former, despite being a cosmic Dread Lord, is only in the story for as long as the random fight against him lasts.

So no, Capcom didn’t take away anything from the MCU -- nothing besides “WE MAKE JOKES, LOL”.  The humor is not only sparse throughout -- mostly po-faced seriousness thanks to the crushing pressure of THE WEIGHT OF HOW IMPORTANT THE MOVIE YOU ARE WATCHING IS -- BUT ALSO NOT VERY GOOD.  Rocket in his native habitat?  The laughs keep on coming.  Rocket in this game?  Forced, awkward, and cringe-inducing.  It’s almost as if the key to the MCU’s success is that it has talented writers behind it, not just audience expectations on what the tone should be.

Let’s not get too hasty, though.  The MCU is about more than just jokes; the fact that Doctor Strange tried to push an emotional drama with a decisively-flawed hero in spite of the humor throughout should prove that.  Unfortunately, Capcom and Infinite didn’t get the memo.  So not only do you have a game that isn’t funny, but you also have a game that can’t be bothered to give any decent beats -- no WOW moments that stick out from the rest, and give you something to remember long after you’ve left your seat.  No signature scene.  No iconic shot.  Just…shots.  Just beats.  Just a slavish dedication to a flat, workmanlike progression through what you could charitably call the plot.

I mean, think about it.  Remember when the core six Avengers filed in for their group shot amidst the Battle of New York?

Remember that time when Doctor Strange conned an extradimensional being by dooming the both of them to an endless cycle of death and rebirth?

Or that time when the Guardians of the Galaxy decided to actually become a team in spite of the likelihood of their death?

Or that time when Cap held back a helicopter just so he could help out his brainwashed pal Bucky?

Or that time when Thor had to stand by and watch as Asgard sent off his late mother and untold hundreds of fallen comrades in a Viking funeral?

The way I see it, Infinite is what you get when a wannabe baker looks at a cake made by a professional and thinks the only thing he has to worry about is the icing.  Say what you will about the MCU.  It’s deserving of its share of scorn.  But it’s NOT just about the jokes.  Those certainly help, but they’re not the core element.  It’s NOT just about the action, either.  That helps as well, and even if they are important, they’re not solely the reason why the franchise continues to this day. 

It’s about the film crew -- writers, directors, artists, composers, actors, and more -- working together, and coming together to synthesize as many elements as possible into a cohesive, simple, but overall effective unit.  And they’re able to come together because the layers are built up over time, both in successive movies and in the present-day run times themselves.

Capcom just doesn’t get that.

To be fair, it’s probably safe to lay some of the blame at Disney and Marvel’s feet, or at least the executives who wrapped chains around Infinite’s neck without bothering to see how much oxygen it needed.  But even if I’m dying to fault them for not throwing a few bucks in the game’s direction, it’s still worth remembering that they aren’t solely focused on game development.  Infinite was and still is a product to them, so I’d assume they passed it off to Capcom so they could handle it.

That was a poor choice.  There wasn’t enough time or money put into this game, and it shows constantly -- and while I don’t doubt the brutal work ethic of the people that actually had to work on Infinite, it’s still clear that 1) they didn’t get what they needed to do their jobs, and 2) even in the best case scenario, they didn’t have the talent for it.  So just like everything else, the production values cripple Infinite; everything and everyone looks wonky, the music is utterly forgettable, and there’s zero cinematic flair in a game pretending to be a movie.

There was only one instance where the story put a smile on my face: when Ryu used his Shin Shoryuken to give one of the big names in Monster Hunter an uppercut to the jaw.  Other than that, everything else is a slog to get through.  Every conceivable thing -- because every conceivable thing doesn’t have the foundation or artistry to elevate it more than an inch above such a flatlining narrative.  All of that is clear before you factor in foibles, plot holes and general stupidity; why the hell should I care about Thanos wielding the Satsui no Hadou to try and get revenge on Death when THE ENTIRE GAME revolved around the limitless power of the Infinity Stones?  Who cares if it looks like he’s about to fire off a Messatsu Gou Hadou when nothing has been done to make Thanos worth care in the first place?  Nothing matters.  Nobody stands out.  It’s all just a huge waste of time.

And to be honest?  I think it’s a waste of time that actually made me physically ill.

Like…okay, confession time.  I don’t get sick very often.  I might have a scratchy throat or a runny nose every once in a while, but that’s the extent of it.  Lately, though, I’ve had a sore throat, and a runny nose, and had to cough up phlegm repeatedly, and had a bit of a fever, and had a lack of energy, in varying levels over the course of a little over a week.  I’m certainly better now than I was.  But my symptoms started to actively flare up during and after my run through Infinite’s story mode.  Correlation does not equal causation, I know, but the stress and annoyance I felt as I sat through one meandering cutscene after another where masses of polygons pretended to be friends and comrades had to contribute.  I mean, it probably didn’t, but it’s funnier to assume it did.

It’s frustrating.  Given enough time and care, this could have been a game that blew fans away.  As it stands, it isn’t.  I guess at best you could call it dumb fun, but A) it’s not nearly dumb enough for that, B) that feels like an after-the-fact excuse for its lack of quality, and C) it could have been good.  I honestly can’t believe Capcom touted this mode as something to get excited about.  Sure, I’ll grant them that they have a story mode.  By all means, I hope that they continue to do so in future endeavors.  But the condition for that -- for them to earn praise for their “efforts” -- is that the stories have to be good

Capcom has been eyeing NetherRealm Studios and its cinematic efforts for a while now.  Fair enough.  But they’ve routinely shown (even if they have flaws as well) that there are better ways to make a fighting game story.  If I had to rank the current slate of them -- excluding monster narratives like BlazBlue and stuff I haven’t touched like Guilty Gear -- then I’d go:

Injustice 1 > Injustice 2 > Mortal Kombat X > Street Fighter V > Tekken 7 > Mortal Kombat 9 > Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.

And as a disclaimer: I didn’t even finish MK9’s story because I thought it was bad.  That should tell you plenty about how I feel about Infinite’s story.

But how do I feel about it as a game in general, when all’s said and done?  I guess I’ll have to come to terms with that…next time.  See you then.

Hopefully I’ll make it to that point.  Coughing up so much phlegm has left my throat tenderized.

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