Ultimate arrives just nine months after Marvel Vs Capcom 3, a fast turnaround of a fighting game revision even by Capcom's standards. We'd like to think the publisher felt compelled to action by the overwhelming dominance in the original of character Dark Phoenix, a glitch missed by QA that players could exploit to deliver overpowered combos, and some distinctly fuzzy netcode. Sadly there's the niggling sense that the speedy revision was the plan all along. It certainly fits the pattern set by Street Fighter IV; one addition is spectator mode in eight-player lobbies, a feature held back from SFIV and introduced in its first revision, Super.
Phoenix has been dialled down, the combo glitch fixed, and while it's too early to speak for the netcode, Capcom has made tweaks elsewhere. A redesigned HUD gives greater prominence to the game's comeback mechanic, X-Factor, which can now be activated in the air but has a shorter duration. Adjustments have been made to other overpowered characters including Wolverine, Wesker and Akuma; those at the lower end of the tier list have been buffed; and many characters have new special moves. So far, so Capcom.
Of the 12 new characters, the most noteworthy is Phoenix Wright, and Capcom's efforts to integrate a lawyer into the game's ranks of street fighters, superheroes and robots has resulted in a move set so complex and confusing it could fill a strategy guide of its own. Wright's moves change greatly over the course of three phases: at the outset he has to collect three pieces of evidence, leaving him open to attack and necessitating smart use of assists and his assistant, Maya, as shields. By the third phase, he has a fullscreen finger-point which juggles opponents, and access to the most powerful Hyper Combo in the game. Getting there is a pain, but his design ties in very neatly with his courtroom escapades, where he starts out clueless but ultimately prevails. In the right hands, Wright is devastating.
Elsewhere, Frank West brings along many of his Dead Rising toys, making use of pies, shopping trollies, baseball bats and even the zombies themselves. His camera hangs from his neck, its flash stunning opponents for a split second or popping them up into the air after a knockdown for combos to continue. Ghosts 'N Goblins antagonist Firebrand uses his trademark swoop to close space, while Ghost Rider, with his pyrotechnics and long-reaching chain, feels like a harder-hitting version of Street Fighter's Dhalsim. Each of the new fighters feels markedly different to the existing cast, and there are now even more possible team combinations, which is where an already confusing game becomes outright baffling.
While the game's offline component will be boosted post-launch by free DLC mode Heroes And Heralds – a series of gameplay modifiers including invisibility and Third Strike's parry – Ultimate's on-disc pickings are as slim as the original's. Arcade mode returns, as does Mission mode, an all-too-brief set of combo trials with the steepest of difficulty curves, from special moves to basic air combos to off-the-ground and X-Factor challenges so long the whole thing won't even fit on screen.
Mission mode is a handy introduction to the way individual characters work, but it rather misses the point. Marvel Vs Capcom is a team game, reliant on what Marvel players call synergy – characters that complement each other, with assists chosen to make up for the gaps in each fighter's move set. It's vital to maximising opportunities and extending combos, but Capcom expects you figure this stuff out for yourself, and once again we're left pining for a fighting game tutorial as exhaustive and elegant as that found in the eight-year-old Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution.
Ultimate's new characters, improved online offering and Heroes And Heralds make for a generous package given its budget price-point, and once it clicks, it dazzles. Its hundred-hit combos are less reliant on precise timing than Street Fighter IV and all the more visually rewarding, the constant on-screen chaos a thrill even when you're on the receiving end of it. It's just a shame that Capcom, for all its oft-stated desire to expand fighting games' audience, offers so little help to newcomers.
Xbox 360 version tested.