Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is real, and we’ve played it.

The fourth (or sixth, depending how you’re counting) iteration of the Capcom-Marvel crossover comes at an opportune moment, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the zenith of its popularity, and with Capcom needing a hit after the highly criticized launch of Street Fighter V. This week, Capcom unveiled some of the new characters coming to the game, which will launch on September 19. Today, we can talk about the hands-on experience we had at Capcom’s office earlier this month.

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Capcom’s silence on the game since its reveal at PlayStation Experience in December was worrying to the fighting game community in the wake of Street Fighter V, which released with a lack of content outside simple online matches and server issues that stymied what it did offer. It was an inhospitable environment for any player that didn’t want to immediately jump into the hyper-competitive online world.

What we played of Infinite was promising, and perhaps indicates a change of direction for a developer that’s fumbled with other major releases. During our meeting, producers Mike Evans and Peter Rosas (a former tournament-level player known as Combofiend) drilled home the idea that Infinite was built for newcomers and veterans alike. Of course, fighting game developers often tout these goals before launch as a way to curry interest outside the hardcore spectrum. But looking at the changes Capcom’s making to Infinite, you get the sense it really means it this time.

Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd

Infinite is a tag-team fighting game in which players select two characters each, instead of the three-on-three format established in 2000's Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Newer players may not realize this, but the Versus series was originally established with pairs, not trios, in 1996’s X-Men vs. Street Fighter, a mechanic that continued into the following years with Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom. By returning the series to its roots, Capcom hopes to trim down on the amount of information players need to keep in mind during frenetic matches.

This push to highlight characters as true partners helps their individual strengths shine. Ryu, as is often the case, plays as the middle-ground, jack-of-all-trades with access to a solid moveset that doesn’t shine too bright in any one spot. Hulk and Thor, lesser-used characters in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 competition due to their poor mobility, now have access to a screen-crossing wall jump and improved air dash respectively to complement their close-range grabs. And big bad Ultron apparently didn’t get the “no assists” memo; he’s capable of calling minions to do his bidding, providing him with backup even if his partner has been defeated. Sadly, Rocket Raccoon wasn’t playable in the press build, so fans are going to have to wait a bit longer to learn how the Guardians of the Galaxy character plays.

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As a player who has historically had issues wrapping my head around the Versus formula, Infinite was a refreshing change of pace. With only two characters to track and no traditional assists to time, gameplay felt just as fluid as the action on-screen. That said, the game still retains the iconic Marvel vs. Capcom atmosphere, if dialed back a smidge. The matches I played, both with my fellow Kotaku visitor Chris Kohler and a high-level competitor like Combofiend, absolutely exploded with the unique hype the franchise is known for, even as we fought for our lives against the seasoned producer.

Tag Me Anytime

Where in previous games, tagging in a benched character could only be done at specific moments, Infinite lets players bring in their second fighter at any time. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the first fighter will automatically get to leave the battlefield.

While not entirely similar, it feels closer to the system employed in Street Fighter x Tekken, where characters could be called upon during combos to maintain pressure. With few timing and meter restrictions, Infinite works to emphasize the feeling of having a true partner in battle, making it easier for newcomers to wrap their heads around the often chaotic nature of Versus matches.

One interesting application allows players to tag in the second fighter while being comboed, in exchange for a bit of meter. While this doesn’t stop the enemy from comboing you, it changes the focus of the camera to your new character, which might throw off your opponent’s game and cause them to slip up. You can also attempt to break the combo using the newly tagged-in character, who you assume control of upon entry. This also means that competitors will need to be wary of mindlessly swapping in their backup character lest they fall prey to a combo that captures both.

Infinity, And Beyond

Once you pick your two characters, you have one more decision to make: which Infinity Stone will you bring into battle? These powerful artifacts function much like Street Fighter V’s V-System, allowing fighters to use them regularly throughout a match to manipulate time and space to their advantage. The Power Stone gives players a reusable knockback, the Time Stone lets them teleport a short distance, and the Space Stone allows players to pull their opponents slightly closer to them, making it a natural pick for a team featuring a grappler.

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These basic moves can be used at any time, but as the match continues, a separate Infinity meter will fill up, allowing you to use each stone’s unique Infinity Storm technique, huge game-changers that have the potential to provide significant comebacks à la Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s X-Factor. The Power Stone grants more damage and combo opportunities, Time Stone greatly speeds up the user’s movement, and Space forms a visible cage around the opponent that severely limits their movement to a small box.

The latter is perhaps the most surprising, as it affords players trapped within very little room for both horizontal and vertical movement—but they can still jump, block, and attack, so a caged player can be just as dangerous if you aren’t careful. During my time with Infinite, these situations provoked the most anxiety whether I was inside or outside of the box. Confining your opponent to a limited space means there’s a greater chance of catching them in your favorite mix-up, but it’s still easy to get countered if you aren’t careful. Fortunately, if you do get embarrassed by a caged enemy, they’ll have a hard time carrying you into the air or across the stage due to the vertical and horizontal restrictions.

Shoryuken? Sure You Can!

Much like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Infinite features four major attack buttons, although they’re two punches and two kicks rather than the non-specific “light, medium, heavy, special” of 3. The L button is reserved for the Infinity Stones, and the R button tags. But there’s more control simplification, including the slaughtering of a sacred cow that some would say was long overdue to be turned into sacred hamburger.

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It’s a lot of fun to pull off a combo that sends one’s opponent up into the air in a Marvel game, and Infinite simplifies that little bit of joy—you can pull off a short ground-to-air combo (that ends with a super move, if the requisite meter is available) just by tapping light punch. Rosas indicated that while this will be a viable tactic for players without solid fundamentals, the basic nature of the auto combo means a lot of damage and follow-up strategy will be left on the floor, meaning veteran competitors shouldn’t see them as much of a threat. Still, the ability to quickly bust out a flashy string of attacks could be just the motivation a newcomer needs to further immerse themselves in Infinite’s more complex mechanics.

The developers are also playing around with replacing the shoryuken motion—the forward, down, down-forward move used to pull off Ryu’s iconic rising punch and other uppercut-style moves—with a double tap down on the D-pad. This removes one of the annoying barriers that keeps newbies from even executing basic moves; the typical uppercut input is much more difficult than, say, rolling the stick from down to right for a fireball. Capcom’s not positive about this change—after all, these techniques have been present in fighting games since the original Street Fighter in 1987. The fact that Capcom is considering a change to 30 years of tradition drives home its goal of simplifying as many traditional mechanics as possible to encourage new players to stick with Infinite beyond its single-player offerings.

The Wildest Crossover

While we didn’t get to try it, Capcom says Infinite will have a two-hour story mode at launch. Learning their lesson from the bumpy Street Fighter V release, the folks at Capcom have crafted a two-hour single-player experience for Infinite. Players that simply want to jump into the narrative—which follows some of Marvel’s and Capcom’s most iconic heroes and villains as their worlds literally collide—will be able to do so immediately at launch. This comes in addition to a traditional arcade mode and the usual trials and challenges, helping provide meaningful distractions from competitive play and acclimating newcomers to the intricacies of the game and its characters.

Once players have a firm grasp on the fundamentals, they can hop online and test their burgeoning skills against worldwide opponents, one-on-one or in lobbies, using Capcom’s proprietary rollback netcode. While netplay stood on shaky ground in the early days of Street Fighter V (which also utilized the in-house Kagemusha netcode), the developers are planning to forgo their own servers this time around in favor of the dedicated platforms provided by Sony and Microsoft, hopefully providing more stability for the community’s online warriors.

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The world Infinite is scheduled to enter this September is much different than the one that greeted its predecessors. Where heroes like Captain America and Iron Man were just on the cusp of escaping the confines of comic books when Marvel vs. Capcom 3 first dropped, they’re now more popular than ever thanks to the work Marvel has put into crafting its cinematic universe. That means Infinite stands to earn more attention from gamers who may have never picked up a fighting game in their lives.

But that means tackling a conundrum that has haunted fighting game developers since the genre was reintroduced to the mainstream with 2009’s Street Fighter IV: how do you please the competitive community while also crafting a welcoming space for newcomers to acclimate at their own pace? It’s a balancing act that few releases, if any, have successfully accomplished in the last eight years, but my short time with Infinite certainly gives me hope.

Ian Walker is a fighting game expert and freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.