If there’s one thing you don’t know about me from all of my Injustice: Gods Among Us news coverage, it’s that I’m a huge comic fan. I’ve been practically born and raised on of capes, magic rings, and lassos of truth, DC Comics being my first invitation to geek culture as a child. I’m also a huge fan of NetherRealm’s 2011′s Mortal Kombat reboot, which I felt did an adequate job of streamlining the needlessly complex plot, and tweaked the gameplay fairly well from years of stagnant or stale development. So could NetherRealm also improve upon their Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe fighter with Injustice?
Does Injustice take you up, up, and away, or will you rue the day you purchased this game?
If there’s anything NetherRealm has gotten superb at, it’s telling a damn good story.
Much like the Mortal Kombat reboot, Injustice‘s story mode is fantastic. That doesn’t mean that there’s Oscar-worthy material here, but the level of detail and effort that’s been put into the story far surpasses your the typical “bad guy uses tournament to take over the world” narrative of just about every other fighting game in existence. Instead, Injustice offers a story most comic fans will find similar to DC Entertainment’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths animated movie, which was in turn based loosely on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Earth 2, and was in turn based on the many battles between the Justice League and their evil Earth-3 counterparts, the Crime Syndicate of America.
Most coverage of the game teased at a world where Superman became a justice-obsessed tyrant whose so-called Regime has brought peace to the world, at the expense of liberty. While this forms the biggest basis of Injustice, the game still revolves around the heroes of our world getting transported to this other world, in order to aid that Earth’s Batman in taking down evil-Superman. Again, it won’t knock your socks off with deep philosophical inquiry, but it delivers a solid story with surprising moments and a lot of action. And like Mortal Kombat, the cinematics blend more or less seamlessly in and out of the gameplay, so there’s no real wait when moving from one section of the story to another. Loading happens during the cutscenes, and keeps the pace moving.
Before I go on, for all of you comic nerds and gamers who can excuse someone like Thor or the Dark Phoenix taking on someone like Marrow or Servbot in the Marvel VS Capcom series, but can’t excuse a DC fighting game where someone like Green Arrow can take on Superman and Wonder Woman, there is a decent plot device that–as promised long ago by Ed Boon–makes it plausible for DC’s street heroes to take on the heavy hitters. NetherRealm smartly ignores concentrating on it for too long, although you may still wonder how anyone can survive Doomsday’s Super (where he punches his enemy all the way through the other side of the Earth and back, going straight through the Earth’s core.).
You can also tell that NetherRealm did their research, or had some great support from DC’s staff (I suspect a little of both). There’s plenty of nice little nods to previous movies, comics, and animated series for the DC fan to enjoy: including tyrant Superman saying “kneel before me” in his winning animation, Cyborg shouting “Booya!” when winning a round, and seeing the costumes of the Justice Society of America in the background of the Hall of Justice. There’s also some other pleasant little things for fans to enjoy, like the way the Joker uses a dead policeman as a puppet for his intro, or sets you on fire in his outtro; how Black Adam steps on you in his winning animation and shocks you while he talks trash; how Aquaman has some very kickass moments in the game’s story; and how Superman has a Superman Punch in his moveset (which made not only the comic nerd and gamer in me excited, but the UFC fan in me as well).
These little things can also remind us of what we’re missing, though, like seeing Martian Manhunter in the background of the Watchtower stage or Mr. Terrific in the background of a lab stage (two characters that I believed deserved a chance to be in the Injustice playable roster) and wondering why they’re not in the game. It’s a shame that some of the background characters are just that, but Ed Boon recently teased that–in addition to releasing Lobo soon as DLC–they are listening to the fans, citing Martian Manhunter, Power Girl (another choice in my Wishlist) and others as possible upcoming DLC. On the other hand, you have some stages where the background characters are highly animated, like a cool transition hazard that has players coming between a battle between Giganta and Atom Smasher.
All in all, the presentation is fairly good. From the beginning of the story to the very awesome ending credits players will be as invested in the story as they are in the fighting.
You’ll see this same effort put into the general gameplay: much like 2011′s Mortal Kombat, when someone like Superman uses heat vision, it singes the floor and burns for a few moments before cooling off; similar to Nightwolf, if Green Arrow catches an enemy with his arrows, they’ll stay stuck for a while before vanishing. The sound design is great and diverse too: every time I played as the Joker, I couldn’t wait to use his crowbar just because of the satisfying titanium baseball bat-like connect. Ed Boon also hinted at Red Hood being a top fan choice for DLC: I can only imagine the type of YouTube videos that will come out of that.
With all this in mind, the visuals are a mixed bag: they can be crisp and detailed during gameplay, but often the cinematics use character models that look more like early PS3 and Xbox 360 models than what we’ve come to expect at the end of this console generation. Injustice still has a lot going for it though, so the overall quality generally trumps the little things.
What it doesn’t trump is the choices behind character designs, some of which are spot on, and some of which look nothing like their comic counterparts. Be it Captain Marvel’s mopey face, a decidedly Bruce Willis-inspired Lex Luthor, a very manly Wonder Woman, or the hunch-over stances of Green Arrow and Nightwing: there’s just some odd choices in Injustice. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but Batman’s stance looks like he’s constantly waiting to role dice. Thankfully others, like Catwoman and Killer Frost, take inspiration from the comics but have a nice NetherRealm flair to them, making for an improved unique take that also doesn’t stray too far from the norm.
But what makes or breaks Injustice: Gods Among Us is the gameplay: and for those that found MK VS DC and Mortal Kombat‘s mechanics to be a bit stiff and unresponsive, there’s still more of that to be found here, unfortunately. Fortunately, Injustice isn’t just a rehash of old mechanics: there’s plenty of change to be found too, some of which adds much needed variety to the typical fighting game components.
Immediately, Injustice is going to feel quite different from its predecessors. It seems NetherRealm Studios have looked to its competitors for guidance: instead of Tekken and MK‘s one face button-per-limb control scheme, Injustice uses Marvel VS Capcom 3‘s Light, Medium, and Heavy buttons, along with a “Special” button in place of the Launch button. Players now block not by pressing an especially designated Block button, but by pressing backwards. Blocking feels unreliable, though: sometimes it feels far too easy to get hit, to the degree that it’s made some gamers refer to their controls to make sure they’re pressing the right button. Perhaps it’s too encourage an aggressive playstyle, or perhaps NetherRealm–who have used a Block button for more than a decade now–are just not used to designing a “press back” approach. But it’s frustrating nonetheless.
New to Injustice is the Clash system, a Wager mechanic that allows players to gamble part of their Super meter to regain health or deal damage. This mechanic seems to come in handy right before death, a last ditch effort to reclaim some life and earn a victory. Also new to Injustice are the interactive environments and transitions: the former allowing players to use the environment as a weapon, the latter allowing players to knock their opponents through walls and into hazards before continuing the fight.
Environments are well used, and as advertised, each character has their own way of using certain stages. Themyscira, for example, has stone statues that Superman and Wonder Woman can throw at opponents, and chains that trigger flame traps that Nightwing or Killer Frost fighters can use. The car in the Metropolis stage can be tossed by Solomon Grundy, leaped off of by Green Arrow, or set to explode by the Joker. Some stages even have equippable items like grenades that can be used until the player runs out of them. This use of the stage as a weapon works really well, and compliments the type of destructive battles seen in many DC slugfests (car insurance must be horrible in Metropolis). On the other hand, they can also be a little distracting, and players may have to condition themselves to use the stage strategically, as attempting to utilize the stage traps at the wrong time can leave a vicious opening for an enemy to exploit.
Returning to NetherRealm’s fight system is the Meter Burn, which–like in Mortal Kombat–allows players to enhance certain moves and abilities into more powerful attacks at the expense of their meter. The use of juggling returns, which is now aided by a chargable attack that bounces victims “off the walls” to start a nasty air combo. Also returning is the Block Escape move that–like MK‘s Combo Breaker–sacrifices a part of the meter to escape an onslaught of attacks. Along with tech rolls, wake up attacks, and a speedier pace, Injustice is definitely meant to play at tournament level, if that’s your kind of thing.
But that’s only if you can find the right character to play with. With 24 characters in the cast, Injustice has plenty of variety: with each character having a slew of moves and a “Special” button that offers a unique power or power up. Some, like Wonder Woman, switch weapons and fighting styles: this changes both her abilities and her stance, with her lasso style positioning her in the air as a floating brawler, and her sword and shield having her feet planted firmly on the ground for a more aggressive and lethal approach. Some, like Superman and Shazam, get offensive boosts, while others, like Lex Luthor, Aquaman, and Doomsday receive defensive boosts. Others get special attacks that can be used up, like Green Arrow’s Specialty Arrows.
Surprisingly, none of them are mere clones of NetherRealm’s previous characters, which could have happened easily. Killer Frost, for example, plays very different from her frosty ninja counterpart. But one of Injustice‘s biggest issues is a huge imbalance between certain characters, and I guarantee that your worst enemies are not who you think. Winner of cheapest moves is Raven, who bares little resemblance to her comic and TV counterparts in personality or design, and has Ermac-like unblockable moves with a wide range of attack. Doomsday’s Sheeva-like moves can be annoying too, but not insurmountable. Neither can hold a candle against the most dangerous character in the game: no, not Superman or Batman, but Batman’s first sidekick, Nightwing.
I love Nightwing: I’m a resident DickHead and have been following Dick Grayson’s adventures from Boy Wonder to solo hero since I was a kid. But he’s a monster in this game, and while he doesn’t feature much during the Story Mode, he’s still the top fighter in this game. Online, he’s already the top choice for most players, and I’ve seen advanced players easily pull off 18-hit combos repeatedly. His “Ground Blast” move can pop up foes very easily anywhere on the stage, if not to juggle, then to disorient, and his “Ground Spark” move sends a shockwave across the ground that keeps players off the ground. Nightwing then has his staff and escrima sticks to rely on, giving him range and speed. He’s fast, furious, and frustrating, believe me.
Thankfully, there’s plenty to keep you busy when you’re not trying to be the top hero online. The Battles Mode–Injustice‘s Arcade Mode–allows players to see a different ending to evil-Superman’s fate, unlock special character endings (which, as usual, may or may not contradict each other), and take on challenges, like playing at 25% health, or trying to beat the entire cast of the game with a single life bar. The S.T.A.R. Labs Missions, which replaces Mortal Kombat‘s Challenge Tower, offers a bevy of fights and mini-games. Some can be very interesting–like Scarecrow’s fear gas inducing hallucinations that tilt the screen, reverse your controls, and more–and some can be annoying, like an early mission where Superman cannot get hit once for 20 seconds by Catwoman, who has great speed and a whip that can strike your character from across the screen. Unfortunately, the ratio of interesting and challenging missions to boring or annoying missions can vary unpredictably from character to character.
Injustice: Gods Among Us gets a lot right: it’s a positive step in the right direction from both MK VS DC and Mortal Kombat, attempting to forge something new with a little help from what NetherRealm has offered in the past. Clearly, a lot of effort was put into making Injustice unique, and for the most part, it did well.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of little grievances too. It may be nitpicky, but it’s weird to have such a high level of detail go into making the world feel alive and interactive, and then smashing your enemies into the background only to have cameo characters like Mr. Terrific and the Atom continue working like nothing is happening. Also, as a longtime fighting game fan, the lack of unlockable content is troubling. Every character has one unlockable alternate attire that can be purchased in-game through XP Access Credits, but everything else has to be unlocked through the Injustice iOS game. Sure, you have unlockable concept art and music, but there’s no unlockable characters (besides a sort of twist in the game’s story mode). Clearly the game is pointing towards a DLC-heavy future, but I can hardly blame NetherRealm for following a financially viable industry-wide trend.
But besides missing tag team matches and finding some Supers to be underwhelming, Injustice offers a wide variety of content that’s sure to keep some gamers happy. And while the controls still feel a little stiff and irresponsive, the three to four hour story mode and extensive challenges partially make up for Injustice‘s flaws. This game may not appeal to all fighting game enthusiasts, but it will appeal to DC fans and gamers who enjoy more content than just fighting online. And with more DLC to come, there’ll be plenty more content for players to dive into.