The Might of the Gods
After NetherRealm’s Mortal Kombat reboot graced consoles to such success, it would have been very easy for the studio to make their next project, Injustice: Gods Among Us, little more than a tweaked or reskinned version of the aforementioned fighting game, especially considering it was a licensed title. Many elements of Injustice, both on the larger structural level and in its smaller details, do bear resemblance to Mortal Kombat, meaning comparisons between the two games are apt and often the most informative way to talk about them, but Injustice manages to not only improve on Mortal Kombat’s formula, but stand up as a great game in its own right with its own personality.
The premise of the game, at least for the story sections, involves an alternate version of the DC Comics universe where a series of disastrous events has led to Superman establishing an oppressive regime over the Earth, while Batman has formed an insurgency to overthrow the man of steel and take back the planet. Along the way the various heroes and villains of the DC Universe have chosen their sides and became locked in this war between good and evil. However, things become more complicated when the denizens of the regular DC universe cross over into this parallel reality. All this essentially acts as a plot justification for good guys fighting against good guys and characters squaring off against themselves.
While a lot of modern superhero media has aimed to sand away the more outlandish and nonsensical edges of its comic book origins, Injustice prides itself on them, and shows a commendable reverence for its source material. However, this does mean it often comes across as just plain silly, and not in that humorous tongue-in-cheek way that Mortal Kombat did. The developers also squander the opportunity for the many great character interactions and story twists that the alternate universe plot device could have offered them. The character design on show is however, pretty impressive, and as you’d expect the main focus of the game is not on building a great comic book story, but rather great comic book fights.
The game uses a light-medium-heavy move system with X, A, and Y corresponding to each type of attack respectively, and eschews a block button in favour having you use away or down on the control stick to absorb incoming hits. Out of this it crafts a gameplay experience that is welcoming and rewarding for both newcomers and veterans, and flows with a wonderful fluidity no matter your level of skill in the fighting genre. In comparison to Mortal Kombat, not only do matches keep a more invigorating pace, but greater aerial freedom and other mechanical differences make it feel like fights really move places and that you’re not so relentlessly magnetised to the ground the whole time. Interactive environments also help enhance this effect and make the stages really come to life, with buildings and other structures in the background satisfyingly crumbling in response to you and your opponent landings hits.
The game further sets itself apart from MK by forgoing NetherRealm/Midway’s trademark fatalities and instead strapping on a tool belt of other features that are not only presented with more spectacle, but add some additional flavour to the gameplay. Objects around the stages can be used to damage your opponents, and while different characters interact with these objects in different ways, throwing motorcycles, arming cars with explosives, and firing gun turrets are just a few of your means of attack. Striking a particularly hard blow to the other character while on one end of the stage will also trigger a stage transition in many cases; a long sequence where the unfortunate character will clatter and tumble their way through an environment until they eventually end up on another stage where the bout will continue.
When it comes to attacks more dependent on your character and less dependent on your surroundings, you will find that every hero and villain has a moveset that feels at least somewhat varied, and that among Injustice’s roster of 24 characters, no two feel the same to play. In addition to their more standard abilities, each character is also armed with a unique Character Power which is usually focused around giving them some sort of brief combat advantage. For example, Superman’s ability will let him deal increased damage until his power runs dry, while The Flash’s effectively slows down his opponent for the next few seconds. Finally, each character has a “Super Meter” which fills as they give and take damage. While it can be expended to break free of enemy attacks or give a little extra kick to a move you’re trying to land, its most dramatic applications come in the form of “Wagers” and Special Attacks.
When activated, the Wager mechanic has you and your opponent secretly bet a portion of your respective Super Meters (restricted by how far filled your meter actually is), at which point your two characters run directly towards each other and clash in a blaze of white light. The player who wagered more will have their health restored, while the player who wagered less will have ended up wasting an important resource and may take damage. As for the Special Attacks, there’s nothing mechanically atypical about what Injustice does with them, but the aesthetic extravaganza the game puts on when you activate one is something you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. For example, Deathstroke’s special move involves slashing the opponent with his sword, throwing it up into the air, firing his handguns into their face, flip-kicking his still-flying sword into their chest, and then directly unloading two submachine guns through them. If that’s too low key for you, perhaps you’d prefer Doomsday’s method of repeatedly punching the opponent so hard that they travel through the Earth’s core, burst out into the ocean on the other side, and then turning around and doing the same thing in reverse until they end up back on the stage. Needless to say, fights in Injustice are fantastically empowering.
While these brawls are often one-off matches or couched in story mode segments, the game also includes a considerable number of “Battles” in which you must square off against a succession of opponents in a row, each harder than the last. A similar mode appeared in Mortal Kombat, but Injustice offers a version with far fewer frustrating difficulty spikes and many different takes on this basic formula, such as one where you must face all your opponents at 25% health, or another where you must score a combo of a certain number of hits in a match before you can win. Mortal Kombat’s Challenge Tower is also mirrored in Injustice’s S.T.A.R. Labs mode; a series of specific challenges which can range from dodging Catwoman’s attacks for 20 seconds to playing a match of Pong against Cyborg. Each of these missions has three objectives to complete, meaning that they can provide a serious challenge for those who want it, while still accommodating less skilled players. It’s possible to sink hour after hour into the S.T.A.R. Labs and still not reach the end, but the quality of the missions is somewhat variable. Sometimes they manage to provide a unique or exciting twist on the regular gameplay, while other times they can feel restrictive, awkward, or needlessly annoying. Of course, alongside all this local game shenanigans, online multiplayer is an option, and a fun one when it works, but the people currently playing this on Xbox LIVE are predictably challenging to beat, and the game does have less than perfect netcode, meaning that actions in the game lagging behind your input or sporadic freezes can be an unfortunate reality of playing over the internet.
When all is said and done, Injustice has a few chinks in its armour, including a less than ideal multiplayer and a corny main story. However, it still manages to be an intensely enjoyable game, providing frantic battles, a handful of smart new gameplay systems, and hours of destructive glee. Once again NetherRealm deserve some serious kudos.