NetherRealm successfully rebooted Mortal Kombat, returning the series to its roots and making the hyper-violent fighter relevant again. It’s now taking on the DC licence for a second time, trying to atone for its sins with the frankly awful Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Injustice: Gods Among Us does away with Mortal Kombat’s baggage and with it the gratuitous violence, focusing instead on just the heroes and villains from the comic books. It’s a better game for it.
Like Mortal Kombat, there’s a somewhat meaty narrative that drives Injustice towards being a worthwhile single player experience; something that can’t be said for most fighting games where the meat is in the multiplayer. There’s a story that attempts (and nearly succeeds!) in explaining and justifying jus why so many metahumans and people in skin-tight suits are going head to head, along with a little Deus ex Machina that explains just how it is that human characters like Batman can stand toe-to-toe with the indestructible gods like Superman and Doomsday.
I won’t spoil the narrative for those of you who haven’t read the prequel comics, but it all boils down to this; tricked in to doing the unfathomable, Superman snaps, misaligning his moral compass, leading him on a path that results in him and his well-coiffed hair essentially enslaving all of earth – ruling over humans and metahumans alike with a despotic, super-powered iron fist.
Naturally, there’s a hero-led insurgency, and it will be up to the player to bring an evil superman’s reign to an end. Taking place largely in an alternate universe, it sees numerous characters changing allegiances for the greater good. Good guys become bad, bad guys become good. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! The single-player campaign attempts to be a grand and cinematic affair, breaking up brawls with cut-scenes and interactive quick-time-event minigames as it switches between characters, forcing you to learn the intricacies of each character. Or, as all but the most dedicated players will do, just furiously mash buttons together. Really though, it’s just an excuse to stitch fights together.
There’s even more value for the single player in a range of tutorials that’ll help players learn the nitty-gritty of fighting, and a set of character specific challenges under the guise of the S.T.A.R.S Labs. With 10 challenges for each character, and 24 initial characters, there’s certainly a lot to keep you occupied. A largely pointless XP system aids in unlocking artwork, character skins and other inconsequential fluff. Still, there’s far more single player content than you’d expect from a fighter.
Fighting games aren’t about stories though; their success hinges on their mechanics and how fun they are to play. While you’d expect Injustice to be little more than Mortal Kombat re-skinned, the entire fighting system’s been given an overhaul. It dispenses with many of Mortal Kombat’s traditions, leaning towards a more Capcom styled play style. Gone is a dedicated block button; that action now performed by holding back for high attacks, and down for low ones. Even the button config’s different. No longer are there separate buttons for different kicks and punches, with game employing something closer to Marvel vs. Capcom’s layout; low, medium and high attacks, appended with another button for character specific traits, and another to use the super-meter that builds up during fights.
These traits are where things become interesting, changing the flow of combat. Each character does something a little different at the press of a button activating abilities; likely favourite Batman pulls three batbombs out of thin air, which can then be thrown; Superman draws in the power of the sun allowing him to do extra damage; Green Arrow fires…well, a magical green arrow; Bane injects himself with venom, increasing his strength and defence, while Hawkgirl takes to the air.
Injustice also adopts Street Fighter IV’s Focus Attack-Dash-Cancel system, here called a “bounce cancel” to allow for breaking in and out of combos, extending said combos, or punishing whiffed attacks. It adds quite a bit of depth and strategy to the fighting system – though, like in SFIV, it’s something that most casual players just won’t bother with.
Also new is a system called “The Clash,” a wager-based fight interruption. Initiated with forward and heavy attack, the fight is halted, with each player placing a hidden bet using a portion of their super meters. The highest bidder wins, rewarding health for successful wagers, or taking chunks of it away in the case of a loss. I can’t say I’m too fond of it; it feels like forced mini-game in the middle of a fight, but it does add another strategic layer to a pretty deep fighter.
Most attacks can be augmented by burning away bits of the charged super-meter; extending combos by adding an extra hit, or doing extra damage. A fully-charged, level 4 super meter allows the execution of a devastating Super Move, in the vein of Mortal Kombat’s X-Ray moves or Street Fighter IV’s Ultra-combos. They’re fun to do, and fun to watch, though some of them can be so grandiose that they detract from the actual fighting.
The levels, like the characters themselves, are all splendidly diverse, with an array of geeky fan-service references for those well versed in DC lore; from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to the Bat cave and the bowels of Arkham Asylum. They’re also interactive in their own way, with bits of the semi-destructible environment available for use as attacks; like missiles fired from the Batmobile, or steaming hot pipes in Arkham Asylum. There’s a distinct thrill in watching the world around you take as much damage as your character.
Fighting games reward fast reflexes and an innate ability to read your opponent, finding the perfect balance between offense and defence, and to that end, Injustice is still a fighting game that follows the established tropes of the genre. Genre fans will play it for weeks, even months – poking for strategies and combos, strengths and weaknesses. It is they who’ll determine the game’s ultimate longevity, after determining how balanced or perhaps unbalanced the characters are. From my perspective right now, it’s certainly leaning towards an imbalance; power characters like Solomon Grundy seem a tad overpowered, and there are some cheap and dirty tactics from the likes of Killer Frost, Shazam and Deathstroke, but only time – and high level play – will tell.
It’s also unfortunate that once again, NetherRealm has relied on its own netcode instead of the near standard GGPO netcode, so online play is often patchy – though it’s certainly better than Mortal Kombat 9’s dismal online offering.
Most importantly, it’s fun. The super hero-infused setting though opens it up to players who aren’t quite as enthusiastic about fighting games, but they’ll get the least out of it. Most players will, instead, get their kicks from having their friends around on a beery Friday night; finally putting paid to the question of which spandex-clad metahuman would win in a fight.