Midway Games and WB Games released a fighter in 2008 that combined one of the most violent and controversial video game series of all time with one of the most popular comic book houses of all time: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. It appeared the perfect underdog pairing. Mortal Kombat lived in Street Fighter‘s shadow since its inception, and DC Comics never carried the same swagger as Marvel Comics. Despite featuring several interesting gameplay elements — visual damage, Free-fall Kombat, Rage Mode — Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was met with mixed reception. Fast forward five years and the Warner Bros.-owned Midway Games is now the Ed Boon-fronted NetherRealm Studios, the development team behind Injustice: Gods Among Us, a second stab at a DC-based fighter.
It’s much better than its predecessor by leaps and bounds.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is set in a dystopian world where Superman establishes a fascist regime after The Joker tricks him into slaughtering his loved ones and detonating a nuclear bomb in Metropolis. It dabbles into “who watches the watchmen?” territory, but doesn’t come off as stale because, frankly, seeing a dark Superman with blood on his hands (both accidental and intentional) makes for a compelling drama.
Clark’s rule causes a rift among the heroes with some following the Man of Steel’s lead while others join Batman’s resistance. Injustice: Gods Among Us‘ roster represents some of DC Comics’ finest: Aquaman, Bane, Batman, Catwoman, Cyborg, Deathstroke, Doomsday, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Harley Quinn, Hawkgirl, The Joker, Lex Luthor, Nightwing, Raven, Shazam, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It’s solid mix of mystic types, gadget-users, and potential planet-wreckers, but one could argue that NetherRealm Studios overlooked several heroic and villainous favorites such as Martian Manhunter, Clayface, Scarecrow, and the like.
Lest you think that Injustice: Gods Among Us is simply Mortal Kombat with a superheroic skin, allow me to say thee nay. Injustice: Gods Among Us maintains the same juggle- and bounce-friendly gameplay, but utilizes an Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3-like light/medium/hard attack system. Yes, it’s a more casual-friendly control scheme than the one found in Mortal Kombat, but the game caters to core players too; Injustice: Gods Among Us includes frame rate data for frame counters, and has a slightly more combo-friendly gameplay mechanic than Mortal Kombat, despite possessing a similar hard-hitting feel. Still, racking up impressive combos requires skill and isn’t as simple as a Capcom or SNK product.
Further cementing Injustice: Gods Among Us as its own beast, NetherRealm Studios ditched the idea of a dedicated block button. Instead, gamers simply pull back on the joystick/game pad to enter a defensive stance. This not only simplifies blocking for those coming over from Capcom and SNK’s titles, but opens the door to the 2D fighting game offensive standard: the cross up. Injustice‘s combat consists of one-round matches in which you’re tasked with draining opponents’ two-level health meters — there is a tiny break when that happens, but the clock and character positions aren’t reset. This gives the fisticuffs a knock-down-drag-out feel that fits the license well.
Speaking of meters, each DC fighter has a four-tier super meter that you can use to unleash super moves when full, or enhance specials (Batman’s slidekick, for example, lands an extra hit when meter’s applied). Supers are incredibly powerful cinematic attacks that do big hurt while highlighting what makes each character unique. Superman, for example, knocks opponents clear into orbit. Doomsday pounds opponents through the earth’s core. Batman dishes out a critical beatdown with fist, knees and toys. A secondary meter, Trait, lets you uncork character-specific abilities. Take Batman, for instance. He summons a squad of robo-bats to attack the enemy when you tap the dedicated Trait face button. Note: The Trait meter slowly refills over time and doesn’t depend on you giving or receiving damage as does the super meter.
Clash — a combo-breaker — lets you wager your super meter in order to escape a pummeling. However, it’s far more in-depth than Mortal Kombat‘s breaker as the character willing to sacrifice the most available meter wins. The Clash initiator damages the defender should s/he win; if the defender wins, s/he gets a health bonus. As such, minding your meter is of utmost importance (as well as knowing when to counter a Clash attempt by betting bar).
Each level has interactive background items that you can use to clobber opponents. The hover car in the Metropolis stage, for example, isn’t just scenery. When a powerhouse like Superman walks by it, the RB button icon near your energy bar lights up. Tap RB, and Supes will plant the automobile squarely over a foe’s head. Thankfully, NetherRealms keeps some semblance of reality, even if it’s by comic book standards. Smaller characters like Nightwing interact with objects using agility instead of strength, springboarding off structures to assist with aerial attacks. There are also transition areas in each stage that you can knock opponents through to fight in new locations. Each is spectacular in its own right, but Arkham Asylum’s extra areas are particularly cool for a reason that I will not spoil here. Regardless of the character type, fighter positioning –and stage selection — is an incredibly important. In fact, stage selection is so important that Injustice: Gods Among Us lets each player select a level and then tosses a coin if the votes are split.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is a very cinematic title that features a single-player experience with a multi-character campaign. You’ll use several driven characters over the course of the story, which removes the traditional fighting game tournament feel and replaces it with weight and necessity. That’s quite fitting as the game itself strives for a blockbuster movie’s action and drama (in fact, the menu resembles a Blu-ray’s) with near-seamless transitions between cinematic cutscenes and gameplay.
The transition from cutscene to gameplay is sometimes accompanied by quick time events. Batman’s chapter, for example, demanded that I hurl batarangs at an approaching, armored Lex Luthor by pressing buttons in time with the appearance of on-screen icons. Successful execution resulted in Batman taking no damage as the cut scene transitioned into gameplay; Lex, however, took damage. The opposite would have occurred had I failed the QTE. NetherRealms receives a tip of the hat for breaking up potential fighting game monotony.
That’s most evident in the S.T.A.R. Labs Challenges, which is Injustice: Gods Among Us‘ spin on Mortal Kombat‘s Challenge Tower. There are 240 challenges ranging from basic fighting techniques to attempting to land a certain number of hits on an opponent in a set time frame. It’s a fine alternative to the story-heavy single-player campaign that tests your fighting mettle in entirely new ways.
Taking a cue from Mortal Kombat, Injustice: Gods Among Us’ character models display visual wear-and-tear over the course of the battle, but it doesn’t get gory — scratches and slightly tattered clothing represent damage here. The visuals and characters models go for the grounded, realistic approach — the graphics aren’t comic book-ish or cartoon-like in any fashion, which isn’t totally unexpected considering the look of Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming Man of Steel. That said, the game is simply too dark at times; there are far too many low-lit areas, which creates an element of sameness as you progress from stage to stage. Cutscenes, too, are lacking, but for entirely different reasons. The fighters, during cinema sequences, animate somewhat awkwardly when talking. Post-fight win sequences also feature brutal one-liners that will either make you laugh or roll your eyes (I frequently did the latter).
Still, Injustice: Gods Among Us is a solid fighting package that serves up lots of stage-breaking fisticuffs. Players transitioning from the likes of a Capcom fighter will probably need to spend some time in the practice modes to get a grasp on the mechanics and timing, but those who put time into the digital dojo will find a lot to like. Injustice: Gods Among Us could’ve benefited from sharper dialogue and better graphics in some places, but both DC Comics fans and fighting game fans should enjoy the fray.
You can buy Injustice: Gods Among Us at Amazon.com for $59.96.