In 2008, Midway Games and WB Games released a fighter that combined one of the most controversial video game series of all time with one of the most popular comic book houses of all time: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Despite carrying several interesting gameplay features — visual damage, Free-fall Kombat, Rage Mode — it 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.
Injustice: Gods Among Us takes place in a world where Superman establishes a fascist regime after The Joker tricks him into slaughtering his loved ones. Some heroes follow Superman’s rule, others combat it. Add supervillains to the mix and you have a fighting game plot which explains why hero battles hero and how Harley Quinn can damage Doomsday.
A fighting game is only as good as its roster; if you don’t care about the characters, you won’t care to play them (see PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale). Injustice: Gods Among Us doesn’t have that problem as it stars time-tested icons. The confirmed cast so far represents 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 a quality mix of bruisers, gadget-users, and potential planet-wreckers, but one could argue that NetherRealm Studios skimmed the heroic/villainous surface and could’ve selected Steel, Azrael, 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 utilizes a Marvel vs. Capcom 3-like light/medium/hard attack system, which is quite different from Mortal Kombat‘s four-button control scheme that lets you manipulate each limb. Between the new button layout and the smoother animation, Injustice: Gods Among Us has a slightly more combo-friendly gameplay mechanic than Mortal Kombat despite possessing a similar hard-hitting feel. Still, racking up truly impressive strings requires skill, which I like.
Further cementing the fact that Injustice: Gods Among Us is 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: Gods Among Us‘ combat consist of one-round matches in which you’re tasked with draining opponents’ two-level health meters — there aren’t any breaks in the fighting, which gives the brawls a knock-down-drag-out feel. Speaking of meters, each DC fighter has a four-tier super meter that unleash super moves when full, or enhance non-super moves. 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. 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 on the controller. Note: The Trait meter slowly refills over time and doesn’t depend on you giving or receiving damage as does the super meter.
Superman pummels opponents with fists and heat vision. Batman will make every fanboy drool with his martial arts moves, batarangs, and a parry that has a significant — perhaps overpowered — window. NightWing can switch between stances that favor either speed or power by using Trait.
Clash — a combo-breaker — lets you wager your super meter in order to escape a critical beat down. However, it’s far more in-depth than Mortal Kombat‘s breaker. The character willing to sacrifice the most available meter wins, but the result varies depending on your Clash role. The initiator deals damage to the defender should s/he win; if the defender wins, s/he gets a health bonus. This means that you must always mind your meter and be willing to take a hit to maintain meter for a super vs. your opponent.
Each level has interactive background items that come into play. The car in the Metropolis stage, for example, isn’t just a set piece. 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 its by comic book standards. Smaller characters like Raven interact with objects using agility instead of strength, springboarding off structures to assist with aerial attack. Regardless of the character type, fighter positioning is an incredibly important.
Taking a cue from Mortal Kombat, Injustice: Gods Among Us‘ character models display visual damage over the course of the battle. The visuals and characters models go for the grounded, realistic approach — the graphics aren’t as cartoon-like, which isn’t totally unexpected considering the look of The Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming Man of Steel. The facial designs, however, look…off. Theyanimations are a bit stiff and the overall designs are unappealing.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is a very cinematic title. In fact, the start screen looks resembles a Blu-ray disc menu. That’s quite fitting as the game itself strives for a blockbuster movie’s action and drama with near-seamless transitions between cinematic cut scenes and gameplay.
The transition from cut scene to gameply is sometimes accompanied by quick time events. The Batman chapter 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, suffered a partially depleted lifebar. The opposite would’ve occurred had I failed the QTE. NetherRealm Studios worked hard to break the fighting game monotony.
That’s most evident in the S.T.A.R. Labs Challenges, which is Injustice’s spin on Mortal Kombat‘s Challenge Tower. There are dozens upon dozens of challenges ranging from basic fighting to attempting to land a certain number of hits on an opponent in a set time frame. There’s tons of variety that will keep gamers hooked for “just one more match.”
The superheroics and villainy look quite tasty — expect more hands-on coverage this weekend at PAX East.
Injustice: Gods Among Us rumbles onto PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U on April 13th.